Contacts needed in IT

Networking may not always come naturally in the introverted world of IT, but if you can manage a project, you can network effectively. “Tech folks have to deal with this the same way they would plan to do a system,” said Fran Dramis, CIO at BellSouth Corp. in Atlanta. Here’s how:

The goal: Networking is building human connections that broaden your understanding of the working world and provide a helping hand when you need it. It’s more deliberate than friendship but equally reciprocal. It involves finding, making and maintaining the right connections.

The need: Talking with IT people inside and outside your company increases your understanding of technology as well as its tactical and strategic uses, said Roger Gray, CIO at Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in San Francisco. Talking with business people helps you appreciate their needs and gives them a better feel for IT. “When they think of IT, I don’t want them to think of a server,” he said. “I want them to think of their friend Roger who can solve their problem.”

Networking serves other purposes, Dramis said. Building relationships with project sponsors and mentors is key to advancing your career. And getting your talents known in the marketplace is just plain smart. “It’s part of life security versus job security,” he said.

The plan: “You need to find out who are the people you need to learn from, make contact and create a dialogue, not in a phony way but in a genuine way,” Dramis said.

“Think in terms of 10 to 20 people that you actively work with,” said Margaret Schweer, director of human resources for IT at Kraft Foods Inc. in Northfield, Ill. Schweer’s network includes her CIO, executives at the Chicago-based Society for Information Management, IT and human resources colleagues at other companies, and – since her background is in sociology – sociologists. “That’s how I make sense of what I see,” she said.

Resources: Understand how your personality affects your networking style. “I’m a borderline introvert,” Gray said. “I don’t like big crowds, structure and formality, so it helps me to keep things smaller: coffee with someone.”

Activities: Seek a mentor. Have coffee with a key colleague. Attend a conference or seminar and meet people. Talk, have lunch, go out for a beer. Also, be alert to serendipity. Gray said he has made some great connections through the sheer luck of being at the right place at the right time. “You have to plan for the structured networking but be open to unstructured,” he said. For example, if you find yourself on a cross-functional team with business people, get to know that smart guy in marketing.

“Take advantage when you see people in different venues,” Dramis said. His network has expanded through volunteer work at the local United Way chapter, which includes a technology group facilitating networking while serving the needy. “Since it fits in with your own values, you establish a trust level in an accelerated way,” he said.

Media: Networking has to be done in person, at least in the beginning. “I can talk to friends on e-mail, but I spent years establishing that trust,” Dramis said. “Until you get there, you can’t use electronic media.”

Errors: Don’t confuse a one-time chat with networking, Gray said. That can do more harm than good because you can misunderstand the business context.

Quality control: Nurturing relationships takes commitment. “You can’t pop into people’s offices once a quarter and think you’ve done it. You need depth and quality of conversation,” Schweer said. It takes her at least 30 interactions to get quality relationships for effective networking. For Dramis, the frequency varies – or career networking, twice a year may be enough. In the peer environment, once a week may be sufficient; in the external tech community, once or twice a year; and in the business community, at least once a month.

Payoff: Networking takes care and commitment, but the payoff is a ready-made group of helping hands when you face a technical, business or career issue. And besides, you may make some friends along the way.