Word on the Street: Real networking in language services

In my work teaching courses on translation technology and localization management, I frequently discuss career paths with students who are exploring various roles in language services or researching methods to break into the industry. As students share their insecurities about their career trajectories, I often ask, “how many professionals do you know who do what you want to do? Ten? Two? One?”

Before I can even explain the reasons for such a question and justify why students would want to get to know so many professionals when each is “still just a newcomer,” I see a look of panic sweep across their faces. Many are at a loss for words because they don’t know where to begin, and others feel a sense of dread because they have heard a little something about the horrors of “networking.”

Real networking versus fake networking

Perhaps they feel they lack the necessary guanxi. Perhaps they picture something like what cartoonist Doug Savage displayed once in his “Savage Chickens” comic strip under the cynical title “Honest Networking.” In that single-panel sketch, two chickens appear, obviously at some networking mixer because they hold drinks in their hands… or in their wings. One chicken says to the other, “What do you do for a living and how can I use you to my benefit?” The other chicken replies, “I’ll give you vague details only, so you can’t google me and show up at my office with a résumé.”

Although many of us feel nervous at the thought of networking, hopefully most of us don’t view it so pessimistically as illustrated in this comic. However, such anxiety may be a sign that such a negative opinion of networking is indeed hidden somewhere in our subconscious, and we must correct that immediately.

Regardless of one’s cultural background, that cynical stereotype is not “honest networking.” I believe that “what’s-in-it-for-me networking” is actually fake networking.

In contrast, real networking involves showing genuine interest in others and honestly looking for opportunities to help them.

The most immediate benefit of real networking is that it relieves us of the anxiety brought on by fake networking. When we show genuine interest in what others are saying, we are not stressing so much about how we will attempt a response to inflate someone else’s view of us. When we honestly help others, we feel more confident and less insecure because we are contributors, not merely takers.

Perhaps, instead of asking novices how many professionals they know, I should ask more specifically how many professionals they have helped or with how many they have shared a meaningful connection.

Successful networkers are givers, not takers

Look, for example, at one of the most successful networkers in the language services industry. Renato Beninatto, who once held the title “Chief Connector,” has long been a giver, giving us interesting insights through blog posts, sharing a few laughs in one of his conference presentations, or sharing knowledge through his Globally Speaking podcast with Michael Stevens.

Even though he has relatively notable fame in this small industry, Beninatto is kind and helpful to others, regardless of whether others are in a position to help him. More than a decade ago, when I was a new blogger, still finishing graduate school, he took the time to look me up and meet me at a coffee shop to share some career advice. On another occasion when I was being a little too snarky in one of my blog posts, he kindly reminded me that it is wisest to promote the successes of others, not their failures. Nothing obvious was “in it for him,” but Beninatto was generous.

“One of the things that strikes outsiders when they attend language industry events is that competitors, subcontractors, and freelance translators are friendly and collaborative,” note Beninatto and Tucker Johnson in their recently published book, The General Theory of the Translation Company. “It is more likely you are going to collaborate with people in the room than compete with them.”

Coauthors Beninatto and Johnson illustrate how industry fragmentation and diversification affects rivalry among would-be competitors, making the atmosphere less cutthroat and more an environment of “coopetition.” They further emphasize this practical need to maintain good karma in emphasizing the relatively small size of the industry.

“It seems that everybody has worked with everybody else at some point in their career. If they haven’t, then they know somebody who has….” explain Beninatto and Johnson. “So, it is particularly important to make sure you keep your nose clean in this industry.”

Most of you reading this could point to many others in the language services industry who network by giving rather than taking, and you could certainly point to additional reasons why that is in everyone’s best interest.

Even newcomers can be successful networkers

When I share these ideas with students and industry newcomers, they often concede, “yes, that sounds great, but,” they soon retort “what can I do? If I’m just recently breaking into the industry, I can’t help anyone yet!”

Fortunately, that’s not true. Students and newcomers have seen good karma come back to them as they have found the following ways to network by helping others:

One novice legal translator and interpreter got a paid gig in Shanghai as a consequence of a pro bono translation project she had completed for a charitable law firm.

Some students have made valuable connections while volunteering to take notes for the organizers of major industry conferences like LocWorld and TAUS.

Another newcomer to localization made contact with several experienced localization managers when sharing tips she found online about free new localization tools.

Many have not only made valuable connections but also gained experience while volunteering to help localize for Mozilla and other open source projects.

One student made connections with other financial translators after sharing some software hacks he discovered for automating quality assurance in financial translations.

Other students have earned the chance to meet well-connected event organizers by volunteering to help set up prior to a Meetup for IMUG, the International Multilingual User Group, in Silicon Valley, California.

Ideally, beginners would prefer to have the knowledge and experience of Beninatto as they strive to network, but they can still find ways to contribute as novices trying to gain such experience.

Experienced professionals also benefit from newcomers

Apart from meeting students in the classes I teach, I also have many opportunities to connect and collaborate with industry newcomers around the globe. When we all attempt to be helpful networkers, these relationships regularly become mutually beneficial.

Although I am not always the most helpful networker, some of these connections have helped me as talented interns or full-time employees. Others have quickly gained experience and also become valuable collaborators who helped me coauthor an article, copresent at a conference, or co-organize an industry event.

These relationships have successfully become mutually beneficial not because we were expecting to receive something in return, but because we were each trying to give. That is the irony and the reality that makes it somewhat awkward to talk about genuine, helpful networking. We don’t want to be like the famous mafia character Don Vito Corleone, in the movie The Godfather, who holds a favor over someone’s head saying in an unmistakable voice, “Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me.” However, we should recognize that just as a rising tide floats all boats, service and good karma eventually make things better for all of us.

What I am saying about networking is not new. If you have attended any industry events, you have probably seen that many kind, experienced professionals are contributing to this industry’s friendly reputation. You have probably also contributed to that positive atmosphere. So, my message is not a call for change, but encouragement to all — old and new — to help us maintain this friendly environment with sincere, helpful networking.