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Keep Your Portfolio Up-to-Date At All Times

I have a never-expiring calendar reminder for myself to update my portfolio. Otherwise I just won’t do it.

Make Yourself Do It

 

But it is surprisingly hard to make yourself do it even with a calendar reminder constantly dinging you. And unfortunately you only ever realize that you needed to do it – and didn’t – when you need your resume to be up to date when you are ready (or worse: when you aren’t ready) to move to the next gig.

resu1This added pressure means that you are now going to be under the gun to send out your resume in a not quite up to date form, or you will struggle to remember all the cool new things you have done in the past many months.

It won’t be your best showing. You won’t likely have all the detail you once had. And ultimately you are doing a disservice to yourself when thinking about this late in the game.

Use LinkedIn As Your Source of Truth

A long time ago I stopped maintaining a resume in document form.

Before there was a LinkedIn it made sense to constantly toil over the formatting of my resume. And it made since to keep a copy and several backups.

I needed a consistent place to go to for the source of truth for my work history as there wasn’t one clear winner on the internet for such things.  Back then I would keep a digital resume on Monster and various other job boards. It was a real hassle to keep them all up to date.

But now a days it is easy to keep your information in LinkedIn. It is now my source of truth.

I try to go there at least once a month to enter at least one cool thing I did that month. It might be something simple like solving a customer’s problem. Or something more complex like learning a new thing in a pinch prior to a sales call or speaking engagement.

sour1Similar to blogging, if you don’t pay attention to the every day details of your day job you will miss the really important parts that you can use later to sell yourself.

Additionally you are missing the opportunity of someone looking for that special talent that you just picked up. You may make good money doing a bang-up job with that 80% thing you do. You run up against some new fancy way of doing things. And that becomes your new norm.

But you never update your resume.

As far as recruiters and other hiring managers know you are only really good at that 80% thing. There is no mention of your new go-to-favorite skill – which is what they really need right now and can’t find anywhere.

This is a missed opportunity for you in a couple of ways. The recruiter won’t contact you to let you know that your new skill is in high demand. Which means you miss out on the possibility of shifting to a new gig. Or, if you really like your job, but want to earn more, you might miss the opportunity to bargain around your newly found skill. Either way, this is your loss in the here and now.

So what sorts of things might you keep track of on LinkedIn? When you have a job, you can use LinkedIn as a running log of interesting facts. When you don’t have a job you can scour through your profile and clean out the things that aren’t really relevant any more. Let’s look at what sorts of things are hand to keep track of:

Title and Responsibility Changes

There are a couple ways of tracking when your title changes and when your responsibility changes. The first is the easiest and doesn’t require much thought. Keep one entry per company you work at. Update the title. List the existing responsibilities.

promo1This is a great way to keep a short resume. And it is a great way to not tell your hiring manager about your history. This is where the difference between a traditional resume and a CV/Portfolio come in. When I am in the hiring manager role I like to see where a person has been and all the things at a high level they have done while at a company.

If you were a developer, then a team lead, then the architect, then the engineering director – list those out. They are very different jobs. They will have very different responsibilities. And being able to show that you have done them all is important to many hiring managers. It shows you are experienced.

We have interns at my current company. One of which we have had back three separate times. For a person like this it is very important to distinctly show that you came back at three different times. And detail out what you did on each occasion. This paints a different picture than someone who just worked somewhere with no timeline. It doesn’t show that we liked you so much that we kept hiring your back.

Business Goals Achieved

Business people, hiring managers, etc. – they don’t generally care that you learned the latest version of HTML. What they do care is that because of your mastery of this new version of HTML you were able to up the sales conversion of your check out process because more customers are able to complete the check out process on their phone and tablets.

roi1Geeks really care that you were able to write a mail sending tool in 100 lines of unreadable code. But business folks care that your tool took into account the bounce rate of certain domains and the rules around how you stay off of black lists so that your email penetration goes up 30% which effectively increased their over all penetration resulting in X number of new dollars for the month.

Now, don’t get me wrong. You need to swizzle this in a manner that you salt and pepper your business swizzle with some tech babble so that all audiences are made happy. If you just deliver the business numbers uber geeks may find your resume wanting. Add appropriate tech talk to sell that you know what you are talking about.

