On Networking

It’s a question I get quite often: can you teach me about how to network better?

  1. I actually don’t network all that well. I suck at small talk, for starters. I’m never sure of what to do when I walk into a large gathering. My preferred thing to do at large parties is to seek out a person I’m comfortable with, and chat with that person for as long as possible. So if that is the kind of networking you have in mind, I’m not the guy to ask.
  2. But reaching out to folks to ask for help, I have a lot of experience in. I’ve been doing it for years, and will do it for life. Unashamedly, unabashedly. That I can speak about, since I have skin in the game.
  3. “Life is a non-zero sum game” is an axiom for me. So if somebody asks me for help, I will always try to help. I’d advise you to do the same. And that is a good way to start building out your network: help other folks when they ask you for it. Two advantages, one personal, one societal.
    1. Of course that person is likelier to help you when you reach out to them for help. You can, Vito Corleone style1, call in favors, even years down the line.
    2. But at the margin, that person is also likelier to pay it forward. That is, there is a non-zero chance that the person you helped will in turn help other folks who ask that person for help. If your ultimate aim is to build a society that is more willing to help each other to learn (as mine is), help others as much as possible. And you can call that networking, if you like. πŸ™‚
  4. But that is the larger point about networking. I think most people have “how can I get others to help me?” in mind when they want to get better at networking. And sure, that’s very much a part of it.
  5. But it cuts both ways, no? I think it makes sense to first ask “How can I help others?”, before asking others for their help. Exports matter as much as imports!
  6. And a college student (my primary target audience on this blog) might well say, “But what can I help them with? They have so much more experience and knowledge than me!”
    1. True, for the most part. Not always, mind you, but I get the merits of that argument.
    2. But can you help somebody else? Can you help your juniors learn better? Can you help your neighbor’s schoolkids out with a project? Can you put out blogposts regularly that other folks may eventually read?
  7. If at least a part of your personal mission in life is to help other people, you will be that much more confident in asking others for help. Because you’re not asking for help only for yourself to get a job (for example), but through the help you’re receiving, others are benefitting too.
  8. The bottom-line is this: networking isn’t just about asking how to get others to help you. It is also about asking how you might help others. And doing the latter first makes it much easier to ask for the former.
  9. One final point: it is of course still entirely possible that the person you’ve asked for help will say no. They’re not doing it because they don’t like you, or your work. It is because they have commitments of their own, and honestly and really don’t have the time.
  10. Which is fine! There’s seven billion of us out there, you can always find someone else πŸ™‚

Previous posts on EFE that have mentioned networking.

  1. don’t take that analogy too far, please![]

Faculty Internships: Some Follow-ups

I received some fascinating feedback to my faculty internship post from last Friday, and some offers to get things kickstarted. To those of you who reached out about trying to get this off the ground, I’ll be in touch over the weekend. Thank you! πŸ™‚

But this post is about responding to some of the suggestions, and to some thoughtful responses.

First off, Sneha Joshi‘s responses:

Given the short term internship, usually the intern is barely starching the surface of the work done in any organisation, adding a faculty member along with it becomes a difficult job for the employee in the company to manage.

I see the faculty member’s role as one that supplements the employee who will be the primary mentor, and I think (hope?) that the faculty member will need much less hand-holding and support. If there are to be daily debriefs (where the student intern is concerned), these could be handled by the faculty, for example. And relatively simple queries and doubts could be handled by the faculty member. But hey, that’s just my hope and hypothesis – the only way to check on what works is by actually conducting the experiment. Sneha could well be right!

It would be much better to split the course into two parts , one semester theory and next semester covering practical aspect of the theory by an industry professional. Industry experts are willing to teach, however at times, academic regulations and specific requirements in terms of teaching experience and publications etc restricts the industry entry. Also, some hand holding can the done by the prof who teaches the theoretical aspect if the industry expert isn’t well skilled to teach.

