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In the world of information technology professional development, social media is often characterized as intrusive, a technology that attempts to circumvent privacy and expose the individual to “world” at large. This could be because many I.T. professionals necessarily concern themselves with issues of privacy and security. Furthermore, computer professionals are often stereotyped as generally more introverted. This stereotype is based in part on the analytical and focused nature of the work we do.
While the above may be true, social media, when used properly, is one of the most powerful tools in your career development arsenal—your “toolkit.” One thing I can assure you, it is not going away anytime soon. The names and tools may change, but digital connectivity and exposure is the norm in today’s social world.
My hope with this article is to give you, the I.T. careerist, some strategies and ideas for harnessing social media positively for your professional development. I discuss some of the misunderstandings and misuses surrounding social media, and provide some ideas you can put to use almost immediately.
Social Media Defined
In my book, Building Your I.T. Career, I define social media as:
“Software (typically web based) to help facilitate the creation of networks or communities of shared interest or objectives.”
The definition may be imperfect, but the general idea is accurate. In short, social media connects us to friends, family, acquaintances, and professionals. It gives us a window, more or less filtered, into the lives of others—and provides them a window, more or less filtered, into our world.
This self-facing window is what causes most of the concern. There are stories of employees being fired or reprimanded for something they have posted on their social network. And it is well-understood that employers are going online to research candidates prior to hiring them.
My goal is not to discuss whether this is legal or ethical (I research prospective clients and contractors all the time). That debate may never be resolved. I am, instead, going to focus on what you can do to harness these new platforms.
It Is All Networking
Whatever the fancy definition is, all interaction, whether digital or face-to-face, is networking—as in professional networking, not networking computers and devices. Social media, even when your social network is limited to friends and families, is still networking.
This is what is important to understand for your career: Your greatest career development tool over your lifetime is not necessarily or simply your technical skill and knowledge. It is those you know who know about your skills and knowledge.
The maxim “It’s not what you know but who you know” is a cynical and limiting idea that assumes you will advance just by “knowing” the right people. I modified that phrase to a more positive thought and one you can control:
“It’s who knows you and knows what you know.”
Talk to enough seasoned professionals in any field, and they will tell you, the relationships you create and foster are your fastest ticket to the best companies and jobs available.
The Pitfalls and Perils and How to Avoid Them
Even if you limit your social network to friends and family only, it still has tremendous potential to positively or negatively affect your career. Next, I explain the pitfalls and how to avoid them.
Immediacy: The “Right Now” Factor
One of the most dangerous and powerful facets of social media is its immediacy. If you are on Facebook, I’m sure you’ve seen the jilted lover, angry spouse, impulsive child, ranting parent, political flame thrower, drunken party-goer, or some other variation on this theme, posting a status update that makes you scratch your head. Or maybe, you’ve been that person.
Platforms like Twitter and Facebook let us publish our ideas to the world, from anywhere at any time. Have a disagreement with your boss or co-worker, and you can let your world know about it right away.
This is extraordinarily foolish. I’ve reached out to many people who have done this and their reasons range from, “I was really angry” to “I needed to vent and get some moral support.” If you need support, reach out to a friend or two privately. You don’t need 100, 500, 1000+ “friends” clicking “like” to get support.
The truth is, social media’s immediacy is great if you wish to inform your network of some relevant news, an update on technologies you work on, or a positive career or life event. The negative and ranty post simply portrays you as a negative or ranty person. It demonstrates a lack of judgment, and I promise will limit career-enhancing referrals—the holy grail of rapid advancement.
The best way to avoid this misuse of social media is pretty simple: have a firm policy in place that you NEVER post negative comments about any co-worker, family member, professional contact, or acquaintance. Simply put, do not post negative comments about an individual.
Overexposure: Transparency Is Good, But Only So Much
I believe in personal and professional transparency. However, I often see people posting photos that are too revealing, or status updates about drinking or dating escapades. Please refrain from this.
I’m not making a personal judgment here. If you take part in some socially fringe group and its activities, that is your call—whatever floats your boat. But, unless it is a part of your professional life, I’d avoid making it part of your profile information, status updates, or photos.
A little wisdom and self-restraint go a long way.
Take a Strategic Approach
My own social networking crosses diverse territory. I have personal friends/acquaintances, technology professionals, readers, social media experts, publishing professionals, musicians, and music fans/listeners.
Your network may be similarly diverse or more focused on family and friends.
Regardless, I advocate the following mantra:
Be Proactive! Be Positive! Add Value! Share Opportunity!
You will see me repeat this often or variations of that theme.
However, let’s look at the last two. They may be the most powerful ideas when it comes to using social media to enhance your career.
You are a computer professional! You probably already get calls from friends and family to fix their computer when it is broken, or teach them how to use some piece of software.
Adding value to the network should be an easy and natural process. It can be as simple as notifying your peers of an important security update or concern. Taking part in conversations about technology or answering questions posted online is another great way to add value.
In a future article, I’ll discuss blogging but blogging about technology and posting educational pieces to Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks is a great way to add value.
Whether using social media or face-to-face networking, one of the biggest mistakes that we make is failing to pass along opportunity to others. I don’t really believe in karma, per se. But why would you expect others to share opportunity with you or respond to a need when you are not doing the same?
Unfortunately, we often reach out to our professional network only when we need help.
Stay in touch with your network when you are gainfully employed. Know what people are doing in their professional lives. If you see an article about a given topic and realize that someone in your network might benefit from it, post it and tag them. Let them know you are aware of them and what they do.
This simple idea alone positions you in the most positive light possible. You are not simply reaching out when you need work; you are an opportunity conduit. Make this a regular part of your use of social network, and I promise you, opportunities will come your way.
I hope that in reading this, you think, “That makes sense.” Nothing I’ve written is earth-shattering or new knowledge. In fact, most of the ideas apply not only to social media but also to social interaction of any type.
However, look at your social networks. You will discover that many do not follow these simple ideas. Caught up in the moment, the immediacy and over-exposure of social media works against their professional advancement.
If you have been one of “those people,” identify how you can alter your online persona and create a more strategic approach to how you use social media.