The old adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is one-sided. You might be the best friend of the coach of the United States women's national soccer team but if you can’t play soccer, you’re not going to make the team. Better put: It’s not just what you know, it’s also who you know.
If you’re tight with the top people who hire designers and developers at Google, Microsoft, and Apple, as in you hang out with them on a daily basis, stop reading. You’re probably as connected as you need to be.
If not, then you confront–on one level or another–the challenge of making the kinds of connections that are invaluable in making the transition from design and development student to working professional.
How Important are Connections?
Getting listed at job boards, getting notified of jobs that fit your qualifications, and submitting appropriate resumes and portfolios is essential to getting a job.
But connections are even more important. Let’s analyze the data:
- Author Lou Adler did a survey a few years ago and found that 85% of All Jobs are Filled Via Networking.
- A 2019 article in the Harvard Business Review cited LinkedIn research to conclude that “The most popular channel for finding new hires is through employee referrals; up to 48% come from them.”
- An interesting piece in Business Insider documented that 70% of jobs are not even listed. The percentage might be less in the more technical design and development jobs, but even so, that’s a lot of opportunities you don’t want to blow off.
And here’s a little under-appreciated fact that emerges from processing the data in these and other studies: there is less of a connection between jobs posted on job boards and real jobs than you might think.
Not only are most jobs not filled through job postings, but many job postings are not connected to real jobs. Hiring managers post non-existent jobs on job boards to gauge the job market, including to assess competitive salaries and contracted, outsourced headhunting operations build up databases of potential employees through posting non-existent jobs.
Does all this mean you should not bother to get listed on and get notifications from job boards and aggregators like Indeed.com? No. But it does mean you would be wise not to restrict your job hunting to getting listed on job boards and applying for positions you find there.
Some of us are not at all bashful about starting up conversations wherever we go, at conferences, in online chats, after class; with peers (fellow students), people we meet at parties or coffee shops, or through our training.
Others of us find all that terrifying.
Most of us are somewhere between those two extremes.
Wherever you fit into the scale between those extremes, interestingly, the advice for finding ways to identify and seize on networking opportunities is pretty much the same:
- Always have your antenna up for potential networks.
- Play the long game. Today’s quiet classmate might be tomorrow’s hiring manager at the firm you want to work at. Or the person you go to for sage advice in presenting yourself based on their success in getting a job. Or any number of unanticipatable things.
- Listen! Almost everyone likes to talk about themselves. And you can learn from all kinds of people. Don’t fake interest in what someone who has made the successful transition from design student to working professional has to offer, listen and learn. And in the process, you might impress the person you are listening to with your ability to listen and learn – highly rated job skills for communication designers.
Network on Two Tracks
It’s helpful to think about job networking in two dimensions: formal and organic.
Formal networking involves maximizing tools and channels available in social networks devoted to professional networking. We’ll focus on LinkedIn since it is the largest of these networks with the most networking tools. And we’ll explore how to mix, mesh and maximize LinkedIn’s tools for:
- Messaging tools
Organic refers to everything else, including but far from limited to informal hanging out with classmates, meetups of professionals in your field, and organizations created to help traditionally underrepresented groups break into coding, design, and tech.
Again, whether you are navigating LinkedIn’s networking channels or approaching folks at a meetup, most of what we explore in the rest of this article is applicable.
- Study the terrain in your field. Who are the movers and shakers? Who are the influencers? Who knows what they’re talking about. And who’s hiring?
- Follow and connect. Find ways to establish a connection, learn from, and be noticed.
- Engage. Reach out for short interviews and advice.
Create Connections in LinkedIn
The first step in using LinkedIn, after joining and posting your profile and connecting that to your portfolio, is to connect with as many people as you can. A quick way to jump-start your list of connections is to use the Add Personal Contacts tool in the My Network tab. That feature makes it easy to invite people from your address book to be LinkedIn connections.
When you import your address book into LinkedIn, the information is used to generate lists of potentially relevant connections. If you’re concerned about privacy, exposing your contacts or yourself to spam (which is a good thing to be concerned about), you can learn more about how LinkedIn handles your contacts here.
What’s the rush to build up connections?
- You can message people who are your contacts, even without a premium membership.
- You can follow contacts, learn who they are networking with, and expand your network.
- Your profile looks a lot better with 100 connections than with zero. More connections identifies you as someone who is reaching out, listening, learning, collaborating, as opposed to someone who left the building metaphorically speaking.
And when you do invite people to become your connections, take time to include a message reminding them of who you are, how you know them, and why you want to network with them. Make that message professional, friendly, collaborative (“Let’s stay in touch about…”), and personal.
And connect with groups as well as individuals. Those connections–with groups or individuals–can turn up job postings not shared with wider lists.
Follow and Engage with Influencers
Searching out, and following influencers in your field does two things. It plugs you into networks of people who do what you want to do, so you can learn from them. And it identifies you as someone who follows, cares about, and is learning from important experts, thinkers, designers, and developers.
And, there’s a third thing: When you follow influencers, you get an opportunity to connect with them by commenting on their articles. Commenting on an article on LinkedIn is much more meaningful than adding a thumbs up or heart to a Facebook or Twitter post of a cute cat playing piano; it signifies that you actually read the post, thought it was important, and are encouraging others to read it as well.
