Like everything else, I think it depends on the situation. There are plenty of people that probably do fine without much networking at all. However for many others, it can help your career in subtle ways. I found this short piece in the importance of career networking, and there are a few things that rang true with me.
For example, I've been told about positions, and have had friends hear about them, before they were announced to the public. I've even had someone I know get hired for a position that was never posted. Lots of companies would even like to hire people this way because it's cheaper. Less time is spent finding people, there's no recruiter to pay, and a reference from a good employee often gets you another good employee. I know there are rules in some companies and government departments to prevent this, but I'm sure they get circumvented at times because it's easier and quicker to hire someone through a network.
I don't know how many directors or managers try to bring staff with them when they change jobs, but I do know that a good friend that made a great impression on a director was called when that director took a position at a new company and needed someone technical. Now that's a great example of where networking can help you.
Not everyone makes such a fantastic impression on upper management, but most of us do make impressions on the people we work with every day. It's up to you to make those good impressions, and not bad ones, but in addition to those impressions, you ought to consider building a network of people in your career field that might help you down the road.
The PASS Summit is offering a pre-conference seminar by Don Gabor for $60 on Monday. If you are interested in getting some hands on training, sign up (and use the SSC3D code). I'll be there, and trying to see what I can do better. If you aren't attending PASS, or are looking for some ideas, I'd check out Don's site, or even browse the networking section on Amazon or your local bookstore.
Networking is a little bit of a leap of faith, but I don't think it requires a huge effort, and you never know how it might help you down the road. I'm sure all of us have invested hours in some technology that changed; why not invest a little time in something that could pay dividends for years to come.
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