Being a sysadmin often attracts "Lone Ranger" types. You spend most of your time interacting with servers and intermittently cruising forums—searching for solutions or vulnerabilities. However, this work style often keeps you working alone in close quarters and can put pressure on you when high-profile incidents occur or you need an extra pair of hands.
These situations might make you wish you had a more extensive network to lean on. In this article, I share ways of building a network of contacts within and outside your company.
Who am I?
I have always found it easy to connect with other people, and it was not until the pandemic made social distancing and working from home the norm that I started to reflect on my behavior. My strength is when I interact face-to-face with other people, but I more or less lost that opportunity.
Online meetings—especially those where I am the only one with the camera on—can feel like talking to a wall. I felt limited and frustrated, so I started to think about the components that make up a conversation and what is necessary to connect with someone on a more personal level. That was how the foundation of this article was born.
How to start building your network
Personal networking begins in one of two ways: You either respond to or reach out to someone. The first few contacts are usually a bit formal or cautious, in the sense that you don't really know the other person, just as the other person doesn't know you.
By getting to know one person, that person might introduce you to their connections, and suddenly you are on your way to building your network.
Starting a conversation does not need to be about something complicated like string theory in quantum physics. Try starting with a simple "Hello" and take it from there. It's essential, though, to consider the person's culture. In English-speaking cultures, "Hi, how are you?" is just a greeting and not a query about how you actually are. Most of the time, the expected response is a simple "Hi, there."
Being Swedish, I would get this all wrong and start describing my emotional and physical state until I realized the person looked very uncomfortable and jumped at the first opportunity to end the conversation (or rather, my monologue). With more experience, I learned to say, "Fine, how are you?" which could be a comfortable way to continue a conversation about a project or a technical issue.
[ What surprises you about your job? Read 10 things I wish I'd known before becoming a Linux sysadmin. ]
Once the practical part of the conversation is over, you can go back to the initial "How are you?" and ask an open question about an easy topic to keep the conversation going. If the person responds with more than one sentence, you can assume they are comfortable continuing. But if they give a short "Fine, see you later," then you know the conversation has ended. However, just because someone cut this conversation short, keep an open mind because the person could be super-stressed or have something else on their mind. They could still be comfortable talking with you at a later time—it's just that their current circumstance doesn't allow for more.
What should you talk about?
In your role as a sysadmin, you could initiate conversation around work-related topics. Although the chances are low that many understand the inner workings of a Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 8 server, so try to pick something less technical.
Everyone likes to talk about themselves—and not necessarily about work. I bring up topics like what the person I'm talking to does in their spare time, their plans, where they come from, travels, experiences, and so forth. The challenge is to listen and not interrupt, even if you might disagree about something. Here are some of my tips:
- Be patient and listen. Letting a person speak about something is the first step in getting to know them.
- Respect the other person's opinions without immediately trying to convince them to change. In the same way, they should respect your opinion.
- The conversation is a two-way street where you should be able to meet without crashing into one another.
- Disagreeing does not mean you must become enemies. You might disagree on some things, while you probably agree on many others.
- Stay open-minded and try not to judge the other person.
Ask open-ended questions
We learned in school how to answer questions beginning with the words "Why," "How," "What," "Please describe," or "Could you tell me?" Perhaps because these questions are so simple, it's easy to underestimate the power and positive impact they can have when starting a conversation.
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Like most people, I like to talk about myself and tell stories about my experiences in life. This puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to getting to know other people because, at times, I am too preoccupied with telling my own stories. I try to make sure I use open-ended questions and listen without interrupting the other person. That is the only way to get to know them better and potentially learn something new about them. Networking means finding a good balance in conversations, where everyone gets a chance to talk.
What to do when conversations go sideways
If I am upset or annoyed about something, I start by saying, "I don't understand why…" or "This way of working is a bit confusing to me, so I need to learn more about…." I don't start by talking bad or complaining about something because I might not know the full background about why something is done that way. I turn it around and go from complaint to question.
By asking open questions, I can place myself in a neutral position while giving the other person the opportunity to share and explain their point of view. This allows me to see if we share views or learn something that will broaden my understanding.
If the person gets out of line or speaks in an offensive or inappropriate way, you should say that it makes you uncomfortable and you don't wish to continue. If they persist, excuse yourself and leave. If the person continues making offensive comments or behavior, report it to your manager. If it turns into threats, then it becomes a police matter. I share this because I have seen the dark side of conversations when networking with other people. My advice is to stop a negative spiral as soon as possible.
Choosing who to network with
When you contact people who aren't part of your daily interactions, you extend your network. A company's dynamics inevitably lead to change—the natural state for a company to survive in the market. A high-profile manager could change position, fall from grace, or leave the company. A colleague or someone in a more junior role could climb the ranks.
Try to make connections in departments other than your own. Providing IT support and resolving issues is a great way to get started. If you have interactions with someone in your daily job, you're already one step up.
Consider the person, not the role
People get hired to fill a role, yet behind every role is a person. Try to separate the two, and you might find an interesting person behind a role that you aren't familiar with or haven't been interested in.
In other words, don't let the role define the person. In addition, don't be intimidated by networking with someone in a higher or more powerful position. Some people tend to hide behind their roles, and they might need time to feel comfortable stepping outside their job description and showing their personality.
Pick an unlikely person
It is always easy to connect with people you feel comfortable with, so why not step outside your comfort zone and try something different? Try reaching out to someone that you usually wouldn't connect with. If you initiate a conversation, you allow yourself to learn something new. And by using open questions, you can learn a lot more about the person, which may lead you to discover more about their role.
Networking at in-person events
Networking with people is the foundation of open source. Together is better, but today almost everything is online. I hope that things return to normal and we can again join events like Red Hat Summit in person.
Attending events can get lonely if you're not traveling with a colleague, but being alone has an advantage: You can make new connections. If you take the opportunity to connect with other attendees using open questions, you'll find out how easy it is. Here are some examples of ways to strike up a conversation at an event with someone you haven't met before:
- "So, what do you think of the event?"
- "What have you found most interesting here?"
- "Have you been to this event before?"
- "What are you working on lately?"
Consider that when you initiate contact with a person, not only might you benefit, but you may also do something good for the person you are talking to and any bystanders who join in. So, by connecting with one person, you may positively impact other people as well.
No matter where you're trying to build your network, always be polite, ask open questions, and never underestimate the importance of culture. Stay curious and consider that you might do other people a favor by connecting with them and allowing them to join your network.