By the way, you can follow companies and institutions as well as people. Strange as it might seem, when people see you follow big-time institutions like Google, Microsoft, Apple, or Facebook, it brands you as someone who is tuned in to what is happening with the institutions that shape design.
On a more practical and immediate tip, following institutions and companies generates alerts when they post something you might be interested in and often provides listings of jobs they are hiring for.
Post and Share Content
Posting on LinkedIn enhances your networking on two levels. On the meta-level, it identifies you as an active engager, someone who cares and is sharing what you are learning and is a way to convey your personality.
On a specific level, posting can be a way of communicating with and building your network. Think about how to turn the challenges you face into ways of learning from and invigorating your network.
For example, if you are trying to decide whether or not to attend a coding bootcamp…try creating a Google Form poll, collect the results, and post them as a graph.
How personal should you get with your posts? That depends. There have been instances of job hunters posting frustration and depression and getting supportive and helpful responses, but consider such postings with care as they also convey personal details you might not want to be part of your “permanent record” as they say.
And keep posts fresh. The easiest and most effective way to do that, assuming you’re not a prolific blogger by nature, is to share articles you found interesting (which gets back to the point of following influencers).
An Online Networking Scenario
Let’s break down how this plays out online step-by-step. The following is not a recipe, but a model (and pretty close to a recipe):
Connect with and/or follow as many potential connections in your field through LinkedIn. If you’re learning your way around the terrain of successful people in your specific field, survey resources like articles by successful communication designers.
After you identify potential connections. Connect with or follow the potential connections you identify in LinkedIn.
Either in a message requesting a connection, pose questions that indicate you engaged their post or other work and thought about it. People who post articles on LinkedIn care and pay close attention to how many comments they get, and appreciate ones that indicate genuine interest.
You can take advantage of the messaging resources available through LinkedIn Premium. Premium memberships cost money (unless your school or institution provides one), but there is a free trial period and if you plan ahead, you can maximize the use of that free access. There are other ways to message potential connections but they are much more likely to respond to a LinkedIn message than an email.
Keep your message short but identify specific material they have posted or work they have done that you appreciate and pose one or two intriguing questions that will inspire them to respond (you’ll find examples of how to come up with appropriate questions by studying interviews with successful design professionals.
Tell them you will appreciate any kind of response but would really appreciate and learn a lot from a ten-minute Zoom that you’d be happy to set up.
Actively Cultivate Organic Networks
Oops, wrong stock image! We’re not actually suggesting forming a co-op of urban organic farmers growing tomatoes in rooftop hothouses in Brooklyn. That might be a good idea, but it’s a topic for a different blog.
Here, by organic networks, we mean collaborative forms that you and others like you create, join, and lead to provide mutual assistance in making the transition from design or development student to working professional.
Organic networking includes:
- Exchanging insights, experiences, and encouragement with classmates or former classmates.
- Staying in touch with instructors from your classes.
- Reaching out to experts in your field for advice and help
- Joining groups aimed at breaking historically underrepresented communities into communication design and development like Girls Who Code, Blacks Who Design, or Latinxs Who Design.
- Attending workshops, or join meetups for specific design fields ranging from motion graphics to UI/UX design to coding at Meetup.
If you are still in school, or just left, establish connections now! A few tips:
- Ask your teachers if you can stay in touch with them, use them as references, and get advice as you navigate your career path. They can always say no, but odds are they’ll be flattered and enjoy the chance to help mentor your next steps. And then follow through by keeping them updated on your career journey.
- Avail yourself of all the job-seeking opportunities your school offers. Don’t wait for them to fall into your lap; ask teachers and administrators what is available and how to sign up.
- Organize like-minded classmates into Slack, Discord, GroupMe, WhatsApp whatever channel fits your scene. Suggestion: use Slack. It’s not trendy or hip, until–that is–you get an actual job, and then that’s what your employer will expect you to have fluency with.
- Find and work with a mentor. Your school may have suggestions. Mentoring for creatives can connect you with a professional mentor, some of whom will work with you for free.
- Enhance your people skills, that’s another underrated asset in your career journey. Find valuable tips at How Organic Networking Helps Introverts Grow Their Network.
Everything we’ve discussed about networking through LinkedIn has applicability to organic networking. Be a good listener and learner. Share valuable insights. Reach out in ways that project yourself as someone who genuinely cares what others have to say. And then, on that basis, don’t be afraid to ask for advice and help.
We’ve emphasized there are two basic tracks to follow in building up and maximizing the impact of your set of connections. One is through LinkedIn and to a lesser degree other social networks. The other is less formal and essentially involves finding every opportunity to connect with people who can be of assistance in your career path. Both these tracks involve the same basic principles:
- Study your field, identify influencers and people to know, and follow them on social media.
- Reach out, online and in the real world. Develop an attitude of seeking out community and projecting yourself within that.
- Listen, learn, and impress through thoughtful engagement, not pushing yourself on people.
- What goes around, comes around. Lending advice and support to someone else will, at the very least, be a learning experience and can become a door opener.
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