I have a sad story to tell you. Sit down and grab a tissue.
It was 10pm on a cool night in September 2005. Somewhere in Grapevine, Texas, a junior SQL Server professional was sitting alone in a hotel room watching TV. He was tired but not exhausted, having spent all day learning his trade at the Super Bowl of SQL Server conventions, the annual PASS Summit. Although he had met a few people, he didn’t really get to know them or try to meet up with anyone the normal conference hours. He attended a couple of parties, but left early and didn’t get beyond chit-chat with others.
Across town, much fun was being had. Stories were told, laughs were shared, and personalities bonded. People went out on a limb and introduced themselves to others they’d never met. Some people would literally change the trajectories of their careers through the relationships that were built at this conference. Sadly, the guy in the hotel across town is missing out on all of this.
As the conference wore on, he saw all those people chatting between sessions and at dinner, laughing and getting to know each other, and secretly he wished to be connected to some other professionals. You see, since he was the only SQL Server professional at his place of employment, he didn’t have a lot of opportunities to talk shop in person with others. He longed for what they had, but couldn’t find the initiative to start up meaningful conversations with others.
As the conference wrapped up at the end of the week, he was appreciative of the technical knowledge he’d be taking home, but couldn’t stop dwelling on the fact that he’d done little networking at this event. It was almost as if he’d missed out on half of the conference.
The man goes back to his job and reads the blogs of those who also attended the summit. He begins to think, “I’m no different than those people, I just need to be more assertive.” He realizes that networking is as big a part of career success as is technical knowledge, and that it’s easier than he’s made it out to be in his mind. He vows then never to again sit on the sidelines; he promises to himself that he will take full advantage of these functions by getting involved in related events outside the scope of the conference.
The story does have a happy ending. “That guy” was me, and I did indeed waste a huge networking opportunity four short years ago. With that lesson in mind, I swore off being the wallflower and now take the initiative to be more assertive at each technical event I attend. Though I don’t set specific numeric goals, I make it a primary mission to get connected with people, to learn what they do and to share a little about what I do. I’ve come to learn that getting to know fellow SQL Server professionals at technical conferences is at least as important – and quite possibly even more so – as the technical content. I can tell you firsthand that the relationships I’ve built since then have led to many opportunities in my career I wouldn’t have otherwise found, and I’ve built some friendships along the way as well.
Don’t Be This Guy
So the takeaway is, don’t be me – at least the Me In 2005. Don’t be lonely hotel room guy: use your hotel room for one thing – sleep – and spend the time with others getting to know them. At next week’s PASS Summit, there are official events scheduled for every night of the conference, along with numerous unofficial events. There are vendor breakfast presentations, lunchtime meet-and-greets, and various other opportunities to press flesh and get to know your fellow SQL Server professionals. One of the people you meet could be your next boss, employee, business partner, client, or even a good friend.
Don’t be this guy. Be the one who takes charge of his career through networking.
2017 Addendum: Since I wrote this post eight years ago, I have been on quite a journey through my career. I have a lot of friends in the data community, many of whom I spend time with even when we’re not doing data-geeky things. I left the ranks of full-time employment to start a successful data consulting firm, and I’ve been recognized nine times as a Microsoft MVP. In a nutshell, I built a career, not just a job. While I might have been able to accomplish some of these things on my own, being a part of this community certainly made the journey a bit easier.
I’ve also had dozens of conversations with others who have read this post over the years, and a few of those folks pointed out the following: Some people don’t enjoy the noise or the crowds or the late nights typically associated with the type of networking I describe above. However, professional networking doesn’t have to be an all-out, 18-hour-per-day sprint. There are others I know who attend SQL Server community events who are such people-persons that it drives them to attend every part, stay out until daybreak, and start all over again after a quick nap and a shower. While there are times that I wish I had that kind of drive or energy, I just don’t have it in me. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who prefer a quiet conversation with 2 or 3 others over going to a noisy reception with a few thousand people. That’s ok too! There is value in meeting lots of people, and getting to know a few people well. Both are valid ways to build your network.