Some of the most common advice given to students and recent grads is to network with as many people as possible. But… what does that actually mean? It’s obvious how a former coworker is a valuable asset, but how does a short conversation at a conference actually help your career? How do you approach people about these subjects without coming off like you just want to know them to get a job?
You can learn more about companies. Many companies have super awesome HR teams that are willing to answer your questions, but they’re inherently a step removed from whatever job you want to work. If you really want to know what it’s like to be an artist at your favorite game company, who better to ask than one of the artists there? Plus, even the best HR team only has so much bandwidth to respond to potential candidates. A company like Google or Blizzard or Microsoft has ten bajillion applicants for every job posting; giving a detailed answer for every single question from every applicant is just not possible.
You won’t get handed a job, but you might get an interview. Someone you talked to for twenty minutes at a conference isn’t going to hand you a job on a silver platter; they don’t know you well enough to give that kind of recommendation. However, having someone able to vouch for you to HR, even if it’s just “we talked for a while at this conference and she seems like she’d fit in well here” will help with making sure your job application gets properly looked at. Being able to get past the initial resume screening phase is a huge benefit, especially at really competitive companies. With that in mind, don’t approach people just asking for a recommendation to HR. Ask them about the company and position and for any general advice they can give, thank them, and let them know when you submit your application. If they want to send in a recommendation, they will.
You can learn more about how to switch specializations. Some specializations are really hard to get any experience in on your own. For example, to get experience working with databases and servers, you need some sort of application that requires them; you can’t just start working on a server for some non-existent front-end. Given this, it’s not too surprising that many server-side engineers I’ve met learned most of the work on the job; they got into those positions with their strong client-side experience. When there’s a disconnect like that, how do you know if you have a strong enough background to learn a specialty on the job like that? If you’ve never worked as “the server guy,” how do you know if you’d enjoy it? Well, a whole bunch of other people have gone through that: just ask them!
Most importantly: All of this is a two-way street. If you’re the new guy trying to break into professional writing, you’ll face a tough road, but you can get a lot of help from people who’ve been there before. When you’ve got more experience under your belt, you can do that same favor for others. And hey, you never know: maybe that young guy you just helped will remember what you did for him a few years from now and help you get your dream job.