Use the Right Voice to Tell the Right Story

Equally important to what you did is how you tell the story. It is very off-putting to read about a guy that is singing the me-me-me-me-me-me-meeeee song! It is ok for you to say “I used tech X to achieve business Y” now and then. But equally important is how you enabled the team to achieve a goal. Or how you pulled bugs for a week to get to zero defects (sacrificed your enjoyment for the team). Tell a story of being a valuable team member.

If you are in a leadership role tell the story of how you are a shit-umbrella vs. a shit-funnel.  Give concrete examples of how you help you team get stuff done.

Bottom line: keep your portfolio up-to-date at all times. And LinkedIn is a great place to use for it.

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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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Level Up Your Programming Skills And Connections Through Volunteering

Do you feel stuck in your current job?

Maybe you are working on Line of Business desktop apps but you really want to be doing native iOS or Android work? Perhaps you are working for a large corporation–and have been for years–attending a lot more meetings than you used to, and you keep hearing about the good life at small startups.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret I accidently discovered just a few years into my career. I’ve pivoted multiple times, by choice, and last year landed my dream job as the technical co-founder of a local startup in downtown Austin. So what’s the secret?

Volunteering.

That’s it!

Now, don’t click away just yet. Thar be some powerful concepts at work behind the gift I just handed you, matey! Stick with me so we can unpack this box.

First Volunteer Work: Sys Admin

First, let me explain how I figured this out.

Active Directory Users and Computers
About 15 years ago I setup a 25 PC, Windows 2000 network for a women’s crisis center for free. It’s a long story but the point is that at the time I didn’t really understand the value of what I did. I just needed
the experience because I thought my dream job was to be a Windows NT systems admin and I was studying for my MCSE at the time. (I aced the tests btw). I completed that project and landed a paying NT Admin job later that year while feeling good about helping a good cause.

Since that experience I’ve successfully voluteered my time to nonprofits, startups, and friends with small businesses. The project size and scope is really up to you to define just as long as it’s valuable to everyone involved.

Forget About Money (For Now)

First off, too many people I know won’t take this advice because they are stuck and failing at earning “market rates” for their work. Your compensation is going to be real world experience that deserves a prominent spot on your resume.

io1Or maybe they don’t have the time. Heck, it’s midnight, and I didn’t start writing this until after I put the kids to bed. I wanted to help a friend by guest posting and sharing some of my best ideas though. I happen to like writing and sharing knowledge with others. (Side note, guest posting is a great way to volunteer your time.) Look for projects which have a very defined scope that you think you can pull of in the time you used to spend power watching random two-star sitcoms on Netflix.

Trust in the fact that it will pay off in the long run. Good deeds don’t go unnoticed.

Problem Solving IRL

In addition to experience, there is something about listening to a client explain their problem forcing you to come up with the solution. That’s the type of knowledge that won’t appear in a textbook and that’s exactly the type of real world problem-solving ability that future employers are looking for.

Volunteering sends a message about the type of person you are. Explaining the project work you did for a nonprofit is interesting. Knowing that you did it to level up your game says a lot.

References Matter

You are also going to walk away with a solid reference if you are successful. Go check my LinkedIn recommendations that others have written.

I received a glowing comment by Kent Odland for volunteering my time to his young startup last summer after having coffee with him once. It was an interesting startup concept and I wanted to learn a specific skill he needed. He didn’t believe me at first. I think he thought I was trying to steal his IP or email list because he asked me to sign about 5 pages of legal documents saying I would be liable for missing deadlines, etc. I didn’t end up signing anything other than an NDA. I simply had the time and wanted to help him.

Do you think Kent would bend over backwards to get me an interview at his employer if I asked him to? I’m pretty sure he would!

Be Of Service To Others

As engineers we typically think of learning as a solo activity. We go buy a book, read through every search result on google and stack overflow, then maybe we create yet another Todo list project on Github, etc. Trust me, I’ve been there too and I still have to resist the urge to rely solely on this method of learning.

Thread Co-Founders
The Thread founding team

What’s interesting is the mental shift that happens when you are working for someone rather than simply working on something. The former requires accountability and relationship building, while the latter often lacks direction and purpose. I’m willing to bet you will learn more at a faster pace by working for someone or some cause than if you go it alone.

When I say “working for someone” I’m talking in the noblest sense that you are being of service to another person. Which is a very humanizing thing. People inherently care about people they know. Working side-by-side in the trenches is such a powerful mechanism. You simply cannot get to know a person by meeting for coffees alone. Work for them, work with them, in order to get to know them.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

Engineering work can be isolating, while career building is a team sport.

