A Philosophy of Connections

In the photo, Jeff Sili (left) answers a student’s question during a training session.

A little over a year ago when I took my new position with Vitech, my wife and I talked about how to optimize space in our home for what she predicted would be two busy offices. With an office in our den, she is a senior contributor to Bearing Drift, one of the oldest online media outlets in Virginia. She writes for other hard copy publications as well, and in addition, serves on and produces the marketing, web presence and social media content for numerous community boards throughout our county. She’s an amazing multi-tasker who can throw dinner in a crock pot, write, and answer two phones at once, including the one I use to return messages in the evening in my position as an elected supervisor in my county.

For my part, I’m the single-minded kind of worker who can get so absorbed, an earthquake could shake the neighborhood and I would be none the wiser. My plan was to find a nook in our not-so-small 3,000-square-foot home and dig in. My wife decided wisely that this wasn’t a good idea. She suggested a space for me which could do double duty as a quiet office as well as a place to invite clients. What does all of this have to do with systems engineering? Although we are engineers, we must, as systems engineers, work with people.

The importance of connecting with people
“Look,” I said, “I’m teaching CORE for our clientele in the region, not entertaining.”

“Nonsense,” she said, “you won’t be working a month before you’ll be networking to see who else you can convince to use your products. For the last five years all I’ve heard about is you trying to convince every entity you come across to use CORE. We’ll redo the spare bedroom in the basement with the sliding doors, which will give you the light you need, and put a couple of comfortable chairs in there for visitors.”

I knew she was right. She had just helped me with an oral presentation for another company where I held the position of Senior Systems Engineer. The company subsequently won a contract based on demonstrating a cyber-security project using CORE. It was hardly lost on her that I was now working directly for the company that produced my engineering tool of choice for systems engineering, and I would be hard pressed not to reach out to the engineering community. After all, relationships and connections are important to any system, personal or professional.

Of course I still wanted to argue. “I’ll be working over the phone,” I insisted, “and will be conferencing via Go-to-Meeting a lot during the week. I can use Roma’s, (our ONLY restaurant in a town of 1,000 people) if I need to invite people to come to me, or I can go to them. The most important thing is to get the Internet speed up to par.” She just smiled and sent the old furniture from the basement bedroom to Goodwill, ordered me a substantial desk, chair and filing cabinet, and began painting the small connecting bathroom.

In February, after stocking the adjoining rooms which serve as a basement library (which also has old but comfortable leather furniture) with a small refrigerator and a coffee stand, she announced that I was “all set to connect.”

“You can e-mail and text away,” she said, “but you won’t grow the famous list working from home if you don’t continue to outreach some face to face.” The list she refers to is both a personal and professional database that we have maintained since our marriage in 2002. The “list” started with about 15 names, and today has around 3,500 families on it, and has been a most sought after commodity by others, both professionally and politically.

You can learn people skills
One of the very first books my wife shared with me when we first got together was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I was impressed when I found out it was, by many estimates, the best bestselling self-help book of all time, but laughed when I saw it was published in 1936. The face of the 21st century business community is, shall we say, a bit different.

“Hey,” she said, “some of us were not lucky enough to be born “people persons” with the gift of connecting, and need a little extra help. This is the bible of networking. I know you never meet a stranger, but at least give it a quick read.”

I was glad I did, because it reinforced my deeply held idea that an interest in people won’t work if it is not sincere. Now this is a lot of touchy-feely for an engineer, but as a systems engineer, I know it’s important to have people skills, or to learn them if you don’t.

Subsequent self-help books on networking all borrow in some way from Carnegie, I found, and most refer specifically to his methods, while adding that likability, energy, and strong optimism convey a message to potential new business associates and contacts. That message is one that says you are someone who they will want to do business with. While these attributes are important, too, if you make paramount a desire to sincerely and personally know your “list,” even if you are not a born networker, the rest will fall into place and you will build an arsenal of connections.

