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On building a "personal brand" in tech
If you really want to do it, here's how.
Occasionally somebody in the tech world reaches out to me and says "You seem to have a good personal brand, how did you do that?"
This question seems to take as an unexamined premise that having a “personal brand” —whatever that is — is a good thing, or worth striving for, which I don’t necessarily concede. After all, you can have a lovely career in tech without devolving into your own PR flack. If what you want is to earn respect from your peers, the best way to do that is probably to build something cool, not to get better at blowing your own horn.
Pressed on the subject, most people agree with this. But the question keeps coming because the pervasive, underlying belief remains: my career would be better if I spoke at more conferences, wrote more blog posts, had better name recognition. Is that realistic for me?
OK, fine. If you really want to go after this personal brand thing, here’s what you have to do. Consider this my last word on the subject.*
*You can judge for yourself whether my own “personal brand”, such as it may be, qualifies me to speak on any of this.
Find your niche
If you are completely new to putting yourself out there in the tech world, the best piece of advice I know is to find a small space where you can make a big impact. For me, that was the serverless developer community, which was embryonic when I started building apps with Lambda in 2015. The blog posts I wrote about what I was doing resonated with a small group of enthusiasts. It wasn't some big established community that required years of street cred. Even though I was far from an expert, I could kind of just jump in and have a voice.
Serverless has gotten way bigger (though there's still tons of room for passionate people!) but the important thing is to find the topic *you* are passionate about. If you care about something enough to write and share about it, you will soon meet others with the same interests. And you can speed this process up if you...
Use existing networks to amplify your reach
The first blog post I ever wrote that went mini-viral was this sweaty little screed on remote work, which made the front page of Hacker News in January 2016. It earned a few thousand clicks in an afternoon and I thought I had made it as a blogger. I didn't have another post that successful for two years.
The point being: nothing happens overnight, but my work went a lot farther when I shared it where others were likely to see it. As of this writing, there's an explosion of online publications like dev.to that seem to do a great job of surfacing content on behalf of creators. Use 'em! You'll find a lot of advice online about owning your own domain, controlling your contacts, whatever. I think there's plenty of time to worry about that after people already know how to find you.
But you have to be careful here, because it's important that you...
Be constructive and thought-provoking
Being snarky on the internet is fun! Maybe your witty takedowns and devastating comebacks will win you a huge following. But only a few people can pull this off consistently without sounding toxic, and they usually have big accomplishments that lend weight to their criticisms.
I'm not suggesting you degenerate into smarm. But positivity and kindness will probably get you farther (and make you happier!) than reflexive grumpiness. Build with technology you love, and tell the world what you like about it. Tag the creators. They will be overjoyed to share your writing. These mutual good vibes go a long way, and soon you'll find yourself welcomed into the communities you want to be part of, as long as you...
Create useful content, not social media spam
I have such ambivalence toward Twitter. It's been good for my career, it's connected me to a lot of great people, but it has a measurably negative impact on my mental state and a lot of days I wish I'd never heard of it.
Anyway, your Twitter presence will carry a lot more weight if you are known for doing something other than just being on Twitter.
If you are not sure what to create, I don't think you can go wrong with writing. The written word -- not conference talks, not podcasts, not videos, not even side projects on Github -- is still king if you want people to actually consume what you are creating. Do those other things if you want to, but always write words. Text is easily searched, easily shared, easily translated, easily quoted. It lasts.
It doesn't even matter so much *what* you write -- how-to posts are a fine place to start. Your experiences are worth sharing and will help somebody. They don't have to be earth-shaking or revolutionary. Stay consistent, share your work on platforms where engineers congregate, and you will be noticed.
But maybe don't work for a tech vendor
This might sound counterintuitive, but if you want to put yourself out there in the tech community, you may want to work for a company that doesn't sell stuff to developers.
Unless you are a big name already, in which case your followers will put up with — or even welcome — the occasional pitch for your product, it's possible that the community will regard your efforts to engage them as less authentic if you are working for a vendor.
