Networking Authentically

16 minutes, 17 links


Updated October 11, 2023
Land Your Dream Design Job

You’re reading an excerpt of Land Your Dream Design Job, a book by Dan Shilov. Filled with hard-won, personal insights, it is a comprehensive guide to landing a product design role in a startup, agency, or tech company, and covers the entire design interview process from beginning to end, for experienced and aspriring designers. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

Think of networking as another powerful tool in your job-searching arsenal. Aside from the short-term benefit of finding a job by networking, it opens up the possibilities of making mutually beneficial long-term connections that can last over the course of one’s career.

Figure: Discover New Ideas and People at Events

Events are great for exposing you to new ideas and people.

If you’ve moved to a new location, attending professional events is a good way to immerse yourself in the local community. While most talks tend to be light on details they’re useful for exposing you to new ideas and, most importantly, new people to follow up with.

storyWhen I first moved to San Francisco, I found one of my jobs by waiting in line for a product management event. Outside the venue, in the uncharacteristic San Francisco rain, I struck up a conversation with a couple of folks behind me. One of them happened to be a data scientist who was looking for a designer for her startup. I applied, and a few months later got the job. You never know what might happen unless you get out there! Sometimes waiting in line can be an advantage.

Networking During a Pandemic

new Since COVID, the rules of networking have shifted. More events take place remotely, so the opportunities for a casual chat before an event are going away. But in some way, it’s also an opportunity to connect with the person you’re interested in talking with after the event is over. Reaching out to them via email or a LinkedIn invite and letting them know that you’ve both attended an event recently can help you establish common ground in addition to the topic.

Figure: Remote Conferences

In 2020 the biggest design conferences and events primarily took place online. Adobe Max streamed hundreds of sessions across the globe from the US, Europe and Asia. Who knows, remote-only conferences might be the future.

Tips on Talking with Strangers

You might not feel like going out there because you’re not an extrovert and prefer not to be the life of the party. That’s OK. It’s a common myth about networking that you need to get out there, shake hands, and hand out business cards left and right while jumping from one person to the next.

When I first started going to design events I usually froze, latched onto the first person that I met, and kept talking to them as if they were my lifeline. But over time, by attending many events, networking has become more natural. Today, I still enjoy spending my time alone, but going out is no longer a fear-inducing activity—it’s fun to meet new folks and find ways to give back.

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At its core, networking is about finding mutually beneficial ways to help each other. If you’re new to it, here are some things you can do. If you’ve gone to events before, feel free to skip.

  1. Don’t be afraid to be the first one to strike up a conversation. You can start by asking what brought them to the event? What are they hoping to learn? Have they attended similar events?

  2. Be interested. It’s easier to connect with someone by letting them talk about their favorite topic—themselves. Find out what’s important to them and see where you can help.

  3. Go alone. This forces you to get out of your comfort zone (as opposed to relying on the safety net of talking to your friends).

  4. You’re not obligated to keep the conversation going. If you feel like you’re not connecting, don’t feel bad excusing yourself: “It was nice meeting you; I promised myself that I’d chat with more folks here.”

  5. If it does go well, ask to connect. Usually it’s as simple as adding them on LinkedIn or getting their business card (do those exist still?).

  6. Follow up the next day. Don’t wait too long—suggest a time and place to meet and continue the conversation.

If you’re curious to learn more, I’ve included a few books at the end of this chapter that I personally found useful on my networking journey.

Deciding on a Conference

If there aren’t many events in your part of town, see if you can attend a conference that brings design professionals together, ideally for a couple of days so that you can make a couple of high-quality connections. There’s no shortage of conference lists these days and, with talks now going remotely, attending is easier than before—no need to figure out the logistics of scheduling flights, hotels, and transportation to the venue.

Organizers and Topics

Before going, it helps to familiarize yourself with the conference itself. What’s the theme? Who are the organizers? Have they done this conference before, and how were those (you can usually find reviews online). Next, look at who’s going to be speaking and what their credentials are. Based on this info, start comparing conferences and earmarking the ones that look good.

important Aside from looking at the speakers and companies that are attending, take a close look at the schedule. One major thing to watch for are the breaks between presentations. The magic happens between, not during, the talks. More breaks equal more opportunities to connect. Is this conference packed back to back with little time to spare, or is there enough time for breaks between talks? Are there also dedicated food breaks—lunch, extended coffee, and treats?

Conferences that last a couple of days offer more chances for you to connect, not just at the venue itself but also afterward over dinner or drinks.

Getting a Discount or Volunteering to Get In

In my experience price is not a good indicator of quality, and unfortunately most conferences tend to be pricey. If anything, price is an artificial barrier for who can attend. That said, most conferences do offer discounts, especially if you’re a student or if you’re in transition. You can also look for ways to volunteer. Usually, by helping organizers with setup and logistics, you get your ticket fee waived.

storyWhen I was trying to save up some money, I reached out to one of the conference organizers for a volunteering opportunity. I helped out by packing swag bags, helping out with speaker timing, and manning some tables. The effort wasn’t demanding, and it was fun to build camaraderie with other volunteers along the way.

While conferences tend to be pricey and are a one-time deal, events are usually a fraction of the cost and happen more frequently.

Picking Events to Go To

Depending on where you live, the cadence of events varies. It’s usually easier to find them in larger cities. When I used to work in a suburban area, I would drive an hour to Boston just to attend some of the events there and stay close to the community. Here are a couple of things to consider when evaluating where to go.

