Should developers build and maintain a personal brand?

Personal branding is one the most (in)famous trends of the last decade. And I think there’s value in creating and cultivating one as a developer. You don’t have to. The vast majority of developers don’t do it. But we live now in a time when job security is more a dream than reality. Remote work puts us in the same market with people all around the world. So can we afford to ignore such an asset to our careers?

I wrote the following article, where I’m talking about what a personal brand is and how building one can help boost your career. I’m talking about how to stake your claim in the online space as well as three paths you can follow to level up your brand.

What is your take on personal branding? Are you building one at the moment? Thinking about starting one soon? Or do you think it’s a waste of time? Or a hoax?

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I think it depends on what sort of career path you’re looking for, and what sort of personality you are, so I don’t necessarily agree with it saying ‘Your Developer Career’.

If you’re a person who prefers contract/short term/project work, working for a lot of different groups, it can certainly be helpful and valuable in promoting yourself to potential clients.

If you’re a person who prefers a long term employment, it’s less valuable - once you’ve got the job, a personal brand is less important than the company brand.

Personally, I fall into the latter category, I don’t seek the limelight, and don’t work on a personal ‘brand’ at all. That said, i’ve also got a full time job i enjoy and have no desire to change companies at any point in the foreseeable future, so for me, at this time, it would be a waste of time.

@m_hutley All those are fair points. But how do you plan for the case you are not employed by that company anymore? What if you are laid off? Or the company’s values and/or policies change and are not aligned with your own personal values anymore? What if they decide to cut costs and hire remote developers from places with a lower cost of living? Even for career corporate developers, job security is by no means assured.

There are career developers who also maintain a personal brand. Jen Simmons is working for Mozilla. Chris Heilmann worked for Mozilla and now works for Microsoft. Addy Osmani works for Google. Just to name a few.

If what you have works for you and it makes you happy, that’s awesome. Maybe not everyone is as fortunate. Maybe starting a blog can lead to a better company making you an offer. Or it can be the thing that tips the scale when you are applying for a job.

Thank you for sharing your opinion. I think that having such discussions and witnessing the diversity makes us all better.

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See, you say this, and my head goes “Here’s how you break your job security.”

That ‘better company’ isn’t the only one who will see your blog. If we want to name-drop, i’m sure I could spend 5 minutes on google and come up with dozens of names of people who have shot themselves in the foot by working on their brand while employed.

A really good employee doesnt need to shout from the rooftops that they’ve done a thing. The thing speaks for itself, and people remember it.

It’s a sword you can wield, to be sure; just remember that swords have two edges.

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I think the main caveat is “don’t work on your personal brand to the detriment of your current job”. That, indeed is a sure way to shoot yourself in the foot. If you do it in your own time and your employer takes offence to that, there’s thousands of shades of gray in between the options you can take. I got an offer once where the contract said that the company would take ownership over everything I produced even if it was outside working ours, in my own time, using my own resources. I refused that clause and negotiated a change where I had complete control and ownership over my own personal time and activities.

I see nothing wrong with shouting your success. Maybe you can’t tell about the work projects because of contracts and NDAs and such thing. But every human being craves recognition. Some more, some less. Getting recognition for something else you do can compensate some things you simply can’t get from your current job, no matter how much you like it. It’s the reason so many people contribute to open source in their own time.

In my opinion an open-minded employer would welcome their employees getting better and becoming well known in the industry. If you make them feel proud to work for you, part of their success would extend over the company image as well. And even if they leave, they will always speak well of you. Of course, the world is far from an ideal place, so pick and choose your battles carefully.

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I’m a huge fan of this. mawburn is exactly this.

There is a famous writer and a famous athlete who have my same real name, so I started using mawburn, which is a combination of my real name that made a word and something I could be at the top of Google with. If you search my real name, you’re probably not going go find me. I’m probably not going to be more popular than the writer of Steven’s Universe, but I can be the most popular mawburn out there!

I try to remain completely professional and positive when doing anything online under this name, just like I would at work. I’ve written sitepoint articles under this name and all my professional accounts lead back to this name, except my LinkedIn because I got in early on LinkedIn and have my real name as a profile url.

I’ve slacked off a little over the last few years building my brand, but I’ve been pretty happy at my current role and how easy it is for me to find something new. I really should start working on it a little more.

Hi @mawburn and thanks for sharing your opinion. I am glad building a brand works for you. I also understand sharing your name with more famous (or even infamous - see below) people. There’s an Adrian Sandu who is a professor in the USA, there’s a gymnast with the same name, the chairman of the Romanian association of car manufacturers (or something like that) has the same name.

Here is a screenshot I took a few months ago. Now I only appear once on the first page.

Speaking of infamous people having the same name, Harry Roberts of CSSWizardry shares the same name with a famous cop killer. He used to start his presentation slides saying “don’t mistake me for this other dude”

It’s really hard if you have a generic name. “Tom” is a common first name and “Butler” is a very common surname, there are probably thousands of people with my name!

I must be doing something right though as I get a lot of hits from people searching “tom butler php” and “tom butler programmer”.

@TomB I’ve actually ran into a few of your answers on SO. Every time I’m like “HEY! I sorta know that guy!” I would say TomB is your band, if it wasn’t already a word. But yeah, I get you on the real name stuff. My real name is Matt Burnett and is probably just as common as Tom Butler.