I prefer, when learning, to go from the specific to the general, so my personal preference would be to go from the practical semester to the theoretical part. But I don’t say this to disagree with Sneha, simply to state that the ordering can be switched around, if needed. But the larger points are spot on: introduce and emphasize practical applications of whatever is being taught, and for the love of god, do away with the bureaucratic hurdles when it comes to industry professionals being allowed to teach!

If at all, an internship as you suggest happens in reality, it will require a great deal of effort and initiative from the intern and faculty to derive real insights from the internship and can at times result in frustration or no concrete result as well.

Indeed. If such a thing is to work, there will have to be some cherry-picking involved. The best faculty from the most suitable institutes being matched with the most receptive managers from firms that have a culture that is open to experimentation is a prerequisite, and there will be hajjar teething issues. More, as Sneha points out, you’ll need to budget for things not working out every now and then.

But I still think the experiment is worth it, and for a very simple reason: we have far too little collaboration between academia and industry right now, and what little there is, is mostly signaling. Conclaves, panel discussions and guest lectures are great, but we need to go deeper.

Siddharth Deshmukh, with whom I recorded a great episode of Back to College, had a suggestion that might elicit a phew1 sighs of relief:

Excellent idea. Why not uncouple it with students? May make everyone less nervous 😊

Me, personally, I would love to be part of such an internship with students around, because anything that maximizes serendipity is a good thing. But Siddharth has an excellent point: the option to choose should be available. At least where the professor is concerned.

Mudit Gupta pushes back against the idea:

Interesting concept but I see writing case studies between an industry and academic research or allowing an industry professional to join a research center will be much more useful rather than short term faculty internship. Faculty internship will be only useful if faculty is sponsored by the industry for a project rather than being paid by the college they are working for.

I would disagree, in the sense that I think what Mudit is suggesting can (and should) happen in any case. The faculty internship has a very specific objective: help professors understand what is going on n the corporate world. This is as much about the culture of work as it is about the work itself.

Does the corporate world have a different understanding of work hours, and work/life balance? Does a deliverable mean the same thing in academia as it does in industry? How does accountability work when it comes to projects, deliverables and working relationships? Should colleges have somebody working as a full time HR person? Are meetings the same, or is their pace, structure and cadence different? Why do corporates insist on using first names as opposed to honorifics?

Cuts both ways, of course! Industry professionals should also be able to imbibe the culture of an academic environment, and understand the opportunity costs of both approaches. But for these things to happen, soaking in the atmosphere and the daily rhythms of life in an office/college is really and truly important. And therefore the internship, rather than the collaboration.

  1. it’s Friday. I’m allowed one bad pun[]

Faculty Internships. But Why Not?

What stops the world from inviting teachers and professors to work for a while in industry?

We need to make education more relevant to the demands of the workplace – most people would be in complete agreement with this. The question is how to go about doing this. Sure, one could rejig the syllabi, and get feedback from alumni and industry – and this has been happening for years in many colleges and universities.

But how many industry professionals have spent a semester seeing what is taught to students? How many professors have spent a couple of months observing what work happens within a corporate set-up? Would the world be better off if more of this happened?

And if your answer to that question is yes (and this is very much true in my case), then why are we not trying to make more of such “internships” happen?

