After having spent over three years at CoverMyMeds, I find myself reflecting on how I got here. By far the biggest factor was undoing a mistake that I perpetuated for many years. That mistake was to not prioritize networking. That is, not cultivating professional relationships with people outside my company.
I was at my old company for 16 years. That’s a long time – probably too long. But time goes by quickly when you are at a great company with great people focused on changing the world. I worked my way up from an engineer and project manager to the VP of Engineering. We accomplished a ton. My teams and I created products that built the company up into an international player in medical imaging and drug labeling. But all the while, month after month, year after year, I was heads down, focused on internal issues. I was too busy to get to know other people who did what I did or who worked in similar businesses. Sure, I interacted with our customers and vendors, but it was always in the context of a project. Heads down. Internally focused.
Around year 14, I began to sense it was time to go somewhere else. To do something new. To do things a different way. But I ignored the feeling because the thought of finding a new job and company seemed daunting, particularly at a VP/CTO level. Jobs like that are rarely advertised. I also considered myself more of an introvert, making the thought of building a network a scary proposition. Then something happened about a year later that finally gave me the push I needed. I was in a meeting with our VP of Sales, being torn a new one because of a project that wasn’t going according to plan. As the rant went on and on, I began to get numb. I felt a wave of despondency. Not because I wanted to leave the company – I had already known that for about a year. But because I had no idea where to start. I had no network to tap and nobody to call. It was as if I decided it was time to cross the Grand Canyon, and was standing on one rim with no idea how to cross or how far it was to the other side.
To make a long story short, my brother, who makes his living connecting people and making great things happen in Cleveland, gave me a kick in the ass and told me I needed to “make networking my other job.” For the next year I went on a steady diet of buying meals, beer, and coffee, attending meetups, cold calling and emailing people, and building up my LinkedIn network. I became an evangelical salesman, selling me. One surprising thing that really helped to accelerate things was peoples’ willingness to help. Many, many people made introductions for me and I am forever indebted to them. I also discovered that I was not so introverted as I thought – it was easy to talk about technology, leadership, and entrepreneurship.
Building my network from scratch took a lot of work, particularly while continuing to do a very demanding day job, but I was eventually able to make up for lost time. But I shouldn’t have had to – it was a brutal stretch of burning the candle at both ends.
About six months after I embarked on my networking journey, I was in another very contentious meeting, getting reamed out about a feature that was late on one of my project teams. But this time, the feeling was different. I knew it was just a matter of time before I found my next home. Things were moving and opportunities were coming my way several times a month. It took another five months, but it finally happened. I went to an IT Martini event, attended a panel discussion, talked to one of the panel members afterwards, and bought him breakfast a few weeks later. He introduced me to a co-founder who was looking for a like-minded VP of Engineering to grow his developer team, and voila.
Of course, not everyone suffers from this “heads down” malady. There are plenty of technical people out there who are very active networkers. Some who are over active at the expense of getting real work done. But this blog post is not for them. It is for those of us who are hesitant to leave the comfort zone of our day-to-day work at our day-to-day place. If this is you, as it was me, my advice is to force yourself to network – to cultivate professional relationships with people outside your company. Attend local meetups. Socialize with your peers at other companies. Participate in online discussions. Contribute to an open-source project. Attend conferences. Have interesting things to say and build up a Twitter following. Pull your head out of your company at least a few times a month and participate in the rest of the world. Not only does it give you a starting point for if and when you decide it’s time to make a career move. It also gives you great perspective that lets you do a better job at your company. And it is a great way to recruit. Ironically, I found that all of my networking momentum continued into my new job as I worked to build up my software developer team. Networking is also a great way to give back – for you to help other people with their careers.
Never decide your are too busy or that your job is too important for you to network. Otherwise you may find, as I did, that you have to start from scratch when you need it most. By the way, I actually have crossed the Grand Canyon. Four times.