blue lemon sliced into two halves

Build and maintain your brand

This is an excerpt from my recently published book, Own Your Tech Career. You can take 35% off Own Your Tech Careerby entering fccjones11 into the discount code box at checkout at manning.com. Ampere Club members enjoy weekly career-focused articles like this one, along with access to virtual events, book discounts, 1:1 career coaching, and more.

When you think of a brand you know and love—Coca-Cola, perhaps, or Disney, or any other major consumer brand—certain expectations come to mind. You love a brand because those expectations exist and are consistently met. So what expectations do you create (or want to create) in other people, which you consistently meet? Are they positive expectations that help unlock career opportunities? What, in other words, is your brand?

Your brand, quite simply, tells a potential employer who you are. It tells them what to expect from you. They build that brand from everything they can see and learn about you: from personal interactions or hearsay, to social media, open-source projects, and Q&A websites where you participate. Basically, “everything online,” and everything offline, as well. Your brand helps an employer see what you’ll bring into the workplace, and so you should ensure your brand reflects what you genuinely will bring into the workplace.

Brand-building: know your audience

Whether you like it or not, and whether you take an active hand in it or not, you have a personal brand. Just the way you dress for a job interview is a part of that brand.

The marketing departments of large corporations spend a considerable amount of time defining their audience so they can tailor their marketing efforts to be most effective. Gatorade, for example, probably works to impress a completely different audience than, say, Bacardi. Understanding who the brand must speak to—really understanding who they are, and what they care about—is the key to building a brand that speaks to them.

With products like beverages, brand-building usually starts with identifying and learning about the audience; Products exist to fill a need, and that need is defined by the audience. Who are we trying to sell products to? The entire development of the product, and its brand, are then driven by that audience: we’re only going to do things, when it comes to our product, that resonates with our intended brand. Our research shows that athletes are drawn to brightly colored drinks for some reason, and so we’re going to create beverages in day-glo colors. Kids like candy flavors, older people may respond better to nostalgia, and so on. The drivers of the audience help craft the brand and the product that the brand represents.

That’s what brand means: it’s a set of expectations that anyone interacting with the brand has. People like a brand, and even become loyal to it, because of those expectations, and because the underlying product meets those expectations.

You have a brand, too. It’s your personal brand, and just like a corporate brand, it tells people—your employer, your coworkers, and your colleagues—what to expect from you. This brand is visible even before you meet people, thanks to your interactions on social media, in open source projects, and other online locations.

With your brand, you can’t necessarily change who you are, so understanding your audience is less about “building your product.” You already are the product. But you still do need to understand what’s important to your audience. Let’s look at some hypothetical examples to show you what I mean by “understanding your audience.”

Note: Putting my examples in contextThe following examples are built on stereotypes of industries. I don’t in any way mean for these examples to imply that these industries are only like this; I just wanted a straightforward pair of examples to demonstrate the concept of understanding your audience.

Let’s consider a bank: a very traditional, two hundred year-old company. We’re talking about a large national or multinational banking corporation, the kind whose executives wear three-piece suits and whose office buildings are towering edifices. When considering technology professionals, what might a company like this value? A trim, neat appearance in the office, perhaps. A fairly conservative person, maybe, who is dependable and doesn’t take a lot of unnecessary risks. Someone who’s punctual, and who understands the need for information to be safe and secure. Someone who’s comfortable in meetings, because big banks have lots of divisions that need to coordinate. Maybe someone who’s comfortable using older, proven technologies.

Now consider a brand-new, lean technology startup with just one office and a handful of employees. What might they value in their tech professionals? Perhaps a willingness to work long hours, every day of the week. Someone who’s a little quirky, maybe, who can think outside the box. Maybe someone who’s well-known in their portion of the industry, who’s thought of as an innovator and leader.

As you can see, it’s important to consider who your audience might be, and what’s valuable to them. You don’t have to pick one audience, and you don’t even have to choose one industry. Your brand can appeal to a variety of audiences, if you do it right. But you do need to understand what’s valuable to the companies and people to whom you hope to appeal.

How would I go about branding myself to appeal to both the large, established bank and the small, agile startup? What value do I bring to the table, and how can I communicate that succinctly in a “brand?”

  • I might ensure that my visible brand was highly focused on technology. I might tone down the more personal aspects of my visible brand, like where I like to vacation or what politicians I support. Neither company will likely care about those things not being in my brand, but they might be turned off if those things were part of my brand.
  • I would probably work to ensure I had a lot of community contributions—blog articles, open source projects, and other visible contributions—that showed my work. At the same time, I’d be very careful to focus on the security aspect of my work. For example, I wouldn’t post code in open repositories and expose API keys. Demonstrating that I follow best practices for security would appeal to any company.
  • I’d make sure that my appearance—my social media avatars and the like—reflected a neat, businesslike appearance. Pink hair might be acceptable at a startup, but it might not at a bank, and the startup probably won’t mind if my hair is a natural color.