Interest-Based Design Events

One way to choose events is based on a topic or theme. Over the years I’ve been passionate about healthcare and design and have attended multiple events in that space, from hackathons, to quantified self meetups, to design events with a focus on healthcare. Attending these types of meetups is a great way to meet people in the broader industry and especially good if you want to focus your career on a specific vertical.

Figure: Theme-Based Events Focus Deeply on a Topic

storyA few years ago I joined the Design for Healthcare community, where I found my next role without actively looking. It was through happenstance that I saw a designer give a talk on Google Glass for healthcare, and I knew I had to find out more. So I cornered one of the designers working on the product there and peppered him with questions. Turns out the company had a position open, but I was already happily employed at the time. We stayed in touch, and when the company I was with at the time went through a downturn, I decided to make the switch. In short, it helps to invest in relationships long-term.

Who’s Coming to the Event?

Another way to choose an event is based on who’s going to be there. Aside from connecting with speakers, certain platforms (like Meetup) allow you to check the guest list. It’s not a guarantee that the person will actually be there, but it’s a good signal.

If you’re interested in connecting, reach out to them before the event. This way you can optimize your networking time even further once you’re there. On occasion I also post on Twitter or LinkedIn, notifying peeps that I’ll be going to an event in the future to see who else is interested in attending.

Figure: Creative Mornings

Creative mornings are a great way to meet creators of all stripes.

Where to Find Events

Where can you find events? Start by searching for “design” on Eventbrite, Meetup, or even Facebook Local. It’s as simple as that.

Here are a couple of well-known organizations that are good to check out:

These are just a few of the big ones. Aside from hosting events, these organizations also give you access to an online community, which is great not just for jobs but also for mentorship and career advice.

Connecting with Local Professional Communities

In addition to the more prominent orgs such as the ones above, you can also search for local chapters or local orgs. Usually these have more clout and can better connect you to the local community. I’ll list the ones that I know of in San Francisco, but even if the same ones don’t exist in your city, it’s possible your local organizations follow a similar format. If not, that’s something you could pitch to them (for example, organizing a portfolio review event or a mentor night).

Aside from talks, mentoring and portfolio events provide opportunities to connect with people and companies you’re interested in and improve your skill at showing the work itself.

Andi Galpern organizes the Cascade SF events. In addition to design talks, she hosts mentor nights where attendees get to show their portfolio (or ask for career advice) with up to four mentors. I’ve been mentored there and provided mentorship and can’t recommend this format enough.

Julie Stanescu runs Rethink, which hosts informative events (you can also find recorded talks online) and they pack a big crowd. Interestingly enough, Julie started Rethink when she first moved to San Francisco as a way to build a forum for design discussion and connect with great designers here. So if you find yourself in a place that has no design communities, consider bootstrapping one yourself.

Every year SF Design Week runs a series of varied events and workshops for designers of all stripes for over a week-long series of talks, workshops, and office visits to design agencies and tech companies. I also recommend checking out their studio crawls—it’s when agencies and companies open up their spaces for attendees to check out, connect, and learn more about the work.

Figure: SF Design Week

SF Design Week brings designers of all stripes together for over a week-long series of talks, workshops, and office visits to design agencies and tech companies.

Don’t Stop at Design Events

There are many others! Once you go to an event you can ask the attendees where else they like to go. Don’t limit your events to product design though. Here are some good ones that I’ve attended in the past and found useful:

  • Products That Count. Founded by SC Moatti, in-depth events with presentations from PMs, VCs, and other big movers and shakers in industry.

  • Product School. Hosts informative events from speakers of top-tier tech companies in addition to doing PM training.

So if a product management or an interesting engineering talk comes around, consider going. Not only will you learn something new but you’ll have more opportunity to connect with folks who are potentially looking for design talent, and you won’t be competing against other designers at the event.

Get Started Now

With most events going remote this year, the opportunity to connect and attend an event is becoming easier and easier. Here’s how you can find some good ones:

  • Search for design on EventBrite, Facebook Local, and Meetup. What’s coming up?

  • Sign up for one event you’ll attend this month and go there. Post on your LinkedIn that you’ll be attending that event and you’re looking forward to meeting folks there.

  • Look for conferences. Make it a point to find one or two great conferences this year and attend. If money is an issue, reach out to the organizers and ask to help out.

  • Are there any community gaps that exist where you live? Considering filling that gap by organizing a meetup.

Additional Resources

Here are three books that I think are a must-read:

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. The classic in the field, still just as relevant today.

  • Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferazzi. Although it has mixed reviews, Keith does a great job of providing tips and frameworks you can use to meet people. At the heart of it is the genuine message that we’re better off connecting and sharing resources than hoarding away our contacts.

  • Networking for People Who Hate Networking, by Devora Zack. For those shy persons jumping into their first event, this is a great step-by-step guide. The book leads you through a series of exercises to make networking fun and enjoyable, especially for those of us who would actually prefer to spend our time (and eat) alone.

Preparing for the Phone Screen Interview12 minutes

Your first interview will start with a voice call where you’ll typically speak with a recruiter. This interview is usually preceded by an email—sometimes multiple emails from recruiters trying to get your attention. To be successful at this interview type, you should do your homework ahead of time, prepare your pitch, and be able to tell a compelling story demonstrating value so that you can advance to the next stage of the interview.

Screening Calls at a Glance

Design phone screens are usually short, about 15–30 minutes interviewing with one person. They give you an opportunity to present yourself, your work, and your interest in the company.

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