How Geek Developers Can Learn to Socialize

Friday Aug 14th 2009 by Sara Chipps
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Let's face it, coders sometimes need a little help when getting up from their PC to mingle with the human race. Here's some guidance specially designed to help developers expand their social network.

Sara Chipps is a software programmer specializing in ASP.NET/C#/SQL.

If you’ve read my blog, or any of my writings, you’d probably not accuse me of being a wallflower. I’m a bit forward and you could even say I’m a little crass. However, please don’t assume I don’t understand the plight of your average nerd.

I definitely have my share of hang ups and insecurities. See, I’m a shaker, the tragic plight of those of us who play chicken with our nerves. If I’m in an unfamiliar situation, you’ll notice that often my hands are at my sides, in my pockets, or folded in my lap. My trembling digits are the bane of my existence, they are the constant give away that maybe I’m not as comfortable and affable as I seem.

The worst is when someone says something, “Look at your hands, you’re shaking like a leaf. Are you okay?” I usually make something up, or say I haven’t eaten, or that my blood sugar is low. The truth is, I’m hella nervous, because new places and new faces scare me like no one’s business. I’m just a good bluffer (or it’s possible everyone is just playing along).

I suppose being more comfortable around machines than people is part of our geek charm (anti-charm?). I guess that’s why World of Warcraft can be so popular, because when you’re a 12th level mage you're pretty intimidating; however, when you’re a 112 lb kid from Des Moines who built two compilers and his own JS library, the world is a scary place.

Does this sound like your usual lament? Never fear! Girl Developer is here to save you! I, over the past few years, have become quite the butterfly. I’m even to the point where I’m planning meet-ups of my own. I’ve learned many lessons on my way, If you’re doing some research (like a responsible dork would) before getting involved yourself this is the best way to start.

User Groups

I recommend starting with user groups. There are bunches all over the US. That is where I first started, the Microsoft local user group in Islin , NJ was my first stop.

I had no idea what to expect, so I'll fill you in. There is usually a speaker and a technology or methodology to be covered. The first one I went to was the release Silverlight v. 2.0. I don’t remember who the speaker was. There were about 20 people there. I've learned that this really varies, I have gone to groups with up to 200, and as few as 10.

What happens is the speaker discusses what they want to cover and then asks the crowd for questions. To my surprise, when you do get the courage to ask questions (you don’t have to, but if there is something you are not sure about, or are curious about you should) people don’t start yelling or tell you that you’re dumb, or march out of the room fuming at your complete lack of common sense.

Really, I'm a witness, even if you DO ask a dumb question. One time I wasn’t paying attention (I was text messaging, I don’t recommend doing this during someone else’s talk, it’s insanely rude). So I missed the part when the speaker was discussing how you could communicate with the web service of the Microsoft GPS web app. Anyway, I ended up asking this, and he explained that he DID already go over this. (I think he saw me texting) But he did let me know where I could get the information. He wasn’t impatient with me, and no one rolled his or her eyes.

After the meeting people usually mill around and talk a bit. If you’re not comfortable doing this at first don’t worry! After people start to notice your face around a few times they will approach you.

Don’t get discouraged! Sometimes they talk about technology; sometimes they talk about the weather. It’s always good to meet people that way, bring some business cards, this way you can get contact information and keep those lines of communication open.

In order to find out about user groups in your area, I would suggest reaching out to your local Developer Evangelist. I’m a developer who focuses on mostly Microsoft technologies, so I have a contact for the New York area whose name is Peter Laudati. I suggest starting there, and if not go online and search for user groups and some towns around you.

Code Camps/Bar Camps

Code camps are probably my favorite things to do in the community. They are a daylong, and you have anywhere from a few to a dozen tracks to choose from.

There are a ton of different speakers, many different talks from beginner to advanced, and as much technology as you can think of. The speakers are pre-determined, and they are often people you really want to see.

I’ve really enjoyed these days. The best part of them is that you know everyone there is as excited as you are about development, they are hungry to learn and want to talk about it. You’ll find it’s very easy to make good friends. I go to as many as I can and if you see me at one please come say hi, I’ll talk your ear off.

Bar camps are fun as they are known as the “unconference.” The talks aren’t planned, they are impromptu and random. They are about anything from DOM manipulation to drink recipes. They are a lot of fun; you meet interesting people, and learn fun things. Usually they are 1-2 days long.

The thing to know when you are going to these events is that some people will be there with people, while many (like you) will be alone. The trick is finding those people, building up some courage, and going up and saying hello.

Seriously, it sounds terrifying, and believe me it is. However, you’ll find it goes easier as it goes on and you meet some amazing, unique, and interesting people. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world.

Meetup Groups, Random Events

And I mean RANDOM. There are all kinds of things out there. There are wine tasters, there are horse lovers, there are even little bands of knitters. These groups meet online at places like MeetUp or Caigslist.

I have gone and done some very cool things, everything from hack at a laptops and six-packs party to sing karaoke on the street – and usually with total strangers! Once you realize that there's no reason why people who enjoy the same things shouldn’t enjoy doing them together it seems completely normal.

The most terrifying part is always when you are by yourself and you first approach an existing group. I have a few secrets. The first is, scout your territory. Go check it out before you actually attend, see what it’s like so that when you actually do show up you’re 100% prepared. Second, BRING FOOD. Seriously, a normal person is 500% more interesting when they have goodies. If you are nervous a plate of cookies, or some beer, or even some store bought dessert is a great way to distract folks from seeing how you feel.

Some Final Tips

Here are some socializeing tips every geek should know from the beginning:

• Remember names. I'm very bad at this; it has bit me in the past. Maybe a Mnemonic device?

• Understand that everyone there has felt as weird as you do right now at some point. They will empathize.

• Exchange contact information! At all times! Let people get in touch with you, they will want to!

• Never take anything personally. It takes all kinds of people at these events; some of them will be kind, some rude, some friendly, and some standoffish. If you go in with an open mind that anything can happen, you wont be disappointed.

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