On Maintaining Personal Brand as a Software Engineer


Photo credit: Ed Yourdon
Photo credit: Ed Yourdon

Man’s wisdom is in what he writes,

good sense at the end of his pen;

and using his pen he can climb to the height

of the scepter in the hand of his king

The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain

Moses Ben Maimon (aka Maimonides) lived over 800 years ago. With his studies and writings he influenced Jewish, Muslim and Christian thinkers of his time and his work is studied the world over even today. His work in medicine led to many modern hospitals named after him. In his time learning, writing and calligraphy were critical skills of a knowledge professional. We remember him today because of the things he wrote, and what was written by others about him.

In Maimonides’s day, it would take months or even years to send and receive a response to a single letter. That required thoughtfulness so no stroke of pen is wasted. Non-written idle talk could also get you into trouble, as spoken word is easily distorted and misunderstood. Maimonides wrote in “Tractate Avot” (aka “Eight Chapters on Ethics”) that “idle talk” falls under the Reprehensible category of speech: the talk about daily minutiae of one’s life, conducts of political leaders, or who died and who became rich.

Software engineers are defined by public information about them to a degree no other professionals are. Who we are as professionals is defined by what of our writing is discovered by others. In the day and age when such public information is easily found by anyone with a web browser, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to define and own our personal brands.

Social media can be a double-edged sword. It offers a great way to maintain connections among families, friends, and co-workers. One must take great care and ensure that “idle talk” does not make it to the public search results and any publicly discoverable information is targeted towards one single goal: building, maintaining and owning one’s personal brand.

A few years ago there was a satirical article about a New York man who was walking the streets of Manhattan utter 140-character sentences about what he was doing. He had 4 followers of which 2 were NYPD.

While there is no denying the usefulness of Facebook to maintain contact with friends and family, nobody outside of your family and close friends cares or should know about your daily happenings. Your coworkers and business associates do not need to know what your child said today or what your cat did. Facebook is the modern day equivalent of sending mail letters and postcards to your friends.

Take respectable public figures as examples of appropriate Facebook usage. I am sure that Robert Reich must have a personal Facebook profile somewhere that his friends can see. What is publicly visible, however, is his public figure page. Use the public figure page feature of Facebook to your advantage — keep your personal profile extremely private, but encourage your co-workers and business associates to follow your public page.

Twitter is similar to Facebook with obvious differences in the type of content one can put up. Keep your personal account private and maintain an active public professional account. Twitter is informal and it is ok to occasionally allow a bit of humanity to slip in — but take care not to be inflamatory.

LinkedIn is the obvious leader in professional networking. It’s article posting functionality leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless it is the defacto mechanism for keeping your professional contacts updated with your accomplishments.

Search engine presence is critical to personal branding. It takes significant long-term effort to build up and is critical to maintaining a personal brand. Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and LinkedIn will not allow you to maintain the same degree of control over the style and layout of your content as WordPress, TypePad or even Tumblr.

Whatever blogging platform you choose make sure you own all of your content and do not agree to transfer copyright to anyone. Do not be cheap and pay for your own hosting — ads commingled with your content contaminate your personal brand.

Particular to software engineering and technology industry there are tools like GitHub and StackOverflow that offer a tremendous opportunity to share ideas and improve personal brand. Use these tools eloquently, effectively, and wisely — employers are known to look for candidate profiles there.

For the personal brand building purposes social media cannot be avoided. One cannot underestimate the risk of a malicious group wishing to do harm to a public figure by establishing a social media account in their name and posting slander. Therefore, it is important to maintain active profiles in social media.

Tools like IFTTT can be used to cross-post references to your content across different services. Don’t overuse IFTTT and be mindful of differences in the styling across sites.

With the amount of written content we produce we have an opportunity to create thousands of pages of published content in our lifetime. When one sits down to write a social media comment or a blog post, or even an email or an instant message, one needs to treat it as a writing exercise. The style and the quality of your writing is a factor in your personal branding. The best recommended book on this subject is “Everybody Writes” by Ann Hadley.