April 7, 2011

The Social Contact Network

Filed under: 20-minute,skills — Mark Dalrymple @ 2:02 pm
Tags: ,



Being an older grizzled programmer who actually interacts with the local community, I’m occasionally asked for advice. Usually it’s younger nerdier computer students, along the lines of “what’s the one piece of advice you would give to me?”.

After a flippant “learn your data structures”, I would usually tell them “make contacts and treat them well.”

I found my first job in the want-ads in MacTutor magazine back in 1989. There was a small 1/8th page ad that said “Do you want to be like the original Mac Toolbox developers? If so, call Mark Williams at ${phone_number}.” I wanted to be programmer, I worshipped the original Mac Toolbox developers, and NeXT had already given me the brush-off. Might as well make a cold-call.

After that, every job, every professional opportunity has been by word-of-mouth. A friend who moved to AOL called me up and said “Hey, we’re hiring Mac programmers. And our stock is worth something.” I missed working with Ed, so I hopped over. When my team got moved to California and I didn’t want to move, some folks gave my name to Doug McKee who ran the AOLserver group. He gave me a call and I worked on web servers. From there to arsDigita, to building my class for the Big Nerd Ranch, to my contracting clients, to Google, to my gig at Cycling Fusion have all been a chain of recommendations from friends.

Same with music. Whenever I move to a new area I pick a community band and start showing up. Because I can sight read well they typically like me. I can drop in at a rehearsal and not suck, many times performing as well or better than the regulars. There I meet folks, learn what the good and bad groups are in the area, and start setting up a network of contacts. Eventually I get on sub lists of the groups I really want to join, and eventually become a full-time player (it took five years to get my bassoon seat in the Edgewood Symphony, for instance). And eventually I get on the call lists for pick-up groups the need a pit for musicals, such as a run of Singing in the Rain I am doing this weekend.

Now this all sounds pretty Machiavellian, meeting people just to exploit their social networks. It’s actually not that way in practice. Go out there. Be humble. Be nice. Get to know people, be genuinely interested in them. The contact network is actually a secondary benefit compared to the relationships you build with your peers. But that contact network is great to have.

The reason why I recommend this to younger programmers more so than other folks is that programming is fundamentally a solitary activity and profession. Sure you have meetings, and there’s Instant Message and Twitter mailing lists and all that, but great chunks of time are spent alone in your head performing acts of pure creation. It’s very easy to become That Smelly Guy Always On The Computer and never meet anyone or make friends, and then wondering why your career has stalled. Not only is that a generally sad state of affairs, it is entirely avoidable. Go out. Make friends. Make contacts. Nurture them, not because they’ll help you in the future (even though they just might), but because it’s the good, human thing to do.


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