Thoughts on Personal Brand

This is part of the Developer Relations series.

I find it distasteful that I’m writing a blog post on personal brand. When I started thinking about the topic about five years ago every fiber of my nerdy self bristled at the idea. Like many developers, I wanted to believe that it was only the content that mattered and eventually people would see the brilliance in my ideas. But as much as I wish the world were a pure meritocracy, it isn’t. How you present ideas matters, and part of presenting your ideas is how you present yourself.

There are tons of books and websites on personal brand. But for clarity, I define it as how people see you and what they think when they see your name on a blog post/conference program. A strong personal brand helps people know what to expect from you. That, in turn, can increase your credibility since consistency builds trust.

It took me a while to realize, but we are all developing our personal brand even if we aren’t doing it deliberately. When you speak at a conference, participate in social media, or chat with co-workers you are shaping what they think of you. So even if you think personal brand is icky you are still doing it. Maybe it is worth doing it a bit more purposefully than you are right now.

One possible consequence of not thinking a bit about your brand is ending up being seen as a “one trick pony.” If you only give talks about internationalization or a specific web framework, it becomes hard to get opportunities to do other things that interest you. I made this mistake when I started at Google. In my first six months, I focused heavily on Ruby since I knew it and because GCP’s Ruby support at the time was pretty bare bones. Quickly I developed a reputation as “that Rubyist.” It wasn’t entirely inaccurate, I do love Ruby, but it was limiting. I like Ruby because of the community’s focus on developer happiness and my passion for developer happiness isn’t language specific. I’ve done both Node and Java professionally and had some DevOps experience. I wanted to work on products related to those interests, but people didn’t think of me when they were setting up meetings because they thought I was just “that Rubyist.” I’ve spent the last year expanding my reputation to include DevOps and developer happiness regardless of language. I’ve corrected people who tried to introduce me as “the Ruby DA.” It has been hard work. I wish I had made an effort to be seen as more of a generalist up front and I think I would have had some cool opportunities if I had done so.

Another trap I’ve seen folks fall into is emulating those they respect instead of being themselves. Personal brand needs to be genuine. After all, personal brand is about packaging yourself; you should start with who you are. Starting with who you are means looking at your strengths and weaknesses and figuring out how you can be more effective while still being you.

Early in my career, I got smacked in the head with a couple of unpalatable facts. I had a performance review where my boss told me that people didn’t listen to my ideas because they found me intimidating, that I was too stubborn and passionate, and that I needed to learn to mask my emotions better. I tried to emulate folks my boss liked. Unsurprisingly it didn’t work. People could tell I was faking it and that made them dislike me more. I fumbled around for the next five years trying to figure out how to both be part of the team and also be myself but didn’t really make any headway.

Finally, at a particularly intense scrum planning meeting, I was arguing that a problem was more complicated than others realized and I was losing. Out of desperation, I reached for a technique I learned in QA; I made my point using a goofy example. It worked. I relaxed. Others relaxed. Everyone got less defensive, and people started to listen to my ideas. It turns out that punctuating intense technical discussions with moments of frivolity makes me more likable. And it isn’t an act. I’m a pretty goofy person a lot of the time. But I’d been hiding it since I thought it wasn’t appropriate for work and that had made my life harder than it had to be.

It turns out whimsy helped me in many situations that year. I was working on a technical talk, and early reviewers pointed out that it was dry, hard to follow, and that I came off as a bit of a know-it-all. One of the reviewers told me he could tell I was passionate about the topic but that passion was coming across as arogance. So I changed the examples to be a bit wacky. It worked. Adding some goofball to the content helped folks see how much I loved the topic.

I called on these experiences when I started thinking consciously about my brand. I wanted to start with what I knew worked. Experience had told me that I was good at presenting super nerdy content but that when I tried to uber-nerd all the time I wasn’t myself and folks reacted poorly to me. I need whimsy and glee to balance out the technical content and let me be myself. I think of my brand as “nerdy but dorky, with dinosaurs and pink.”

Writing it out like this, it sounds like I’m saying my personal brand is an elaborate con. It really isn’t. My personal brand came from emphasizing the parts of my personality that I like and using those to make up for the parts that are less awesome. I come across as genuine because I’m a terrible liar. The dinosaurs and the pink started on a whim. The technical content happens because I’m a giant nerd who likes teaching people things. I found a combination of my existing personality traits that made me effective at getting my ideas across and listened to, and I’ve stuck with it. It seems to be serving me well.

That’s the whole point of this post. We hear a phrase like “personal brand” and think that it is complicated, false, and marketing-y. We bristle against it. We try to copy others who are good at this whole branding thing and end up feeling like a fraud. Well done personal brand is exactly that, personal. It starts with figuring out what you like about yourself and focusing on your strengths. It isn’t any more complicated than making a good first impression on your future in-laws or your future co-workers. Decide what your best self looks like and do that loudly.