I love how small the development world can be sometimes. Everything from running into random people in other places or people at work linking me some of mine they ran into, to getting into random chats with influential developers on different forums or reddit.

Having a personal brand really helps with that I think, but I could probably be better at building mine.

Have you heard of the idiom Your bark is worse than your bite? If your branding is louder than your content then you will lose.

You should watch Shark Tank. Entrepreneurs are laughed off the stage if they try to get funding too soon.

In First path: become an authority in your article you say that the first thing to do is to research, write, tweet and speak about your chosen expertise. Then you provide samples of real people. You say very little about what they did to deserve the attention. There is very little in your article about development of actual accomplishments and experience. The first thing is to do that.

If many developers develop brands with an average resume then employers are likely to develop a habit of ignoring them. I think many employers would avoid employees that tend to spend a lot of time Tooting their own horn.

When CNN was young they degraded into nearly all commercials. Even small businesses were advertising. I was in a small computer store in Hollywood and a salesperson was trying to get the owner to advertise on CNN. He thought he could get me to help sell the owner but I said that there are too many businesses advertising in CNN.

You could improve your article by the use of a skill that is rare. It is the ability to reduce content and retain value. I cannot find a relevant quote now but Maya Angelou is someone that explains the importance of improving what we write to make it shorter and more effective. Authors need to avoid the tl;dr affect.

Hi @SamuelCalifornia! Thanks for sharing your opinion.

I think you are looking at the “personal brand” phrase and choosing to go with the “celebrity / over-the-top-marketing / fake-it-till-you-make-it” meaning that many people think about. I did mention that authenticity is a critical ingredient.

I did this article as an introduction piece and, inevitably, I had to touch on a lot of points. I think I was clear enough about the accomplishments of the people I mentioned. They are very well known and respected in the developer community and their work is online available for all to see.

Each of the three paths are general directions one can take and use as a pillar to build their own personal brand around that idea. For the purpose of this article I just wanted to highlight these approaches and give some examples of people who succeeded doing that. I am planing to go in more details, with more actionable content, either here, on SitePoint, or on other places.

Everyone in the public space has a personal brand, whether they choose to call it such or not. We used to refer to it by many other names, like “authority”, “public image”, or other similar phrases. I think that acknowledging the term “personal brand” makes you more aware of the echo your actions have. When you acknowledge that anything you do has an impact in the way other people see you, it makes you choose your actions more carefully.

But again, doing this is not for everyone. Most people won’t even start doing anything like this. We all gorge on tutorials, articles and motivational content, but we don’t action on everything, if at all. But the few who decide to do it and stick to the process will have one extra tool in their inventory.

Yes people are constantly changing the meaning of words and making new words. The word organic is now used for many things that have nothing to do with creations of God and Mother Nature. The word blog did not exist 20 years ago. I think people are too quick to make many such changes. So in my opinion at least the use of a word in a new way is not necessarily an improvement.

As for everything else, I have expressed my thoughts so there is no need to repeat it.

In all fairness, this is always what the word brand has meant.

A brand is a name, term, design, symbol or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.

When you’re looking for a job you’re selling yourself. By having a brand, you can have some control what people see about you and make your things rise to the top instead of being all shuffled together.

Employers aren’t going to ignore them, because they aren’t usually just randomly stumbling on random developers and researching them. When someone is looking to employ you, they will Google you and if you have a brand they can Google then that puts what they see in your favor.

If you have/do/build something that becomes big enough that there are randomly Googling you, then you have an existing history out there.

Honestly, it takes very little effort and is a good thing to have and you avoid situations where things like this are at the top of your Google results:

Screen Shot 2020-05-21 at 6.07.29 PM

I doubt SamuelCalifornia is your real name, but the point still stands.

No, brand does not mean constantly changing the meaning of words and making new words. Now perhaps I am quoting you out of context but that is what you did.

Fair enough. I must have missed your point then, because it sounded like you were saying that the meaning of the word brand was being changed.

AdrianSandu said that his use of the word is different from the traditional.

Language is always evolving. Old, unused meanings fall out of use and new meanings get attached. Here’s what Wikipedia says about the word “brand” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brand#Etymology)

The word, brand , derives from its original and current meaning as a firebrand, a burning piece of wood. (…) Torches were used to indelibly mark items such as furniture and pottery, and to permanently burn identifying marks into the skin of slaves and livestock. Later the firebrands were replaced with branding irons. The marks themselves took on the term and came to be closely associated with craftsmen’s products. Through that association, the term eventually acquired its current meaning.

The personal branding entry in Wikipedia has a quote that I also mentioned in the article. Here’s the whole paragraph:

Whereas some [self-help] practices focus on self- improvement , personal branding defines success as a form of self- packaging. The term is thought to have originated from an article written by [Tom Peters] in 1997. 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.”

We always pay attention to our own self-packaging. The usual advice from recruiters is to tailor your CV according to the specifics of the job you apply to. When going out on a date, you put your best attributes forward and try to minimize or hide the less desirable traits. The examples can go on.

I’m not making up new meanings for words to suit my needs. I’m just highlighting the evolution of the term “personal brand”. Unlike most language changes, we can track this evolution and see when the major change points are.

And the English language desperately needs to be improved. The question is if a change is an improvement or a degradation. The fact that something is different does not make it good automatically.