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Building a Personal Brand in the Developer Community

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This article is about how to brand yourself as a programmer, and it was written by the Codementor team based on the Codementor Office Hours hosted by Frédéric Harper, the Head of Developer Relations at Mashape.

Branding Image

Do you recognize this logo? It is the transformation of Pepsi’s logo. You will recognize it because it is well known. The brand is so strong that even if there is no tide line and title, you can still know what it is.

What is personal branding?

The idea of personal branding is basically the same with that of company branding. When you think about soft drinks, you will think about Coke or Pepsi because their brands are strong. Doing personal branding is the same thing-show people who you are and what you’re passionate about. When you think of some programming language or technology, you’d associate it with several big names who are really good at what they do.

I really like how Paul Irish at Google puts it: Personal branding is the art of consistently presenting, online and offline, the essence of how you stand out from the crowd.

In other words, you need to be consistent and need to work on specific things that are really a part of you and how people see you. So it’s really about you-about yourself, who you are, and who you want to be. You’d set up some goals, and you work on them to become a better person and a better developer. Personal branding is also about how you want to be seen. Because no matter what you think, no matter whether or not you care about what people think about you, at the end of the day, it means a lot.

For example, you can be seen as the best Python developer out there when you are just beginning to learn it. You can give a great talk at a conference and seem like you are better than other people, even though there are people who are better than you. So, it’s really about how people see you. It’s about what you know and what you are doing. For example, are you organizing an event, or do you always help people?

In my case, I’ve organized a geek fest in Montreal before, and although I am not doing those things anymore, I was the one who created and started the first festival, so people still look me in that way. What I’ve done is a part of me, where people look at me and they know I’m a geek because I’ve started that geek fest, and this is the power of branding.

Personal branding is also about your tribe. What I mean about tribe, is the people you know (eg. your friends, colleagues, people you’ve met at conferences, etc). It’s also about who knows you, seen though you may not really know them. They may have heard of you because you wrote a great blog post, or maybe they’re following you on twitter. Tribe is going to be really important so I’ll come back on this later.

It’s also about what you like and what you do not like. Because today it’s so easy to share what you like and what you don’t like on social media, and all of these things will affect how people see you. So it’s really about everything that defines you.

Why should you care about personal branding?

My first question about it will be: is personal branding really important?

I am going to say that personal branding is not “important”. It’s critical. We are living in a world right now where it’s easier to create connections and to reach the next level. However, you need to take control of your personal brand, to be the owner of your personality and your goals. So, it’s not really about being that rock star or maybe it is. Maybe it’s about being well-known. Maybe it’s about having some more power. However, it is not always about being that super international presenter that is going to speak across the world. As a developer, I think we really have the power to take our personal brand to the next level.

I started my developer life ten years ago, and I love coding. At the same time, I am a social person-I love sharing my passion with other people. So, when I discovered that there is a weird role called technical evangelist, I wanted to do it. However, at the time I didn’t have any skill to fit the role, so I started develop my personal brand and to work on it. I wasn’t a shitty developer, but I think I’m pretty average. However, I went from developer to technical evangelist, from Microsoft to senior technical evangelist in Mozilla, and now I’ve moved to Mashape started in San Francisco and I’m building an evangelist team. I think it’s quite neat how I was able to go from job to job all because of my personal brand. I’m not super well known, but I’m more known than I was before, and I have a better job. I don’t care about Monday anymore because I love my job and I am having fun at work.

I have a bad news for you: You are not indispensable.

Tomorrow, you could lose your job-it’s sad, but it’s the reality. There is no employment security anymore, and it also happened to me before where I thought I was doing ok, but my boss laid me off. You are not indispensable, so you need to make yourself more indispensable by building a brand. Maybe there are new opportunities ahead for you. Maybe there is a new job you want to do, or you want to get another job that will get you a better paycheck. Maybe you just want recognition, and this is not a bad thing to want. You deserve to be successful and happy-I’ve spoken to so many people who don’t like their job, but they just don’t change it.

Of course, changing jobs is not always so easy. If you have your personal brand, it’s easier to find your next job. Take myself for example, I am not better than anyone else, and when I decided to leave Microsoft, I wrote a blog post saying that I am done with it and I need a new job for a new challenge, and I got a great offer because I had a great network and a great brand. I did the same thing for Mozilla, which means I got these opportunities all because I care about my personal brand and I try hard to manage it. What you need to keep in your mind is that whether you know it or not, you already have your personal brand. People define you and judge you by the past working experiences. The most important thing is you need to manage it and try to take the ownership of the brand back.

