Hi, I'm Nick. This is my blog. I'm a life-long unschooler living in New York. You can find more about me here.

I help run the Recurse Center (YC'S10).

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Networking shouldn't be a dirty word

November 07, 2010

When I was in college, I spent a lot of late nights in the engineering building coding and doing problem sets. Every Thursday night the business school had a networking event, which my fellow engineers and I would walk past on our way to the EE or CS lounge.

We'd joke that the MBA students were doing their version of "studying" as they stood around in their ties and jackets, drinking and mingling.

After graduation, I found myself at events where business cards came out of holsters and people tastelessly bragged about who they know. Experiences like this made me develop a revulsion to the word "networking." It felt like the domain of clueless MBAs and sleazy salesmen.

Recently I've been reevaluating this opinion[1]. As I've thought more about it, I've realized that networking isn't inherently bad.

This has come from thinking about networking in terms of computer science and graph theory. You can think of your network as a set of nodes (people) and edges (relationships) between them. To network means to try to expand your network by adding new edges between you and other people. You can think of the weight of an edge as the strength of the relationship. An edge to a family member or best friend would have a large weight, while an edge to someone you just met at a party would have a small weight.

Being well-connected means having lots of strong direct and indirect connections to other people. This means that when you need to get to a specific person, you can do so quickly. It also means you can help others by efficiently routing their queries.

One reason I think some engineers feel uncomfortable with networking (beyond the fact that we're frequently predisposed to be introverted[2]) is that it can easily mean using people as a means to an end. That is, establishing a "friendship" just because that person can do something for you. This is one of the cases where networking feels (and in most cases is) sleazy.

Another case is when the relationship is lopsided, i.e., the edge isn't bidirectional. It's a relationship where the person can help you, but you have no chance of helping her.

The good news is that this becomes less true the more you network. That's because as your network grows it becomes more valuable. Instead of being a leech sucking value out of others, you are better positioned to help people.

Think of the five best connected people you know. Are they jerks? For me, the answer is a resounding no. All the well-connected people I know are good people. This makes sense: by definition, people don't like jerks, and so are less likely to build relationships with them. Similarly, well networked people tend to be those who frequently help out others, and we rarely consider people who help others "jerks."

  1. I started thinking about this when trying to write something else. I've wanted to write a post about my five months in Silicon Valley and what aspects of its startup culture we can bring to New York. After writing way too much with little insight, I realized a pattern: Most all of the advantages of the Valley could be summed up with the word "more." More startups, more investors, more engineers, more density, a more connected graph. When I thought about how I could help improve these things in New York, I realized that networking was a part of it.
  2. Q: "How do you tell the extraverted engineer from the introverted one?"
    A: "The extraverted engineer looks at your shoes when he's talking to you."