By January 29, 2020

Simple Ways to Crush Networking Events as a Programmer

Let’s be real for a second: Networking events are super awkward, especially as a programmer.

Most of us didn’t get into the business because of our budding stage presence and our ability to captivate an audience with our brilliant storytelling. Rather, it was because we like things that make sense.

Programming, for instance.

When something isn’t working, it's because something was done incorrectly.

Even though we claim there are literal bugs in the computer at the time of troubleshooting, the problem almost always traces back to something someone did.

People aren’t the same. No two people speak the same language. They aren’t operating with a standard list of protocols. Some of them aren’t operating on any protocol whatsoever.

Nevertheless, networking and building relationships is a huge part of growing in your career and as a person. The majority of the opportunities you get will be from the people you know.

But that doesn’t mean that learning how to interact with people in a meaningful way at a networking event is impossible.

Soft Skills Pay Bills

We’d all like to think that people advance in their careers as programmers solely because of their technical skills. But, that’s just not the case.

I don’t have to work too hard before I think of someone who got a promotion based solely on their high EQ or Emotional Quotient and not their ability to do their work.

Marshall Goldsmith from his book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” says

“It’s not about you. It’s about what other people think of you.”

Plain and simple: if you don’t work on your soft skills there is a very real ceiling to your position at any company. And, networking is one of the most important soft skills to develop.

Simple Ways to Crush Network Events as a Programmer

I’d be lying if I told you that I haven’t had my fair share of really awkward encounters with people at networking events. Even though I’d be happy to forget those moments, I’ve learned a few things from them.

Here are six things I’ve learned that will help you go into any networking event with confidence and walk out with some connections that could last you a lifetime.

Get Them Talking

People aren’t computers but almost everyone loves to talk about themselves

After all, you know yourself better than any subject in the world. So, figure out questions to ask that will keep someone talking about themselves.

Every once in awhile, if there’s a detail that you relate to, tell them about it.

Did you grow up near the same city they grew up in? Have a mutual friend? Struggle with the same subject in college?

Throw it in there. People want to feel connected with and understood more than anything at these events. So, having a topic or a way to relate with them will go a long way.

However, be careful not to let the conversation become completely about you once you start talking. Think of yourself as the salt to the meal. A little bit goes a long way to flavor the conversation.

A few conversation starters could be:

  • Where are you from?
  • Who do you work for?
  • What do you do?
  • How long have you been doing it?
  • Do you have a family?
  • What school did you go to?
  • What brings you to an event like this?

The point is, come with a few things to ask before you even show up. Or else they’ll finish talking and you might be in store for some awkward silence.

Come with a Brag Bag

Peggy Klaus in her book “Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn without Blowing It,” says that we should all have a list of things we are ready to say about ourselves that highlight who we are as people.

It can be everything from our accomplishments to how many kids we have.

It bothers me that we are all so afraid to be proud of ourselves. Most of us have amazing stories that other people would love to hear but we’re afraid someone will think us full of ourselves. Listen: There’s a way to talk highly about yourself without coming off like a jerk.

The main way to do it is in a story.

Don’t just say, “I crushed my first-quarter goals and my scrum team is always on time.” Say something like, “I love the scrum team I get to lead. They work so hard to make sure we are always on schedule. Being their leader has really helped me to grow as a programmer myself.”

See the difference?

One version made you want to make an excuse to exit the conversation. The other made you want to give me a hug. And yet, they both said the same thing.

So, what’s in your brag bag? What trials did you overcome to get where you are? What accolades have you gotten lately for the work you’ve done?

Now, take those and put them in a story form that will highlight the accomplishment, yet also show that you’re not a stuck up jerk.

Know Your Place

Not everyone that comes to a programmers’ networking event is on equal ground. Some people will be well known and more senior. Others will be newbies just getting started.

You have to know where you fit in on the food chain.

If you are a newbie you have to be careful about coming in hot and loud with people who are more senior.

How do you know which people are more or less senior?

Most events have a sign-up page that is released before the day. In fact, all of the ones I’ve been to have. Those pages are a list of other people that are coming. It’s not a bad idea to do a little bit of research before you get there.

Researching who’s coming to a networking event before you go helps in two ways.

  1. It allows you to be intentional about whom you try to connect with
  2. It allows you to be intentional about how you try to connect with those people

Being intentional about whom you’re trying to connect with isn’t just about going up the food chain. It’s also about finding people that would be a good fit as a mentee.

Pay Attention

There’s nothing I hate more than having a conversation with someone at a networking event only to see their eyes bouncing around the room looking for a better person to talk to.

Be completely engaged with whoever is right in front of you. Turn your notifications off and be a captive audience if they were on your list of who to talk to or not.

