By now it’s undeniable that the scale of usage of social networking, as this info graphic on Facebook presents, is impossible to ignore for web savvy businesses. My employer, Catapult Systems, asked employees to consider enhancing their personal brand by signing up for a Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In account if they didn’t already have one, and also offers a set of aggregated blogs on that are straightforward to link to your own personal blog.

When this request was first made, the blogging aspect seemed natural to me. The benefit of bringing more traffic to my blog from technical folks I do business with through my day job and the returning visits to Catapults’ makes a lot of sense from a marketing standpoint. However with so many companies banning Twitter and Facebook due to the frequent flow of information coming in, our CEO still surprised me with his willingness to take a chance on the risk that employees could abuse this power. Though Catapult has some of the most personable, professional people I’ve ever worked with there, it still seemed like an exciting experiment at first.

What I’ve found however, is that for a consultant so much of being effective means understanding the clients you do business with as people, and their personal needs on a day to day basis. When most people think of Facebook friends, they think of distant relatives, old friends from school, and past loves. To share a thought on life, pictures of something you did in your spare time, or a recent challenge once privy only to your closest and most immediate friends can now be communicated en masse to the whole of your global circle. At first this can seem trite – why would these people care? And going further, why would the folks I work with, or the clients that pay me to solve their problems even want to know?

The reality is that between setting vision, gathering requirements, designing and steering, development activities, and (hopefully) happy hour celebrations on a successful project there is much more dialogue related to life outside of work than we care to acknowledge in this trying economic time. And people bring with them experiences and connections to other industries and aspects of life that can be helpful to each other in ways that enhance their personal lives, and as a result, their working relationships. Healthier working relationships lead to improved efficiency and general wellbeing within a project or organization.

Since following more of my coworkers (and a few clients) on these networks, I’ve had some find that I’m a recreational cyclist, musician, and father. This has led to sparking conversations about riding to work, the music we listen to while writing software, and strategies for having a solid work/life balance when children are involved. These conversations, and the resulting changes in life that follow, have a healthy, positive effect on how we feel when we arrive on the job each day, and the ability to understand what drives each other. Many companies when interviewing technical candidates ask “what are you passionate about?” and get responses about technology X or some industry expert’s blog. But when we are honest with each other as human beings – a job is still just one vehicle to use in our journey towards wherever we’re going with life. What drives us is often much more, and sharing that with others improves trust and encourages breaking down barriers to communication.

There is still the issue of managing the time spent on social networks, and for me the solution came in the form of an excellent chat client with some advanced social networking features. I was first introduced to digsby by a colleague of mine, Josh Handel, early in 2009.  Digsby lets you use a variety of chat networks much like other available programs that have been around like Trillian and Pidgin (formerly Gaim). However it was first to the gate with deep social network integration and lets me be notified of activity in my twitter, gmail, facebook, and linked in accounts while I work. The team also releases updates whenever a compatibility issue arises between that service and digsby quickly.

The digsby task tray shows your configured social network connections (shown here in the Windows 7 taskbar) and the number of “updates” for that service:

digsby’s Task Tray Icons

Once running, digsby will pop notification icons on your desktop whenever something happens in one of these services. This lets me instantly see when a colleague of mine adds a new connection in linked in, I get an email in gmail, someone needs help on Facebook, or something interesting happens on twitter.

digsby’s Automatic Notifications

I’m able to ignore the updates that aren’t interesting to me without having to scan the full web page for that service, and take action by clicking on the notification when it’s of use to me. I follow several technologists including Martin Fowler on twitter, and I’ve had several times when tweets from them have linked to content that helps me solve a technical problem, or explain a process issue to my client. Of course I still have to avoid clicking links that take me to photos (however cute) of friends kids, and stop myself from reading a technical link if it turns out to be some rant about a technology that isn’t helping me solve a problem. But with great power comes great responsibility, as in all things.

Finally, each icon can be clicked on to show a panel for that service with most of the information you’d see on its web page. Updates can be scrolled and links of interest can be clicked to open your default web browser to that page.


digsby’s Facebook Panel

I remember back in high school having friends that you saw outside of school, and friends that you were personable with in school but never saw at home. I think of social networks as an enabler to a greater circle of trusted friends. These networks become a catalyst for forming deeper connections with people you normally do business with, and encourage making them a bigger part of your life and as a result, trusted advisors at work.

consulting, social, technologies

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