The search for a personal brand starts early.
The need to be recognized and stand out of the crowd starts when we are kids. On the playground, children fight to choose what game to play, who gets which toy, who interacts with whom, who said the smartest thing, who is taller and a million other random things. What they are fighting for is status. The constant friction kids create is how they explore what indicator makes a difference to their social standing.
Wanting to be noticed is innate for many, and for good reasons. In general, people who are recognized by others tend to be more connected, have more friends, have a better selection of partners and climb higher on their career ladders. In general, they tend to be more successful.
There are many exceptions to this generalization. Many people are successful without trying to be noticed. Those people are naturals who do something that speaks for itself and attracts attention even if they are not trying. Software Developers often fall into this group of humble achievers. They are masters of their craft, and even if they don't seek attention, they often become known in their circles for the quality of their work.
We live in a competitive and hyperconnected world. For people who are always trying to achieve something more, having an edge, even if manufactured, can make the difference between getting a great job and getting a job that is just "ok." That advantage can tip the scale toward more exciting projects, more money and a larger area of influence.
Many factors can give you an edge; being good at what you do is the most important one. However, putting your name out there and know how to present yourself can help boost your status and achieve your goals; this is where personal branding comes into place.
Personal branding is the practice of people marketing themselves, their skills and their careers as brands. It consists of an ongoing process of establishing a designed image or impression in the mind of others about an individual. The term was first introduced in 1937 in the book Think and Grow Rich, but the concept is as old as humans.
"Personal brand" sounds like marketing lingo. It might seem strange to associate marketing with software development. However, software engineers could use some of the techniques and knowledge of marketers to help themselves and their careers. Staying in the shadows is not the fastest way to grow.
What is a software engineer's brand?
Your brand is a combination of your name and your reputation. Professional achievements are the strongest way to build it.
There are two areas of influence that you should target. The first one, and the most important one is the organization you work for at any given moment. Being a rockstar for the company that pays your bills is the most important thing you can do for your career and your brand. Exceeding expectations and being loyal to your employer will translate into colleagues who speak highly of you. That word-of-mouth personal branding is compelling and happens naturally.
The second area of influence you should target is "the rest of the world," which includes companies you might work for in the future, software engineering communities, academia, business circles, potential customers, influencers, etc.
A way to target "the rest of the world" is by compiling a list of groups you are interested in influencing. Then you can use any tool at your disposal to associate your name and your achievements in the context of those groups. The internet is an endless source of such tools.
Examples of achievements that can boost your personal brand are:
- The job history on your resume. Who did you work for? How long did you stay? What kind of responsibilities did you have? What did you do? What was your title? Those are all essential elements of your brand. Make sure that your resume is well written and updated on LinkedIn.
- The value you bring to your employers. What did you do in your professional career that made an impact on your employer and your employer's customers? Note that the effort you put into it doesn't matter; nobody can and will measure it. What counts is the results you achieved and the impact you had.
- Significant personal projects. What personal projects did you start and maintain? How successful were they? How many people did they affect? When describing those projects to boost your brand, you should make sure to include only significant ones. It is not about quantity; it is about quality and impact.
- Open source projects you contributed to. Contributions you made to open source projects, especially well-known ones, can be a significant part of your brand.
- Entrepreneurial undertakings. Did you ever start your own business? What was it? Was it successful? Having an entrepreneurial background can boost your personal brand by showing initiative and courage. Risk taking and business acumen are essential skills even for software engineers, and any demonstration of it is an achievement that can help boost your brand.
- Public speaking experiences. Giving talks doesn't say much about your technical skills. Anyone can do research or work on a project and prepare a one-hour talk on the topic. Also, many junior or mediocre programmers can deliver forgettable talks. However, if you are decent at it, giving talks can showcase your public speaking abilities and courage and has great value for your personal brand.
- Books, white papers and blogs. Publishing books, white papers or blog posts will give you an edge, especially if the material becomes well known in your niche. Writing will not only get your name on the map, but it will also help you refine your thinking processes and mental models.
- Patents and inventions. Ensure that your name gets associated with as many patents as possible. Patents are official public documents that will come up if somebody is searching for your name. Being an inventor is an excellent way to boost your personal brand.
Let it be deliberate.
Building your brand could be accidental in the sense that you could do it without even being aware of it; this happens all the time, especially early in your career. It is not a bad thing, but I recommend a more deliberate approach. Make a conscious decision, right here and right now, that you are going to work on your brand.
Start with a deliberate design.
To build your brand, you should decide what you want it to look like. Plan it meticulously, deliberately and precisely. Start by asking the following questions:
- What do you want to be known for?
- What image do you want to associate with your name?
- How would you like people that work with you to describe you?
- Do you want to be seen as a leader or as a doer?
- Should people like you? Why?
- Why should they trust you?
- Why should they hire you?
- Why should people buy something from you?
- How are you different from others in your industry?
- What adjectives do you want to associate with your image? Examples:
- Nice to have around;
- Nice to work with;
- Do you want to be known for what you do, what you say, what you know or what you believe?
- Do you want your name to be known at all? Or, maybe, you want the result of your work to be known instead?
- What languages/technologies do you want to be associated with?
Answer all of these questions as a foundation for your personal brand design. Don't stop there! This is not a complete list. Add anything else that you want to associate with your name and image. Don't leave anything out.
How far are you from the brand you want to build?
Now that you have a design, how far are you from it? Are you on track? Be honest and evaluate where you stand both from your employer's point of view and from the point of view of the rest of the world.
What achievements will help you build the brand you designed?
Now you have a personal brand design, and you know where you stand in relation to it. How do you cover the distance between the two? What achievements do you need to realize to help you reach your target? Make a list of accomplishments you need, and start thinking about every one of them.
Make sure to think of truly significant achievements; things that add measurable value to businesses, customers or humanity. Many "fluffy" results might take space on your list, but making a long list is not your goal. Making a list of significant things that can move the needle is your aim.
Be prepared to change your plans.
The path you take to build a personal brand will take twists and turns; things will evolve as you mature and grow. That is a good thing! Developing your plan with your skills and interests is part of the process, and the more progress you make, the higher the bar should be. Be adaptive!
The journey starts here.
This post is just a primer on personal branding targeted to software engineers. In the future, I will continue to build on these ideas and give you concrete strategies. It is a game with no set rules, a journey with a constantly evolving destination, and the path has twists and turns. However, it is a journey that you must take to achieve new heights in your career and personal development.