Don’t Overthink It

Don’t be tempted to try to identify projects only for people or companies where you believe they could directly help you in some way. If you read about my journey to becoming the technical co-founder of Thread, you might think I had some master plan at work.

The truth is that I didn’t have a plan other than trusting in the process. In hindsight it’s easy to line up all the events that took place and draw a straight line between points A and B. However, that’s not the whole story. I volunteered to help four different organizations last year and three of them didn’t directly lead to my current opportunity. But I do have a stronger network filled with people who would love to help me if I called on them.

Takeaway: Volunteer To Learn Specific Skills

The final lesson I want to leave you with is that my only “plan” was to be of service to others while developing some very specific skills.

In this case, my thesis was that iOS development was in high demand and my enterprise mobile background was already a good foundation for this pivot. I made a ton of connections along the way and many of those relationships will just continue to grow. I never knew where it was going to lead me but I was always confident that I would find something interesting if I kept going.

I hope you consider volunteering time as a valuable career building strategy and a great way to help those around you.

Be hungry and trust in the process my friend.

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Jack of All Trades, Master of Some

I noticed a pattern in my life early on.

I tended to go deep into a topic in a very short amount of time. It never mattered what the topic was just that I had some interest in it. If I was interested in it I was all in on the spot. This is true even now.  But my life was never lived with a plan – just an interest in some topic that led to another interest.

I had a father that I remember doing everything himself. I always saw him tinkering on something. He didn’t spend much time glued to the TV. And he always had the tools or books or whatever he needed to work with that topic. It seemed that he knew everything related to a given topic. To him these topics spanned construction, all sorts of fishing, almost every war, air planes, plants, and chemistry.

By day he had a PhD in plant sciences and ran a company running various experiments to make plants bigger, better, healthier, pest and disease resistant, while growing faster.  He did a lot of research trying to make a difference in the agricultural world. He flew all over the place (often times in his own plane with him as the pilot) working with people from all over the world.  I like to tell a story about him contributing the size, flavor, and seed-less-ness of grapes as you now know them. When I was a kid grapes were tiny blah seeded things.  Dad loved grapes and worked to make them better.

One of his knacks that fascinated me was his recall.  Someone might ask him a question about a report he wrote and he could tell you all about what he wrote 15 years ago up in the storage at the office in a box buried 3 rows back on the bottom.  This binder. That page. This paragraph.  Yep – there it is. How did he do that? This led to him eventually being a very talented “professional witness” in agricultural legal trials.

I am not sure my recall capabilities are quite as good as his. I forget my birthday for Christ’s sake! But I have always been able to skim through magazines and books cover to cover. I never left the information with full recall of a topic but I could always leave with the vocabulary in hand and enough information to be dangerous.

Having seen my dad do anything he set out too, I have always felt empowered to dive in and just get it done. I had built an entire “club house” around the age of 12.  And by club house I mean 8’x8’x14’ building complete with sleeping loft, door, windows, wired for plugs and lighting (plugged into my mom’s house – she hated that) where I spent a lot of time! My mom had one of my Dad’s come inspect it to ensure it was safe. He said it was “Up to code! How did he do that?”

woodI had family issues growing up which caused me to be an interesting kid. By the second grade I was already being kicked out of school.  My mom sent me to live with my dad when I was 7 – she couldn’t handle me. I don’t know how my dad managed to raise me without seeing the inside of a jail! Among a plethora of other issues I had eventually found a way to get kicked out of high school a couple months into my 10th grade year. Out of the school district that is. I was forced into home school.

Dad took me to work with him every day at 7 and home again at 6. I had to sit in the library and do nothing but school. No talking. No help. But in my sophomore year I had jumped a head in school. By the end of my junior year I was done with high school. My senior year was a blast. I had two PE classes, 2 wood shops, 1 metal shop, and 1 auto shop (and a couple half semester things I couldn’t take until my senior year).  With access to all these great facilities I was building swords, cross bows, knives – thankfully my shop teachers got to know me well and were ok with this crazy kid.  But it was clear that my parents were done being responsible for me. Where too now?

Off to the Army I go. Like most of my life to this point I had bumbled from one interest to the next. Why not do that in the Military? I tested very high and was told I could have any job I wanted. They sold me on 11X-ray. I would get to shoot and blow things up. Sign me up. They even “gave me” an airborne contract. Don’t trust recruiters – they are there to fill quotas.  11X-ray is an open ended infantry contract. Grunt. Oops!

