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I'm still at Microsoft TechEd, and the response to my question about how to effectively use my time at software conferences was overwhelmingly "networking is the most useful part of software conferences".

Problem: I have no idea how to even approach that task. I've always been kind of an introvert. At school and at work I've generally not had issues because there are enough extroverts around that approach me that I've made some awesome friends over the years. However, at conferences, it seems most are introverted like myself, and those who aren't seem to be salespeople.

The couple of times I've felt okay approaching people it's been after a session where there's been healthy discussion throughout the whole room, and just when I get the nerve to go up and talk to some people, they leave and go on to other things.

Is there a specific books I should read? Advice I can take? Anything as far as approaching people one does not know? 'Cause every time I try I just feel like an awkward mess. :(

(Oddly enough, I don't have problems speaking to a group of people -- it's the one-on-one things that trip me up :P) (Oh, and by the way, if anyone from here is also there and would like to meet to talk about things, I'm game :P)

So, how does an introverted programmer like myself network effectively at software conferences?

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@Mahmoud How to Win Friends and Influence People is a popular choice for a "how to talk to people" kind of book, although it is admittedly not about networking. –  Anna Lear May 18 '11 at 5:01
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@Anna I've never really believed in "Human Development", since I believe there's no recipe for success when dealing with people, you never know what'll work. –  Mahmoud Hossam May 18 '11 at 5:02
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@Pan: I think James is being sarcastic ;) –  Billy ONeal May 18 '11 at 12:35
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For what it's worth, in college I showed up at "student networking night" with tools, and was quickly disappointed. –  Brad May 18 '11 at 15:16
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@Mahmoud There's no recipe for success at people like there's no recipe for success in software. It will always depend on many factors. But there are /some/ things that we /can/ do to increase our odds of success, even if it does not guarantee it. Like Anna's suggestion. –  Mark Canlas May 18 '11 at 22:12
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11 Answers

up vote 48 down vote accepted

You need to do three things...

Start conversations - and the best way to do this is to introduce yourself to someone and ask questions. Most folks love to talk about themselves and their opinions - even introverts! Here are a few you can try...

  • What's your favorite session so far?
  • Where are you from?
  • Do you use [a technology discussed at the conference]?
  • Where do you work?
  • What did you think of this session? (If it's at the end of a session.)
  • How did you decide to come to this conference?

That will usually begin a discussion. If not, excuse yourself, wander off, and try somebody else.

Find people to talk to. As Mike Brown said, don't eat alone - find somebody sitting by themselves and ask if you can join them, or just plop down in an empty seat at a table. If you find a session interesting, go to the front afterward and hang [with] the folks who gather to talk to the speaker, and find some interesting person in that group and when they leave, walk with them and ask them questions.

Practice, practice, practice. Just walk up to people and ask friendly questions. Lots of them are introverted, too, and would be very happy if you'll break the ice - and it will help you get past your introversion.

I was pretty introverted in high school, and I decided to change that in college. So my first few weeks as a freshman, I'd walk into the cafeteria and do pretty much what I suggest above - sit down with some lone person and ask, "What year are you?" "What are you studying?" etc.

After doing that now for almost thirty-five years (yeah, I'm an old dude now), nobody would call me an introvert, and I can hold up my end of most conversations - especially at technical conferences, where other people share common interests.

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+1 for practice. If talking to strangers hurts, do it more! –  Anna Lear May 18 '11 at 4:46
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@Anna - what if it hurts the strangers too? :-) –  Stephen C May 18 '11 at 13:33
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If you "hang the folks who gather [...]", I'm pretty sure it'll hurt them. :o) –  deceze May 19 '11 at 3:33
    
@deceze: Heh. Good one - I'll fix it, but in square brackets so people can see the original goof. –  Bob Murphy May 19 '11 at 5:00
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And don't feel bad if your comment just lands thud and you get nothing from the person you approach. Some folks don't want to meet you - that's not about you (how could it be? They know nothing about you) it's about them. On the way to Tech Ed this year, at the gate in the airport for the flight to Atlanta, there was a guy in an attendee shirt from a not-too-recent PDC. I said "I almost wore that same shirt today!" thinking he would say "oh, are you going to Tech Ed too?" or possibly "hi Kate" since I speak a lot in the area. Total silence. Not even a smile. No big, not everyone wants to talk. –  Kate Gregory May 19 '11 at 10:07
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The mixers/receptions are a great place to start. Beyond that, go to the TLCs, there's probably Microsoft Employee or community volunteer looking for a friendly face to just chat with. After a session that you found interesting go to the TLC associated with that session and chat it up with the volunteer there. It's a natural point of attraction for people interested in a topic.

