What I Observed about Research Networking from Joining the Mafia

By Charles Sutton on March 3, 2024

I’ve written before about Joseph Pistone, an undercover FBI agent who tricked his way into joining the U.S. mafia in the 1970s, and how his account of the mafia reminds me of my experience of doing research. Here’s another connection between the underworld and the research world. Brasco tells this story about his boss, Sonny, who has just come back from a meeting with the big boss of another organization (Trafficante). Think of this like a middle manager meeting with a CEO of a different company. This is what we read:

In the car Sonny unwound. “It was a feeling-out conversation,” he says, “I told [Trafficante], ‘listen, I'm no sophisticated person. I'm a street person all my life.’ I says, ‘I love the streets, you know. I don't know nothing about nothing, about gambling or anything.’ I says, ‘Me, I just like to go in the street, rob who the f__k I gotta rob.’” -Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia

What impressed me about this was that mobsters have feeling-out conversations. If you want to be a career criminal, you can’t do it all on your own. You need to know other people who can steal stuff along with you, buy the stuff you have stolen, fight people who are trying to cheat you. The truth is — according to my reading, I don’t have first-hand experience! — that professional networking is absolutely vital if you want to make money in the mafia.

I could imagine the equivalent of this feeling-out conversation in the tech industry, or in academia. We don’t go into the street and rob anybody, of course, we’d be laughably incompetent at that. I could imagine a professor telling a new student, “Oh, I still like to write code once in a while, it helps me stay grounded.” Or I think of advice for tech managers about how to stay technical, you know, so they can “go in the street”.

I was thinking about this when I was starting a new collaboration, a while back. You want to work together, you both talk about why you’re excited about the direction, how it’s going to be great because we’re all bringing complementary skills to the table. Maybe you mention how much you’ve enjoyed reading their work over the years. Probably this is all true — you wouldn’t be considering the collaboration otherwise! But from now on, every time this happens, I’m going to be thinking about those two mafia guys in the 1970s, considering a new potential “collaboration” down in Florida.

(PS Oh about the title. The title, of course, refers to what I learned from Joe Pistone joining the Mafia. Not me!)