Some people may have some concerns about using personal branding materials such as blog links and open source projects on traditional job applications. I would say don’t be afraid to do it. When I previously did some interview, one of the links I sent was my blog’s. I am really transparent and honest on my blog posts, so you can get a good idea about my passion, my expertise and also about who I am. Because you are going to work with me, you’d want to know a little bit more about me, not just about my technical things.

So, send your Github profiles, your blog, your Twitter account, and everything else that could make sense to the job. Don’t be afraid. Sometimes there’s going to be some party pictures , or some code you’re not very proud of on Github. But that’s OK! If that recruiter is looking for a perfect empolyee who is going to be perfect all the time, you may not want to work at that company.

How to manage your personal brand

Define your Goal

First, you need to define your goal. Why do you want to work on that brand?

Like I said before, maybe you want a bigger paycheck, want to be a freelancer or just want more opportunities to choose from, but you need to define your goal. After doing this, you need to define your brand. How do you want people to see you? How do you want people to think about you? You need to find something that makes you unique. It’s somewhat tricky, since I could be a good JavaScript developer out there but there are more JavaScript developers who are better than me, so you need to find the secret sauce that will make you unique, and it will be something you will always work on. Never lie to yourself or to other people because it’s going to hurt you more than anything else.

It’s about who you are and about who you want to be. As I mentioned earlier, when I was looking to become a developer evangelist, I did not have the essential skills such as public speaking. So I tried to learn how to do it by finding some small conferences, giving some speeches there, and changing my Twitter career to “public speaker”. My goal was to shape my personal branding to being a public speaker, and step by step, I become more confident as one. Now, I am better than those who have never given a speech in public.

There are some typical errors that programmers make when they start personal branding, and the most serious one is that they push themselves too much. They try to do everything and attempt to push themselves to everywhere. Do not open every account and do not try to do everything everywhere-you should only do the things that make a lot sense and impact for you, and only do the things you have time to do. You can just start a blog and forget everything else, and you don’t need to do the things that you don’t like or things that make no sense to you. As an example, I have a google plus account but I am not a big fan of google plus. So, I go there once and a while, but I will not spend too much time on it. I may shut down google plus someday because I don’t like having a practically empty account I don’t want to use.

Instead, I will recommend you think of personal branding as a part of your daily job. I would think the personal branding to be more included in everything you do. Don’t think this is about something seperate, and instead, optimize what you have already done. For example, if you have expertise in some specific languages and you have a lot of cool projects that you worked on, why not put them somewhere available? Github, Bitbucket , etc. You are still continuing to do what you love and to work on your technical skills, but you are going to have something online for people to see and participate in. Or, say you want to learn more about some specific programing language-why not write some posts about how you learned this programing language and about the problems you ran into? There are a lot of things you can do to polish your personal brand.

1. Be authentic

Don’t be afraid to show your true color and don’t be afraid to show your true self. I have seen many accounts that are business-driven and I think it’s all right. However, personally I like people to be more human, I like them for being honest to people and to themselves.

2. Do epic shit  Always try to do amazing things.

3. Do what you love

Your brand should be around something you like (e.g. developing software, API, mobile development, etc). If you don’t like something and you just take it up because it could lead you to success, you will always need to create passion for yourself.

4. Make it art
This is more of a marketing advice, but you’ll see the return on investment if you do high-quality work.

5. Make your own rules

Make your own rules and don’t be afraid to fight the status quo.

Get visibility

This the secret sauce about how to succeed. You can have the best product out there and be the best developer who writes great code, you can have a deep expertise in a certain technology, but all this will be meaningless if no one can see you. So how do you get visibility?

1. Be on Google

If you are not on Google, you’ve never existed-we’re living in a world where you only exist if you are searchable. When I am hiring people, I will google them and try to get some information. I feel a little like a stalker when I do this, but I’m not actually interested in their lives–I just want to know what kind of person they are.

2. Start a blog

A lot of people are saying blog and podcasts are dead, but I don’t believe this. You can write about anything–you can blog about your life and share things that you want to share to help people understand who you are. I know a lot of people who have really technical blogs where they write about their expertise, which is really great because they can showcase their skills and their experience. There are a lot of blog platforms out there to do this without paying too much: WordPress, Medium, Github Pages, etc.

I would suggest you to choose one specific topic, and stick to it. By doing so, people will come to your website consistently for the great content you create, and it will be easier to build an audience this way. Posting three or four posts a week or so is a good way for you to alternate between personal stuff and professional content.

3. Be on social media

Some people may think Facebook and Twitter are a waste of time, and while they could be a waste of time, I want to add that social media allows you to build a great network with people. You can also always find something interesting and helpful on social media. When I was a freelancer, I’ve been contacted by people through Twitter. Those people did not know me, but they contacted me because they’ve read some of my posts. Therefore, it’s really important to have visibility on social media, since you will find your potential customers and co-workers.