Don't eat your meals alone. Find someone and ask if they mind you joining them.

Take a break in the lounge. Get in on a game or two of Rock Band.

I usually have online colleagues that I bump into at conferences. Get involved in the community and next time you can put a face to a few names you've met online.

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In addition to what others said so far...

Stay social
What I do at events like that is avoid my usual anti-social behaviours like checking my phone all the time. That's good for warding against strangers on the bus, but not so good if you want to meet people at a conference.

Say hi first
When you get to your next session and find a seat, say hi to the people near you. If there's time, it might even evolve into a conversation. It helps to have a few conversation starters in mind for that -- ask them what they do or where they're from and try to compliment them on something. Sincerely, of course.

Even if you don't talk to anybody then, it'll be easier to do so later, now that you've broken the ice with a simple "hello".

Use business cards
If you didn't bring any, bring some next time. Or use a Just-in-Time business card and bring some real ones to your next event. Give these out like they're going out of style. If you get someone else's card, write down some details about that person on it and follow up with them later.

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+1 for just saying "Hi" –  SHug May 18 '11 at 15:41
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Go to talks, if you are interested in any, approach the speaker afterwards and ask questions. Most of them will be happy to talk to you.

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Also, if there are 3 or 4 people hanging around the stage asking the speaker questions, go up there and stand with them. Listening to their questions and the answers they get is often interesting for itself, but in addition you now know that person a little. After the Q&A, as you're leaving the room, you can say something to them like "we have that same issue with large files, too" or "do you need that functionality a lot?" and now you're having a conversation. –  Kate Gregory May 19 '11 at 10:04
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(The following isn't meant to be condescending and is slightly exaggerated for entertainment value. I say all this only from having been there myself :)

Networking is essentially being able to to make new professional acquaintances. To do that you need what I'd like to call social intelligence. Unfortunately many geeks and programmers aren't exactly blessed in this area, I know it's a stereotype but it's true.

But now to the good news, it's nothing that you're born with or that can't be fixed! Social skill is like every skill: something you get by practicing, in this case by interacting with people irl. The reason geeks are bad at social interactions is simply because we do less of them, preferring instead to bask in the light of our monitors and communicating one keystroke at a time.

So, without further ado, my...

Geeks guide to social skills

  • Be, don't act. Many books, articles etc are written on social techniques, tricks etc. The problem is while these might be good to get you going in the end you don't want to act confident, you want to be confident. People can (subconsciously) tell the difference between sincerity and technique. Use techniques to get started but it's important that you change who you are not just what you do.

  • Socialize outside your comfort zone. Try to spend more time interacting with people, and not just peers and old friends that you're comfortable with. As with every skill you become more natural as you go along.

  • Cultivate an interest in people. What they do and why. If you're naturally and sincerely curious about people you always have something to talk about and people do love to talk about themselves, and love people actually listening instead of just wanting to speak themselves. Some people are exceedingly boring but even them you can find something interesting about them if you're really curious.

  • Don't assume people are idiots. Don't go into every conservation with the assumption that the other person/people are idiots to be proven wrong by your superior intellect. I've noticed that a clear tendency among "unsocial" geeks is that they constantly need to "prove" to others that they're smart. It's a natural defensive mechanism stemming from poor self-esteem but it only comes out as being annoying and immature. Being confident means not having to prove you're right all the time. Don't go into conversations you can't "win", let them be wrong.

  • Don't talk yourself up. A normal defense mechanism to make themselves seem to be of more "value" is to casually drop things into conversations. "Yeah, I went skiing to Aspen last year" , "Yeah, Paul Graham said we were the most promising startup he'd ever seen". This is not even a conscious behavior in most cases but just "slips out". The problem is that even if the person you're talking with doesn't consciously pick up on it either, it often will subconsciously reflect badly on you. So try to train yourself to avoid stuff like that. Don't completely avoid them either, if that specific topic comes up by all means do tell. Just don't look smug while doing so :)

  • Don't be too full of yourself. Larry Ellison might some day be able to build a sailboat big enough to fit his ego, but I doubt it. Too much confidence and too big an ego is never a pretty sight and makes people think you are aloof and arrogant. The day we think we know everything is the day we stop growing, so eat some humble pie and remember the Dunning-Kruger effect :)

  • Work on your body language. This will mostly come naturally from interacting with people but it's worth keeping in mind. People who look and act nervously all the time make other people uncomfortable. You should be calm and self assured, making other people comfortable.

