Are there any questions?
27 Jan 2012
On Wednesday, I went to an information session hosted by the gentlemen over at RingRevenue. They were there to give a presentation about what call performance marketing is all about and share some cool details about their Rails setup on the backend. There was maybe 20 people in the room at most - it was an ideal environment, very laid back and personal. But that's not what I'm writing to talk about - I'm writing to talk about a strange phenomenon that I've seen again and again in that setting. After the end of the presentation, the PowerPoint was turned off and the presenter asked "so, are there any questions?"
It's the weirdest thing. Here I am in a room with a bunch of presumably intelligent CS undergrads and some incredibly smart engineers at a neat startup that's working on some big things. And yet, they're met with this awkward air of silence that just kinds of hangs over the room. I've seen this happen before at countless information sessions. And I always wonder what it is that prevents people from asking questions. Is it because there's nothing to ask? Perhaps partially. These guys are here talking about a vastly complicated enterprise-class platform. I didn't even know what "high ROI call performance tracking" meant going into the session. But my guess is that this stunned silence stems from something greater - fear. It's the fear of being singled out, of asking a "dumb question", or just interacting with someone you perceive to be smarter than you are. I've been guilty of it myself; I usually don't like to speak up when I'm in a large group of people. But the result is that you have a room full of people wasting an opportunity that's very literally presenting itself to them.
I broke the silence and asked a question or two about scability issues with their Rails deployment. An easy start - it gets somebody talking. All of these presenters have done this many times, and pretty clearly love to talk about what they do. And I think that showing interest and getting somebody talking is the key to getting value (and a job!) out of these sessions. When you think of it as a conversation as opposed to a stiff me-vs-them panel scenario, you can have a lot of fun. One of my favorite questions to ask in these settings is something along the lines of "given the size of your company, do you feel that your (personal) contributions are visible in the company or the product?". I'm actually interested in the answer, and I think it's a question that should be asked, but more importantly, it leads into twenty other related questions. At that point, a previous intern piped up and talked about what she had done in her time there, and how she really felt like her contributions made a difference. Cool. At that point, you can start asking about the workflow. How do you interact with the other employees? What's the daily routine like? Do you find that all employees working in the same room leads to more distractions? Etc, etc, etc. It's all about finding that one entry question that leads to all the others, and not being the person who shows up with nothing to contribute (or take away).
This post is about more than awkward silences at information sessions. It's about how even once the conversation gets going, there's still the percentage of people in the room who say nothing. After the Q&A ends, it's the people who silently leave the room without chatting with the presenters. It strikes me as a waste of effort - after all, you came out to the information session. Step one! But step two is the most important, and I've seen a lot of people pass up the opportunity to spend five or ten minutes to schmooze with smart people. I recently read a great article on so-called "master networker" Keith Ferrazzi. Now, I'm not saying everybody should strive to be at a point where they need two Palm Pilots to track all their contacts, or make a living out of knowing people. But networking is a critical skill in life, and information sessions like the one I went to are sort of a baby step into making contacts. There was one line from that article in particular that I will always remember. The author of the article, Tahl Raz, was attending a lunch with Ferrazzi and a TV executive, and at one point, Ferrazzi leaned over and said, "You're a fucking loser if you don't walk out of here with some reason for getting in touch with her again". Now, Mr. Ferrazzi's approach may be a little harsh, but the idea remains true. Find a reason to get in touch with people again. Get your face in their memory. It only takes a question or two.
It's about doing more.
Now, let's say you took that advice to heart and became a networker. People know your name. You know people in high places. Unfortunately, you only have half of the puzzle completed. If you know all the right people in all the right places but can't follow through then you're still no better off than before. What does it meant to follow through? Simply put, be the best at what you do. Be able to bring something to the table. I see many of my peers sort of 'coasting' through undergraduate computer science classes. If you ask them what their favorite programming language is, they respond with "C++, because it's the only thing we've learned in school". There's nothing wrong with C++ in itself (perhaps debatable - another time). It's the second half of that sentence that gets me every time. "It's the only thing we've learned in school". How can you possibly stand out to recruiters, employers, or anybody if you only do the bare minimum that's asked of you? There is by no means a shortage of CS undergrads. If you want to find yourself at the head of the pack, then you have to do more. And it doesn't take a slavish commitment to programming for 19 hours a day to stand out. You don't have to freak out and give up because you haven't written the next Facebook by now. It's the people who do things for the fun of it that will get ahead. It's the tinkerers, the hackers, the builders, the ones who take things apart and put them back together again. It's the people who write code and learn languages for kicks or try to write a program just to see if it's possible. These are the people who will become leaders and show up in the news one day. So don't be one of the people with a degree and no real direction to turn. There are thousands of resources out there to get started with, and people much smarter than you. Ask questions. Do more. Have fun.
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