Why networking is like investing in an index fund - How I met multiple interviewers by attending events

“Networking is so important: 8 tricks to make connections!”, “How to network even if you’re shy”, read headlines as I scrolled on google search. Even after reading more than 10 of these articles, I still wasn’t sure what I could do. In fact, I still didn’t understand what “network” as a verb meant, much less use it to help me get a job!

Back when I began my full time career, that was my state of understanding on “networking”. Years later, only in hindsight, I too agree that networking is one of the most important ways to build a career. For example, in interviewing for my first job, I had already met multiple final round interviewers (and they remembered/recognized me too). But I didn’t know that could count as a result of networking, because there are so many different definitions out there.

Now that I have filled in that gap between confusion and understanding, I feel I am in a position to use real examples to illustrate how networking has greatly helped me. That’s why, in this article, I share a detailed process of how networking was involved in my first data science job search, in the hopes that it is demystified once and for all.

Networking is like investing in an index fund

Before we go into the examples, I want to give you a bird’s eye view of the pattern I noticed in past experiences that I label as “networking”. I went to events and conferences, which might have no reward in itself, or very small short term reward. This is like putting a small amount of one’s paycheque towards an index fund (or savings account, if “index fund” doesn’t ring a bell for you).

In the first few months of putting small amounts into the investing account, the small and gradual increase in balance might not be noticed. Only after a long time and with compound interest, you suddenly notice that your balance is higher than expected!

With that analogy, let’s jump into the examples. Here I specifically talk about two interviews I had when I was job seeking at the end of my master’s degree. Both were with massive companies: one a AAA video game company with some of the largest video game franchises in the world, and the other, one of the largest telecoms in Canada (1/400 Canadians work for them or one of their subsidiaries, according to an internal statistic). Spoiler alert: I got both offers.

I will talk about how networking helped me in each of those interviews. As the title suggests, I had actually met the final round interviewers in other places, completely by coincidence.

The AAA video game company

The networking - From a local games organization to San Francisco

At the time, I was technically a full-time student, but I was developing a video game on the side as a hobby. In relation to this hobby, I attended the Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco, an event I made time for on a yearly basis.

To take a step back from this: The reason I could afford to go to this conference in the first place was because I had been a member of Toronto based Dames Making Games for a long time, going to their conferences and events. They have a scholarship program which I applied for, and thankfully received a subsidized ticket from. So, even before the Game Developers’ Conference, a requirement was consistently going to local game developer events in general.

So get this: I was attending this conference as a hobby, and did not consider it as any sort of networking for a full time job. After one of the talks, I stuck around to ask questions to the speaker, a producer in a very large video franchise with millions of players. To give a bit of generalized context in non-game industry terms: producers are highly regarded and are one of the top names in the credits of games, similar to a director in the movie industry.

A few months later, I luckily had entered a final round interview for said AAA video game company, which flew me and the other candidates to Paris, France. To my great surprise, one of the interviewers was the very producer I had met at the conference! I cannot stress how unlikely the odds were for this to happen, due to this company being massive, not to mention international. Think about it: Me, a Canadian, interviewing for the Toronto office. The producer being based in Europe, but we met in San Francisco, US.

The interview process - Free flight to Paris, France

As a bonus, I will talk about how the interview process for this particular role went. This is to give you a bird’s eye view of how networking is helpful but also how completely by chance “networking” can be. Think of the index fund analogy - small deposits that only show (huge) returns after an unknown amount of time.

  1. Submitting the resume: At this point I did not use any employee referral, although I did know a few people in the company (also from Dames Making Games conferences), mostly in narrative design roles.
  2. Call with the recruiter: The recruiter wanted to understand my background and why I was interested in that AAA company in particular. Unsurprisingly, I had to explain why I have an economics degree but was interested in games. “I’m a gamer” doesn’t convince them; they hear that way too much. Side project/hobby, hello!
  3. In person case interview at the Toronto office: 1 hour doing a case interview, and 2 hours or so explaining my results and “getting grilled” by the interviewers. I mean this lightly, as in an interview I usually see it as a dialogue; the interviewers just want to get to know me and see how I think. They have to grill me for my line of thinking.
  4. Final round interview in the company headquarter country (France): Flew there, spent 6 hours walking along la Seine and sightseeing the day before instead of preparing anything. This was to make the most out of the free trip, get over jet lag, and also clear my mind for the interview; not slacking! Full day group and solo interviews, with case study interview as well as free-form questions.

In step 4, not only did the producer I met during the conference show up on the interview panel for the group interview, he was also my interviewer for the solo, 1 on 1 interview. This was incredible luck - but once again I have to stress that this is something I could never have predicted or controlled. I simply had a hobby that was making games, and went to a conference in the USA for it, and asked some questions after a talk…

Now, I know you might be thinking: “Networking is impossible, Susan, you are way too lucky! You made this even more complicated!” Don’t worry - at the end of this article I will summarize how you can create your luck, and how I believed I got this lucky. Since it happened many times for me, it isn’t simply luck in the literal sense; please believe that it’s a reproducible and acquirable skill!

