I’ve been writing this blog for a long time and one thing I’ve discovered in doing so: Resume tips and interviewing tips are always welcome. But one thing you can count on is that, especially with IT folks, the minute you start talking about career networking (developing a network of people that can help you connect with opportunities), people will glaze over or will suddenly remember that they have to change the oil in the car.

And I know this, because I have the same aversion to the term. To me, “networking” invokes the vision of a cold calling vacuum cleaner salesman who is really proud of his sales come on: “How long does it take you to clean your floors? Two hours?! Well, have I got a product for you!” Or worse, a vision of this guy.

The fact is, those are only examples of bad networking and we shouldn’t think of it that way. Yes, it would be nice if, after you strike up a conversation with someone at a party, that person gives you the phone number of a person who would love to interview you for a job. But don’t count on that happening.  The value of networking lies in the process itself, rather than the outcome.

You should think of networking as a mechanism by which you learn more about your line of work from someone whose expertise you admire. It’s not a corporate version of Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

What other people should do for you in networking is not give you an “in” with a hiring manager, although that would be a nice bonus. So don’t go in with that attitude.

Start out by choosing someone you admire in your line of work. Schedule a face-to-face meeting with that person. If the person works at the same company you do, it might be a good idea to suggest a neutral setting like over coffee.

Tell this person that you want to pick his or her brain about the industry. Have a list of prepared questions for him or her, e.g.:

  • “Where do you see the industry going?”
  • “What do you like best about what you’re doing?”
  • “What were some obstacles you overcame to get where you are?”
  • “Which of your personal attributes aided you most in your career?”

Yes, these all sound like questions you yourself would be asked in a job interview. The difference is, you are getting the answers these questions not to judge the person before you, but to get insight into what qualities might be necessary to succeed in the industry you share. Don’t just pop out the questions like it’s game show either. Discuss the answers fully until you understand them.

If your source, in turn, asks questions of you, try to remain positive. You don’t want to unload about all the issues your having in your current situation because that pretty much says, “I’m miserable and desperate so I chose to talk to you.” You don’t want the meeting to be blatantly need-based.

Send a thank you note afterwards. Depending on the industry you’re in, the form of the note might vary. The IT pros I’ve heard from don’t seem to like the written note, so maybe email could suffice. You’ll get more of a feel for how formal the person is during the networking meeting.