Duped into a life as a worker bee I went through basic and AIT without much problem. Earned my PFC quickly. Showed an aptitude to lead. Off to airborne school. Did well enough. Got recruited into the RIP program – ranger indoctrination program (now called RASP – ranger assessment and selection program). Got through that. Showed up to ranger battalion where they looked at me and immediately decided I could carry heavy shit – weapon’s squad for me! It was a fun period in my life. I have never regretted it in the least. I learned that while I can suffer through anything you might throw at me. I also learned that I needed to work with my head not my back.

Once I got out of the Military I tried “work”. I attempted to hang wire for an industrial electrician. Having just gotten out of a world where shit rolls downhill I quickly realized that I was not going to cut it in a trade where someone that is happy doing the same thing every day for 40 years is telling me how to do something in-efficient – back to school.  ITT Tech! I started in a CAD program and had my first real introduction to computers. I had touched them a couple times in previous years but never in any way that sparked my true interest. Now I was sitting in front of a computer every day.

Talk about a never ending stream of learning! I loved the world of computers. Other than learning command line access to CAD programs, how to hand draw blue prints (right up my alley), and draw in Auto CAD, I was learning daily about networking, computer internals, and how to make this thing go faster. I quickly started to collect dead computer chassis and bring them back to life. I got a job as an in store tech support guy for HP where I stood in BestBuy and Fry’s to talk to customers as an HP rep. Every day I learned something I didn’t know I was missing. Someone showed me HTML in notepad. Another guy showed me javascript. I had friends that could “fdisk” their computers – what’s that? Quickly I found myself in a part-time network admin gig (not that I knew how to do that job yet) and started to figure things out. Each day getting further away from enjoying sitting in a class learning as slow as the teacher would trickle information to us.

My first networking gig was with a company that built shutters which they managed on a magnetic white board. This was insanely inefficient to me. Someone mentioned I should look into making a database to manage that. What’s that? OK. But entering data directly into a database wasn’t going to work. Build a web site. OK. We need servers to run this stuff. OK. A great first playground for me.

All the while going to school where I had two teachers that I interacted with quite a bit. One of them hated that I was so all over the place. I built video games in 3d studio max and some world building program (when we were just supposed to model something simple). Or I would go deep into photoshop.  You name it – if the assignment was simple I would go over the top in five different directions. This guy pulled me out of the class (in the middle of class) to go for a walk.  We walked around the parking lot. He asked me “what do you want to do when you grow up?” I replied that I had no idea I liked a lot of things. He told me that I would eventually have to focus on being really good at just one thing to make it in this world.  A “Jack of all trades, master of none, had no place in this world”. This didn’t sit well with me as I tended to be very scattered and really enjoyed doing all sorts of things – not just one thing.

The other teacher pulled me aside in a similar fashion. He saw that I was tinkering in the web world already and suggested that I should go learn a “real programming language”. His suggestion was that I learn Visual Basic. I giggle at this now of course. I bought a book on PERL (oops).  He was a GIS and big data guy before the term big data existed. He saw where my mind was and steered me in the right direction. I got my associates degree at ITT in CAD with a 3.8 but didn’t complete my bachelor’s degree. I didn’t think I needed school anymore – LET’s DO THIS!

pat-testingThis pattern of constantly bumping into what I didn’t know pushed me to learn more and more. I almost always had three jobs running at one time. Tech support, networking, cable pulling, LAN configuration, phone lines, IVR, VOIP, server builds, building out data centers.  I was very hardware oriented for the first couple of years. At some point I bridged over to building data driven dynamic web sites.  I was doing AJAX before the term existed. Starting with simple commerce web sites plus managing the data center. Then social networking. Then big commerce. Then big systems peeked my interest in general.

To this day there is nothing that I enjoy more than cracking open a new topic. From rebuilding a car, to fabricating a green house, to building poll barns, wiring up IoT widgets to the cloud, building a pig farm, to building big distributed systems.  I have made a career of learning how to learn.  A career of being a technology generalist. A jack of all trades, **master of some**.

Which leads me to why I am writing this book and donating my time to the Developer Springboard.  While my path to where I am now was very unplanned and fragmented, yours certainly doesn’t have to be. I have worked at almost all levels of the technology industry. There are so many soft skills that you can learn from my experiences that will immediately be beneficial to you going down the right path. I am very passionate about sharing this with you and learning what I don’t yet know in this career management space.

My wife is now cringing at my new hobby for which I have to go deep.

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