By Tom Still
By Tom Still
EAU CLAIRE – Let’s face it, not all technologists are the life of the party. As much as they’re generally brilliant in their respective fields and even visionary in how they transfer ideas to the marketplace, group dynamics and networking isn’t often their strength. In fact, there’s even a joke to reinforce the stereotype: How do you know when two techies are talking? They’re both staring at the other guy’s shoes.
There was no time for shoe-staring at “Connections: Chippewa Valley,” the speed networking event held Wednesday in Eau Claire. In fact, there was barely time to tie your own shoes.
Organized by the Wisconsin Technology Network (www.wistechnology.com) and sponsored by a mix of education, law, technology and finance groups, this “extreme networking” event was designed to systematically connect people from all walks of the technology world through a series of two-minute meetings.
For the better part of two and a half hours, about 40 participants played a carefully choreographed game of musical chairs – a game in which everyone had a chance to win by meeting as many people as possible and exploring future contacts.
Thanks to a computer program that randomly organized the one-on-one meetings (these are techies, after all), the process worked smoothly as people moved from one table to the next, quickly explaining what they do and what they hoped to get out of the exercise. For some of the people there, the goal was to learn about potential partners in related technologies. For others, it was to explore options for financing or other business assistance. For some, it was an opportunity to look for a job. Some talented people are out of work in the Chippewa Valley due to layoffs at major computing firms there, and their skills may be needed elsewhere.
And for many of the people who showed up, it may have been a daunting challenge. Think about it: Talking virtually non-stop for 150 minutes is hard work for a politician, let alone someone who is more at home on the lab bench. And even for serial talkers such as myself, there was a moment around Meeting No. 15 that I realized I had 25 more to go and I was already tired of listening to myself.
Then again, it’s not about listening to yourself, but listening to others. Speed networking is about quickly making initial connections and picking up bits of information that you might otherwise never get in any other way.
Traditional networking sessions, such as cocktail hours, work fine if you’re disciplined enough (and gracious enough) to move from person to person. Most often, however, those settings tend to break down into clusters of people who already know one another. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s human nature. But other networking sessions may work better for those who aren’t skilled at party mingling and small talk.
There are obvious limits to speed or “extreme” networking. Not everyone you meet is someone you’ll want to contact again. Each meeting is too short to accomplish any meaningful business, so you’ll need to take notes and follow up later. This particular session had very few women, which suggests one of two things: Women don’t feel they need something like this to communicate, or there aren’t enough women in technology. I suspect the latter is most true.
I pride myself on meeting and knowing a lot of people, but Wednesday’s speed networking session at Chippewa Valley Technical College was a reminder that making connections is a job that’s never done. As Wisconsin moves down the path to building a more successful technology economy, it must learn what other states and communities already know: The most prosperous tech communities are those that are highly networked.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Innovation Network, which has chapters in Madison, Milwaukee, Northeast Wisconsin and the Chippewa Valley.