Going to conferences is a great chance for you to not only gain technical skills and go to parties, but to also do some networking. We all know that meeting different people or being introduced to influential personalities can contribute to your professional career. It might not be at first instance, but it can have an effect in the long run. However, for it to be somewhat effective, you need to follow-up with the future opportunities. Unless you make a big impact on someone you meet at a conference for the first time (something that excludes embarrassing yourself or that person), chances are you'd need to meet them again or somehow stay in touch to be able to get something productive out of it (before anyone jumps at my throat, I'm talking about a "professional network" and not a social one, so the aim is to get something out of it other than friendship). In other words, networking is not usually a one-time thing. It takes time to build up a relationship, a network of people you get to know and collaborate with, one way or another. And as I mentioned, conferences and events are great opportunities for this.
Then there are social and professional networking infrastructures (i.e. web sites) that claim to serve the purpose of promoting networking between your peers. One of these is LinkedIn. I can't remember when I even signed up to this network. It was quite some time ago. I was really chuffed to receive my first request to join someone else's network (that is, the first real invitation that didn't come from some weirdo that thinks sticking things in a steering wheel is a good pass-time). Currently I'm 90% complete on my network and according to LinkedIn, that's a good thing! In fact, I have over 46.000 people on my network. Wow! Now, not all of them are direct contacts. They are people that are contacts of people that are contacts of other people that are contacts of mine or of my people. However, the important thing is that we're all linked in.
This seems good. I've got a reputable number of direct connections. I've got several thousands of indirect connections and I've nearly completed by network. What have I accomplished? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. LinkedIn is useless. Actually that's not entirely correct. It's not useless for those who run it. I'm sure they get some sort of revenue from Google Ads and other advertising they have. However, for me, it's useless.
Let's analyze a little bit my personal situation. On my network I have a whole range of people. There are former and current workmates. There are classmates, customers, both past and future, colleagues, etc. To date, unless it's been someone I've never heard of, I've never rejected an invitation request that's been sent to me. I have a bunch of people that supposedly I'm related to, one way or another. What purpose does this serve? Well, one of the ideas behind LinkedIn is to build up a network of contacts that can serve at a professional level, i.e. I used to work with Joe at Company X. So if John wants to hire Joe and he knows me and that Joe worked with me, then he can either base his decision on that or ask me about Joe. That's one of the multiple uses LinkedIn might provide. The number of ways in which you can supposedly use LinkedIn is directly proportional to the types of contacts you might have in your network. If I have past customers linked to me, this should serve me to recommend these customers to colleagues, or for customers to know that they worked with me in the past and would do so in the future also.
Well that all sounds great, but it doesn't work. I've never used LinkedIn for any of those purposes. I've never used LinkedIn to find a job either. I've never had anyone contact me based on them knowing me via LinkedIn or in regard to someone that is connected to me on my network. And I have +46.000 connections. Don't forget, my network is 90% complete. Maybe I'm impatient. Maybe I should wait two or three years and then questions and offers start pouring in. I doubt it.
If the principle purpose of this "professional network" is to connect people on a professional level, they have it all wrong. If someone wants to hire one of my co-workers because they are MY co-worker, this person probably knows me well enough to know that the guy works with me and therefore contact me directly. Some might argue that it's about keeping in touch. That doesn't work. First of all, not everyone keeps their profile updated on LinkedIn. Secondly, if you want to keep in touch with someone, you need to have some sort of continuous flow of interactions with. If you don't have a constant communication, and you pretend to contact someone because of past interactions you have, such as being their customer, you don't need LinkedIn to remind you of that person. You should know him/her well enough to know if it they will serve the objectives you're after. In other words, a customer I have currently is not necessarily going to be a future customer based on them being on my connections. They'll be my customer if my future business suits their needs. And they'll base (should) this decision solely on having had some sort of personal contact with me at my previous job. Having done that, it's most likely that they know me so as to not forget who I am. I don't see LinkedIn acting here as a reminder of who I am or was or where I used to work.
The worst part of this is that as your network grows, the less productive the whole idea becomes. You end up having people on your network that you don't even know, but are connected to you because someone you're related to has them on their connections. Where LinkedIn fails is that for networking to be productive you have to stay in touch and have a continuous flow with those you are trying to "connect" to. With LinkedIn you don't. If you did, you wouldn't need it to begin with. You would have all those contacts in your Outlook or see them once a year at your favorite gathering. You wouldn't need a infrastructure to remind you who your "connections" are.