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?


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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Put yourself out there to find opportunities

This just happened to me while at the last AzureAustin user group I run.  I had just finished my slide deck.  I wasn’t quite happy with it (are we ever happy with our work?).  And to be quite honest I just didn’t feel like going to the user group.  I really want to come home and talk with you all!

imageBut I decided that I needed to go.  It was a commitment that I had made to the community.  Sure, that means a commitment that I made to people that I may or may not know.  But a commitment just the same!

I ported my presentation over to my laptop from my desktop.  Opened it up on the laptop to verify that I had everything running as expected.  All was good.  I packed up my stuff.  Let’s go!

I arrived at the user group on time.  Walked in.  Chatted with a Microsoft friend as I got set up.  He is a video guy that runs usergroup.tv.  I am seeking a video guy for a few projects I have running.  We chatted about his services.  He is very available to shoot any community event that we might be running.  Perfect!

Then we waited for folks to trickle in.  Ugh!  5 people showed up.  No worries though.  They were here.  I am here.  Let’s do this.

I began to chat about proxies and gateways.  Specifically how they could help you deploy and manage API applications in a more fluid manner.  How having proxies and gateways would allow you to write less code but be feature rich.  It went great.  A little short.  But the presentation wasn’t the best part of that night.

Side story: It has been my experience so far that the event itself is rarely the thing you go for.  It is all the networking opportunities that present themselves along the way.  The content in the middle of the content.  I went to an NServiceBus conference last year.  And the content was pretty good.  But having dinner with Jeffrey Palermo, Jimmy Bogard, and Oren Eini was the best part.  Chatting with Ted Neward for 30 minutes on the state of our young industry and how to fix the education problems we currently have was great.  Then I went to the MVP conference after that.  The content was great.  But being invited to a party at Ted’s house was even better.  I got to meet so many of my internet friends in person for the first time.

Back to the user group meeting:  My content ran short.  I generally like to present for an hour or so to give the attendees something worth traveling for.  We had 20 minutes remaining.  This took us into a conversation about Azure updates from the MS guys.  And eventually we ended up on the topic of “hour of code” and code.org.  Which then turned into someone sharing a personal lunch they had just had earlier that day.

My friend had met with an MS peer who was bringing a new program to Texas.  Basically Microsoft was intending to fund a program where people like you and I would go into high schools and bring a computer curriculum to the students.  High schools, schools in generally really, just don’t have computer science like you think they would.  MS would provide the computers and what not.  We would provide the teaching and direction.  I am so very interested in this.  I very much want to help kids see what they can do with computers as it pertains to their career.  Perfect!

The guy my friend had lunch with was a high school math teacher before getting into programming.  He decided one day to stop teaching and go to work in the industry.  He moved to Seattle and worked on the MS product teams.  Eventually the local high schools caught wind that he was a former high school teacher.  The school asked this former teach to put together and deliver a programming curriculum to their kids.  The guy said sure and started stopping at the school on the way to work to guide the students through their journey.  Another school heard of this and asked if they could be a part of that.  Then another school.  Then another school.  Eventually the guy had to reach out to colleagues at work to get them to help out.  This went on and on until the guy had 40 schools he and his friends were working with.  The guy decided he was going to have to quit his job and start a non-profit to handle this problem.  A very senior VP at MS told the former teacher he saw it two ways 1) you can quit, start a non-profit, and spend 80% of your time fund raising or 2) MS can fund this program for you, you continue to work at MS and drive this new program.  MS started the program locally and has now moved into Texas with four high schools trying it out.

Once our conversation was over, and the meeting was over, I packed up and started to head out.  Two fella’s from my former Round Rock employer walked up to me.  They worked in another group but had heard of me and where I was now.  They came to my user group specifically to talk to me after the meeting.  They were interested in working at my current company.  They had all sorts of questions for me and were very interested in applying.  As I am looking for 6-8 engineers almost every week this was great.  The biggest requirement, I told them, was that “You have to be a couple of cool dudes!  We hold culture very high!”.  They loved this very much!  They appeared to be a good fit for us.  Perfect!

Then I started to head out.  In the waiting area of the conference rooms at the MS campus I had a chance to talk to one of the Azure Insiders and MS MVP.  He had walked into my talk half way through.  And was an active member of the last conversation around MS and education.  As it turns out he ran the community out reach program for a local college.  He had eluded to having some space where community programs such as user groups and the like could use for their meetups.  I need a big space for some community workshops I am starting to put together at work.  Score – I found a new venue for our workshops once they grow to something big.  Perfect!

imageLet’s recap.  I didn’t want to go to this user group.  I felt unprepared to give my presentation (the MS product group for the product I was speaking about picked up my talk by the way).  I made a contact for video services.  I found early information on a new program that I am very interested in.  I located a couple of candidates for my company.  I found a location to expand my workshops into.  Very productive user group meeting!

Put yourself out there.  You never know what will come from it.  I am not saying that it will always be this great.  But I can certainly tell you that if you don’t put yourself out there a story like this won’t happen for you so easily.

