Not Just a Programmer: Let Your Personality Shine Through

Just be yourself — it’s the only way it can work.
— Johnny Carson

You are a programmer, and you are building your brand, but that does not mean that the only thing you should present to the world is code.

People want to get to know who you are. They want to learn from you but also get an idea of the person behind the coding tips and technical knowledge. So let your personality shine through your work.

Are you are horseback rider? A motorcycle racer? A husband and father of a special needs child? Don’t be afraid to let people know it.

Be Yourself In the Office

You need to be yourself in the office and company you work for.

shi1When I first started at my current job, I held back in many ways. I acted in a reserved way, feeling out the culture and the people. Because, I have other interests beyond programming, some of which people tend to have strong reactions to.

But as I got to know people better, I began to slowly dribble out more information about myself, to let them see who I am. That meant telling them about my herniated back that I got from trying to start a farm and failing at it. I was cautious about doing so at first, because, what if my bosses became concerned that I would not be able to do my job due to back troubles? But I did so anyway, so that I didn’t have to try to hide what was ailing me.

It also meant revealing that I was a Catholic apologist (and then explaining what “apologist” meant). That may not seem like a big deal, but it turns out that the managing partners of my company hold the very kinds of belief that I wrote a provocative book about. What if they read my book and got offended that I was challenging deep-seated religious beliefs that they held?

Nonetheless, I have a public presence in that sphere doing radio shows, blog posts, books, and interviews, so I figured it was better to tactfully reveal it instead of hoping for security through obscurity.

Tact is required when letting your personality shine. Some interests that you have may not be shared by coworkers, and could even be considered in a negative way by them. (In other words, not everyone may be as into death metal as you are.)

Let Yourself Shine Through Social Media

Usually being yourself in social media is easy, perhaps almost too easy. Twitter especially lends itself to fast tweets that people come to regret.

That said, people are connecting with you on twitter because they expect to get to know you. They find you interesting and want to see who you are, what you write about.

tweeBut it can go too far. I followed a popular developer whose mobile app framework I have used. I read his tweets over several days but none of them were about mobile app development; they were all political tweets about this or that party and candidate.

Now, I happened to agree with him on most of the issues, but I unfollowed him, because I am interested in his mobile programming work, not his political views. I’d have been fine if he had mixed in a political tweet with ten other programming ones, but all politics, all the time was overboard.

For facebook, if you have a page for your blog or business, mix up the posts by sharing other content you find interesting and adding commentary on it. Include some personal reflection or experience you had related to it.

Doing so shows that you are actually managing your page and that you don’t just share your own site’s posts. It makes you more real and also more a giver than a taker.

On your blog, you have the opportunity to write meaty blog posts that contain lots of personal experience. Yes, show us the code and patterns and how you figured out the solution to a nasty bug, but also let your voice come through. It’s okay if you’re a nerdy guy, or if you are a bird watcher or salsa dancer. People love to find out those tidbits.

I followed a blogger for years who was into a religious topic, plus science fiction shows and books, plus square dancing, and eating low carb meals. I was interested in two out of the four topics he blogged about, and I found reading his opinions on the others interesting in a curiosity sort of way.

But Keep Some Parts of Yourself Private

For example, keep your private parts private.

A friend of mine owns a business and interviewed a young man for a position.

He liked him and was going to hire him. But he did a cursory google search for his name and his facebook page came up. The guy’s profile photo was of him naked, holding a beer in one hand to cover his genitalia and pointing to the sky with the other hand.

My friend called him and said, “sorry, I can’t offer you a job. Our clients could search for you and find the same photos, which could cost us business. You should consider being more discreet about what you show.”

The guy got offended (of all things) and said, “this is who I am. If you don’t like it, too bad.”

Well, yeah. But, certain basic boundaries do exist and should be followed. Prudence and tact are important, even when letting the real you be known.

Spicing Up Software

Programming can be a dry topic. But programmers are never dry. Show your technical expertise to the world, and do so with your own personal panache.

hanseI think a good example of someone who shows personality is Scott Hanselman. He writes and speaks on many topics but brings a humility to it, and a human-ness that is appealing. While clearly a sharp developer who has done tons of different work across a broad swath of technologies, Hanselman is also willing to reveal that he doesn’t have it all figured out and that he even has doubted his own skills many times.

When I first began my blog talkingincode.com, I went straight to the topics that were on my mind and heart at the time: leaving a company I had worked at for almost 14 years. It was a bit raw and unfiltered, and I received feedback from good friends that I was being to harsh and critical.

I reflected on their feedback and ended up going back and revising many of the original posts. I deleted a few too. If what I wrote would not help anyone, but was only me venting, it wasn’t something I wanted to remain out there. Best if I had thought more about it before posting in the first place, since caches can last forever. That said, better to delete something I regretted than to leave it there in perpetuity as if I still stood behind it.

Now I am pleased that the posts I wrote showed forth some vulnerability in what my career had looked like, what difficulties I had faced, and how I decided to make a big change by leaving my company and going to a small, private company. Other developers have messaged me privately and told me that my posts struck a chord with them–even that they felt as if they could have been the ones writing what I wrote. That is a great feeling.

So let your voice shine, and strive to make it the best version of yourself that comes through. Inevitably and at times you will fall short, but that itself is a learning process that you can grow from. Your audience will appreciate your candor and humility.