  • Cultivate interests. Experiences and anecdotes that people of all sorts might be interested in. While listening is good you can't just stand there asking questions either. It helps to have some experiences and anecdotes that make people find you interesting. Just remember ...

  • Don't try too hard. It's not a monologue, it's a discussion. No one wants to hear you ramble on about SCSI drives for an hour. No one wants to hear you try to fit a bad joke into a conservation when the timing isn't right. Good interactions are back and forth and flow naturally.

  • Empathize. A great quality of social people is being able to empathize with other people both emotionally and conversationally. Emotionally by being able to ask oneself "if I were in his shoes, what would I have done/felt?". Conversationally by saying things like: "Oh you've started your own startup? I remember when I did that, I found it quite difficult in the beginning with all the legal stuff. How's it going for you?"

  • Ask something interesting. A great way to get an discussion going is to throw a somewhat controversial question into the mix. The usual "what do you work with?" questions can be pretty tepid and boring while "So, which programming language do you think will be most popular in 10 years" can spark an interesting conversation (just remember, the goal is not to win the conversation but to have an interesting one)

  • Let topics live and die on their own momentum. If someone just has introduced a topic of discussion, do explore it instead of immediately jumping in with one of your own. Yet again, this is typically geek behavior: shifting a conversation to what they want to talk about. Interrupting and shifting conversations can be extremely rude and annoying. On the other hand, if you've talked about something for a while and the topic is losing steam feel free to change topic.

  • Draw other people into conversations. As you start to become more social, remember your roots! If you're having an interesting conversation with someone and there's someone else nearby, cue them in. "So what do you think?" Same thing if you're at a dinner/party whatever. Many people are interesting but they're just too shy to take the first step, so if you make a point to include them in your conversations you'll make many new interesting friends.

  • Know your audience. Talking about star trek trivia might be ok if you're talking to a hardcore geek, or talking switching protocols with a network engineer. But be pretty sure you talk about something they and not just you find interesting. If you start by listening more than speaking you'll get a good feeling for what that might be pretty quickly.

  • Acknowledge others. When something comes up about the other person that you genuinely can appreciate, do tell them so constructively. "So you made that application all by yourself? Wow, I especially like how smooth the interface is". No one likes kiss-asses and pure adoration (well, some do, but many find it awkward) but many struggle to be respected and acknowledged and will consciously or subconsciously hunt for that acknowledgement. Giving them some will make them relax and be easier to interact with.

  • Learn to take a compliment. On the other hand, if someone gives you a compliment, take time to appreciate and acknowledge it. It's better to say "Thanks, I appreciate it!" (sincerely) than "Oh, It was nothing, I suck anyways..." (looking at your feet).

  • Don't laugh at your own jokes. I do this all the time, they say it's bad :)

Knowing when to listen and what to say and when is a big part of social skills, so don't sweat it if you don't get it exactly right in the beginning. Just think about it, practice and you'll be far ahead of the geek curve.

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I recently ran across a good article that speaks to your "Don't talk yourself up" point: "The Art of Conversation: How to Avoid Conversational Narcissism" artofmanliness.com/2011/05/01/… –  Joe White May 18 '11 at 13:07
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Thanks for the tip, interesting read. It's one of those things that when you start noticing it about yourself and others it can really start to irritate you but nevertheless it's good to know about –  konrad May 18 '11 at 13:09
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+1 for the "learn to take a compliment" section! –  Adrian May 18 '11 at 15:32
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These are just excellent advices. I think I should write some of them on post-it notes and spread them around my workplace :D (some people reaaaaally need them). –  Radu Murzea Sep 17 '12 at 7:34
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The thing about Tech Ed is that it has a wide spectrum of people in it. Some are outgoing and love the chance to meet 10,000 people. Some are there only to learn technical material and are really stressed out by all the strangers. It's a much harder place to make new tech friends than a user group or a code camp. This is made even worse by the wide variety of technical interests - I always seem to sit at lunch with guys who install Exchange - and the fact that people sometimes attend in small groups and with their workmates.

Openings like "is this your first Tech Ed?" "Are you enjoying the show so far?" and the like really do start conversations. You get a chance to use them at breakfast, lunch, dinner, while lining up for those freshly baked cookies or pretzels, etc. They help you practice talking to strangers but they rarely lead to relationships. However, I do build both friendships and work with people who I met deliberately at conferences. It might be someone I knew from their online presence and wanted to meet, so I went to their session and introduced myself. Or someone who did that to me. Or someone a friend introduced me to knowing we should meet.

