Break Out of Your Shell

Networking is the key to bucking the bad economy and finding a job in the IT industry. Here's how.

Anyone can respond to a job ad. In todays tough economy, however, interviews—much less job offers—can be hard to come by. Finding work thats not available on demands investigation. And that requires talking to people outside ones normal group of contacts. Its a form of networking thats better suited for salespeople, not IT professionals.

Networking can seem intimidating, but it doesnt have to be. Take your time; prepare and learn from the experience of others. After speaking with executive trainers, recruiters, IT professionals still out of work and those who just landed jobs, eWeek has compiled a list of the top five tips to help ease your tension and let you network successfully.

1. Make An Encounter

Dont attend networking events expecting a quick fix. Its the first mistake of unemployed IT workers. "Theyre looking to meet somebody who can introduce them to somebody else who can give them a job," said Bill Handleman, an out-of-work software developer in Chicago who admitted he used to have that attitude.

"You dont get work off the first encounter, you get a first encounter," said Allan Hess, a newly self-employed consultant in Atlanta. If you immediately pry for a job, you put people on the defensive. The goal of a first encounter is to make yourself and your contact comfortable. Youre looking to build a relationship, and that takes time.

2. Be the Solution

Although it may appear the company you want to work for has no open positions, every company has problems. "You will only get a job if you are the solution to someones problem," said Scott Kane, managing partner of the Northbrook, Ill., executive coaching group Gray Hair Management LLC.

Finding the company that has the problem for which youre the solution will require investigation. It may entail asking people in your network if they have contacts at the targeted companies. Once in an interview, ask about daily work, challenges and dilemmas. Ask if you can get a closer look at operations. Think about the companys problems and return with a solution. "Its the kind of informational interviewing people dont do," said independent training specialist Denise Cuenca, of Chesterfield Township, Mich.

Cuenca advised her out-of-work IT pro husband, Marco, to use this tactic. Marco Cuenca lost his job as a systems analyst at Kmart Corp. in July, when the troubled retailer wiped out his entire division. After four years with one company, Cuenca was unprepared for unemployment and networking. With a little push from his wife, however, he made contacts and found a neighbor who knew someone at Par-Tech Inc., in Orion Township, Mich. Par-Tech needed someone who could build e-commerce sites for the automotive industry. Not wanting to walk into his interview cold, Cuenca researched the company before he met with a supervisor. With both a résumé and knowledge in hand, Cuenca won a four-month contract.

3. Be Helpful

No one has the skills to do everything, but everyone has the skills to be a resource. "Networking is a two-way street. ... Somebody else is looking for something else," said Hess. Take the time to know your contact and his or her business. If you see an article your contact might find interesting or meet someone who could help him or her, let them know. Follow-ups should never be, "So what do you have for me?" They should always be, "Hey, Ive got something for you."

Although your contacts may not have the resources to return the favor right away, they wont forget.

4. Network Wisely

Mixers and conferences can be intimidating. And not all events will be valuable to you. Choose wisely, and know what to expect.

Begin by joining a small local group. Such groups are less intimidating. Smaller groups proved valuable to Greg Smith because, he said, he found "people are willing to follow through." Through small-group networking, Smith, who late last year was laid off from a software engineering company, landed a job as senior director of operations at MarketForward, a Chicago unit of Publicis Group S.A., of Paris.

At larger groups, Smith said, "there are so many deer in headlights that dont know how to network and are not prepared."

Dont get your hopes up if youre planning on going to a job fair. Most companies that attend offer only entry-level positions and sales jobs.

5. Find a Buddy

"No one ever said networking has to be [done] alone," said Melissa Giovagnoli, president of Networlding, of Hoffman Estates, Ill., a company that helps individuals and organizations improve their networking skills. "Get yourself a partner." Your partner should be a good networker whos already connected. Make sure you dont pick a friend youll use as a crutch.

If you want to join a new group, call ahead and ask whos in charge of new membership. Ask if someone within the organization can make introductions for you. Hoping that youll join, theyll be happy to show you around. Now that you have a networking buddy, youve eliminated the stress of making a first contact.

Now Get Out There

How much networking you do is up to you. But, say experts, its a good idea to put some effort into expanding your collection of contacts all the time, whether youre employed or not. You never know when it will pay off.

David Spark is a free-lance writer in San Francisco. He can be reached at