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If you’re in a small IT shop, it can tend to feel a bit lonely. But that doesn’t mean you lack friends in the virtual world.

Q: After years of teaching myself about computers, I’ve fallen into an IT job almost by accident. Basically, my friend started a company and hired me because I wanted to be an IT manager and was willing to work cheap in order to get the experience. It’s working out pretty well, except that I’m the only person doing IT, and I’ve begun to feel like something is missing. I can keep up with the technology, but not having any colleagues in the department makes me feel like I’m not in the know with other IT people. I’m not shy, but I also don’t like the idea of just introducing myself to strangers at tech conferences, who might think I’m networking or pathetic. What can I do to make some IT pals?

A: In the non-IT world, an image of the geeky, lone tech guy tends to prevail. Some people still imagine all technologically inclined people learning their craft in a dank basement, surrounded by wiring. Although nearly everyone in the tech world actually does know someone like this, the truth is that the IT industry is rife with personable, chatty people as well, and it sounds like you’re one of them. It’s understandable that you’d feel a bit lonely as the only tech person at a small company, especially if you haven’t held this kind of job before. And it’s even more understandable that you’d yearn to talk to someone who says things like, “Have you heard about the new Linux certifications?” rather than, “Can you fix my printer?”

Fortunately, opportunities for getting new pals are as abundant as tech support problems. The first place to start is that haven for the tech-savvy, the Internet. You’re already keeping up with the latest trends in the field, and probably doing it through sites like Slashdot and TechRepublic, so why not make your learning experience a bit more interactive? If you sign up with TechRepublic, you’ll have access to their peer directory, which is chock full of people just like you, who want to connect to others in the industry. Also, membership is free, so there’s no risk.

Another good source of chummy behavior is ITtoolbox, which not only has information about the field, but also provides a unique way to meet your fellows. Accessing the site’s blog program is like having a whole legion of IT colleagues in the office. Best of all, the blogs are from a range of IT professionals and address myriad tech issues. Unlike bulletin board postings, the blogs are frequently updated by the same authors, so they’re people you begin to feel that you know, and whose professional challenges will no doubt feel familiar.

Don’t forget to post as well as read. Reading bulletin boards and blogs will give you a sense of what’s happening at other workplaces, but only posting will get you into the discussion, and feel like you’re truly part of the scene. Asking advice or giving it is one of the best parts of a professional relationship; it makes you feel like you’re not alone in a cold technological landscape.

Once you’ve made a few online pals, you might feel closer to being comfortable enough to do what you thought you couldn’t-chat with strangers at conferences. Rather than just sidling up to someone at a cocktail party, however, you can make friends and professional contacts while engaged in career-related activities. For example, at some point you’ll probably want to get certifications, if you haven’t embarked on that already. For this, I’d recommend going to a class rather than getting education online or cramming on your own. Although you’ve taught yourself computers and have that auto-didactic inclination, a boot camp class or other intensive course might be a better fit.

Because they often emphasize teamwork, these type of super-concentrated classes tend to bring students together. The work is hard, but the camaraderie is swell-which is part of the reason they call them boot camps, after all.

Finally, with your online skills and classroom charm in place, you can hit those conferences with a lighter step and a breezier manner. Since you yearn to chat as much as possible with other IT types, don’t just attend a conference every six months or so. Join a local tech association, or even start one.

While at conference session or association gatherings, it’s possible that you’ll run into your training pals and online buddies as well. With all this socializing, before you even realize it you’ll be in the know, and even better, your office won’t feel so empty anymore.

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