Last week I was able to attend a networking event put on by my local chapter of the Project Management Institute. The local chapter holds talks or networking events every month, but my attendance at them is often limited by whether or not I am traveling for work that week. This week I was free, and since I am a relatively new member to the chapter I thought it fitting to attend a networking event.
Now it’s time for me to make some confessions. First, I dislike the idea of networking. Like many people, networking always seemed to me to be on the same plane as manipulating. After all, the common advice in the world for getting jobs is that it’s more about who you know than what you know, and that goes double for a world where Applicant Tracking Systems run the hiring show. Networking just felt dirty, like I would be trying to manipulate someone into helping me.
Second, even though I am closing in on my mid 30’s, I had never been to a networking event in my life prior to attending the event last week. Partly because of the way I viewed networking and partly because I tend to suffer from Imposter Syndrome, I had never made time for a networking event. The prospect of going to one caused great anxiety for me. How could I chat intelligently with people in the Project Management world? Should I wear business formal, or business casual or just casual? What about personal business cards? I don’t have any…how could I go about getting some ASAP? All of the attendees of this event are way out of my league, I thought on more than one occasion. Several times I considered skipping the event altogether.
In the end, I gave my Imposter Syndrome the heave-ho and attended the event anyway. After all, if you never change what you are doing, you will only continue to get what you have always gotten…and I am trying to make changes to my career after all! As a small mercy, it turned out to be a lightly-attended event at an excellent local eatery and bar, the sparse attendance probably owing in some fashion to a large festival in the same city starting that night. Those who did attend are veteran PMI chapter members, people I had already met on several occasions and thus felt slightly more at ease with. Conversations were easier to start, and as the night went on I was delighted to discover that it wasn’t going to be my job to start all of those conversations.
Over delicious appetizers and local craft beer, I spent a good portion of the evening listening to the group conversation. We talked for several hours about Organizational Change Management, Book Recommendations, IT Project Management, Agile vs. Waterfall methodologies and the all-important PMBOK book knowledge vs. Real World Application of those methodologies. It was an excellent opportunity to learn from real-world practitioners, and I found to my complete surprise that I was able to naturally participate in several of the conversation areas based on my current experience and my business acumen…I didn’t need to be a project manager within a large organization to add value to the group conversation! I listened a lot, and asked questions when I was curious.
In the end, I left the event feeling optimistic and more accomplished than I thought…and it wasn’t because of the craft beer. I had an extended side conversation with the head of PMI Education for the chapter, who showed me that I had been thinking far too narrowly about the hours required to apply for the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. You need 4500 hours if you have a four year degree, he explained, but they don’t have be 4500 hours with all five of the Project Management areas in each project (Initiation, Planning, Executing, Monitoring/Controlling, Closing). You need hours from every area, but if you have the bulk of them in one or two phases that’s fine. Also, you don’t need to have a title of Project Manager for the hours to count; you only need someone to vouch that you have the experience in whatever phases you have experience in if you are audited as part of application. With that in mind, we ran through a brief highlight reel of my current job and previous positions, and based on our back-of-the-bar-napkin calculations, I have the hours I need to apply for PMP right now.
This, of course, shifts my thinking dramatically. I have been studying for the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) certification, the entry-level project management cert that does not really reap any career benefits, because I thought I would need it to try and gain a titled Project Management position where I could rack up hours and eventually apply for the gold standard PMP. But this new knowledge shaves 3-5 years off of that goal, and for that I will be forever grateful as someone who is getting a bit long in the tooth for that kind of timeline for a career shift. As we are on the cusp of the release of PMBOK version 6, and the associated exams changing in the first quarter 2018, I have some breathing room I felt like I did not have before.
My advice to anyone who is questioning whether to attend a networking event is this: GO. It does not matter if you are a newbie or an experienced professional in the area. It does not matter if you are actively looking for a job or not. It does not matter if you are an introvert or extrovert. It does not matter if you have personal business cards. It does not matter if you over or under dress for the event. None of it matters. Go to the event, listen more than you speak, and you will leave with more than just new connections. You will leave with new knowledge, a new outlook and maybe a new starting line as well.