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Posted on: Sunday, 07 February 2010 by Rajiv Popat

If you worked with me years or even months ago, chances are that I have lost your phone number. Chances are also high that I have not kept in touch with you. Like most programmers, I knit closely with you when you are working with me and then when our ways part, I disconnect.

But then, I have nothing against you.

It is just that when you move on and do not connect on a daily basis, that familiar system of connection is gone. Conversations with you, have to begin with small talk again and like most programmers, I am not very comfortable with the idea of small talk. So, I tend to totally disconnect totally.

The paragraphs above pretty much sum up a huge part of my school life and a huge part of my early life as a young and budding programmer. Put simply, as a school student, a college graduate and a young programmer, I connected to a very small group of family members, friends and colleagues.

If you did not know me personally and if we did not spend hours having deep conversations every week, you would make me very nervous. What I, dear reader, as a youngster, failed to understand, was the power and value of keeping in touch and learning from acquaintances.

Put simply, as a youngster I did not 'get' the whole point of what Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, the tipping point, describes as 'weak ties'. Malcolm explains the power of 'weak ties' with a very simple example:

In his classic 1974 study Getting a job, Granovetter looked at several hundred professional and technical workers from the Boston suburb of Newton, interviewing them in some detail on their employment history. He found that 56 percent of those he talked to found their job through a
personal connection.

Another 18.8 percent used formal means — advertisements, head hunters — and roughly 20 percent applied directly. This much is not surprising; the best way to get in the door is through a personal contact.

But, curiously, Granovetter found that of those personal connections, the majority were "weak ties." Of those who used a contact to find a job, only 16.7 percent saw that contact "often" — as they would if the contact were a good friend — and 55.6 percent saw their contact only "occasionally." Twenty-eight percent saw the contact "rarely."

People weren't getting their jobs through their friends. They were getting them through their acquaintances.

Why is this? Granovetter argues that it is because when it comes to finding out about new jobs — or, for that matter, new information, or new ideas - "weak ties" are always more important than strong ties. Your friends, after all, occupy the same world that you do. They might work with you, or live near you, and go to the same churches, schools, or parties. How much, then, would they know that you wouldn't know?

Your acquaintances, on the other hand, by definition occupy a very different world than you.

They are much more likely to know something that you don't. To capture this apparent paradox, Granovetter coined a marvelous phrase: the strength of weak ties. Acquaintances, in short, represent a source of social power, and the more acquaintances you have the more powerful you are.

My first hand experience with the power of 'weak ties' came after about a year and a half of blogging when this blog landed me with my first job offer. Months later I received another. While I humbly declined both of them, what deeply moved me, was that I had touched and connected to a person who I hardly knew in real life and who, merely by the virtue of my writing was able to extend an offer to me.

But this isn't just about job offers or the power that 'weak ties' brings you.

After a while that bit, becomes boring.

It wears out.

What remains fascinating is just how much you can learn through some of these 'weak ties'.

This Saturday morning I made a new acquaintance with a hokey player who taught me something about perseverance. He talked at length about how, grace of god, luck and consistency have a great part to play in everything you take up. These two together, he believes, helped him get his Olympics gold medal.

The evening was spent, chatting with a school friend who had drifted into the finance world. He gave me a few tips on making some money in the stock exchange. We discussed investments and the possibility of my being able to help him in a small fun project that would help him build investment models using a SQL server backend and a decent enough front end.

Both conversations, somewhere deep down, inspired me to become a better developer, a better professional and above all a better human being in general.

While we as developers, often spend hours talking to the compiler and our evenings with friends and family, we often miss out of the importance of connecting to your acquaintances or even strangers every now and then. We miss out on the fun of striking meaningful conversations with them and we miss out on the opportunities of learning from these conversations.

Even today, as I reach out to countless 'weak ties' and acquaintances I have been guilty of not making myself accessible to and learning from countless others.

If my statistics serve me right, this blog alone, is visited by, a few acquaintances I can learn from. A few very bright minds I can connect to and have meaningful discussions with. It is in the spirit of learning, participating and sharing experiences that I am starting my very own little corner in facebook.

You, dear reader, are invited to join in.

I will be scribbling on the wall there every now and then, posting a question or a discussion when I need your advice on a specific problem and above all, I will be reaching out and connecting to anyone who wants to connect.

It is an open group so anyone can join in and if you are regular reader of this blog I hope to see you there.

Now, take a pause and go figure out your ways to connect to all your acquaintances or 'weak ties', start meaningful conversations with them and learn from them.

I wish you good luck.