Develop your Networking Story
How to develop your candidate story for networking for a job search
Article last updated: December 28, 2020
I am a boot camp success story. I graduated from the Full-Stack Software Engineering program at Georgia Tech on July 1st and, just over a week later, started a position as a Junior Developer. It honestly feels like a dream come true, and the culmination of a lot of long nights, hard work, and STRESS.
While my experience may not be representative of all boot camp graduates -- I already had a B.A. in Communications, an M.B.A. in Marketing, and 10 years of professional experience -- there are definitely lessons I learned that can apply to anyone trying to break into a career in the tech industry.
Despite what I thought were reasonably attractive work history and credentials -- the aforementioned degrees, plus I've worked at some big companies and have a project management certification -- I got zero bites from cold applying on job sites. Even using tools on LinkedIn like "Easy Apply" and the indicators that I'd be a top candidate, I never once received a reply. By far my best results -- and ultimately my job -- came from networking.
There are already a ton of great resources out there for networking, and I could probably add to the mix with ideas for how to find which events will be the most worthwhile, how to connect with people online, and tools you can use to make yourself stand out. However, it doesn't matter how many people you meet if you don't know what to say when you get in front of them.
This brings me to what I feel is the most important aspect of networking for a job search: know your story. Your story, also known as your elevator pitch, your default "tell me about yourself" response, what makes you you. Your story is:
- What you are good at (both technical and soft skills)
- What you are looking for (type of work, company values)
- And WHY (how these are connected to your personal drivers)
The why is critically important, as the "Start With Why" TED Talk from Simon Sinek explains. Sinek says that "people don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it."
If you don't understand why it is you want to get into this career, why you have cultivated your skills, and why you want to be a part of someone's organization, people won't buy your product -- in this case, you. You first need to understand your personal why in order to communicate that effectively to others.
This can be tricky, and requires a certain level of self-awareness that can be difficult for some people, especially if you aren't used to pinpointing your positive qualities and highlighting them. Like anything else, it takes practice.
Part One: What Makes You Great
Take out a blank sheet of paper (or more realistically, open a new word document) and write every single positive quality about yourself. Tech and non-tech related. If you get stuck, ask your best cheerleaders for ideas. Review any letters of recommendation or referrals you may have tucked away. Scope out old resumes. Include EVERYTHING.
Nobody is ever going to see this list -- it's just for you, so feel free to put things on there that others might think are silly but you're proud of (which you should be!) Be generous and kind as you write. Make the list your grandmother or best friend would make for you. Every awesome thing you've ever done should be on this list.
If you aren't used to it, this can feel like a strange exercise. If it's especially difficult for you, I'd recommend making this a weekly habit. Get accustomed to seeing the positive in yourself. Practice makes perfect!
Once you have your list, narrow it down to 3-5 that you are most proud of. Again, these should be based on what you think is important, not your boss or your parents or your Twitter followers. I'll share mine: I learn and adapt quickly, I am always willing to help out others, and I try to find a solution for every problem.
For you, it might be the hours you've dedicated to studying or your knack for learning programming languages. It may be that you're a natural leader. Or it may be that you try hard, are kind, and never give up. Whatever they are, make sure they represent you.
Part Two: Your Dream Opportunity
A lot of times I'll see boot camp grads or self-taught aspiring developers use language like "I'll take anything" or "front-end, back-end, whatever!" when describing their potential opportunities. But, it's important to be discerning for a few reasons.
First of all, you deserve to be picky. If you have a hard time with that concept, write it out on post-it notes and stick them on your mirror, computer, everywhere. You deserve to be picky. You deserve the right opportunity. You deserve a job that will give you the specific things you desire and set you up appropriately to reach your goals.
Second of all, potential employers like when you know what you want. It makes it easier to determine if you'll be a good fit at their organization. It shows that you have put thought and consideration into your career and take it seriously.
There will be obvious things like pay and benefits. But there are other factors such as the tech stack you'll be working with, the style of leadership and communication, the product, the workload, the team environment, the opportunities for advancement and mentorship, and the cultural fit of a potential employer. Knowing what you want is attractive to employers and keeps you focused on finding the right opportunity for you.
Part Three: The Why
I love solving problems. I love taking something that feels overwhelming and impossible and breaking it into smaller, possible pieces. I live for that moment when you finally have a breakthrough after what feels like hours of effort.
Because I've moved so much in my life, I have family and friends all over the country. I don't like the idea of being tied to a specific location for too long and need some flexibility to travel when needed.
I've experienced financial insecurity, and have seen what it's like when a company pulls the rug out from someone after 20+ years. I grew up in a family of educators, and believe in the importance of life-long learning and of taking your livelihood in your own hands.
I believe in the importance of society and community and like working with other people. I was the kid who couldn't sleep the night before the first day of school because I was too excited.
Going back to the first exercise, take a look at the 3-5 items you identified. The items that you felt most proud of, that you felt best represented you as a person. Examine why you chose these particular traits or skills. Most likely, the items you selected represent your core values.
Your core values are shaped by your experiences, what you read, the people you know, and what you find important. They are the heart of who you are and drive every decision you make, whether you realize it or not. They are the why, and should shine through your story, whether they are cited directly or inferred.
Understanding your core values and why you are the way you are isn't exactly light lifting, but it's a worthwhile exercise, and will make you more effective at telling your story. If you believe in the choices you make and know that they are guided by your values, you will have more confidence, and that will be reflected in how you interact with others.
Part Four: Putting it All Together
Ultimately, you want your story to sound like you. I use a slightly formal tone because of my professional background, but yours may be more conversational or technical depending on what skills you are trying to highlight. I'm also a fast talker so I use longer sentences, whereas you might be more succinct (especially if verbal communication isn't your strong suit).
The most important part is that your story include the 3-5 things that make you great, the type of opportunity you're looking for, and why. Write out multiple variations and read them aloud. See what feels comfortable. If you stumble over any verbiage, change it. You want this to flow naturally, as you'll be saying it a lot. Have friends give you feedback. Test it out in the wild and adjust. As your skills or desires change, update your story. Make sure that you are never caught off guard and always ready for any opportunity that comes your way.
Here's my story. Like me, it's a work in progress.
Hi, I'm Cecelia! I'm a full-stack software developer. I'm looking for a developer position where I can leverage my problem solving and communication skills while continuing to build on what I've learned so far in my boot camp at Georgia Tech. Ideally I'd be in a team environment where I could learn from and mentor others while working on a project with a strong social impact. I have ten years experience in financial services and have seen first-hand the importance of financial literacy, so that's a particular passion of mine. I'm transitioning into tech because I found I got bored doing the same thing every day and wanted to be able to get my hands dirty and solve big problems. Do you know of any opportunities that might be a good fit or someone who could point me in the right direction?
If you go through this exercise, please share your story with me! I'd love to learn more about you and see your results. If you have any feedback or get stuck, reach out and let me know. I'm happy to give feedback or help however I can.
A special shout-out to Bryan Fordham for his help with this article. If you found this helpful, please share with others, and thank you for reading!