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Build long-lasting relationships – don’t burn bridges!

Most of us interact with dozens of people on a daily basis. In most cases, we make several new contacts every month. Our network continuously expands as we go about our daily routines. If handled properly, these relationships can be an extremely useful tool for advancing our careers. If not done right though, they can also be the biggest hurdle to our success. In fact, I’ve found that one of the best things we can do to build a successful career is establish lasting relationships with the people we meet along the way. For me, these relationships have proven to be indispensable.

I’ve found that one of the best things we can do to build a successful career is establish lasting relationships with the people we meet along the way.

The connections I have made at work have been extremely valuable in helping me advance my career. They have served as references when I’ve looked for a job. They have also been the people that recommend me to their employers or to other people in their network. In fact, in the last 5-6 years I have not had to look for work at all. Every time I’ve switched jobs it’s been because someone in my professional network has recommended me for a position. As you can imagine, this makes finding work a whole lot easier!

relationshipsI think we should look to expand our network every day and work at building lasting connections with the people we encounter. We run into awesome people all the time and we should focus on growing positive, long term, bonds with them.  You never know when one of these relationships will help you reach your next goal. In my experience, these relationships make navigating your career and reaching the goals you’ve set for yourself a lot easier to accomplish. At the same time, we should not underestimate the importance of these connections and make sure not to burn any bridges along the way. We spend a lot of time and effort working to build these relationships and it doesn’t make any sense to just throw them away.

Here are a few tips to building strong, long lasting relationships with your coworkers that can help you build your successful career.

Be Yourself

This first thing is really easy, but for some people it’s extremely hard to do…always be yourself. Odds are you’re a cool cat. You should let people see you for who you are. I am not saying you shouldn’t be professional, just be genuine at all times. If you’re not really a tight-laced, straight and narrow person then don’t pretend to be one at work.  Within reason, and when appropriate, you should allow some of your true nature to be visible wherever you are. Don’t be the coworker that is one way at the office but a completely different person in other environments.  For me, this is a general guideline that I follow in life and I think it applies to work as well. I found it makes people feel like they really know you and not only the buttoned up version of you. I think it helps garner those closer, longer lasting, relationships that we are trying to build.

Be Attentive

Another really easy, but extremely important, thing you can do is simply listen to people. I know, this might sound a little silly, but it makes a huge difference. When you’re talking to someone, stay focused and engaged. Listen to what they are saying and participate in the conversation even if it’s not work related. This encourages people to talk to you and makes them feel like they can come to you for personal and professional advice, to chit-chat or maybe just to blow off some steam. All of these interactions are valuable to building a personal relationship that extends beyond work or that particular job.

Be Helpful

Always be willing to help your coworkers out. Take every opportunity you have to be a resource to others. This might mean helping a coworker figure out a specific technical issue or being a mentor to someone that is more junior than you are. Maybe a coworker just hasn’t worked with a particular tool, technology or process and you can help them figure it out and not have to stumble their way through it. You should keep your eyes open for opportunities to help someone get out of a jam. Sometimes, these interactions make the most positive impact with your coworkers. It’s seems like their value is magnified by the size of the problem you are helping resolve. I’ve experience this from both ends. I know I value the many people that have made an effort to help me figure things out or get me out of a jam. I’ve also seen just how much helping others helps build the type of positive working relationships that I’ve tried to establish.

Accept Feedback

You should always be open to feedback. In most cases, people are actually trying to help you out when they give you feedback or suggestions. Of course, you’ll run into some people that have a different agenda but you should hear those people out as well. Never, ever, ever react emotionally. It only plays into that persons agenda and makes you look rattled to others. You should always consider the merits of the feedback, discuss it professionally with that person and make a determination on whether to accept it or not based on fact and not emotion.

Never, ever, ever react emotionally. It only plays into that persons agenda and makes you look rattled to others.

A crucial part of a strong relationship is feeling that you can tell that person when you think they are wrong (or not quite right) and they won’t blow up or just ignore you. I know it makes a huge difference in my work relationships (and personal) when I feel comfortable that if I disagree with that person, we can have a discussion about it and not end up in an argument.

Be Professional

Above all else, be professional. Don’t ever be disrespectful, condescending or aggressive. Treat your coworkers with the respect that they deserve. You don’t want to be the person in the office that people feel they can’t approach. You want your coworkers to feel like they can talk to you and you won’t make them feel uncomfortable. I’ve never really understood why anyone would disrespect their coworkers. This kind of behavior, and the negative feelings that it creates, can follow you wherever you go and can be very difficult to overcome. I’ve worked with some really smart people that are great at their jobs but they choose to be negative and unprofessional. I’ve never felt comfortable recommending them for other positions. Whenever I am asked if I know someone that does “XYZ,” I don’t consider recommending these people even though they might do it better than anyone else I know. I am just not able to get over the way they treat people and I don’t want to subject others to it. So, don’t be that person…

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