Social networking for engineers

February 10, 2011

Michael.Barr-February 10, 2011

Not all engineers hate Twitter. Many choose to use social media sites wisely. Michael Barr, a former editor in chief of Embedded Systems Programming, was way ahead of his time when he proposed an embedded systems community back in 2000. Since then, he's become an experienced user of social media. Here's his guide to social media for the busy engineer.

Would your best friend describe you as a "social" person? Do you like to "network" and meet new people? If you're an engineer, your answer is probably something like, "Um, no and no. Now can I slink back to my cube, Mr. Nosy?"

The growth of "social networking" in its many forms is a remarkable phenomenon that's proving powerful enough to reshape the economic landscape and trouble despotic regimes. For example, if (six-year-old!) Facebook were a country, it would already be the world's 3rd most populous.

That we the engineers—who ultimately make stuff like this possible—are mostly a loose band of individuals self-selected for our lack of people skills (a key trait that allows us to sit in cubes all day focusing deep-deep-deep on new technology) may explain why so many of us are luddites when it comes to using this "social" technology.

Some of us rationalize that we don't like connecting with people offline, so why would we do that online. Others that reading status updates from other people will take valuable time away from more important stuff. This fun video sums it all up:

"Until recently, wasting time on computers was the domain of engineers alone. Now even my Nana wants to keep me up to date on the status of her cats!"

But there's a lot of value in social networking for engineers. Here's how I use three social networking websites and why you should join them, too.

LinkedIn
Every user on LinkedIn creates a "public profile page," which is something like a resume. Your profile gives your current job title, the name of your employer, and the nearest big city. If you want, your public profile also has space for you to expand on what you do in your current job or in your career generally. You can also list where you went to University, what you majored in, and your past employment history—complete with praise quotes from former colleagues and managers.

When you "connect" to another LinkedIn user, they get to see your private information too. This includes (by default) your e-mail address and phone number, as well as the names of your other connections. The majority of LinkedIn users seem to have on the order of 100 connections once they get setup. Your "in" list consists mostly of current and past colleagues, perhaps some classmates or other chums, etc.

Although it is not specifically advertised this way and has many other valuable features, I think of LinkedIn as primarily my cloud-based self-updating address book. It's an address book in that I can easily search for your phone number or e-mail address once we connect. If I can't remember or spell your last name, I can search by first name and anything else I can remember about you, like the name of an employer. And, as long as you take the few minutes to update your profile page and contact info each time you change jobs, we'll never lose touch with each other. Wow!

I've used LinkedIn to easily reconnect with old friends as well as to stay connected to colleagues, friends, and pretty much anyone who hands me their business card. Although I also have an offline address book, that's now much smaller than it used to be—and just for tracking those phone numbers and e-mail addresses that I use on a weekly or monthly basis.

There are smartphone apps for LinkedIn and I have one on my iPhone, but I rarely use it. I don't visit LinkedIn every day or even every week. Instead I visit the LinkedIn website in little bursts—such as just after a conference—or when I want to find someone's phone number. I've also turned off most of their automatic e-mails at this point, though those can be useful prompts when you're just getting started.

You can view my public profile at http://linkedin.com/in/netrinomike. If we've met somewhere (online or off), feel free to send me an invitation.

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