soft skills

Joey deVilla, with accordion, schmoozing a Ferengi at Quark's

Why Work the Room?

If you’re attending TechDays in Vancouver, Mobile Innovation Week in Toronto, or any other conference anywhere else, you should keep in mind that while we spend a lot of energy on the presentations and sessions, the opportunity to meet and talk to the other people there is just as important. I’ve observed that some of the most important things I’ve learned at conferences didn’t happen at the presentation, but in the hallways, conversing with the other attendees. This observation is so common that it’s given rise to “unconferences” like BarCamp, whose purpose is to invert the order of things so that the conference is more “hallway” than “lecture theatre”.

It’s especially important to talk to people you don’t know or who are outside your usual circle. Books like The Tipping Point classify acquaintances with such people as “weak ties”, but don’t let the word “weak” make you think they’re unimportant. As people outside your usual circle, they have access to a lot of information that you don’t. That’s why most people get jobs through someone they know, and of those cases, most of the references came from a weak tie. The sorts of opportunities that come about because of this sort of relationship led sociologist Mark Granovetter to coin the phrase “the strength of weak ties”.

The best way to make weak ties at a conference is to work the room. If the phrase sounds like sleazy marketing-speak and fills your head with images of popped collars and wearing too much body spray, relax. Working the room means being an active participant in a social event and contributing to it so that it’s better for both you and everyone else. Think of it as good social citizenship.

9 Ways to Work the Room

TechDays "blue man" pointing to an easel that reads "9 Ways to work a room" Here are some bits of advice for working the room at TechDays, culled from a mix of Susan RoAne’s advice in her books How to Work a Room and Face to Face: How to Reclaim the Personal Touch in a Digital World, Larry Chiang’s article in GigaOm on the topic and my own experiences working the room (which in turn led me to this job and is why you’re reading this blog entry).

  1. Be more of a host and less of a guest. No, you don’t have to worry about scheduling and who’s running the AV rig. By “being a host”, I mean doing some of things that hosts do, such as introducing people, saying “hello” to wallflowers and generally making people feel more comfortable. Being graceful to everyone is not only good karma, but it’s a good way to promote yourself. It worked out really well for me; for example, I came to the first DemoCamp as a guest, but by the third one, I was one of the people officially hosting the event.
  2. Beware of “rock piles”. Rock piles are groups of people huddled together in a closed formation. It sends the signal “go away”. If you find yourself in one, try to position yourself to open up the formation.
  3. Beware of “hotboxing”. I’ve heard this term used in counter-culture settings, but in this case “hotboxing” means to square your shoulders front-and-center to the person you’re talking to. It’s a one-on-one version of the rock pile, and it excludes others from joining in. Once again, the cure for hotboxing is to change where you’re standing to allow more people to join in.
  4. Put your coat and bag down. Carrying them is a non-verbal cue that you’re about to leave. If you’re going to stay and chat, put them down. When you’re about to leave, take your coat and bag and start saying your goodbyes.
  5. Show and tell. We’re geeks, and nothing attracts our eyes like shiny, interesting pieces of tech and machinery. It’s why I carry my accordion around; I think of it as a device that converts curiosity into opportunity (and music as well). I’ll be doing the same with my Windows Phone 7 device as well! Got a particularly funky laptop, netbook, smartphone or new device you just got from ThinkGeek? Got a neat project that you’ve been working on? Whatever it is, park yourself someplace comfortable in the hallway, show it off and start a conversation!
  6. Save the email, tweets and texts for later, unless they’re important. They’ll draw your attention away from the room and also send the message “go away”.
  7. Mentor. If you’ve got skills in a specific area, share your knowledge. Larry Chiang from GigaOm says that “It transitions nicely from the what-do-you-do-for-work question. It also adds some substance to party conversations and clearly brands you as a person.”
  8. Be mentored. You came to TechDays to learn, and as I said earlier, learning goes beyond the sessions. One bit of advice is to try and learn three new things at every event.
  9. Play “conversation bingo”. If there are certain topics that you’d like to learn about at TechDays, say Silverlight, test-driven development, REST, and so on, put them in a list (mental, electronic or paper) of “bingo” words. As you converse at the conference, cross off any of those topics that you cover off the list. This trick forces you to become a more active listener and will help you towards your learning goals. Yelling “BINGO!” when you’ve crossed the last item on the list can be done at your discretion.

I’ll see you at TechDays and Mobile Innovation Week, where I’ll be doing all of the above!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.

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Local tech evangelist David Crow points to The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need. Unlike What Color is Your Parachute? or Who Moved My Cheese?, Johnny Bunko is in manga form — that’s right, it’s a Japanese-style comic book.

An unusual book needs an unusual promo, and Johnny Bunko is no exception — it’s got a trailer!

In a review at Amazon, Donald Mitchell provides a quick summary of the book:

Most career writers when they want to simplify a message use a fable, with a few illustrations that show the key perspectives. The fable is clearly secondary to the details.

In The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, the story is more interesting than the advice. Having read a lot of Mr. Pink’s writing, I thought I knew what he would probably advise. But I didn’t realize that he would make the story so interesting, and that the manga format would add so much power to the story telling. Nice work!

What’s the advice? Let me rephrase to make it clearer to you:

  1. Don’t be rigid about planning out each step well in advance . . . it’s not possible to do.
  2. Build on what you’re good at (Peter Drucker originated that one) and avoid relying on what you aren’t good at.
  3. Focus on what you can do for others (start with the boss) rather than what’s in it for you (you can read more about this in How to Be a Star at Work).
  4. Keep at it. Practice makes perfect.
  5. Take on big challenges and learn from them.
  6. Make a difference.

I think I’ll pick up this book — it’s pretty cheap, and I’d like to see how Daniel Pink uses the manga format to advantage.

More Advice from Daniel Pink

Here are some video clips featuring Daniel Pink some pretty interesting giving career advice…

Abundance, Asia and Automation

Pink says that the really useful skills are those that are hard to outsource, hard to automate and that serves a need that goes beyond functional. And those skills are the right-brain ones — the ones often derided as “soft skills”.

Help! My Resume Has Too Many Jobs!

Don’t worry if your resume looks like it has too many jobs on it — the world of work today doesn’t give out prizes for lifetime service. These days, it’s about whether you can solve their problems.

Exercise Creativity at Your Job

The old adage applies: “It’s often better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” And from my own experience, I can tell you that he’s right.

Choosing a Major

Follow your interests — don’t choose a major based on what kind of job you think you’ll get after you graduate. The job market is likely to change! Follow your passion instead. You should also work on your “high concept” and “high touch” skills.

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It’s been said before, and Reg “Raganwald” Braithwaite says it again: The single most important thing you must do to improve your programming career is to improve your ability to communicate.

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