Take a Peer To Lunch. Regularly.

#F5Networks There is a wealth of information out there, don’t forget to tap into it.

Note: When I say “peers” and “lunch” throughout this blog, I am not only referring to IT management. No matter your position in the organization, gathering useful information is always a benefit. Though you’ll want management’s support for the bit where I suggest a two hour lunch. Some IT shops frown on that, even if it’s only occasionally.

In many industries, it is all about word of mouth. I’m not talking about tech-savvy industries that have just rediscovered this truth since Social Media made it impossible for them to ignore, I’m talking about industries for whom it has always been about word of mouth… Take lawn care, child care, and household maintenance for example. In all three cases, most people will hesitate to invite a stranger into their home (or give them access to their children) without a recommendation of someone they trust. This has always been the case, and savvy business people in these markets tend to know that. Once you get into a social circle, it can do good things for your business, if you do a good job. We don’t hesitate to share our likes and dislikes with our friends – offline – and in case you missed it, we don’t hesitate to share some of our likes and dislikes online.

The thing is that everyone is well served by this principal. While it is hard for a business to get started in such an environment, there is always someone who is willing to take a risk and hire without recommendations, and once they do, a good job can lead to more recommendations. Customers who want to be cautious get recommendations from friends in casual conversation, and don’t have to go hire someone they know little about. The trust of someone you trust is enough, in most cases, to settle your concerns.

Yet most people don’t take this trend into the workplace. At least not in most businesses bigger than a startup.

And that, IMO, is a mistake. I’ve heard people dismiss peer’s opinions as, well, opinionated. And of course they’re opinionated, but they’re also just like you – trying to solve problems for the business. The needs of one IT shop, even in a different industry, are often the needs of another. Particularly in regards to infrastructure items like databases, security, networking, and even the physical servers. When doing research into an area that is new for you or you are uncertain of, the first thing you should do is ask peers. Their advice – unlike analysts – is free, and it is forged in the same type of environment your advice would be. That makes it valuable in a way that most other advice is not.

Will they have favorites? Yes. You chose product X for a reason. If that reason is satisfied completely by product X, then you’re going to have good things to say about it. If that reason is not though, you’ll have bad things to say about it. The same is true exactly for your peers. But the advice – if properly framed – is invaluable, because it’s based on actual production experience.

So I would recommend that you take your local peers to lunch regularly, perhaps taking turns footing the bill, and make it a longer lunch. Not “longer than you usually take”, because Ramen between meetings is very quick, but along the lines of a couple of hours. It’s an investment in both networking and peer advice. Talking about things you’re looking into, without mentioning what the overall business project is, can offer up alternative views to the products you’re considering. And that can save both time and money.

Will the advice always suit your needs? No. That’s why I recommend it as the first thing you should do, not the only thing. You still have to do research with your own department’s needs in mind, but if your peer Leia, whom you’ve grown to trust over many lunches says “That company Empire? Yeah, they’re unresponsive and after the sale, their reps are very hostile”, then you have information that much research just isn’t going to turn up, but is important to the decision making process. If nothing else, it gives you something to watch for when negotiating the IT contract for Alderon.

And you’ll get lunch with peers, where you can share anecdotes, perhaps even make some life-long friends. Let’s face it, you’re not going to ask for and give advice for two hours solid, even if you only meet once a month (I recommend every two weeks, but that’s up to you). And no, I don’t recommend the big formal peer gatherings. A regular meeting with a small group will allow people to gradually let down their defenses and offer each other unfiltered advice.

Finding peers is easy. You know who they are – or at least some of them who know some of them. I wouldn’t make the group too big, our Geek Lunch Crowd topped out at around 12, and we still missed some great conversation because at ten or so it starts to splinter along the length of the table. But finding ten people who share your job but in other organizations should be easy. They’re not exactly hiding, and if you don’t know anyone to start this with, ask coworkers for suggestions.

Your business will be better served. I’ve seen these lunches answer vexing problems, serve up plenty of opinion, and offer an outlet for frustration with vendors, employers, contractors, and even family.

Published Oct 13, 2011
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