When I was first elected to the Board of Supervisors in my county, a neighboring supervisor who went on to bigger and better things said to me, “Don’t stay in local government too long—everyone will hate you.” Not a pleasant thought at all, so I proposed at that time to be different, to return every phone call and to offer positive, constructive help to whomever I could, whether they were constituents of mine or not.

When I couldn’t solve the problem, I explained in detail why I couldn’t. In short, I communicated widely and often. My town halls were known (and still are) as a place where you could come and learn about how local government worked. Ten years later, while I have not been able to make everyone happy, the method has worked, and the benefits reaped have far outweighed the alternative. I don’t accomplish this by e-mail or text. Most often, it’s a personal visit or multiple phone conversations, or both. As an elected official, it is also important to know the players up the chain as well and on both sides of the aisles. This has taken the form of regular visits to the Virginia General Assembly, and entertaining our elected officials many times in my home. And this kind of attention to relationships, I have found, also pays off in the domain of systems engineering.

Working for 30 years in DoD contracting in Virginia as a systems engineer, I learned early on that such a career path requires an understanding of the way in which contracts are funded. To be successful, it is essential to seek out, know and understand those in charge of, or associated even peripherally with those contracts all the way up the chain.

Making an effort to connect can pay off in unexpected ways
At my last job, I worked with a talented young man who I’ll call Kevin, who had allowed his use of the Internet to isolate him with his lack of social skills. Kevin was the least liked person in our office. While other people avoided him, I kept after building a relationship with him, bringing my coffee into his office in the morning even though he glared at me over his shoulder, pretending to input data. We finally developed a nice two-way friendship. He came to me for advice on new cars, insurance and a myriad of things. Ironically, despite his lack of social skills, this kid’s great forte was a photographic memory for names, no matter how remote the association with our company was. I still call on him whenever I can’t bring a name or relationship to mind.

True connections, however are more than just knowing names. Along the way, digging deeper and getting to know people enriches your life in all aspects. I got to know Kevin well enough to know that his closest connection was his dog, a beautiful Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and learned that his mother bred them. When we lost our dogs a year or more ago, it was Kevin I called on to steer me in a good direction in finding the right puppy.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, our personal relationships not only affect our personal life, but our business life as well. Life itself constantly entails multiple relationships, so it’s a given that business is, or should be, about great professional relationships. It’s certainly true today that we have the tools to begin those relationships on a keyboard, and that mountains of data can be found and stored on a potential client. There is so much information out there, it’s mind-blowing, from Twitter to Instagram to Facebook.

I still hold, however, that to develop a relationship and to stay in the mind of that person takes more. Your initial connection creates the relationship, but it’s up to you to maintain it. Reach out when you don’t need anything, just to catch up and in this way avoid being just a “taker” in a situation where you “need” this contact in the future. I believe all these things make a better leader and team player.

I have rarely met anyone who wasn’t a person of influence in some realm. In just about any given situation, professionally as an engineer, personally, or politically, there is always someone I can call. Nine times out of ten, I’ll know how many years their kids have been in college, and I may have even written a letter of recommendation to get him or her there. Nine times out of ten, I’ll know how the move to the new house is progressing and when the next grandchild is due, because I like knowing these things. Nine times out of ten, I have been there to support and grieve the loss of a family member. Sincere interest in people returns rewards in spades.

So a year later, I think about how right my wife was about being productive away from the main floor of the house and how well she knows my philosophy of networking. It’s never been more important to maintain our connections and to build new ones. My position at Vitech in professional services, where I am lucky enough to teach a product I love to our clients, has been very rewarding in building new relationships based on a common interest. Good engineers love the ability to do a project the right way from the beginning, and the availability of a tool to do just that is a great relationship builder. In any event, connections are always done optimally in person, whether in a board room restaurant or a basement office. Building these relationships inevitably leads to a happier outcome and new opportunities.

For related posts on the importance of communication in systems engineering, check out:
Variety—the Spice of Life but a Staple of Good Communication
The Power of Storytelling in Program Design

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