How to Network Effectively as an SRE

Hannah Culver

Hannah Culver

For many SREs, networking prompts a similar response as going to the dentist. You know you should do it, but you don’t really want to. But networking is much less like a root canal and more like a regular teeth cleaning; you may not want to go, but once you’re there, it’s not so bad. In fact, you may walk away feeling good knowing that you’ve done something that helps future you.

The biggest complaint many people have with networking is that it feels transactional. Stereotypical notions of networking posit that it’s about who you know, and what you can get from them. However, truly effective networking flips this notion upside down. Networking is an empowering way to broaden your horizons by sharing your story and finding genuine interest in those of others. Often the more diverse those stories are, the more you learn. It’s a powerful way to build win-win, long-term relationships. Additionally, as with many things in life, it’s better to invest in quality over quantity. By approaching networking with a different mindset, SREs (and everyone, really) can reap rewards that feel truly meaningful instead of transactional.

Especially in an emerging field like SRE, you can make an impact by sharing best practices, helping the community collectively improve practices, and build your own personal brand along the way. With SRE quickly becoming common practice outside the walls of Google and Netflix, it’s important to open ourselves up to new ideas and implementations. This means knowing how to network effectively is crucial. It becomes much more natural when you view new connections with others in the industry as exciting learning opportunities.

 

Debunking transactional networking

Again, think of networking not as a chore or checkbox item, but rather as an investment in relationships where you can share ideas and seek feedback. By networking with other professionals in the SRE and DevOps community, you can take advantage of two significant benefits.

Educational value

The value of peer education cannot be understated. Stanford University defines some examples of peer education as “collaborative project or laboratory work, projects in different sized (cascading) groups, workplace mentoring and community activities” and states that “peer learning should be mutually beneficial and involve the sharing of knowledge, ideas and experience between the participants.” Whenever you’re working in a project setting, tweeting, or attending conferences or meetups, you’re engaged in peer learning. By listening to your peers and putting forth your own ideas, you naturally broaden your worldview and help others to do the same.

Social engagement

Another benefit of networking is making friends. In a high pressure work context like being responsible for software reliability, it’s important to trust the people you work with every day. Furthermore, an investment in professional relationships is strongly correlated with long-term career success. CNBC states, “Having friends at work is not only key to your personal happiness, but it’s vital for having a successful career. In fact, it makes you seven times more likely to be engaged in your job.” 

Having friends at work or in the community can prevent burnout and keep you excited about your work. It also lessens the stress of tough projects because you know you have people you can lean on to help. Friends and mentors outside your team or organization are also immensely helpful as they provide candid perspectives that can help you build on top of your existing knowledge and spark new ideas.

However, it’s important to note that not all connections are equal. With a limited amount of time every day to foster genuine connections, you’ll need to prioritize your time on the relationships you find most meaningful. How do you qualify which ones these are? Let’s take a look at a way to break down the levels of your network.

By listening to your peers and putting forth your own ideas, you naturally broaden your worldview and help others to do the same.

The different levels of your network

At DevOpsDays Kansas City 2019, Managing Director of Technology at VMLY&R Kylie Schleicher gave a talk titled “Beyond Code: Cultivating Network in Tech” in which she discussed the different levels of connections we have: engaged, established, and entrenched, as illustrated in the graphic below. 

networking graphic

We’ve broken down key points of her talk for you below. Kylie was also kind enough to grant us an interview where she imparted even more knowledge on what optimal networking means.

The engaged level

Think of this group as your virtual rolodex.  You might follow them on Twitter or be connected with them on LinkedIn. According to Kylie, “These are people that have seen your name on emails, met you briefly at the office holiday party or other event, or observed what you’ve accomplished and are interested in keeping in touch with you.” 

With this group, look for wins like the following:

  • You can broaden your perspective. What are people talking about, what pain points are they dealing with, what experiments are they conducting?
  • By keeping a pulse on others’ social updates, you will gain insight into timely news and industry trends.
  • Most of these interactions will be immediate, short asks that require less than 25% of your networking time but have the potential to develop into something more substantial.

The established level

Typically, someone enters into this circle when you begin having semi-regular discussions about work, industry trends, or interests. Within your organization, many of the people you work on projects with will fit into this category. According to Kylie, “The structure of a project almost always puts people in an established circle. You overlap enough that it doesn’t take much more for you to cultivate those relationships. Even if you do nothing else within a project team structure, you inherently expand your own established circle.”

With this group, look for wins like the following:

  • Deeper conversations will allow you to sharpen your point of view and ensure it stays relevant.
  • Connect with mentors and mentees so that you can get trusted feedback, as well as pay it forward.
  • More intimate relationships build trust. This means people will feel comfortable referring you for other jobs or opportunities if they see a fit. You will in turn feel comfortable referring others in this circle.
  • You will spend regular energy to build these relationships. Perhaps around 50% of networking time will be spent on creating and cultivating relationships in this group.

The entrenched level

You likely view people in this group as friends and trusted confidantes rather than connections. You’ve built a high level of trust that allows you to give and receive a different type of advice. These are people with a longer view of your career and overall goals who can say, “You’re ready for this.” At this level, you can speak candidly and directly with them. Many of these conversations will occur face to face, even if it means video-chatting or making time for each other during conferences. As Kylie puts it, “The entrenched circle is where you will often find that you can get your work elevated the most. These are the people who will pick up the phone when you call.”

With this group, look for wins like the following:

  • These relationships have the potential to steer your professional path through advice, comfortability vouching for one another, and a knowledge of long-term goals.
  • This level of connection also transcends jobs and roles. When you move companies, positions, or even countries, these are the people who will stay connected with you throughout your career.

It’s clear that all of these levels of connection bring great benefits. But perhaps you know a person whom you would like to bring from your engaged circle to your established (or perhaps even entrenched) circle. How do you go about doing so?

The entrenched circle is where you will often find that you can get your work elevated the most. These are the people who will pick up the phone when you call.

Connecting with other SREs

To develop genuine connections, it’s important to think about what we want to know instead of whom we want to know. As Kylie says, “Too often we play things close to the vest and we aren’t as open with changes we’re looking to make and this limits the collective power of our network. If we just get curious, people will share advice and insight.” By asking questions as well as being vulnerable in sharing your struggles, you can open yourself up to new knowledge and genuine connections.

Some of the most important conversations are borne from noting pain points or sharing recent discoveries on how to alleviate them. A good way to kickstart some thoughtful dialogue and networking could be through sharing how your organization implements SRE, how to set SLOs and error budgets, how to write effective postmortems, or any other topic that you yourself have ever sought help on. Utilizing online resources like social media brings the world of learning to you, wherever you may be, and broadens your perspective by creating lasting connections that might have otherwise been impossible to access.

Networking is a wonderful way to learn more and be an active participant in the tech community. It might take some time to get used to, but it doesn’t have to feel like pulling teeth. By looking beyond its perceived transactional nature and working to foster a sense of community, you can build a network of people you feel proud to know, who you can share an immense wealth of benefits with.

 

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