(Network) Engineering

September 14, 2022
Networking

Why is social networking important, anyway?

The short answer is that it allows you access into the shared knowledge and experiences of other humans. Much like a computer network, the more users that are connected to a network, the greater the value to the cumulative user base.

Logically then, the broader your social network, the more potential value can be unlocked from the shared human repository of knowledge and experience, as well as the compounding effect of joining the network of another person.

However, humans aren’t just willing to offer up access to this shared repository without good cause, and therefore your approach to networking is of cardinal importance. The efficacy of your network is actually quantifiable - we call the strength of your network social capital.

Put simply: the stronger the connection between the nodes on your network, the more effective your social capital will be.

Raising Social Capital

Social capital is the currency of human interaction. Its buying power allows you to leverage one of the most important attributes of our species, namely collective action. However, unlike other forms of capital, social capital disappears if it is not used.

In order to understand how to leverage social capital, we need to turn back the clock nearly 100 years: Dale Carnegie assembled a veritable treasure trove of tools in his seminal work, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which is still in use today.

Here Carnegie suggests that a single person can increase their social capital primarily by considering the perspective of those that they wish to win and/or influence – this social capital can then be leveraged to increase, say, your own standing in society or to further a particular agenda.

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Carnegie’s top tips for doing so is unpacked in this article by Forbes. The TL;DR version of increasing your social capital is:

  1. Do not criticise, condemn or complain.
  2. Be generous with praise.
  3. Remember their name.
  4. Be genuinely interested in other people.
  5. Know the value of charm.
  6. Be quick to acknowledge your own mistakes.
  7. Don’t attempt to win an argument.
  8. Begin on common ground.
  9. Have others believe your conclusion is their own.
  10. Make people feel important.

These echo through the pages of every subsequent self-help book but unfortunately, as with most things, theory is usually far removed from practice. It is one thing to rote learn suggested mannerisms, flattery, and social cues to increase your social capital; it is another thing entirely to implement this in the real word.

Alas, it is also no longer 1936 and trust is not necessarily dependent on a firm handshake, eye contact and commonalities.

To better understand a pragmatic approach to obtaining social capital, we have to consider the dark side of engineering: hacking.

Social Engineering as a Means to an End

Social engineering, or “human hacking”, is a nuanced technique of behavioural manipulation used by hackers (technically, crackers) to fulfil a malicious objective. Essentially, they exploit certain established human behavioural patterns to create a false sense of trust and leverage this for dubious purposes.

It is the art of persuasion gone wrong and consequently it does not generate any lasting social capital whatsoever.

Fortunately, social engineering isn’t too far removed from other current best practices (such as those suggested by Carnegie) on how to increase your social capital. There are indeed several key elements from social engineering that can be used for good – with the necessary modification to the methodology and purpose, of course.

The fundamentals of a successful social engineering campaign are as follows (as detailed by Kaspersky):

  1. Preparation: the more information that you have on your target, the better your chances of success.
  2. Infiltration: you will need an “in”, and this necessitates establishing trust with your victim.
  3. Deployment: if you know where to press to make it hurt, press hard.
  4. Disengagement: once the victim has been exploited, exit without a trace.

Apart from the obvious fact that disengagement isn’t necessarily a desired result, the methodology is in principle sound and a modified approach to social engineering can be used to expand your network. Let’s call it network engineering.

Network Engineering: How to Hack Humans

STEP 1: PREPARATION

Networking works well when it is done deliberately. If you attend a baking convention with the aim of expanding your network as a software developer, you will be severely disappointed. However, if you are tasked with programming a new calorie-tracking app, you may find it is indeed quite useful to attend such a baking convention.

You can leverage (i) the collective knowledge of the attendees at the baking convention in order to make your app more relevant, or (ii) you can use the extended network of every single attendee in order to reach more people. The latter can be used to expand the scope of your app, seek funding from stakeholders in the industry, test concepts or even grow your initial user base.

Being prepared does not necessarily require your constant vigilance and in-depth research for every new acquaintance. A large part of networking is merely being receptive to the possible synergies that may arise from new leads, even if these contacts do not necessarily advance your own agenda. There is extreme value in being a link between others.

STEP 2: INFILTRATION

This is the most difficult part of networking: establishing a preliminary bond with another person that has the potential to last for more than a mere conversation. There are various tips and tricks that can be used (see Carnegie’s as set out above), but in the end it all comes down to one simple concept: trust.

Trust is a complex concept with varying levels. However, it is fundamental in all relationships. Brian Brushwood (author of How to Scam Your Way Into Anything) believes that in establishing trust, reciprocity is a valuable tool. If you present someone with something of value, they will return the favour.

In the context of networking, adding value to another person can take the form of, say, information: if you present someone with information that they do not possess, they can be guided to likely reciprocate with information that you do not possess.

Alternatively, in accordance with social engineering best practices (such as with a *quid pro quo* attack) you can offer a service to someone in exchange for something of value. The reasoning behind this is that once you have made someone indebted to you, they wish to clear this debt.

Trust is quite determinative in your networking quest. This is again why the preparation element is so important: you will need to establish what you need and why you need it before deployment.

STEP 3: DEPLOYMENT

Returning to the developer-at-the-baking-convention example above, it is not necessary to meet every single attendee (depending on your objective, of course). Rather focus on or two individuals and establish a stronger relationship with each of them. This will allow you to fully leverage their existing network, or any inroads that they may have already made at said convention.

Once you have established some base trust, it is time to press this advantage. Again, your earlier preparation is key and if you are deliberate in your actions, your odds of success increase tenfold. Remember: it’s not just about extracting knowledge or value from another human being without giving something in return.

Also: your earlier research (as part of the preparation phase) should at least give you an idea of whom to approach; if not a particular person then at least a profile of such a person.

STEP 4: ENGAGEMENT

This is the maintenance phase of networking whereby you deepen your relationships within the network in order to extract more social capital. Based on your learning experience, you may also find that you need to make small adjustments to your approach or that your recently established network is too limited and needs expansion.

This then becomes a case of repeating until satisfied- again, having a clear goal or plan in mind will greatly assist you.

Test, test, test

Networking never ends. Your aim should be to continually expand your social network, which includes the developing both the depth and strength of your established relationships.

Obviously, it isn’t necessary to form a lifelong bond with another person in order to achieve a single objective. It may sometimes be as simple as a referral – serving as an intermediary between two or more persons. Or you might have a different objective, which necessitates connecting with someone that isn’t within your current network.

You will also find that practice makes perfect, and that networking isn’t such an alien concept at all.

Not convinced?

Come and give it a try at our next event.

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