Learn why personal branding is more than self-promotion.
Everyone has a story. Here’s mine:
Hi I’m Neha, and I’m a Senior Software Engineer in San Francisco. I taught myself programming 4 years ago which is how I came to work for Pivotal. I love traveling (I think I had 11 trips on the docket this year), and am also a board member for the non-profit Write/Speak/Code for women and non-binary coders.
In my life, I’m not just Neha the software engineer or Neha the traveler, but I’m also Neha the brand, who goes to speaking engagements, has talks you can find on the internet, and has an entire intentionally-tailored introduction that sums up what I do.
The idea of making yourself into a brand is pretty weird. Some people shy away from it because it has this bad rap of being associated with “selling a product” or that you, as a person, are a product or belonging to an entity. In this day where everyone hates on humble braggers, or dislikes tasks that will be ongoing, it’s easy to see why some people do nothing about their personal brand.
However, it is impossible to deny the power of branding. From what we choose to buy to our beliefs and core values, our lives are shaped by someone or some company’s branding in some way. The decisions we make about things, ideas, or people as a result of the impressions we have is at the very core of how humans interact with the world. Just as we use these impressions to guide our decision making, we must be conscientious of what we as developers and as people put out to the world and what makes up our own brand.
As developers, when we go from place to place, we usually don’t have tangible assets like an artist has a portfolio or a journalist has clips. Code, unless you’re in the OSS Community, is the private domain of clients or the organization you’re a part of and as a result, we’re are left with little to set us apart besides a title and some bullet points on a resume. That lack of ownership is what makes branding so crucial, especially when it is one of the only things that sets you apart.
This practice of defining my personal brand has not just let me fully showcase the work I do as an engineer, it’s helped me cultivate and figure out who I want to be to the world.
My career didn’t begin in software. I got my degree in mechanical engineering and my first job was as an energy consultant at PA Consulting. When I was there, there was a huge emphasis on two things: network and thought leadership. As a 22-year-old, I was being asked to create thought leadership material around the trends in the energy industry. At the time I thought, “I don’t know what the trends are. I just do what my clients tell me what to do.”
But as I transitioned to software, I began to realize just how important it was to develop a personal brand. This practice of defining my personal brand has not just let me fully showcase the work I do as an engineer, it’s helped me cultivate and figure out who I want to be to the world.
Grow Brand Plants: The Crux of Branding Strategy
For me, growing a brand is like growing a plant. By default, a brand is like a couple of roots in soil, with some height and leaves for the growth that’s been done so far. Unlike a real plant — which requires set elements of water, sunlight, and oxygen to exist — a brand, and the person it’s attached to, doesn’t have any set elements it needs to succeed and there are no constraints.
You can put anything you want into your brand and it will grow into whatever you want it to be. Where your brand goes — how large or small it is, how fast it grows — that’s all up to you. You can even change direction halfway through, which is something you can’t say about plants.
Whether I’m coding or thinking about my personal brand, I make sure to follow these four steps: Define, Grow, Curate, and Learn.
Branding isn’t about what you feel or think about yourself but rather about what other people feel, think, and say about you. This was pretty terrifying for me at first, but I quickly realized that it can be relieving. Branding is not about you, it’s about everyone else and how they perceive you.
To start off defining your brand, ask yourself the question “What do people know me for?” If you struggle with this (which I did), go to your peers for feedback.
For every product or company, it’s important to do user research and your personal brand is no different. Ask 5 of your colleagues a simple question like “What are my top three qualities?” This feedback can be from anyone from your manager to a close friend, just as long as you account for their responses based on how long they might know you. The responses you receive as a result are a great stepping stone for understanding what people really notice about you and what naturally defines you amongst your peers. The biggest things to note are the qualities or words that show up over and over; those are the signals that I look at when I get my “data” back.
I learned about my personal brand by iterating between feedback and actions. For example, whenever someone complimented my talk, I began asking them what in particular resonated with them. As a result of this, I’ve learned that my strengths in talks and presentations are being vulnerable for my audience, my warmth, and my self-deprecating humor. And even though the feedback I was aiming for was professional, intellectual, and life changing, if all someone can remember is my self-deprecating humor, that’s just fine.
After getting feedback from your peers and colleagues, the next step in the branding process is curation. The key to this step is fully understanding what you want to be known for and evaluating if it matches up with what people think about you in your work, projects, or anything else and utilizing this information as your eventual model. Another way to conceptualize this step is thinking: if you could start from scratch, who you would want to be? What you take away from this will be your goal at the end of this entire branding process, known as the “future you.” Try to end up with three things you want this future you to be known for.
Once you’ve set who “future you” is going to be, the next step is to grow the brand of that person. An important question to ask during this step is how you’re going to get from present you to future you.
Here’s how I did it: I took the three things I wanted to be known for from the Curate step and found three goals for each, these goals mapped to a vision of what I wanted for my future self.
For example, speaking at OSCON had always been my dream. It’s is a wonderful community that I wanted to get involved in. I knew that the easiest way to do so and participate in OSCON was speaking, but the problem was that the process was competitive and they had no idea who I was when I set my goal of becoming a speaker.
Figuring out how OSCON would want me as a speaker was pretty strategic; they wanted someone who brought a different perspective, had experience speaking, and to be a sure bet — this last caveat was especially important (since they didn’t know me), so I made it central to my goals.
But for a goal to work, you need to know what success looks like. I made sure to have a clearly defined end result for each of my goals. My three goals were:
- Making sure I was videotaped at several talks so I could link to them in my application. This would ensure that I’d no longer be an unknown and the track record proving my experience speaking would be taken care of.
- Try to put myself out there, formulate more opinions, interact with more people, and establish a different perspective. I found this in my community Write/Speak/Code that now feels like home. This allowed me to have community recognizability and the ability and confidence to articulate my ideas to them.
- Because I had been workshopping the talk I wanted to do at OSCON, I made sure to perfect and link to my slides the speaker application.
The fourth step in developing a personal brand is to learn by analyzing your success metrics and understanding how you’ve done. This is a simple step that is oftentimes forgotten but crucial to the entire branding process. I usually just put an appointment on my schedule and either reflect internally or out loud with a trusted friend or colleague. I find that I can always learn something new from reflection and figure out what I can incorporate in the next iteration of my brand.
Over time I’ve learned valuable lessons such as making sure to make a habit of promoting my brand through social media, owning my abilities to their full extent, and using my brand to not only amplify myself but others as well. Constant iteration of a brand (which includes revisiting the Define, Curate, and Grow stages based on your aspirations and learnings) and fine tuning different aspects of it ensures that it will not only continue to grow in influence but also hone into what is working well and discard of what isn’t.
Now more than ever, for any career in tech to be successful, you have to think about cultivating a personal brand and promoting it. By creating a wealth of assets and materials that define us in our professional lives, we as developers are able to define ourselves, set ourselves apart from each other and grow in our careers.
This is the sixth part in a series, Developers at Work, exploring the changing role of developers in today’s workplace.
Why a Personal Brand is Necessary For Today’s Developer was originally published in Built to Adapt on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.