  • When a firm visits a campus for placements, also have the firm explore the option of asking professors if they would like to tag along for the duration of the internship
  • No money need change hands – the college will pay the professor their monthly salary (and if need be, an additional stipend to cover living expenses)
  • Students get a mentor on site, which means lesser work for the employees of that firm
  • The professor gets a peek into what is going on in the corporate world:
    • Which are the tools in use, versus the ones being taught in college?
    • What is the work pressure like, and are students being adequately prepared?
    • How important are the changes in the style of writing and speaking?
    • Is what is being taught in college relevant?
    • Are corporates missing out on tricks that the professor can help them out with?
  • And the firm gets an insight into how the professor has been teaching. Even better, while at this faculty internship, the professor can attend training sessions that have been organized in the workplace, meet with departmental heads across the firm, and perhaps even meet some of the clients.
  • If the professor can actually get involved in a project, nothing like it. Sure, you’ll need to sign NDA’s and all of that, and sure this might not be possible in all organizations for all projects – but surely some projects in some organizations should be possible?
  • And if a firm is willing to make the investment, why not have industry professionals spend a month in a university? Maybe conduct a course, or a part of a course – but really more like a scholar in residence. The ability to interact in a more relaxed environment with students, to guide them, to mentor them, maybe collaborate with them – surely there is merit in the idea?
  • I do not know if there are colleges/universities in India that already do this. If you know of any, please do let me know.
  • But especially if you don’t, please do one of these two things:
    • Help me understand the potential downsides to such a scheme
    • If you think there to be no potential downsides, help me try and get this off the ground? Bridging the gap between academic ideas and real world problems1 is a great problem to try and solve, and I think this idea has some serious merit.
  1. if you know, you know[]

The Value of a Mentor

I’m in the process of arranging mentorships for the BSc students at the Gokhale Institute, in part because our internship plans went out of the window, and in part because I know I would have liked a mentor at that age (wouldn’t we all?). There were some doubts and misunderstandings about how a mentorship works when contrasted with internships, and what follows is therefore addressed to the students – but hey, maybe others will also find value. So here goes:

Imagine that you, as a 19 year old, were asked to mentor a student currently in the 10th grade. You’ve been through the grind, you know the pain of writing the 10th board, the 12th board, and the pressure of not just doing well in those damn exams, but also choosing the appropriate field of study. You’re bursting with advice and counsel, positively bristling with tips and tricks… except that student from the 10th grade doesn’t know what this mentorship is about, what mentorships in general are about, and what is expected of him/her. It’s kinda like that, except you are in the place of that 10th grade student. And your mentor waits for you to get started, and you wait for the mentor to get started… and whoops. We’re stuck.

A mentor falls somewhere in the middle of the prof-buddy spectrum. Less authoritarian than a professor, and more knowledgeable and experienced than a buddy. You can’t exactly be Jai-Veeru, but it’s not like your mentor is Thakur either (if you didn’t get those references, go watch Sholay. Right now. Kids these days, I tell you.)

Your job, as a mentee, is very simple. Ask questions. Learn as much as you can about your mentor – who they are, what they have done, what their area of expertise is, where they have worked in the past and where they work now – and then ask them questions about all of this.

The idea is to get a compressed version of their lives, so that you can do two things in your own life. One, they’ll tell you about things they learnt on the job – you learn now, rather than later. Second, you get to avoid the mistakes they made.

No question is too outlandish, no query too “stupid”. Your mentors have been in your place, and they’ve experienced the nervousness you are feeling now. So don’t worry about appearing not quite tuned in, because that’s ok.

But given that they’ve chosen to take time out of their busy schedules to speak to you and guide you, it does make sense to follow through on their advice when it comes to reading, viewing or listening to their recommendations – that’s a given.

And a word of caution – sometimes these things don’t work out, and that’s ok. Maybe you are not suited to their personality, or vice versa. Maybe you just don’t gel, maybe there are misunderstandings. And that’s totally fine, because why expect mentorships to not be like the rest of your life? Sometimes things don’t work out, and that’s cool.

But when they do – and you may have to take a little bit more effort than usual to make sure they do – then you may have that most precious of gifts: a person who is older to you, more accomplished than you, and a person who has decided to look out for you, for life. Job references, recommendation letters, career advice, putting in a quiet word for you – all of these are things you can count on for life, because your mentor has also become your friend.

That, more than anything, is the greatest thing to come out of a successful mentorship, and I speak from experience on both sides of the table. Get yourself a mentor, and cultivate that relationship.

It is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best investment you will ever make.