Don't try to meet a speaker in the 30 minutes before the session starts. After the session is a great time to chat. Often if an attendee is asking me a lot and we are chatting, I will invite them to come with me wherever I need to go - you can find yourself at a booth meeting 5 more speakers etc.

One more thing at Tech Ed. Come to the community zone in the exhibit hall. Speaker Idol, Geeks with Blogs, MVP booth etc. Since you're a person who gets involved online and who tweets, you'll find your tribe there - probably someone whose name you know and someone who knows yours. An hour spent on the couch or at the table with a gang like that will lead to lasting relationships. (And be a ton of fun).

Update: I can't believe I forgot this story. One year right around the time .NET was released I sat on the bus from TechEd to the airport with a guy whose badge said Project 42. I asked "as in building 42?" and we chatted all the way to the airport. I enjoyed meeting him but we didn't stay in touch. Years later he ended up on a team at Microsoft that was very important to me. He remembered me, I remembered him, and it made working together nicer and more efficient, which meant it happened more often. So I guess you can get work from random "Hi how are you?" conversations at a conference. I think that's the exception that proves the rule, though.

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+1 for TechEd specific info :) –  Billy ONeal May 18 '11 at 15:10
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+1 for the update story –  dusan May 28 '11 at 23:32
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Go to places where people socialize. Ask where the bars, restaurants, and hospitality suites (invite?) are located. Much easier to talk to people at these places instead of during sessions.

Geeks are notorious for being introverted accept when it comes to talking about technology they use. If you notice anything technical about someone you want to talk to, just ask about that. This could be anything from their phone, laptop, SharePoint swag, company name on badge, laptop bag, etc. Hold off on trying to talk about your stuff as much as possible unless the conversation goes dead.

Most people there will feel the same way you do. Like most have mentioned, you just need to break the ice. No one is going to crucify you for starting a conversation. If they're not interested in talking to you, find someone who is.

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All of the suggestions here are great and I am going to start using them myself. I wanted to add what I did that helped my social skills tremendously, although I realize not everyone can do this.

I had gotten a job as an Insurance agent which involved sitting down with people and going over their life insurance or lack there of then selling them life insurance from the company that I was working with. It has affected the way I interact with other people dramatically in a positive way.

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At lunch, go and find a table with only one or two spots open, and sit there. Talk to the others at the table. If you don't have anything to start with, just sit and listen. Eventually, someone will say something you can ask about. It can be a simple factual question: "How big a datastore are you indexing?" or "How many people are on that project team?" That gets your foot in the conversational door.

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"most folks love to talk about themselves" hit the nail on the head.

Introverts dont like to talk, extroverts love to talk about themselves.

  • If you are introverted and find yourself struggling, if you approach someone and ask them questions you will ultimately find yourself more comfortable speaking with them after they talk about themselves.
  • Networking in general takes experience and practice. If you really want to network you have to be willing to network, otherwise you will not be networking.
  • At the end of the day networking is networking and it takes someone with the initiative to network so go for it!!
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Most of the point are out here in the answers. I'll add some tips.

  • Be present. Not self aware in the introvert sense, but aware of the surrounding and people around you.
  • There are a lot of ice breakers listed above. Choose your favorite and remember them at the back of your mind. Don't think about consciously going out of your way to hunt people to talk. Conversations just happen. If you force yourself to talk to someone it will show. Maybe in your body language or in the tone of your voice and then least to an awkward conversation. Most communication is not verbal. Which brings me to the next point.
  • Be comfy in your own skin. Just like you would be when you are watching TV at home. Be relaxed with a more 'open' body language. (Don't be tensed/ Don't slouch, roll your shoulders backwards/ feet apart).
  • Sometimes making jokes/ complaining in a lighthearted way/ Asking for the time or help are good ways to start conversation. If you are having a good time people will naturally want to talk to you.
  • Once you are on a roll i.e you've talked to lets say 20-30 people in a room. Strangers will come up to you talk. That is just how social dynamics work.
  • There are a lot of tips here, but if your try to do it all you may get confused. Personally I think I would take only a couple of suggestions and try to work on it till it becomes natural. And then move on to other suggestions. Take baby steps. Stick to your strengths instead of trying to improve your weaknesses.

You've worked on some really cool stuff. If you are passionate about something it will show.

To tell you the truth reading book don't really help a lot unless you try it out page by page. Which can take years. Instead go by your natural instincts. Once you gain some momentum you won't need books to make friends. Just be your comfortable self. Don't go meta.

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