Being social has always come natural to me. I enjoy meeting random people and hearing their stories — be they potential business partners, friends of friends, or my taxi driver of the moment for that matter. My parents like to tease me for striking up long conversations with the waiters at restaurants, which has, on more than one occasion, resulted in the swapping of contact information. :-)
One of the more pleasant consequences of my extroversion is a fairly robust professional network — this was true even before I joined Microsoft, and is certainly more true today. Some people have noticed this and asked me what my “secret” is. I’m always tempted to say something snarky, but rather than be unkind let me attempt to take the question seriously for a moment. I’ve never really had a “method”, but after thinking about it for a little while I came up with the following self observations that might be useful to the network-challenged among you:
- Recognize that there is more to people than their business cards. Someone who is VP of Production for a large publisher or CEO of a prominent independent developer is also many other things, such as: parent, golfer, fan of anime, dog lover, sufferer of hay fever, descendent of refugees, or who knows what else? Learning about other people and sharing things in common is not only fun (for me, anyway), it’s also very useful for establishing a good professional relationship.
- Resist the temptation to punt “less important” people when someone “more important” walks by. The little guy who you abruptly turn your back on today might be the next Will Wright or Ray Muzyka tomorrow. The “unimportant” introductory meeting that you arrive at 25 minutes late (and leave 25 minutes early) might be with the next Blizzard. More importantly, punting people is just plain rude. There’s a story about Ronald Reagan which might be apocryphal, but I’ll share it anyway; when he was President, Reagan supposedly berated his aides for allowing him to be late to a haircut appointment because, in his opinion, it was not only rude to the barber but unfair to all the subsequent clients whose haircuts would have to be delayed as a result. That story has always positively colored my opinion of Reagan.
- Don’t waste time maintaining relationships with people who don’t deserve your time or friendship. It can be tempting to invest lots of effort into maintaining a strong relationship with an asshole just because he’s a big-shot designer, producer, publisher, etc. I’m sure some people will disagree with me, but I say: life’s too short, and there are plenty of big-shot designers, producers, and publishers who aren’t assholes. Get to know them instead!
- Don’t forget the magic of reciprocity. Though I sometimes fail, I try to be generous with my time and advice; you never know when and how it will come back to you. Conversely, a great way to burn a contact is to ask for a bunch of favors that you haven’t earned. A three-minute conversation at GDC is not license to ask me for warm introductions to ten publishers in my rolodex, Mr. Eager Indie.
- Perhaps most importantly: don’t expect other people to be good about staying in touch. Most people are terrible about staying in touch, even when they truly intend otherwise. It’ll be up to you to occasionally send them a note, invite them to lunch, or suggest meeting up at a conference. It takes some getting used to, but eventually it becomes second nature. Note that there’s a fine line between “staying in touch” and “being overbearing”…
I hope those observations are useful. It was a fun mental exercise to come up with the list, even if it strikes some of you as obvious. (And if it does, I hope that you’ll share your own tips via comment for everyone else!)