28 September 2014

Advanced Personal Branding

This February I wrote three articles on personal branding for software developers. I discussed creating and strengthening your brand step by step: branding all your accounts and defining your motto, sharing and promoting yourself and maintaining a technical blog. I sorted these activities by difficulty into a kind of personal branding ladder, which will vary for different people depending on their personality. This is the final article covering advanced, that are more difficult and more time consuming branding activities.

Go Out!
Edge Conference at Google New YorkPersonal branding is - well - personal. So you need to meet people in person, interact with them. Find your local user groups or technology related meetups and attend regularly. Join the discussion and talk about the topics you are interested in. You do not need to present anything formally. Regular listeners who ask questions now and then are vital for the existence of any community. There is no way you can fail here. As long as you are authentic, people who share your enthusiasm will want to meet you and discuss your topics. You are interesting to like-minded developers, you just need to allow them to find you.

Present at a User Group
After attending the user group meetings regularly, it is time to take the next step and present something yourself. It it true that some people would rather face death than talk in front of a crowd, but the usual audience at community meetings is forgiving. Remember, most people in the audience are like you and already know you in person. They gave similar beginner talks or know that they should. First time speakers cannot be expected to give flawless talks, and that is the beauty of user groups, full of natural human beings, delivering refreshing and idiosyncratic presentations. Some communities are so successful in encouraging their members to talk, that they continuously breed world class speakers.

Nevertheless I am not saying that your talk does not need rigorous preparation and practice up front. There are several basic things that you can screw up in presentations in general, like giving a wall of text or death by power point. Do your research and read some articles on preparing content, creating slides, presentation techniques and such. There is also much content available on technical presentations in particular. In fact there is only one rule you need to keep in mind: Your presentation is not about you. It is not about you becoming a rock star speaker, it is about serving the audience. For example if you want the audience to read your code samples, make them easy to understand and write them in a large enough font. If the font is too small you are actually conveying the message that you do not care if people read it.

I gave my first presentation at the local Java user group five years ago. It worked out well and today, many presentations later, I still like to talk to smaller groups because these presentations often become conversations and large crowds make me nervous. If you have an extrovert character and like talking to people, giving regular presentations could be less cumbersome than maintaining a technical blog. Here you might change the order of steps. Anyway you need to do both!

Organise a User Group
Organising a local community is hard work. Meetings have to be scheduled, speakers contacted and so on. Usually the group leaders' work is not seen but vital for a thriving community. Step up and help the organisers, your help will be appreciated. Or maybe there is no local community for your favourite topic, then it is high time to create one. Creating new communities is easy using tools like Meetup or social media platforms. For example Aaron Cruz is a "community factory". Be created a new meetup for a topic that clearly has been missing, Clojure Vienna and organised a few meetups, which were a great success. Then he transferred the ownership of the group to the most enthusiastic member and went on to create another meetup.

Your group does not have to be local, there are good examples of virtual communities as well. For example Jonny Andersson runs a remote reading group, a small group of people sharing the interest to learn from books. Another, quite different example is the vJUG, the on-line Java User Group, which brings well known speakers on-line every month.

As I said above, being a community leader can be a lot of work. For example Peter Brachwitz of Clojure Vienna told me that he prepares a presentation if nobody else volunteers to do so. Now that is great leader spirit! Despite the effort, running an user group is a highly rewarding activity. You will be able to watch great presentations (if you organise them ;-) and have "exclusive" access to speakers and other community leaders. For example in the Java world there is an International JUG Leader's conference once a year.

Cydcor ConferencePresent at a Conference
Presenting at user groups is often informal, sometimes becoming a discussion rather than a polished presentation. The larger the audience gets, the more formal and professional your presentation needs to be. When submitting a talk to a large and well known conferences like Devoxx, you are competing with many other speakers to get accepted. Also your future talk needs much more practice. When facing 80 or 100 people for the first time, who are all looking at you in eager anticipation, your brain is likely to shut down, unless you are naturally gifted. At least mine did, and I did not even talk to really large crowds till now.

So your presentation needs more preparations, several dry runs, maybe even showing it to a colleague for feedback. This is much work, which keeps me from doing it too often, if at all. And I do not believe in talks with little or no preparation. Even if you do not mind making a fool of yourself, you are doing your audience a disservice. You are wasting their precious (and limited) learning time, when instead they could listen to great talks in parallel tracks.

At international events you might meet new people and grow your network beyond your local area. While this is already true for all attendees, the "magic" speaker badge lets you stand out. Other speakers will talk to you and regular attendees will stalk you to ask questions ;-) And speaking at international conferences can make you famous, really world-famous if you work hard. Working hard means attending at least one conference each month, all around the globe, besides your regular work. This is really tough, as veteran speakers like Dan North or Thomas Sundberg have assured me.

Organise a Conference
Did you spot the pattern? Find some event, attend, contribute and finally organise one yourself. What is true for local events is even more true for conferences. Again you can start small with local one-day conferences embedded in larger communities like Eclipse DemoCamp, Google DevFest or Code Retreat. Your event is likely relying on the infrastructure and help of a well running user group, because you cannot do everything by yourself. For example when we started Eclipse DemoCamp in Vienna five years ago, we did so with the help of the Java User Group Austria.

A much better example is GeeCON, my favourite Java conference which I attend every year. I believe its story is the following: Some guys of the Polish JUG met and complained about the lack of a great conference in Poland. They decided to create one. Already the first version of GeeCON was a huge success and over the years the conference became one of most awesome events I have ever attended. But GeeCON is also a perfect example of the hard work needed to run such an event. If the organisers are not in a hurry, e.g. to buy more wireless routers or fix some other problem, they are walking around the venue slowly, with tired, dark circled eyes. Lukasz Stachowiak, member of the GeeCON organisers, once told me that preparations for the next version of GeeCON start on the very next day after the previous one has ended. I am sure this is also true for Devoxx and all community-driven conferences.

Against Banned BooksWrite a Technical Book
Finally we reach the top of the food chain. Writing a book is probably the most time consuming activity. Tomek Kaczanowski told me that it took him two years to get his Practical Unit Testing book delivered. But the time was well spent. His book is getting more and more popular, which is nice in case of the little revenue each book gives, but much more important is the widespread reception of his book.

As I did not write any books myself, I can only refer to articles about doing so. For example Jack Shirazi's discussion if writing a technical book is worthwhile covers income vs. non-direct income vs. time spent of writing a book. It says "People are impressed by authors. If you have had a book published in a certain area, even if that book did not do particularly well, people are impressed." Since 2007 when he wrote the article, things have changed in publishing if you decide to self publish, as Tomek did. Jurgen Appelo recommends to read at least three books about self publishing before starting with it. And if you think about writing a book you should read Rand's excellent explanation how to write a book first.

It seems that writing a book is sort of making addicted. Many authors I know did write more than one book or at least think about writing another one, even if it would make their wives unhappy (again). Tomek decided to give his third book away for free. Bad Tests, Good Tests is a short book, nevertheless it took him some time to write it. Sure, giving the book away for free removes its direct income aspect, but increases its non-direct income, as more people will get it. Anyway, free or not, it is a great book and you should read it!

Thanks to all the people I used in this blog post as examples for successful branding activities, especially as I did not ask for their permission to do so.

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