Why Networking Is Overrated
So much has been made about the value of networking, whether online or face-to-face, that the idea of ignoring it seems like a career-killer. It’s who you know, the logic goes, that ultimately gets you that next job. There are hundreds of books written about networking, and hundreds more about overcoming the anxiety coupled with it. The anxiety comes because as many as half of us are introverts, preferring the company of a handful of people rather than working the room. In her book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” Susan Cain wrote that even insular people pretend to be extroverts because of social pressure. But many of us in IT are attracted to the profession because of the solitude; working on computers in any respect attracts quiet, focused people, many of whom find it hard to network. The disinclination to network extends to the very top ranks of tech. Jonathan Ive, chief design officer at Apple, is famous for his insularity; unlike other senior executives at the company, he doesn’t present live during Apple product releases, preferring to appear in videos. He told the New Yorker in February: “I’m shy…I’m always focused on the actual work, and I think that’s a much more succinct way to describe what you care about than any speech I could ever make.” But how do people who hate networking get ahead in their careers? There’s the hope—backed by some evidence—that producing good work will mitigate most of the need to network at all. Cal Newport, a computer scientist who explores how people reach elite levels in knowledge-based careers, interviewed several Rhodes Scholars in the course of his research, and discovered that the path to success for many of them is often misreported. Rather than depend on connections or chance, he wrote, “Rhodes Scholars… invest a large amount of energy in doing a small number of things (usually two) extremely well.” It’s the results of work—and not necessarily exposing yourself to as many people as possible—that attracts more and varied opportunities outside of that work. Or as one rising career advisor, who wished to remain anonymous, put it to me: “It’s certainly true that the hype [of networking] doesn’t necessarily match the results. It’s isn’t very interesting to tell someone to, ‘just do your work.’" To prove the point, let’s take things to an extreme. If you only concentrate on your work (i.e., deliberate practice) and ignore making social connections with the intent on advancing your career, you’ll eventually be an expert at that thing you do and an invaluable resource to any employer. However, if you only concentrate on making personal connections while performing a perfunctory role at your job, then you're useless to every one of your new connections. That’s not to say that jobs don’t involve a certain amount of “soft skills,” such as negotiation, that are picked up solely through interaction with other people. But for those who would rather dig deep into a computer problem than mingle at a party, take heart in the fact that career growth doesn’t necessarily hinge at how much flesh you press at a conference.