Understanding “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

July 10, 2013

It is regularly said that “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” This is a common phrase that may be even more popular these days due to economic hardships.

While the statement is undoubtedly true it also misrepresents how things work in the real world. After seeing things from both sides it’s not what you might be led to believe.

Entering the Workplace

The first step of a successful career is often the hardest one. Getting your foot in the door is a daunting and often frustrating task. As a graduate you have no professional experience and no real network. Sure you have a lot of friends from school, but they’re all just as desperate for a job as you are!

When I was finishing school I distinctly recall thinking how unfair it was that it’s “who you know” world when I was a student who didn’t know anyone. It’s easy to imagine people with strong connections as greedy one percenters who were born with a silver spoon and haven’t worked a day in their lives. Suffice to say that isn’t how things work.

Company Growth

I work at a video game company, Uber Entertainment. Uber started with a handful of people in a two bedroom apartment and grew slowly. I was hired near the end of year two and distinctly recall a point where 13 of 16 employees had previously worked at Gas Powered Games.

Today we’re at 23 full-time employees and only slightly more diverse — 15 of 23 are from GPG. Of the remaining 8 only one or two are “off the street” so to speak. Everyone else had either been worked with directly or came with strong recommendation from trusted peers.

This hiring practice could be viewed as unfair nepotism. The reality of the situation is far less nefarious and much more boring — it’s common sense. If you have a job opening and know someone who is willing and able to fill the role then you bring them on board. Hiring through an open call is a last resort after you’ve fully exhausted your company’s extended network.

Many teams, particularly small teams and start-ups, are able to fully staff based purely on hiring previous colleagues or exclusively via recommendation. This hiring strategy works exceptionally well.

Your Network is Your Friends

How do you build a strong professional network? I think it’s elegantly simple.

  1. Be good at what you do.
  2. Make friends.
  3. Meet friends of your friends.

That’s it. I roll my eyes every time I read an article about someone “hacking” the system and securing a lunch meeting with an executive big shot. That’s a black swan event and may not even be as useful as you’d think.

Your network is your friends. It’s not a guy you talked to for two minutes at an industry party. It’s not someone you met briefly and handed a business card. It’s friends you’ve built a real a connection with over time. Friends you know and trust.

It is also important to actually be good at what you do. Someone making a recommendation is putting their reputation on the line. It’s not something that can be done without careful consideration.

Be good at what you do, build real friendships, and everything else follows naturally.