Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Conversation That Changed My Life

I usually post tech things on my blog but before being a technologist, I'm actually a human and occasionally experience something worth sharing. And so, an anecdote...

In the fall of 2013 I found myself exploring new career opportunities.  At the time, my network within the Philly community was fairly weak as I had worked in Princeton, NJ.  I was targeting VP-level Technology opportunities in the Philly area but I had no idea where to start.  I met a recruiter who had a position open.  We met over coffee and it turned out I wasn't a fit.  But he introduced me to a man that he used to work with whom he said "helps people out".

This man didn't know me from Adam.  But on fairly short notice he agreed to talk with me over the phone on a Friday evening.  He had a long drive in front of him and we ended up talking for about an hour and a half.  He listened to me and made me feel comfortable.  He didn't tell me I was aiming too high like others did.  He anticipated my needs.  He talked to me about all kinds of things: networking groups, how to find opportunities and "paperwork", as he called it.  Turns out he too was on the lookout for new opportunities but he only mentioned it in passing.  He was commuting hundreds of miles each week for an out-of-state CIO position.  He would spend the weekdays at work and then come home on the weekends.  I tried to pin him down for a cup of coffee but he only suggested that maybe he'd swing by my town one day as he liked to drive along the Delaware river.  At the end of the call he said he'd send me some stuff when he got home.  A few hours later I received ~6 emails, each of which had zip files with several Megabytes worth of attachments that had been curated and collected from the internet - resumes, cover letters, recruiting firms, bonuses, stock options, negotiating comp.  It looked like it was the result of ~3 months of active research.  In the email trail I could see that he had forwarded these emails to dozens of people.  All he did was re-send them from his Sent folder.  Without prompting, he also introduced me to a few people over email, including his brother.  (Who the hell introduces their brother to someone that they just met over the phone?)  I had no idea what to make of this.  I am naturally suspicious of people that want to "help" with no apparent motive.  Over the coming months he introduced me to several other great contacts.  And I managed to put him in touch with one or two people that might have a good job for him, in order to assuage my sense of guilt.  Yes, guilt.  I needed to repay him but how could I?  He didn't seem to want anything in return.

Since that time, I have become a more active networker.  From his example the only trick I've learned when it comes to networking is to just try to help people.  That's it.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Ask "How can I help?" and mean it.  Since meeting him, I read a book called "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" by Cialdini.  After reading it (in addition to feeling like an idiot for having bought an unsolicited meat freezer and half a cow from a salesman who took me for a ride) I started to understand my feelings.  Built into our brains is the unwritten rule of reciprocity.  Our society has functioned best when humans both give and take.  But we don't like people that take exclusively and we sniff them out and shun them.  I'll give you a hunk of meat around the campfire if I can expect that when I'm in a pinch you might give me a hunk of yours.  Our biology has evolved this function to support the survival of the species.  But this was different.  This man was a giver and didn't look for anything in return - he gave away his meat without keeping tabs.  My brain's instinct toward reciprocity caused me to want to pay it forward to others if I couldn't find a way to repay him directly.  At least then my debits and credits would balance out.  But I found out that it doesn't really work that way.  Once I got used to (occasionally) helping people I found it rewarding.  I got to play a small part in their success and to feel a tiny hint of meaning amidst the bustle of everyday work.

I recently met him in person at a networking luncheon.  I was so thrilled!  I reminded him that he had helped me and that I was grateful.  It rolled off him like water off the back of a duck.  "That's great" he said and then moved on to something else.  He was no master of social etiquette.  The woman who led the group (a high priestess of networking herself) said "keep so-and-so in your thoughts as he's sick" and he blurted out "yeah - he has cancer!".  He was promptly scolded (in good humor) by the group leader: "hey - we're trying to keep the details private!".  I was looking forward to talking to him after the event but he darted out as soon as it was over.  "Oh well - I'll get him next time" I thought.

A few weeks ago I was scheduled to have coffee with his brother, the same one that he had introduced me to.  He's another active networker that is generous with his time.  He cancelled the day before.  He learned that his brother had died suddenly that morning.  In the email, sent on the day that he'd learned of his brother's unexpected passing, he suggested alternate dates when we could meet.  I couldn't bring myself to re-schedule.

I barely got a chance to say hello let alone a chance to say goodbye.  But an hour and a half on the phone changed the way that I think about professional relationships.  His name?  His name was Joe Tait and I suspect that he helped hundreds of people the way that he helped me.  Thanks, Joe.  Still looking for a way to pay you back...