The large telecommunications company

The networking - Serendipity from university volunteering

In university (University of Waterloo), I had volunteered and held leadership roles in the student association on campus. Through it, I have met many friends and worked with many people. One of those friends (let’s call her A), introduced me to one of her friends (B) from another university in London, Ontario. (It was even more complicated than this, and involved even more skip connections, but this is how the friendship came to be in a nutshell.)

The friend from London, Ontario (B) introduced us to more friends who were in business school like he was. Hence, most of them entered full-time roles in consulting or marketing. Several of them (C et al) started working in a large Canadian telecom or its subsidiaries after they graduated.

Years later, I saw a job posting at the large telecom. I asked C about it, who agreed to refer me. He wasn’t on the data science team, but gave me an overview of how the team was structured. Some weeks later, there was a Meetup where someone from the telecom was speaking. I put it in my calendar and went, despite not being aware it was the data science director that was speaking.

At the venue, I actually met someone I knew from the University of Waterloo days (let’s call her D), who would end up introducing me to several people on the data science team (let’s call them E and F). Without that warm introduction, I might still have spoken to E and F, but it was certainly easier with a warm intro.

At the end of the event, I was a bit shy to introduce myself to the speaker, the data science director. However, E, who I had just met, encouraged me to, so I went to say hi as the director was leaving. Little did I know, that several weeks later, after several rounds of interviews, that that very director would be one of my final round interviewers!

The interview process - My first role as a data scientist newbie

I will outline the interview process in brief as well, to help give you a bird’s eye view (and hindsight view) of how the “networking” came into play here.

  1. I applied online, with a friend’s employee referral (C, who as mentioned above, wasn’t in the data science team). I also had to submit a video recording answering some behavioral questions.
  2. Then, I had a recruiter call, who wanted to understand my background and general experience with analytics.
  3. After I passed that, I had an in-person case interview, which I had an hour to complete. There were also analytics questions, such as SQL and linear regression. I then presented the results to a panel of three.
  4. After that, I had the next on-site interview with specific data science questions, such as Python and statistics/machine learning questions. Some of my interviewers were in data engineering, some in data science. Then, I spoke to the director, who was the same one that I had met at the Meetup!

In another stroke of luck, it turns out that someone on the team (F) that I met during the Meetup, had reviewed my video recording with the behavioral questions and accepted me to the next round (see 1. in this section).

Common patterns in the web of serendipity

I bet that those two examples were a lot of information, and you may wonder why I shared it with such detail. Here I will pull out the common, reproducible threads, which I hope you’ll find easier to understand now that you are on the same page with the context, however serendipitous instead of intentional it seemed.

Earlier in this article I first gave you an analogy of seeing networking as investing in an index fund. As you can see, the two examples above, although anecdotal, bear the same traits of not seeing immediate results, but compounded results after a long period of time.

There would have been 0 results if I hadn’t deposited savings (going to events, meeting people) bit by bit. After all, even at a 20% rate, $0 dollars in an investment account still yields $0 dollars.

In the case of those two very successful examples, I did not realize that my efforts to meet people at conferences could be seen as networking. This is why so many articles say to not network as if you’re doing it on purpose. In fact, after you read my story hopefully you will understand how networking did help me, simply because I didn’t expect that it would help me in an interview. Translation: the best thing you can do is put in consistent effort to meet people.

Another important factor is that I didn’t hyperfocus on meeting people with the job title I desired. Your actionable task is to broaden your network: In my case, meeting people from different universities and majors, and extracurricular volunteering led to the success in the telecom company example. If I had focused on meeting only data scientists in a specific company, none of these success stories would have happened.

Despite how much luck seems to play into this, the major takeaway is: go to conferences and meetups and just speak to people. You create your own “luck”. Even if you only meet one new person per event, it will be worth it! Each time you do this, you are putting $10 into that investment/savings account.

Note for pandemic times: There are an abundance of online social events, conferences, and meetups still happening! I am still meeting new people every single week. Only you are responsible for putting yourself in situations where you can meet new people; this is not going to fall out of the sky. You can sign up for online events, many of which are now global and free/cheap because they are not in person.

Related reading: 3 tips to build a network in a new industry or city, from scratch - what I learned from living in 6+ cities

3 actionable steps to build your network and create your own luck

In addition to thinking about networking as investing in an index fund, putting in bit by bit at a consistent cadence, and reaping major results after an unknown period of time, here are specific actions you can take:

  1. Sign up for a conference or Meetup, with the aim of meeting just one new person there. You are responsible for creating your own “luck”.
  2. Broaden your network by more degrees: You can easily do this in an event, or on LinkedIn. Don’t hyperfocus on only people that have the job title you desire.
  3. Do the above consistently and start thinking of networking (meeting people and making friends) as a skill you can improve at. It’s not something you only have if you are “born with it”; anyone can get it with practice.

Here’s to you putting in $10 in your networking investment account on a consistent basis - something great will happen, when you are least expecting it!

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