These ideas reflect a specific approach that I’m taking: I’m saying that I want to be appealing, as a brand, to a couple of different audiences. That means I’m going to have to find a common denominator between them, and go with that as my personal brand. But there are also some things I explicitly won’t do, right? To make that clearer, let’s look at it in a list::

| Branding item | I definitely do these | I definitely avoid these |

  • Visible brand (social media, etc.) Stuff I do: Focus on technology or whatever is applicable to my career; activities an employer would expect to see me doing in the workplace. Stuff I don’t do: Discuss contentious topics—like politics—that might suggest I also bring those topics into the workplace with me. 
  • Contributions and work examples Stuff I do: Ensure I’m seen as a community contributor: blog posts, code submissions, etc. Stuff I don’t do: Allow those public contributions to reflect bad practices around security and privacy. 
  • Physical appearance (social media avatars, etc.) Stuff I do: Neat and businesslike, shows the “real me.” Stuff I don’t do: Project an image that is not appropriate for the industries I intend to work in.

You might feel entirely differently than I do. You might only want to work for aggressive, exciting startups, which means you could tailor your brand more precisely to what that audience values. What you decide is okay and what’s not okay, for your brand is your decision. Please don’t see my examples as some kind of directive—they’re decisions I made for myself, not for you.

The point is your brand will “say” different things to different people. For some people, Coke says, “refreshing, energizing beverage that I enjoy.” To other people, that same brand says, “sugary junk food that should be banned from the planet.” Coke obviously focuses their efforts on the first group of people, and doesn’t worry too much about the other group, at least in terms of how they present their brand. So you need to decide who your brand will appeal to–and you may want to tweak your brand if it doesn’t appeal to the companies you want to work for. By defining and understanding your audience, you’ll know what’s important to them, and you will be able to market yourself as a professional who helps meet their needs.

Note: It’s still okay to be yourselfI added the comment about me having pink hair on purpose. Please don’t feel compelled to take something “out of your brand” if it genuinely represents who you really are. Your brand reflects what you bring to the workplace, and it should be authentic. Just be aware that some employers may not like your brand: you can’t please all the people all the time, right? But if, for example, having an afro hair style is a genuine part of you, then anyone who’s turned off by it probably doesn’t deserve you in the first place, so there’s no need to edit that part of yourself. I would look silly with pink hair; you might rock it. That’s why my specific brand decisions won’t be yours.

Social media and your brand

Social media is, these days, a tremendous part of your personal brand. Whether you’re looking for a job or already have one, what happens in your publicly accessible social media matters. Your activity on social media informs your coworkers, your employer, and your potential employers who you really are. People tend to be at their most candid on social media, and so everyone else more or less takes you at your word: what you put on social media is, to the world, who you are.

I use Facebook quite sparingly, mainly to connect with, and share news and photos with, a dozen or so friends who are scattered across the country. I can be my real, personal self with those people, because I’ve known most of them for most of my life. They’re the ones who can see the photos of that time in Mexico when I got a little carried away at the cantina. As a result, my Facebook profile is incredibly locked down. My friends can’t even tag me in a post unless I approve it. Nobody I work with is a “friend” on Facebook unless we’ve actually spent personal time together. Facebook is not part of my personal brand; it’s not something that the public gets to peruse.

Twitter, on the other hand, is very much a part of my professional life. So is my blog. Those are the places where I engage with my professional audience. The content I post in those places reflects my work life, my community involvement, and the work I do. I’m absolutely fine with my current employer or a potential employer seeing my Twitter feed (@concentratedDon) or my blog (DonJones.com). Even the political content of my blog is safe for work, because it’s mainly explaining how various aspects of the US political system work—versus rants about my own political opinions, or attacks on political opponents. Even my personal comments on Twitter are the kind of innocuous chat that almost anyone might find acceptable around the water cooler in the office. I try very hard to ensure that both Twitter and my blog reflect my brand, the person you can expect me to be at work.

Be you in your brand

If you’re taking the time to actively manage your public brand—and I think you should—then make sure it visibly represents you. Specifically, make sure your social media avatar—those little pictures of you that appear next to your postings—is a picture of you. Not your cat, not your family, not an abstract geometric pattern, and not the logo of your favorite superhero. You are your brand, not those other things.

Use the same photo everywhere your public brand exists: This helps to tie all your appearances together, and helps the people experiencing your brand recognize that they are all pieces of the same whole.

Let’s say you’re about to upload your photo, and you’re thinking, “well, I’d really rather use a picture of my kid here, to show her how proud I am of her and how much I love her.” That sounds like part of your personal life, and not part of the brand you present to the world. Try to differentiate between those two things. And use that avatar on your closed, private social media accounts only.

Use your real name, too. Doing so indicates that you’re being real, not trying to hide behind a pseudonym or “handle.”