Moreover, a lot of community conferences explicitly prioritize talks from practitioners: people who are using tools and services to accomplish business tasks. Your day job can be a huge booster for you here. But if you work for a vendor or a consultant, conference organizers may find your talk proposals less compelling.
This is the great Catch-22 of "developer advocacy" roles, which require you to keep up a big community following while detaching you from the hands-on experience you need to stay credible with that community in the first place. I have huge respect for the small number of people, and it is a small number, who can pull this off. Most of us are better off keeping a day job in engineering.
(Total aside: I'm not trying to spew some kind of Instagram-influencer crap about being “authentic” or “genuine”. This isn't about marketing tricks. It always raises my hackles when I see someone urging people to share their "whole selves" on public-facing social media as an engagement tactic. You owe the world nothing except what you choose to share. Boundaries are healthy, especially when you start taking a lot of your free time to create professional content. I'm just saying it helps to remove skepticism about your motives in producing that content.)
On the other hand, if you work for a vendor that *sponsors* conferences, you may have guaranteed opportunities to speak!
Lift up others
One of the fastest ways to grow your community presence is to partner with someone who already has a large following. I became an AWS Serverless Hero in part because of the series of in-depth interviews I did for A Cloud Guru with big names like Simon Wardley and Kelsey Hightower. Their insights, not mine, drove eyeballs to those articles, and that had indirect benefits for my visibility and credibility (not to mention I got to pick the brains of people way smarter than me, which was more than worth the time spent on the whole project).
Kelsey and Simon didn't have to sit down for an interview with me. The marginal utility for them was probably small. But they did it in part, I assume, to be gracious to a younger technologist.
Once you start to build a bit of a following, it's already time to pass that on. Lift others up. Share their work. Host them on your podcast or whatever. Honor your commitments, and your impact will grow even more.
Keep it up
Yes, I realize this is an ironic piece of advice coming from someone who called his newsletter “Cloud Irregular” so he wouldn’t have to commit to putting it out on any kind of schedule.
But if you want this “personal brand” thing, you have to keep putting in the work, over and over. Executing side projects and uncovering new avenues to reach people. Staying available early and late. Going after opportunities that stretch and scare you. Month after month, year after year after year.
If that sounds exhausting, well, now you’re getting the idea.
The bottom line
Is a "personal brand" in tech worth the time and expense it takes to build?
Maybe! It depends on your goals. Getting better at writing and speaking will serve you well in any job. Building some name recognition in a technical community -- as long as it's not outright *infamy* -- certainly multiplies your career options. And you can definitely use influence to impact other people's lives for the better.
But giving your spare time (and it will be mostly spare time, unless you have a super indulgent day job) to all this extracurricular work can easily lead to burnout, especially for introverts. If you’re speaking a lot, at some point you’ll want to get some professional coaching. And if you don’t have support from your day job, you may end up paying out of pocket for the time and travel needed. It's not for everyone, and you can have a great career without it.
Either way, you are responsible for the process of improving yourself and your opportunities. Whether you want to think of that as a "brand" or not is up to you.
In the meantime, for whatever it may be worth, I'll make a commitment here: if you have created a piece of technical content that you need help amplifying (no vendors please), just send me the link or tag me on Twitter and I will happily share it. Good luck!
Links and events
Strange but true: I signed a book deal this month! The book is about ... well, I'm honestly not sure I can describe what this book will be other than that 1) it has to do with the cloud, and 2) I'm not sure there's ever been something quite like it, except possibly the poem "A Nauseous Nocturne" from Calvin and Hobbes. Watch this space for more info soon.
ServerlessConf 2019 is almost here! The workshops are sold out, but we still have some space available in the main conference as well as in the hackathon. This is an epic event, and I would love to see you in NYC.
Jeremy Daly and I chatted about enterprise CI/CD on his Serverless Chats podcast.
I battled a bunch of other AWS Serverless Heroes in a reality-style coding competition. It did not go well for me.
You can watch my talk on serverless migrations from Dash NYC, "When Bad Architectures Happen To Good People."