Social Networking at Professional Events

Dr. Masha Petrova compresses, into a small space, much good advice on networking with other professional people. She draws from her own experience as a technical expert to provide a detailed checklist of things you should and shouldn't do at conferences or tradeshows to be a successful 'networker'. As usual, she delivers sage advice with a dash of humour.

If your first thoughts when you hear the word networking are of servers, firewalls and PCs, this article is for you.

Do you want to advance your professional career but cringe at the thought of carrying on a small-talk conversation, handing out business cards, or asking others for help? This is a common feeling for those of us working in the technical fields.

Networking (the people kind) has been long associated with pushy sales people using others to pursue their own agendas. Thanks to that reputation, many technical experts have come to see networking as almost an antonym to working, something opposite to performing tangible, important tasks such as doing research or writing code.


The idea that networking with people is somehow synonymous with wasting time has hurt countless technical professionals during this unemployment crisis. Individuals with strong networking skills are able to go out and find jobs much faster, than those who rely solely on their technical experience to do so.

When implemented correctly, all parties who are involved in networking can gain from it. Just as ten computer servers can run large programs faster connected in a network than each server can on its own, networking with people can help you advance your career and achieve professional goals in a way that you alone never could. At the same time, if you network properly, you will be helping others along the way.

Those of us, who work primarily in front of the computer and do not have much need for dealing with people, have to work on improving our networking skills more than others. As “they” say and as you know, practice makes perfect. Here are some basic exercises that you can start doing right away, to begin building your (people) network.

First off, if you get an opportunity to attend a local professional networking event, a technical trade show, or a conference that relates to your field of expertise, do it! These are great places to start expanding your network and developing networking skills.

Tony Johnson’s book, From Fired to Hired describes how to act appropriately when networking at a professional function.  She recommends making sure that you do not hang out with a friend or group of similarly unemployed professionals the entire time.  Venture out of your comfort zone several times while at a professional event.

Very early on in my engineering career I was lucky enough to discover that your success in networking at a professional event is inversely proportional to how comfortable you feel. I attended my first engineering conference of the Combustion Institute in San Francisco when I was just an undergraduate student. I had a wonderful advisor who let me present my internship research at this conference. I think I was the only undergraduate student there and, aside from my advisor, I did not know a soul.


I could have browsed the web in between technical talks and watched TV in my hotel room after talks were finished for the day.  However, I needed to get into graduate school and my grades alone were not going to cut it. I knew that this conference was an opportunity to network with people who could have a significant impact on my future in engineering career.

During coffee breaks and lunches I made it a point to sit next to various people I did not know. I would start a conversation with a friendly comment or question like “That was a great talk!” or “That was an interesting speaker…do you know him/her?” or something along those lines. 90% of the time the responses from people I did not know were very friendly. I would simply smile at the 10% of the unfriendly responses and move on.

By starting a few conversations this way, I met graduate students from other universities who invited me to have dinner with them after the first day of the conference. The next night, I shelled out $75 of my own cash (big bucks for a student) to attend a rewards banquet. When I sat down at a table with complete strangers I was terrified. I wondered, “Why would these world-renowned researchers want to talk to a measly undergraduate student?”  Nevertheless, I tried my best to ask questions and become interested in their work.

Was I comfortable talking to complete strangers? Absolutely not! It was difficult, uncomfortable and self-esteem crushing, but I forced myself to keep getting to know people at that conference. It would have been so much easier to surf the web, check my e-mail for the 20th time or read a book. However, that is not how you become successful at networking. My strategy paid-off.  Many of the researchers and engineers that I met there remembered me years later, when I ran into them at other professional events. I stay in touch with a number of them to this day.

Today, I follow the networking rule that I made up at that very first technical conference – “If you feel comfortable at a professional event, tradeshow or a conference, your networking is not working. Get out of your comfort zone”.

There is another area of comfort that very smart people like engineers and system administrators have in common. That is to talk about things that they know very well and to demonstrate to other people that they know far more than anyone else about their area of expertise.

“Talk to real people. Hint:
if you have a hard
time talking to
strangers, start with
booth vendors. They
are trained to talk
to anyone…”

Believe it or not, that is one of the worst things you can do when trying to network, especially if your goal is to find a job. It is very counterintuitive. Many engineers have told me, “How do I convince the other person that I am really smart without telling them?” “Aren’t they talking to me because I am an expert?” and God forbid if “…the other person is telling me about their work in a way that sounds like they know more than me! Don’t I HAVE to prove them wrong?”.

The answer is “no”.

People like to be heard and they don’t like to be proven wrong, especially by strangers. For most of us, just getting through school meant having to constantly prove how smart we were. We feel most comfortable in this mode of operation – talking about our work, answering questions about our technical background, and convincing others that we are the best experts out there.

It is much less comforting to ask others about their work without judging; allowing others to be proud of their accomplishments without wanting to one-up them; listening to an opposed opinion without instantly jumping in, to correct “wrong” theories. Although less comforting, this mode of interacting with people is much more beneficial to professional growth.

To help you avoid feeling too comfortable at your next professional event, below is a table of networking Dos and Don’ts. Cut it out and put in your wallet. Refer to it often at your next conference or tradeshow.


Networking DON’Ts

(Comfortable activities)

Networking DOs

(Uncomfortable activities)

Talk to people you know for extended periods of time (e.g. coworkers, friends, etc.)

Start conversations with strangers

Check e-mail for more then 30 minutes/day at a professional event

Talk to real people. (Hint: if you have a hard time talking to strangers, start with booth vendors. They are trained to talk to anyone and although they will try to sell you stuff, you can practice some of your networking do’s on them)

Talk on the phone/text (unless you’re in charge of a space shuttle launch or presidential election, no one needs to talk to you that badly)

Same as above

Surf the web

You can do that at home. Put away the laptop and find someone to talk to.

Pretend to e-mail/text/surf the web for more then 20 min/day (you know you’ve done it! It makes you look busy and makes you feel comfortable. So don’t!)

Same as above. Although to help you decompress a bit, 20 minutes of pretend technology use is allowed.

Get into arguments over platform compatibility, programming languages or politics. Don’t push your point of view.

Actively listen. Try to understand the other person’s point of view.

Talk about yourself for more then 5 minutes at a time (hint: stop after 5 minutes and ask a question about the other person)

Ask the other person questions. Try to learn as much as you can about them. WARNING: Do not turn it into interrogation “what’s in it for me?” process. Just listen and learn.

Go into technical depths about any specific topic for more then 5 minutes at a time.

It’s OK to dive into technicalities for a bit, after all, you are surrounded by other like-minded experts. For networking purposes, after 5 minutes divert the conversation to the other person. If you want to hear more about someone’s views on a technical topic get their card and contact them after the event.

List your qualifications, publications, and skills for more then 30 seconds at a time. Unless you’re discussing your resume with a hiring manager, do not go out of your way to convince people about how qualified you are.

Mention some of your accomplishments and turn the attention to the person that you are talking to. (e.g. I just gave a talk on best uses of SQL. Have you heard any good talks today?) 

When it comes to networking at a professional event, spending time with people that you already know well, or surfing the web – is not networking. You can stay home to do that. If you do not have a lot of practice talking to complete strangers, finding some common ground and showing interest in what they do, at first, networking will be an uncomfortable activity for you. So, to get networking to work for you in professional events seek un-comfort.