Job hunting? Use social networks to make crucial connections

Although the total number of IT jobs is shrinking due to the recession, some companies are still hiring -- and using social-networking tools can help you land those jobs. In fact, being in the IT industry just might give you an advantage over the average laid-off worker.

That's because social networking Web sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are foremost among those new tools, and IT people are more likely to be comfortable with them and with related technologies that can help in a job search, such as automated scripts, customized search engines, RSS feeds and the like, experts say.

Brennan Carlson ( Facebook and LinkedIn), a newly hired product manager at e-mail marketing firm Lyris Inc., is an extreme example. He took a highly organized, scientific approach to his job search when he was laid off from Yahoo Video last winter.

This included using custom search engines, Greasemonkey (a Firefox plug-in allowing customized Web page appearances via JavaScript), scripts running on top of Firefox, widgets, mashups, a spreadsheet and a customized Netvibes "start page" that organizes blogs, news, weather, photos and social networks. Carlson also made concentrated use of social networking sites to present himself online and to research targeted companies.

LinkedIn was one of the most useful tools he used, as it is for almost everyone else we interviewed. It's also a key tool for IT hiring managers and recruiters looking for candidates. It has become the de-facto must-use tool in today's career environment.

But whether it's LinkedIn or one of the other myriad services, these Web tools are vital to today's IT job search, Carlson said.

"If you're not online, get online," Carlson said. "Be everywhere. Start using these services. . . If you're not on Twitter, get there. Start Tweeting."

Getting more targeted more quickly -- with success

Carlson's initial action consisted of sending out about 60 to 70 resume/cover letter blasts to job sites, companies, etc., around the holiday season after the Yahoo Video layoff. When nothing came out of that, he took a more organized and targeted approach and sent out 103 blasts -- but this time he used LinkedIn and other tools to research target companies, trying to find people who worked at the company who had a role in the product area he was interested in, or who worked as company recruiters.

Three days after the blast, he sent out follow-up messages. "And the response rate from those follow-ups was much higher than the original sendouts," he said, at 40% compared to the first response rate of only 5%. During this time he was maintaining his online profile, doing status updates on sites such as Facebook and Twitter "that were relevant and germane to my job search."

The result: he started working at one of his targeted companies, Lyris Inc., on March 23, four weeks and one day after the targeted resume/cover letter blast.

Lyris, Carlson's new employer, has a corporate presence on Facebook and is "all over Twitter," Carlson said. He said the company has multiple people posting on Twitter, but Lyris does it in a way that establishes a corporate identity that shares information with a common voice but doesn't allow Tweets from the entire company. "I thought that was pretty well done," he said.

Carlson, who studied computer science in college, describes himself as a longtime Internet geek, which helped him in his job search. Specifically, he had experience in working with "new media" at Yahoo and was familiar with social networking sites and other tools. "I think there was a level of awareness that I took into the process that certainly helped me," he said.

Get to know the hiring manager

Natalie Wilson doesn't have that technical of a background, but she is another new hire thanks to social-networking tools. She was part of the recent massive Circuit City layoff in Richmond, Va., where the failed electronics store chain was headquartered. She had worked for the company for 24 years, most recently as a business analyst.

Now, she is about to start her new role as a technical analyst for third-party logistics reporting at a Fortune 500 company in Richmond that she didn't wish to name. LinkedIn was vital to her success. "It's really worked out well," Wilson said of using the site.

She had started her LinkedIn account about a year ago, but didn't update it much. After the layoff, she went back to it and concentrated on improving her profile.

She garnered 35 recommendations from former co-workers and posted them on LinkedIn and used LinkedIn contacts to help her get an edge over other candidates.

According to recruiters and other careers professionals, that is the No. 1 way to land a job in the current economic climate. You must make yourself stand out from the pack, and the best way to do that is to get connected to someone working at the company you're targeting.

"That's the greatest value" of LinkedIn, said Harry Urschel, owner of the staffing and recruiting company e-Executives in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. "If you're applying for positions posted online, you're one of hundreds of others that are doing the same thing. And even if you're a great fit for a job, it's incredibly hard to get noticed because you just fall into a database or you're in a sea of other resumes they have on their desk."

But if you can make direct contact with the hiring manager or someone else in your target company who might be in the same department or area you're interested in and who can put you in touch with the right people, "you're miles ahead of every other candidate that's just applying," he said.

Why in-house contacts matter

That's the common refrain, and there are some numbers to back it up. "I collect data," said Gerry Crispin, owner of Careerxroads job placement consultancy in Kendall Park, N.J. He has been analyzing job hiring trends for 40 years and has conducted extensive hiring trend surveys for the past eight years. His data confirms that an in-company referral is priceless.

Last year Crispin analyzed more than 300,000 job openings and how they were filled. His data emphasizes how crucial it is to use social networking sites for one specific purpose and one purpose only.

"The only goal you have is to meet somebody, is to network to someone in the company you've targeted, so they can be your employee referral," Crispin said. "Because when you have an employee inside a company refer you for the specific job that does come open, you'll have 50 to 70 times more likelihood of being interviewed than if you do anything else."

