How to Boost Your Developer Career with a Personal Brand


How to Boost your Developer Career with a Personal Brand

Personal branding is one the most (in)famous trends of the last decade.

In this article, I’ll talk about what a personal brand is and how building one can help boost your career. I’ll show you how to stake your claim in the online space as well as three paths you can follow to level up your brand. That’s plenty to talk about, so let’s get this started.

The argument for a personal brand as a developer

Our first stop is Wikipedia, where we can find the following definition:

Personal branding is the practice of marketing people and their careers as brands. It is an ongoing process of developing and maintaining a reputation and impression of an individual, group, or organization.

That’s the part most of people have in mind when they think about personal branding. They think about the current diva of the day. About famous media celebrities. About publicity stunts that are meant to push you into the limelight. About presenting a fake facade in order to obtain undeserved rewards. And many other less-than-pleasant examples.

However, there’s another aspect to personal branding — the other side of the coin, so to speak. Right after the definition above, the Wikipedia article has the following phrase:

In Be Your Own Brand, first published in 1999, marketers David McNally and Karl Speak wrote: “Your brand is a perception or emotion, maintained by somebody other than you, that describes the total experience of having a relationship with you.”

In other words, your personal brand includes what other people say about you when you’re not there. It includes your reputation, your body of work, the testimonials other people give about you. Nowadays it includes your tweets and your posts on Facebook. To many people, your pictures on Instagram matter just as much (if not more) as your contributions to open-source software. Want to travel in the USA? Be prepared to let them know all your social media accounts for the last five years. (Sources: Sophos and BBC). And the examples can continue.

Everything you say and do affects your public image and your reputation. And that can have devastating impact on your career. Remember the Aria Richards case back in 2013? She was a developer taking part in a conference where she published a tweet about some male developers making sexual jokes behind her, including their picture. In the fallout, one of the guys was fired, but Aria lost her job as well, because her action was deemed to be damaging to the reputation of the company employing her. (Sources: ArsTechnica and CBSNews).

Fortunately, it’s not just about mitigating possible damage. A great personal brand can increase your leverage at a level you wouldn’t dream about it. It can put you in a better light when applying to a new job, and you’ll have better negotiating power when discussing the salary and the perks of the position. If you have your own business, it can bring you more and better clients and projects. What’s not to like about it?

But there’s one caveat in all this: be authentic. Don’t do it to project something you aren’t, or as a money-grabbing move or, worse, to cover negative aspects. That’s the main reason people react badly when hearing about personal branding.

This subject alone (the pros and cons of personal branding) can fill a whole book and goes beyond the scope of this article. So, stop letting others write your story and take control of your narrative. All this being said, let’s push forward.

Stake your claim and establish your presence

The first phase in building your personal brand is staking your claim in the online space and laying down the foundations for further expansion. It is, in my opinion, the most important part of the process. If you do nothing else from the other things we’ll talk about later, but you work on this part, I’m confident you’ll get a lot further than many other people.

We’re currently living in the age of social media, so you might be surprised to hear that this foundation is actually your own website. Yes, a website. The old-fashioned kind, where you buy a domain name, arrange hosting and upload the files on the server for everyone else on the Internet to find.

“That’s the dumbest idea I’ve heard,” you might say. “I don’t need a website. I have my CV on LinkedIn, my pictures on Facebook and Instagram, my articles on Medium, my code on GitHub and I keep in touch with everyone on Twitter. Why would I waste time and effort with a website that I have to promote as well?”

From a certain point of view, all that sounds quite reasonable. But all those options have one thing in common: they’re all third-party platforms, and you’re actually renting the right to use them. You might not pay with money, but they are gathering data about you and your habits that’s either used to target ads your way or it’s passed to third parties for the same reasons. Remember, if you’re not paying for something, then you are the product being sold.

It all comes down to a simple truth: you can’t build your home on rented land. You can lose access to social media at any moment. All these platforms have somewhere in their terms and conditions a clause that allows them to terminate their service to you at any time without having to provide an explanation. Or your account could get hacked or deleted. Your tens or hundreds of thousands of followers? All gone in a blink of an eye if you lose access to the platform.

That’s why you need something you own completely — a place to present yourself without being beholden to a platform that only cares about their own interests. You need a way to gather contacts, followers, connections and clients and be able to keep them. Yes, websites and servers do get hacked. But in that case, all you need to do is install the latest backup and you’re up and running again.

Let’s get down to the trinity of items needed to establish your online presence:

  1. A domain name

You need your own custom domain name for multiple reasons. It gives you more legitimacy and it opens the gates for further options down the road. www.johnnydev.com is a lot better than johnnydev2335.github.io, don’t you think? We can have a very long discussion over whether it’s better to choose a “brand name” or your own given name for the domain. However, that’s a conversation for another time and place.

  1. Hosting

There are plenty options of free hosting for developers: GitHub Pages, Netlify and many more. In many cases, that’s all you need to have a website up and running. For some of the more advanced options, though, it’s better to get some classic dedicated hosting.

  1. Custom email address

This is the same story as with the domain name above. I think we can agree that johnny@johnnydev.com is more professional than johnnydev2335@gmail.com or some other email address you created when you were 16 years old.

Now all you have to do is upload your site and let everyone know about it. You can go from something as simple as a single static page to something complex like a WordPress blog or a static site generator like Gatsby or Hugo. Don’t despair if design isn’t your strong point. There are plenty of free themes and templates available.

Remember, you don’t have to code the website yourself. You get extra brownie points and bragging rights for writing as much code as possible yourself, but that’s not a requirement. If time’s at a premium for you, just grab a free template or theme and get started. Be sure to check the code for any hidden, unpleasant surprises, though, or use trusted sources, like curated collections and communities. All major players, like WordPress, Gatsby or Hugo, come with curated themes that you can choose from.

Once you have a website

Congratulations! You just became the proud owner of your own piece of online real estate. You how have a place where you can link all your social media profiles, upload your CV, write some blog posts or even articles. If you want to take it even further and remove further your dependency on other platforms, you can start your own email list. But that’s a topic for another time. For now, we’ll focus on three paths you can take to further increase your influence, your reputation and, ultimately, your personal brand. These are paths that other developers have taken before, and they got a lot of benefits out of that choice. They’re also not mutually exclusive. You can mix and match until you get the combination that works best for you.

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