Ask an expert: How do you build a professional network?

Advice on contributing to OSS projects, navigating social media, meeting up locally and at conferences, and more.
Part of
Issue 9 May 2019

Open Source

Networking really just means finding like-minded people you can help and who might also help you. (You may even make friends in the process.) A strong professional network can make a big impact on career advancement and overall job satisfaction: meaning the difference between having a job or being unemployed, between negotiating a larger paycheck or settling for a smaller one. As a tool, it’s especially effective for members of underrepresented groups.

Within a larger industry that has its own widely acknowledged accessibility and diversity issues, open source is particularly homogenous. A frequently cited research project from 2002 found that women made up approximately 1.5 percent of the free/libre and open-source software community, compared to 28 percent of the proprietary software community.

As of 2017, according to GitHub’s annual survey, “the gender imbalance in open source remains profound: 95 percent of respondents are men, just 3 percent are women, and 1 percent are non-binary.” In the broader industry, women comprise just 26 percent of the computing workforce, and less than 10 percent are women of color, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Of those, only 3 percent are African American and 1 percent are Hispanic.

Research shows that bias remains a problem even after you’ve made it through the door. For example, a 2016 study analyzing historical GitHub data found that “women’s pull requests tend to be accepted more often than men’s, yet women’s acceptance rates are higher only when they are not identifiable as women.”

A strong network can be a powerful tool for anyone navigating an industry in which conscious and unconscious bias stack the odds against them. Let’s take a look at some free (or nearly free) ways to build a network from the ground up—even if you’re an introvert or don’t do happy hours. One size won’t fit all, but hopefully you’ll find suggestions that work for you.

Contribute to a project

Contributing to an OSS project is a great way to get involved in the global open-source community. However, this work (with rare exceptions) is unpaid. Free labor is an oft-discussed topic in the open-source community, and there is no one cut-and-dried answer.

Working for free simply isn’t an option for those without the time or economic security to do so. If this option is available to you—and if you want to grow your network, learn new skills, or add experience to your resume—it may be worth submitting a pull request or two, or adding to a project’s documentation. (Personally, I’ve helped the Ubuntu project by installing beta releases, reporting bugs, and once even sending them my hardware.)

Whatever you are able and willing to do, be selective about how and where you spend your free-labor bandwidth. Your time and energy are limited and precious. Make sure you are being compensated in some way.

Get on social media

Twitter is one of the quickest and easiest ways to meet people in open source. For me, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. (I can’t tell you how many people have connected with me because they know me from Twitter.) Still, I’m selective about the personal information I share and with whom I share it, even when I’m actively trying to meet people in specific communities. This will be a personal decision for everyone.

You don’t have to tweet all the time—or even publicly—to start networking on Twitter. Follow conversations, hashtags, and people of interest to you. Connect with individuals by sending a short, polite direct message or email. (Even a simple “thank you for fixing that bug” will do.) You can often find contact information on GitHub accounts or personal blogs.

Forums and mailing lists are another place where you can learn from and connect to new people. The Systers mailing list, for example, connects women technologists from around the world. Some open-source projects, such as OpenStack and Fedora, host groups that are especially welcoming to new people and people from underrepresented groups.

Meet close to home

Libraries can be a great local resource for tech-related networking and educational opportunities. Depending on where you are, you could check out a Demystifying SQL through Visual Data session at Queens Public Library in New York or an Arduino 101 Workshop at Chicago Public Library. If you live in a tech hub, find opportunities to join folks in the industry with whom you share additional interests, such as a running group or a book club. Wherever you are, Meetup is a tried-and-true way to encounter people with common interests. (Open-source groups such as .NET São PauloOpen Source Bangalore, and GDG Lagos are among the largest in the world.) If you don’t see a meetup group near you that appeals—create one!

Connect at conferences

Conferences, unsurprisingly, offer a bonanza of networking opportunities. The O’Reilly Open Source ConventionAll Things Open, and Linux’s Open Source Summits are great open source–centric events. Grace HopperTech Inclusion, and AfroTech offer important perspectives on the industry at large. If you can’t afford to attend one or more conferences but have time to spare, consider volunteering. Volunteers get into events for free and have a behind-the-scenes opportunity to connect with conference organizers, speakers, and attendees.

You may also be eligible for diversity grants or scholarships to help defray costs. If that information isn’t available on the event website, reach out to the organizers via email or to other attendees via Twitter. Sometimes organizers, speakers, or attendees will have suggestions or can help make introductions for room shares, for example. (I’ve shared my hotel room more than once with women who needed a free conference hotel room.)

Grab a coffee

Whenever you’re seeking professional advice from someone, an offer to buy them a coffee or lunch is a nice way to begin. If you want advice regarding building a project or a business, that’s not networking: It’s consulting, and you should expect to pay a fee. The best professional relationships are like the best friendships: all about give and take. Share, listen, and pay it forward.

About the author

Rikki Endsley is the developer-program managing editor at Red Hat and a former community architect and editor for


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