And, listen, being 100% engaged with who you’re talking to sounds easier than it actually is. In fact, a room full of noisy people leaves you plenty of opportunities to be distracted.

Start by simply making eye contact.

By staying focused on eye contact you are eliminating getting pulled away by things that pop into your peripheral vision. When their eyes bounce, stay focused.

Don’t think about not getting distracted. Think about what they’re saying. In fact, if you can repeat a little bit of a summary of what they’re telling you in your head.

It’s like trying to diet. The more you tell yourself, “don’t eat those donuts Jim brought into the office,” the more likely you are to cave.

Thanks for nothing, Jim.

The same is true when being in a conversation. If all your thinking is, “Don’t get distracted. Don’t get distracted. Don’t get distracted,” then… guess what? You’re going to get distracted.

So, instead of trying to avoid distractions, actively interact and think about what the person you’re connecting with is saying.

I’ve heard it said that a good listener is someone who isn’t thinking about what their response will be to what the other person is saying.

I think that’s stupid.

I have to be thinking about what the person is saying and how it relates. Otherwise, the conversation stalls out while the other person is waiting for me to say something back to them.

So, listen to what they’re saying and try to process it. Staying engaged in the conversation will help you stay focused on the person in front of you.

Practice a Conversation

I’m going to make what sounds like a crazy suggestion, and I know I might lose you here but hang with me.

When I was a senior in high school I worked at a coffee shop. One of the things I was tasked with was making sure to keep up conversations with our customers. I needed to make them feel comfortable, like this was their home away from home.

As a result, I had a ton of practice having conversations with people and I got really good at making small talk. I got really good at reading when people wanted to talk to me and when people wished I would shut up.

All because I practiced for hours and hours every day.

It’s funny how all of us just know that if we are going to be good at certain things we are going to have to practice. Musical instruments, sports, programming. But for some reason when it comes to having a conversation we think you either have it or you don’t; you’re either an introvert or an extrovert.

But, that’s just not the case.

The reason you are good at something is that you were willing to put the effort into becoming better. So, find a conversation partner. Challenge yourself to start up a conversation with a stranger at a coffee shop. Or see how long you can keep a conversation going with the cashier at your grocery store.

Have fun with it! But, just practice.

Toastmasters is a great organization that helps people develop their skills as public speakers. But, it’s also a great place to practice conversation.

Heck, if all else fails, have a fake conversation with yourself on the way to work in your car. If you feel weird just put the phone up to your ear. People will think you’re just having a conversation with someone on the other line.

Think about what you might say to a stranger. Then think about how they would respond. Then respond back to them.

Whatever you do, just keep practicing.

Embrace the Awkward

At the end of the day, you’re going to have awkward moments at networking events for programmers. They’re bound to happen.

Knowing that awkwardness is unavoidable actually helps make things less awkward. Because, here’s the thing, it’s awkward for everyone!

Even the most social of butterflies will find themselves in an awkward spot at a programmer networking event. All of us have conversations that we think about years later wishing we could go back and say something in a different way or not say anything at all.

That’s not just me, right?

Real relationships form when two people have pushed past the awkwardness and started to let their guard down. Don’t get offended if someone told you they’d email you after the last networking event but never did. Just follow up again.

If you see them at another networking event, act like nothing happened. Show grace and humility, and eventually you’ll break through to a meaningful relationship.

Keep Showing Up

No matter who you are, you can get better at building relationships at programmers’ networking events. You could be the shyest of persons or the most outspoken. There are still things you can do to walk away from each gathering knowing you made some solid connections that will last you through the rest of your career.

The key is you have to keep showing up.

Maybe you’re discouraged because you feel like a duck out of water at these gatherings.

Keep showing up.

Maybe you’re kicking yourself because you said something really stupid in front of your boss at the last one you went to.

Keep showing up.

Work on things like having good questions to ask people that give them the chance to talk about themselves. Come with a few of your own accomplishments in story form to share.

Know your place and work hard to keep your attention on the person right in front of you.

Treat it like any other learned skill and practice. And, remember, everyone feels awkward at these things. You could be someone’s saving grace if you learn to relax and be yourself because it gives them permission to do the same.

I promise you it will get easier the more you do it.

Look at it like you would any program you’re working on. Take the mistakes as error messages and troubleshoot how to get those stupid errors to go away.

In no time you’ll have people gathered around you waiting to have a conversation.

About the author

Chris Misterek

Chris launched Self-made Web Designer knowing he could help people go from knowing nothing about development or design to having a thriving freelance side hustle or full-time career as developers. Why? Because that's exactly what he did. In 18 months he doubled the income of his full-time job by working 20 hours per week as a web designer. Now, he works full-time at a tech company and helps others find success.