Last year's survey indicated that "employee referrals represented more than a quarter of all the positions filled externally," Crispin said. "You must find an employee inside the company who can be your referral. Period. If you do that, you change the game."

Of course, Crispin added, not every job search is "average" and individual mileage may vary. "But the reality is, which lottery would you rather be in, one out of 10 or one out of 500?"

Wilson is a living testament to that. She applied for a job through and after an initial phone interview with a human resources person in her targeted company, she used LinkedIn to actually find four people she knew well who in turn knew current associates in her targeted company. Coincidentally, one of those people on the inside was the HR rep she had spoken with.

Even more important, one of her recommendations was a CIO who knew the targeted company's CIO."I e-mailed [my CIO friend] the day after my HR phone interview and he stated that he knew the CIO at the company I was interviewing at. He asked if it was ok to 'drop a line about me' to him . . . of course I said no problem," Wilson said.

Her other three contacts got in touch with the people they knew inside the company, told them that she had interviewed for the position and also provided a recommendation.

That gave her some serious leverage.

Wilson said, "At the beginning of my second interview with the hiring manager, she stated that she had received a few e-mails from individuals stating that she should hire me. I responded that I had worked for a long time at Circuit City and during that time I had developed many contacts."

After that interview, she was confident she would land the position, and after a third interview she eventually did.

"I also used LinkedIn to research the three individuals I interviewed with. LinkedIn definitely helped me in landing this position -- of course the interviews helped as well," Wilson said.

Fewer resumes, but more focused

When Erik Werner was laid off the week before last Christmas from a videoconferencing manufacturer, he immediately turned to the social networking sites to get the news out, build up his network of contacts, research his target industry and gather job leads. He's now a senior engineer for a Washington, D.C., systems integrator, Facchina Global Services.

"By using the social tools I was able to shake a lot more network trees than I normally would have," Werner said. He was also laid off during the 2001 collapse, when these tools weren't available. Back then, he had to rely on the shotgun approach. "In 2001, I probably put out, over five months, 10 resumes a day," he said.

This time, he said, he probably sent only 20 to 30 resumes in total, but through use of the social networking tools he knew exactly where they were going.

"In this economy, there's a lot of people in the same position," he said. "So how do I stand out? I stand out through the personal interactions. I stand out through the very much more laser-focused" approach that includes asking a social contact to put him in touch with someone in a certain field or company.

He used Facebook to let his friends know he was laid off, which resulted in replies ranging from condolences to invitations to share his resume with contacts they knew. He used LinkedIn to put the word out to business contacts he had made over the years. That also resulted in offers to disseminate his resume. He made sure his LinkedIn information was up to date and everyone knew his e-mail and other pertinent information. He used Twitter mainly as a "listening post," keeping himself up to date on current events in his areas of interest.

He ended up getting hired by somebody he had done business with before. "Opportunities came to me, and then I was able to choose which opportunity I wanted to pursue," he said. "But the way the opportunities came to me was through my social networks."

The power of going local

But such networks don't always have to be the mainstream worldwide services everyone knows about. Local career-related networks can also be key.

Michael Higginbotham was another victim of the collapse of Circuit City, where he had worked as a program manager of Web development. Now he's a senior product manager of platforms at SNL Financial in Richmond. He calls LinkedIn an essential tool in his search, but both he and fellow Circuit City alumni Natalie Wilson expanded their job search via the Virginia Career Network (VCN). This group was started in November by Collins Denny, an account manager at IT consulting company Leading Edge Systems Richmond.

The VCN has a presence on LinkedIn, Facebook and Meetup, where Denny said the VCN is the largest group of unemployed professionals on the service. Meetup promotes regular in-person meetings of groups formed around a common interest. He said about 1,300 members have joined the group, with 500 to 600 being regular, active participants.

Denny said the VCN, while coaching members on the use of LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, emphasizes face-to-face networking with short and quick "elevator pitches."

Higginbotham's use of the VCN and services such as LinkedIn echoes a common theme among many IT people who have found new jobs: An initial network contact rarely leads directly to an interview and hiring, but rather fosters communication with individuals who communicate with their own network and so on. Similar to the "six degrees of separation" concept, it's often a case of contacting someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows a person at a company looking to fill a position.

In Higginbotham's case, by expanding his network of contacts and keeping in touch with various recruiters and others in his network, he eventually found four people who had connections to a recruiter for SNL Financial. The process wasn't linear, he said, but rather consisted of "a lot of touch points" spread out through a net of personal and professional associations.

In another similarity with Wilson, he credits a large number of recommendations on his LinkedIn profile for his success. "One of the things I asked all the recruiters to do is to take a look at my recommendations because I think they spoke very strongly about my background, skills and tenacity in getting things done," he said.

He also used LinkedIn as a research tool to investigate his targeted company and people he would be interviewing with.

Don't spend all your time online

But Higginbotham and others caution not to rely too much on online services. "Contacting people, staying on the phone [is important] -- you can search the job boards all day long but they only work for a small percentage of people," he said.

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