There are some tips to track your brand on social media. I usually use Google Alert to track my name and my projects because I want to know what people are talking about. Maybe sometime they are talking about me because they like the stuff I make. Maybe sometime they are complaining about something. They may be right, or perhaps they don’t understand something. So I have those tools. On Twitter, I have Tweetdeck and the search column has the exact same terms, so I’ll know when people are talking about me. I also have my facebook notification, LinkedIn notification, and google plus, and I like to reply people, answer their questions, and be there when they want to talk to me.

4. Speak at conferences

This may be something that seems intimidating, so my advice is to start from talking to ten people, and then try practice with a larger and larger audience until you can speak at a conference with hundreds of people. You will have the most amazing experience after you accomplish this, and it will change your life. When you stand on the stage, it will give you great visibility and help you build connections after the end of the conference.

If you don’t have any experience speaking in front of an audience, don’t be afraid to ask for help from good public speaker. Try to find some user group and join it. Interact with people. If there’s no such one group in your specific topic, why not just create one?

5. Create something

I don’t mean that you need to create a company. You can find something interesting to do, and do it during the weekend. It may not always be about money; it could be just about the community.

For example, I run an user group and I don’t earn money from it. It takes me time, but I like giving back to the community, and you never know when other people will help you back. You can do so in many different ways, such as answering questions on StackOverflow. Answering questions and sharing your ideas will help you build a good profile there and make people trust your expertise. Write some documentation or report bugs, as reporting bugs and contributing to open source projects could help you learn more about your expertise. What’s more, you could write these things into you CV, Linkedin Profile or Facebook profile. So, if you have some design skills, then showcase your skills to the rest of world.

6. Get a certification

Some companies strongly believe in certifications. If you don’t like school, or you don’t like getting a diploma, it will still be great to have a certification because you can show your expertise, or at least show what you can do. It’s a great tool, depending on how you use it.

7. Get industry recognition

A great example would be Microsoft, as they have this Microsoft MVP﹣the Most Valuable Professional. They don’t give this recognition to many people. I was in Canada and there were 50 people with different expertises. In Mozilla as well, they have the ReMo title they give to people who are really involved in specific technologies and doing great stuff in the community.

You could write these kind of things in your resume and showcase that you are not only recognized by peers, but also by great company like Microsoft who has already seen so many developers. It’s another way to get visibility and showcase your expertise to other people.

8. Network, network and network

I know many developers are introverts and are not good at social stuff. You can start networking from your workspace. Maybe go to lunch with colleagues and talk to each other, trying to meet more people. Ideally you should go to local groups and meetups to get a drink, even if you don’t drink alcoholーnetworking is super important, so get yourself out there. There are a lot of networking events for technical and non-technical people, so you don’t have to restrict yourself to only technical networking events. In fact, everything is a networking event. Go to conferences and talk to people after the break, and go to parties and talk to people. You’ll never know whether the person you’re talking to will be your next boss or business partner or client in the future. So, talk to people and build your network online and offline. Linkedin is a great example of where you can network online.

When should you start your personal branding?

I would say yesterday, since “now” is too late. As I said earlier, you already have a personal brand, so you have to take the ownership of it and control it. You can start to do this through your actual job right now. There are some things you can start outside your work hours, but there are some things you may be able to include at work.

I had a friend who wanted to start to blog, and he really didn’t want to blog on personal time because he has a family and three kids. So, he talked to his manager about showcasing their company’s expertise to the rest of the world through their company blog. At first he did one blog post a month, which wasn’t too much, but the point is that he was able to convince his boss. Now, he’s writing 2 or 3 blog posts a week, and that’s great because it brings business to the company as well, and everyone also knows he authored most of those blog posts.

In conclusion, you’re the expert. Try to find your own brand by building it around your passion and your expertise, but don’t be afraid of the other experts with a lot of visibility. You don’t need to find something super niche, you just need to find the thing that makes sense for you and makes you different. Try to leave your mark on everything you do.

When I wanted to become a technical evangelist, I started to follow up people who I did not follow before – people who already had strong brand and are very successful. They already reached the goal that I wanted to reach, and I followed them to learn some tricks.

For example, I recorded every conference that I have so I could write some blog posts from them, and this idea was stolen form my colleague in Mozilla. But that’s fine, great artists steal. Follow up the people who are related to the brand you want to build, and pick and choose whatever make senses to you.

Frédéric Harper
Frédéric Harper
Senior Developer Advocate at @Fitbit, former @Microsoft & @Mozilla, @Apress author, public speaker, #crazycatman & more
As a Senior Developer Advocate at Fitbit, Frédéric Harper is sharing his passion for technology and helping developers being successful. Former Microsoft and Mozilla Technical Evangelist he has had...
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