Business Networkers of the Future

social.jpgFresh out of the U.S. Army in the 1980s, I decided to pursue my interests in the field of computer programming. I had been involved with computing as a hobbyist since the late 1970s, so it seemed like a normal progression for me at the time.

Columbus, Georgia, the place of my birth and upbringing, is a small town on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, nestled quietly along the border with Alabama. It was a sleepy sort of place – a town full of textile mills, pickup trucks, country fairs, and RC Cola; certainly not the kind of place where you would expect to find a wealth of opportunities for a budding young computer programmer. Nevertheless, this is where I found myself, and I was bound and determined to make a run of it.

Even though I was born and raised in Columbus, I had no personal network to speak of there, at least as it pertained to the professional level. I had no Rolodex of business contacts which I could leverage to find such a career opportunity. This was due in large part to my age (I was in my early 20s at the time, and had no professional work experience). No sir, this was going to be an exercise in finding a job the old-fashioned way – low tech and high drag.

Each day I scoured that great bastion of international news and fine arts, the Columbus Ledger Enquirer; my eyes anxiously seeking a glance of a good entry-level opportunity. The kitchen in my little garage apartment became a veritable command center. The counters were covered with marked-up newspapers and legal pads, all funneling critical information into my latest “plan of attack.”

I was up at the crack of dawn each Monday morning, ready to take on the world, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and donning the only suit I owned. That’s the way it was in those days. Monday was the big day for job seekers, because it was the first business day after the big classified run on Sunday. If you weren’t out there bright and early, you might very well miss the boat. As I poured myself into my brown 1974 Chevrolet Vega (they told me it was a hot color back then), I quickly reviewed my hit list for the day. As my dad would say, there was a really fantastic opportunity for me out there somewhere. I simply had to go out and find it.

My resume was a scant single page affair, offering little more than my name and address. It was also of the hand-typed, Smith-Corona variety. Some of you probably remember those days all too well. “Xerox’ing”, as it was exclusively called back then, was nearly prohibitively expensive. I can remember making changes to that resume using white-out on every single copy!

I would spend the day driving all over town, stopping at various businesses, handing out copies of my resume, hoping to entice someone into taking a chance on me. This was during a time where probably only 1% of businesses actually had any computers at all, so you can imagine the looks that I got from some of these folks. This was a small southern town, and computers were still widely regarded as “fandangled wizmah’bangs” that didn’t do “much o’ diddly-squat”. It was also a time when many computer manufacturers would give the best software available away for free, provided you bought their hardware. My how the times have changed. Nonetheless, you can imagine that my approach was something akin to trying to find a needle in a haystack. If I had been connected with even a bare-bones network of colleagues, I would have at least had a small path through that haystack.

It took a while, but eventually I found the opportunity that I so desperately sought, buried within the recesses of the classified section of the aforementioned newspaper. Yes, that’s right, Virginia, I said the newspaper. I landed a job as an entry-level programmer with a young but growing firm with a focus on providing banking and credit transaction services. That company was Total System Services, Inc., or “TSYS”. That company has since grown to become one of the most well respected companies in the world, handling billions of dollars in transactions each year, employing thousands of great folks, and providing good corporate citizenship to the Columbus community. Not a bad find. Who says the classified section is only for free puppies and yard sale announcements?

But that was then, and this is now. The other day I tried to imagine being in the same situation today – what would be like today, in 2006, to find a job as a young, entry-level computer programmer, without having a personal network of contacts to leverage?

I am simply unable to imagine a young twenty-something getting in their car and driving door-to-door poking around for a professional job. I’m not saying this to knock their work ethic, or to downplay any contribution that they might make to the workforce. They simply were brought up in a different world; a better world, at least as far as technology enablement goes. They are exponentially more “plugged in” than we ever were. The concept of “plugging in” to my generation generally referred to sticking something into an electrical outlet (and I’m really not THAT old).

The “world” as they know it, is a much smaller, more crowded place. That 1% of businesses that actually had computers in the 1980s are now in the majority. If you don’t have an army of computers on your side in today’s business environment, then you’ve been under a rock for the better part of two decades. Tele-working or tele-commuting has grown rapidly in acceptance. It is not uncommon now to have entire teams of people located in disparate physical locations working together in unison, utilizing technology to facilitate communication. All of this equates to a lot more doors on which this person would have to knock if they did it the old fashioned way.

Instead, I imagine that this modern young employee-to-be would use a laptop computer and a word processing program to manage her electronic credentials, and would publish digital versions of her résumé on one or more of the thousands of available job-related web sites. She would check her email inbox each morning, responding to any recruiters who stumbled across her credentials in cyberspace.

She could login to fellow Atlanta entrepreneur Warren Bare’s latest twist in online job-matching, JobKabob (jobkabob.com). There, she could publish her professional “DNA”, allowing companies to better match up with her skills and interests. She might also take advantage of the “killer app” of the 1990s, electronic mail, to send her resume directly to thousands of industry recruiters and hiring managers.

But the fun doesn’t stop there, kids. She would be able to respond in real-time to instant messages and notifications on her PDA, and take a job interview call on her cell phone while sitting on the beach. Assuming the hiring company had significant interest, she would use NetMeeting or Web-Ex on her CDMA or Wi-Fi connected mobile computer to remotely walk them through a digital portfolio of her capabilities, credentials, and accomplishments, all while driving across country in her hybrid car, which gets 60 miles to the gallon. Oh, and did I mention that she’s listening to a 6 hour jazz marathon, because she has every album that Miles Davis ever recorded stored on her portable MP3 player?

If she’s really hip, she’s out there blogging on the issues her profession faces – getting her mindshare out there for hiring managers and recruiters to digest.

Once she negotiated and accepted the position, she would use online social networks to form virtual “connections” with her friends, colleagues, and schoolmates, and use sophisticated search tools to mine those contacts for business opportunities. She would manage her email, calendar, and warehouse inventories all from her next-generation cell phone/PDA. In other words, technology will enable her to be more agile, less constrained, and better connected than previous generations.

Over the years, I have been blessed by a variety of professional opportunities that have taken me all over the country. I went on to explore the business side of the IT equation, consult for some of the biggest companies in the world, and work with the hottest technologies. Along the way, I have had the privilege to meet some truly amazing individuals. I take great pride in my professional network of contacts and associates, and I know that the good will and trust that I have established with them over the years serves me in good stead. But that network was not built overnight – it took a lot of hard work, a lot of learning from my mistakes, and a lot of unrewarded favors.

However, because of the meteoric rise in the adoption rate of online social networking platforms, business networks of the future may indeed begin to flourish in a fraction of the time it took to build them the old fashioned way. But what will these networks look like? How strong will they be? How reliable will they become? How much more efficient will they allow us to be? Or will they?

Clearly, the successful networker of the future will be the person who can both harness technology to introduce efficiencies and use person-to-person networking skills to nurture their relationships – online or offline. The journey to discover effective strategies and tools for accomplishing this is what we’re hoping to make easier for everyone with our new venture. Details coming soon!

Cheers.

1 Comment

  1. It was fun reading about living in Columbus Georgia ‘back then’.

    Thanks for sharing.

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