Tech & Work

Six degrees of separation: A smarter plan for career networking

New research shows that, thanks to your peers and friends, you might be a lot closer to your dream job than you think. Here's more on how 'six degrees of separation' might be the key to smarter networking.

So, there's this job that you really want. But, to get it, you'd have to find a way to get yourself in a direct dialogue with the hiring manager—the one person who can decide that you are precisely the right person for the job.

Initially, though, the outlook is grim because you don't know anyone—either in IT or the cafeteria—who works there. Yet, in all likelihood, you're a lot closer to that job and that hiring manager than you think. You might be just six degrees away from making contact, according to recent research.

The six degrees experiment
Ever play the party game where you outline how many "degrees of separation"—or people in movies—it takes to connect one specific actor to Kevin Bacon?

Apparently researchers at Columbia University have been paying a lot of attention to the "six degrees" theory that everyone is somehow connected to everyone else. To prove the theory, the researchers set up an experiment in which they invited people to try to contact a specific stranger via the Internet. Participants were given a name, location, job title, and sometimes some educational background. After that, they were turned loose on the Net to find their target person.

Many people turned to friends for help first—shooting off e-mails to see if anyone had any ideas or connections, and that sometimes worked. But the people who had the most success relied on professional contacts to find their targets. In fact, in one instance, a participant simply sent a message to someone he knew in the same general profession as the target and the connection chain was made with minimal effort.

The impact for job hunters
What this means for today's tech job hunters is that getting in touch with the right person may only be a matter of tapping the friendship and professional wells dug throughout their career years. Instead of just the regularly hyped advice to network with peers and friends, the focus needs to be much more direct. Here's the basic three-step approach:
  1. First, identify your dream job and two or three runners-up.
  2. Identify the job title and be specific. For example, "Senior Technology Manager for Internal System Networking at Castleton Software" is better than "IT and networking guy at a small software shop." You might have to research the specific title given for certain tasks at your dream companies.
  3. Then start hitting your connections, both professional and personal, with all the specific information—from the company, location, title, and department, and ask them questions, such as:
  • "Do you know someone who works for a company that has an ongoing relationship with my target company?"
  • "Do you know anyone who used to work for my target company?"
  • "Do you know someone who works in the same general industry as my target company?"

Make it clear to all the contacts that you're trying to find out who hires senior technology managers at Castleton. If you can find the target person's name—the actual hiring manager—make sure you ask everyone if they can connect you to that hiring manager as well.

If you can't find out the hiring manager's name, use some senior names at the company, such as the CEO or the CIO. Include your names in your request for insight from your peers and friends. Include every personal and professional tidbit you can scour in research—the hiring manager's alma mater, the CIO's hometown, the recruiter's personal interests.

The effort will be well worth it because sometimes it's just one piece of data that can open the door to an interview.

True "six degrees" job tales
"I have found the IT world to be very small indeed," said TechRepublic member David Totzke, who currently works as an IT support specialist. "Every opportunity I have had has come through networking."

In some cases, it took only a few contact "degrees." For example, Totzke lucked out and needed only one contact to get a job he wanted at a Web development company called Cyberplex. It turned out that a cousin actually worked there, and Totzke was able to get an interview through this cousin.

In another employment scenario, Totzke made a connection through a friend who worked for the IT-outsourcing firm EDS. Totzke's friend introduced him to a client EDS was wooing. The client liked Totzke and so EDS then reached out to Totzke with a job offer, thanks to the client's feedback.

For Tim Freelane, an IT and facilities manager, the connection was a bit more involved. Freelane had just moved to California from Washington. A friend of his wife's, in California, knew the owner of a company who was looking to hire someone with IT and accounting experience. The friend then called her daughter-in-law, in Washington, to reach Freelane and discovered he had moved.

"Her daughter-in-law then called my wife, and my wife told me about the job. I got in contact with the company owner. Then, as it turned out, we had moved to within five miles of the company—1,250 miles from where we were!" said Freelane.

Another TechRepublic member, who requested anonymity, gave this description of how he found a job via the "six degrees" method (all names have been changed).
  • Worked with Alice at my first job
  • Got friendly with Alice's husband, Bob
  • Bob then found me my second job, and I ended up relocating
  • Passed my resume to Bob when I wanted to return to his city
  • Bob passed my resume to Charles, who had worked with him during a few earlier jobs
  • Charles passed my resume to Diana, a director at his current employer
  • It turned out that Diana remembered me from my first job
  • Diana passed the resume to Ed, another director
  • Ed interviewed and hired me

"I have been happy in this company for six years now. My wife and I took Bob, Charles, and their wives to dinner on the first anniversary of my employment. We still occasionally get together for dinner," said the TechRepublic member.

Bob Vandenberg, another TechRepublic member, snagged his current job by talking with a client about career opportunities in the Portland area during his last position.

"I wasn't getting many leads and only had one interview. I asked a good contact at one of the clients of my previous companies, if he knew of anyone hiring in the area," explained Vandenberg. "Immediately, he asked me to talk with his boss. They were establishing a new position and he felt that I would be right for it. After one interview and some negotiations, I was hired."

An extra degree can certainly help
Sometimes, a few extra "degrees" is all it takes to land a great job. TechRepublic member Doug Baden was a company commander serving as captain at Fort Carson, Colorado, in 1994 when he decided to pursue a career in IT.

The wife of a lieutenant in an adjacent company was best friends with Baden's wife, and the two women discussed Baden's desire to find a new career.

Later that same year, the lieutenant visited family in San Francisco for the holidays, and mentioned Baden's new career interest to his father. The father was the EDS account executive for a large canned fruit and vegetable manufacturer. The lieutenant's father, it turned out, had spent 20 years on active duty after graduating from the same military academy Baden had attended.

"He and I tried to connect, but did not find time to talk until early February. It was a quick 10-minute conversation right before my weekly battalion staff meeting, and was as brisk as it was brief!," recalled Baden.

The talk focused on Baden's time and activity at the academy, summer training, semester duty assignments, and so on. After the phone call, Baden was invited for a face-to-face interview with the EDS hiring manager, and the account manager responsible for day-to-day operations, and, by late February, Baden had a job offer.

He started with EDS as a project manager in July of 1995. He then spent 18 months in San Francisco working in different assignments before moving with EDS to Charlotte, NC, as an applications development manager for a regional grocery chain.

After two and a half years, he moved to Los Angeles, again with EDS, as an account manager for a medical device manufacturer. The outsourcing arrangement terminated, and he was hired on as the director of IT for the local site.

"That was four years ago, and I'm now responsible for the North American IT infrastructure for two divisions," Baden said.

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