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Thou Shalt Blog

When I left my first programming job at almost fourteen years, I couldn’t take any of the code with me.

In fact, I couldn’t take anything I had done with me. Think about that: you worked for a place for a third of your entire career, and you own none of it.

When I went looking for another job, I had no public presence in the software world. No one knew who I was, nor could I point to a book or blog or even a twitter account that demonstrated I was passionate about software development. I was starting at ground zero in terms of looking for work, with only the skills in my head to help me find something.

Become a Blogger

Blogging establishes your presence. It puts a stake in the ground and declares “I care about the software craft.” Care enough to write stuff down about it to share with others.

Your blog is the key part of your overall platform, which may eventually include a facebook page and twitter account, a podcast, books and articles that you write, speaking and training that you do, and so on. But it starts with a website that is your home base on the internet. Here’s the cut-to-the-chase guide for programmer’s on how to start a blog.

1. Pick a theme

Back ten years ago, you could start a blog and ramble on randomly about all sorts of topics and still gain traction. Nowadays you are far better off choosing a specific niche or theme–even if it is a broad one–and clustering your posts and content around that theme.

Choose a niche that you are passionate about. Even if you think it would be valuable to write about optimizing SQL queries, and you have years of experience doing it, if you are bored to death by the topic, pick a different one.

One good way to find topics is by asking yourself what pain points you have hit in your software development in the past three years. Did NServiceBus’s awful documentation make using it a nightmare? Become the NServiceBus guy. Have you built several products that were all disasters because you didn’t really find out what the potential customers wanted? Become the Minimum Viable Product guy!

blogrunWhile writing on a theme is good, don’t feel you can’t veer off onto other programming topics from time to time. We are human beings with varied interests, even in the software space. You do not have to be slave to your particular theme. And you may end up finding that you thought that a particular niche was the most interesting to you, but as you started blogging you kept gravitating toward another niche. That’s okay: start a second blog or change the focus of you current one to that. You will lose some readers but gain new ones.

2. Sign up with a host

You need to host your blog somewhere. Do it at bluehost; it’s a fine low-cost hosting company that will serve you well until your blog launches into the stratosphere in popularity.

In the sign up process the main thing you need to choose is your domain. Brainstorm ideas by writing down different topics or words that you find catchy and that fit your blog’s overall theme. Check if the domain is available and then go with it.

3. Use WordPress

Bluehost (and all hosts today) have one-button-click ways of installing WordPress. You are using what’s called a “self-hosted wordpress” installation. That gives you the maximum amount of flexibility with customization, wordpress themes, widgets, and plugins.

If you have design skills, create yourself a logo and header image. If you don’t, hire someone to do it. Bribe a friend or pay a guy on fiverr a few bucks to make one.

Choose a wordpress theme that is workable, add your header to it, and do some tweaking. It does not have to look great yet–after all you have zero readers other than yourself–so just get it acceptable and move on. WordPress is endlessly extensible, and you will be customizing your blog in various ways on regular basis, learning about new plugins and trying new themes out.

4. Brainstorm Topics and Posting Schedule

Once you have your blog setup, spend an hour writing down any and every topic you can think of within your niche to post about.

No idea is dumb at this point. You are generating ideas that you will then pick and write blog posts about over the next few months. Think about programming experiences you have had and those pain points you’ve hit (and how you solved them). If you run out of ideas, go find other blogs on topics similar to yours and see what they are writing about. Take one of their ideas and write it in your own words.

Next, choose a posting schedule. I recommend once per week minimum, but if you can do twice per week that will be even better. Consistency helps people trust that they will get good content from you on a regular basis.

5. Spreading the Word

Now we’re getting to the fun part. You do not want to write into a void.

Begin to gain readers by first posting comments on other programmers’ blogs. Make them thoughtful and be sure that you include the link to your blog with your name and email address. But even better: if you have written a specific post that addresses something from their blog post or a comment on the post made by somebody, talk about the issue and link to your specific post. Careful not to come across as spammy here, but also don’t be afraid to do it.

This step presupposes of course that you are reading other programmers’ blogs. Do so! Find ones that are in your niche or in related ones and follow them via email or reader.

Share your blog posts on the facebook page you will be starting very soon, your programmer-related twitter account, google+, and even email it to friends who may be interested in the topic.

But the best way to ensure for the long run that you get visitors is by writing solid content on a regular basis. Write posts that solve a problem or give a guide on how to do something valuable. These are the posts that become authoritative or canonical and get linked to by other people and visited again and again. They have a long tail and get the SEO juices flowing in the organic way that never gets nullified by google changing its algorithms.

Originally long blog posts were the norm. Then the blogging wisdom changed and you were supposed to keep posts short and sweet. That is useful sometimes for sure, but the pendulum has swung back the other way and now medium-length (or longer), useful posts are valued highly.

After you set up your blog, create your most valuable asset: your email list. Sign up with AWeber to manage your list, adding people to your newsletter, and sending emails.

Blog Baby!

Blogging will establish your presence in the programmer world. No longer will you be faceless cubicle dude hoping that some company will pay you a salary so you don’t end up homeless on the street. You are now taking your career into your own hands and building a platform that is yours and extends beyond the company you currently work for.

Your blog will open up doors and opportunities for you. You can point people to it to instantly show them that you care so much about software that you write about it in your spare time. Congratulations, you just differentiated yourself above 99% of the programmer herd.

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