Mary K. Schmidl

What are the main “weapons” in the armory of the food professional?

The first and most obvious is, of course, food science and technology knowledge. The second is workplace experience wisdom to apply that knowledge. The third is personal networking.

Networking has three laws, like the three laws of thermodynamics. The first, the “zeroth law,” is that everyone you know is part of your personal network. That is the bottom line in equilibrium, as in the gas law, but is only the foundation to build on. The second, the “first law,” is that everyone else that everyone in your personal network knows is also part of your extended personal network. And the third, the “second law,” is that it is important to cultivate your personal network to become well respected by the people in it, so that when you seek help they do not regard you as a nuisance but are happy to help. For example, you would not ask a food rheologist for help on a microbiological stability problem, as you would use up their valuable time and perhaps make them feel bad for not solving your problem. You do not want to become negative entropy, maximizing your own and their disorder.

Thus, a carefully built and maintained network consists of everyone you have ever known—and everyone they have ever known. It is like a diagram for a “smart” artificial intelligence system, a series of nodes with connections only in the “right” directions.

Your professors and lecturers are part of your network, along with your classmates. If you make them part of your ongoing network, in later years you will find them in middle or senior positions in many different parts of the food field. Think of all your peers, your senior colleagues, and your junior colleagues as potential members of your network. If you are in industry, think about the people you are in contact with in supplying companies, or in companies that your company supplies. Do not neglect to cultivate support staff. They are usually the guardians of the gateway to the person you want to contact, and, unless they regard you positively, you may not gain access to the person you want.

As a food scientist or technologist, a very important part of your network is IFT. There, you can find potential members of your network in Regional Sections and Divisions, and through use of the IFT Web site and portal, which contains a depth of information generated from many experts from around the world. To enhance these parts of your network, it is extremely valuable to attend the IFT Annual Meeting and your Regional Section meetings. Any experienced member will tell you that apart from the helpful information that you gain from attending symposia and technical meetings, the networking that goes on is also beneficial.

Additionally consider joining listservs, like the IFT Food Law Division listserv that is designed to get fast answers to food law questions you may have. Another important aspect to enhance your network is by volunteering and being elected or appointed to serve on committees and task forces with other volunteers within IFT. When bonds are formed among volunteers, they are especially strong and can last a lifetime.

But what is all this networking for, what benefits or value does it bring, and how do we minimize entropy? Everyone, even the most knowledgeable and experienced among us, needs assistance from time to time. In extreme circumstances, anyone in industry, no matter how senior or how good at their job, can suddenly be out of a job through company mergers, takeovers, or downsizing.

Whatever the nature of the help you need, a well-established network should contain a range of contacts to whom you can turn. Here are a few tips on proper use.

First, how much network contacts might be willing to help you will depend on the closeness of your relationship, their feeling about how effectively they might be able to help, and their own time pressures. So only ask contacts questions that you think they can answer, and do show consideration for their time. Networks do count! A past study of MIT engineering graduates found that 85% of them phoned a friend (obviously a network node) to ask about a potential solution to a processing problem they had. This was their first step in problem solving.

Second, never ask a network contact, “Can you find me a job?” You might, however, ask, “Could you advise me if you know anyone who might need my particular skills?”

Third, if you use a listserv to ask questions, remember that they are not confidential, despite the clauses many people have at the end of their messages. In addition, make sure that you observe proper etiquette for the particular listserv you use. There are countless examples of abuse on many very useful food science listservs. For example, do not convey that you are the only one with the “right” answer. Some may be awed by this, but it is a great means of losing respect and decreasing the nodes of your network.

Finally, remember that networks are not one-way. They are means for mutual help. You are part of the extended network of everyone who is part of yours, so be prepared to act accordingly.

IFT President, 2000–01