Social networking for engineers - Embedded.com

Social networking for engineers

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.Twitter
Twitter is something completely different. In fact, it is hard to describe what Twitter is. That's partly because it is many different things to many different people. For example, I often hear people say they don't use Twitter because they don't want to know what their friend Joe had for lunch. But I've been using Twitter almost two years and have never learned what anyone had for lunch there.

Thus rather than try to describe Twitter or its capabilities, I'll just tell you how I use it as an engineer. I currently “follow” 276 Twitter users. Just a handful of these are “friends,” while a larger set are “acquaintances.” When one of the users that I follow writes something (in the lingo, “tweets”), I see it in a timeline of recent posts. All of the posts are short text (maximum 140 characters). I usually check in on this timeline one or two times a day, at which point I scan them for interesting bits of information; except for sometimes following links to longer articles, this activity takes on the order of 15 minutes a day tops.

I DON'T follow users who tweet a lot—say more than ten times per day. And I DON'T follow users that tweet what they ate for lunch. In fact, I ONLY follow users that typically include a link in every tweet. That is, what they are doing is feeding me a headline of possible interest; if it is of interest and I have time, then I follow the link to read more.

The vast majority of the users I follow are in the embedded systems design community. Some are engineers. Some are marketers. Some sell tools that I use. Some are just in software or engineering more broadly. A few cover hobby interests of mine. The best tweeters always stay on topic, in their area of expertise—just as I try to do by posting from a narrower topic area than I read.

From reading these streams of tweets I stay vastly more up to date on the technologies and products of most interest to me than was ever possible before. I've basically stopped reading newspaper websites and some blogs and read twitter instead. (But just like printed newspapers, when you don't have time to keep up, the old stuff just drifts to the bottom of the stack where you may never get to it.)

You can view a timeline of my tweets at http://twitter.com/netrinomike . If you find the kinds of links I post there interesting, feel free to “follow” me. Unlike most other social networking services, you can follow anyone on Twitter just for knowing their handle.

Delicious
Delicious is an Internet bookmarking service that can be social if you want it to be. By bookmarking service, I mean that it's an alternative to the long list of bookmarks you've probably been keeping in your browser.

Rather, as I come across interesting web pages during Internet research, I save those I think I may want to come back to sometime later in delicious. There are a number of advantages of keeping bookmarks in this way:

  • you can add notes to each bookmark
  • you can categorize (“tag”) each bookmark in as many ways as I want (e.g., “embedded” + “bloggers”)
  • you can search for a previous bookmark by keyword or tag
  • your bookmarks are not tied to a specific browser on a specific computer

After using Delicious for more than five years, I now keep just 12 bookmarks in my web browser. These are links that I use daily or weekly. One of those is a shortcut to add the page I'm on to Delicious; another to my Delicious history.

Delicious can be social in that you can easily share links with friends and see what's popular across all users and things like that. I never use any of those features. (For one thing, what's popular on the whole site never includes the stuff about embedded software that I'm most passionate about.) Although I don't connect to other Delicious users much, I do make the majority of my bookmarks public—so you can browse or search them too.

You can see my public bookmarks at http://www.delicious.com/frappucino .

Have found a good use for these or other social networking services in your work as an engineer. If so, please drop me a line.

Michael Barr is the author of three books and over 50 articles about embedded systems design, as well as a former editor-in-chief of this magazine. Michael is also a popular speaker at the Embedded Systems Conference, a former adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, and the president of Netrino. He has assisted in the design and implementation of products ranging from safety-critical medical devices to satellite TV receivers. You can reach him via e-mail at or read more of what he has to say at his blog ().

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