Conference Networking, or: Just talk to whomever, with anecdotes

It’s summer conference time, and Phil Guo recently posted a handy how-to on “Attending Professional Conferences as a Newcomer“, which reminded me to finish this one up. His post is probably more actionable; here, I elaborate on a related piece of advice in a way that is hopefully complementary. 

tl;dr: My basic advice for students on conference networking is Don’t obsess about meeting/impressing/talking to anyone in particular about anything in particular.  Just talk to people with whom you have something to talk about.  

Especially at first, this primarily means talking to other students. You have more in common and they’re easier to talk to, and so hanging out or hashing out ideas together is reasonable/fun.

“But, Claire! I’m supposed to meet and impress Senior Famous People!”

Sure, visibility is important, particularly when looking for a job or promotion (when the assistance/support of more senior community members matter especially).   However, job acquisition is only one element of a professional scientific career. The connections/friendships that contribute to job execution are random, fluid, impossible to predict, and not even remotely limited to senior colleagues. Here are several stories about my (n=1) life:

  1. Summer, 2004. IBM Research, Hawthorne, NY. I’m 19, at my first software engineering internship (which I don’t deserve, but that’s a different story).  I share a large utility closet (“office”) with a PhD student (who, for the record, does deserve his internship).  13 years later, my graduate students are interning with that guy, David Shepherd, now a Senior Principal Scientist at ABB.  I also keep trying to get into flamewars with him on Twitter and failing.
  2. March, 2009. ETAPS, York, UK. I’m a second-year graduate student attending, alone, my first conference.  One night, a bunch of students go out to dinner at an offbeat vegetarian restaurant where we all sit on the floor. The leader of that dinner expedition was Caitlin Sadowski, who later became my contact for my Google Faculty award.
  3. Summer, 2009. Microsoft Research, Redmond.  A fellow intern comes around the floor with a bag of cookies he’d baked with his daughter the night before. We bond over cookies and also how angry we both get about the abuse of statistics in empirical SE.  He is Chris Bird, now a full time MSR researcher, and a friend. We hang out at conferences, host one another for talks, and go out to Resident Evil movies with Tom Zimmerman (…also a different story).
  4. November, 2010. FSE, Santa Fe. Chris introduces me to some of his friends, one of whom opens with “Hi, I know who you are. I just wrote a paper about how you’re wrong.” He’s Yuriy Brun, a post doc at the time, UMass-Amherst faculty now.  We’re 4+ papers and an NSF Medium into a pretend-contentious but mostly genuinely productive/fun collaboration.
  5. November, 2012. FSE, Raleigh. Yuriy introduces me to Katie Stolee, also on the job market at the time. She’s now faculty at NCSU, a collaborator (the third PI on that 3-PI NSF Medium!) and a friend.  We joke she will name all her children after me.

I have more stories like this.  You get the idea. I talked to these people because they’re smart, interesting, and funny, and we had something to talk about, not because I thought they’d eventually hire my students.  Thus are both friendships and collaborations born.

The FOMO can be real: “Should I stop talking to this grad student and approach that famous person for no reason?” My advice is, fundamentally: probably not. Chill out. Your peers remain your peers.  I had no idea that any of those initial conversations would lead to, well, anything, and that’s not why I had them; yet, here we are.

I’m also not saying “don’t talk to senior people.”  My point is just that relationships are established via conversation/idea exchange beyond simple introductions.  One more (n=1) story about a Very Important Conversation with a senior faculty member:

6. June, 2012.  ICSE, Zurich. I give a talk. One of the post-talk questioners is Mary Jean Harrold, a professor at Georgia Tech who has since, sadly, passed away, much too soon.  I don’t remember the question, but I do remember both that it was interesting and that I fumbled the answer. At the next break, I steeled my nerves (she was intimidating!) and approached her, saying, “Dr. Harrold, your question was interesting, and I answered it badly. Do you have a moment? I’d like to try again.”  I must not have been too much of a disaster the second time around, because she eventually asked if I was on the job market, suggesting I apply to Georgia Tech.

However, the moral here is more than “I talked to a senior person and then interviewed at a fancy department.” Life is not, fundamentally, about operationalizing human connections (…honestly the whole idea of “networking” puts me a little on edge). Mary Jean acted as a mentor throughout my GTech interview process. She was a force of nature, and I was lucky to spend even a small amount of time interacting with her. Even in that initial conversation, the fact that she took me seriously helped me, in a small but important way, take myself a bit more seriously as a job candidate.  Overall, a random conference conversation with a senior person ended up positively affecting my life, well beyond any kind of immediate job-related outcome.

But! Moral time! If I’d gone into it thinking “I should talk to X random senior person and try to impress her into interviewing me!”, I suspect it would have gone badly, if only because I’d have been too nervous to say anything remotely reasonable. I approached her because she was an interesting, smart person who had asked me an interesting question, and I wanted to talk to her about it.

So: don’t put pressure on yourself to talk to particular types of people about particular subjects.  Talk to people if you want to, or make friends if you want to, or don’t.  You’re not doing it wrong.

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