Sometimes it takes a village to engineer an idea.
Uri Kartoun, a software developer engineer with Microsoft Health Solutions Group in Washington, D.C., was trying to craft a program that generates statistics by analyzing emotional content of email. After tinkering with it for a couple of hours, he put his specs on CodePlex an open-source Website where engineers and computer scientists share projects and ideas. As users started to comment, Kartoun found himself brainstorming with Northwestern University professors, Datascope Analytics founders, and Microsoft Research staff.
“Not only did I get new ideas, but I now have these great relationships,” says Kartoun, who previously sought social media help developing his Bass Monster, a new musical instrument combining a guitar and keyboard. “I don’t think I would have gotten the same input from these people without a networking site, because I can show what I’ve done, and they can read other comments before making suggestions or contacting me.”
Social networking usually brings to mind more generalized arenas, like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. But a number of sites for engineers, computer scientists, and scientific researchers are geared toward more specialized, nuanced networking.
Some sites cover overall engineering, like CR4, while some target specific fields. Element 14, for example, caters to design engineers. Quite a few are devoted to research: Mendeley (a research reference manager and academic social network), MyNetResearch (networking site for global research), ResearchCrossroads (project showcase for funding and collaborators), ResearchGate (social networking site for scientists and engineers to discover share research), and Vivo (connects researchers between participating universities and institutions).
Many of these sites go beyond a “Facebook for engineers” approach. For example, LabRoots, a three-year old networking and collaboration site for scientists, engineers and technical professionals, spent US $500 000 developing proprietary data mining software to create extremely targeted science search engines to collect people involved in similar work and interests, as well as relevant job boards, virtual conferences, videos, live news feeds, blogs, research paper reviews, and other activity within the network. “We’ve tried to make it one-stop shopping within specific science portals, so that you never have to leave the site,” says CEO Greg Cruikshank.
Veterans of these sites warn that, like traditional social media, users have a tendency to over share—a potentially detrimental situation with sensitive material or research.
“I use them for information repositories or to connect with other engineers,” says a computer scientist who works for a national security concern. (He asked that he and his company not be identified because of the clandestine nature of his work.) “These sites give you the ability to reach out and say, `I know you. You know me. Let’s talk.’ But if I’m going to be discussing anything personal or in-depth about my engineering projects, I’ll take it off-site.
“I tend to not share a whole lot on the social networks, since I work in a cleared environment, and many of these sites are watched,” he adds. “You’ll often see researchers on there trying to fill in missing pieces of their research without relaying too much. All someone has to do is publish a week before them, and they’re screwed. Of course, after they’ve published their work, you can’t get them to stop.”
Occasionally, these sites can be too much of a good thing. The last thing some engineers want to do in their off-hours is connect with others in their fields.
“The only social networking site I use that even comes close is LinkedIn,” says Mike Meyer, a Los Angeles software developer. “I generally use social networking sites to get away from other nerds.”