My deliberate separation of the personal and the professional does not mean I’m plain-vanilla online in an effort to appeal to everyone. Ask anyone who’s seen me speak at a conference, or teach a class, and they’ll tell you that good-natured sarcasm is very much part of my brand. I use it tactically to help make important points really stick, and for my audience (that is, the people I’m engaging with as part of my work), it mainly works. I do recognize that some people don’t like that approach, and as a result, don’t really relate to my brand. That’s fine: you can’t be all things to all people, and I accept that whatever appeal I might have isn’t universal. But I’ve taken the time to know my audience, and I accept what works for them, and I’m okay making those things part of my brand. I know that doesn’t make me a “win” for every audience, and I’m okay with that.

So what does your public social media footprint say about your brand?

Remember, if it says nothing, then people will simply infer whatever they want from whatever evidence they can see. Not managing your brand isn’t the same as not having a brand; we all, as I have said, have a brand. If your brand seems to say nothing, then people might simply infer that you’re not publicly engaged. For some audiences, that might be fine. For others, it might not resonate in a positive way.

For me, my social media brand is communicated largely through LinkedIn, Twitter, my blog, my professionally-focused YouTube channel, and the writing I’ve done for a huge variety of technology websites. I essentially have no other social media footprint, because anything else I do is massively locked off from the rest of the world, accessible only to a small group of personal friends and family.

I keep my personal Facebook account cut off from my public image, but I do not “cut off” social media as a whole. I actively use it. I use LinkedIn, because it’s the de facto social media network of technology professionals. I use Twitter, because I have an audience that engages with me there. I use YouTube, because it’s an opportunity to use my videos to reinforce what my brand is all about. If a potential employer, or my current one, wants to get to know Don, then they’ll find plenty to look at—and it’s largely on-brand. I wouldn’t want someone to start looking me up and find nothing, because then I’m not able to manage my brand. If I were not publicly active on social media, I’d be left to whatever their imagination provides, which isn’t what I want.

I also need to be aware of what I repeat, or share, in my public social media. Want to know what’s in my Twitter feed? Mostly news from the many Disney Parks websites I read, along with a smattering of Apple rumors. That’s what I like to read, and it’s what I’ve taught Twitter to show me. I also have a few comedians in the mix, who can get pretty snarky when it comes to the political events of the day. I don’t necessarily agree with all of their opinions, but I do enjoy reading them. That said, I don’t retweet them. Even if I think my audience might find those opinions interesting to read and discuss, I don’t want to imply that I agree with those opinions (I don’t always, but they can be interesting without my agreement), or that my Twitter content had strayed from its path. I don’t want to take a risk that a potential client or employer might see me as the kind of person who brings controversy into the workplace. So I’ll ask again: what does your public social media footprint say about your brand? Does it say things that would appeal to your target audience, or not?

Don’t forget to especially focus on social media before the job hunt. It’s always a good idea to understand what your brand is saying about you, especially on social media. It’s critical that you do so prior to a job search, because many organizations will consider your public brand—as communicated on social media—in their decision-making processes.

Your brand has a wide reach

Never forget that we live in a small world.

I once worked with a fellow named Mark. He was a great guy, and we got along really well. He was one of the few professional acquaintances I’ve made who truly saw me at my worst, on occasion—like the time the server migration we worked on that did not go smoothly. I eventually left the company we were at, while he stayed on longer, but also left eventually.

Some years later, I was applying for a job with a new company. I got through to an interview, and my prospective new boss started with, “So, I understand you’re a big fan of Disney parks! Which is your favorite?”

Mind you, this was long before the advent of social media. There was no way for a complete stranger to know that, except that Mark already worked for them. He’d started with them some months prior, had recommended me for the job, and had told them a bit about me.

Fortunately, I’d never given Mark too many negative experiences with me to talk about. Our work interactions had been positive, and we saw each other as solid professionals. But it struck me: what if I’d really been a jerk to work with? Single-handedly, Mark could have killed my ability to get that job. I’d probably never even have gotten an interview. Our relationship—positive or negative—would have affected whether I got the job.

And the world is so much smaller today! Your brand “reach” is vastly farther than you may realize. People you’ve never met have definitely heard of you, or could hear more about you with very little effort. In a lot of ways, the expanded reach of your brand today is a good thing. It’s what will get you that next job or other opportunity—but it can obviously work against you as well.

The take-home message here is, to spend every moment of every working day pretending that this is the job interview for your next promotion, job, contract, or other opportunity. Everything you do today will have an impact on how you’re perceived in the future. That’s why it’s so important to be a consummate professional all the time: so that the expanded modern reach of your personal brand will be a positive reflection of you as a technology professional.

Professionalism and your brand

Do you know the biggest fear every hiring manager has when they decide to extend an offer to a job candidate? It’s whether or not that person is a professional. Someone who can work in a team environment with other human beings. Someone who can be polite, efficient, and effective. Someone who can make the workplace better, not worse.

Those things are hard to pull out in an interview, and that’s why recruiters and hiring managers will search for you on social media. And it’s why they’ll seek references from other people in the field—not just the references you provide, which are always upbeat, but real references—co-workers they’ve located on LinkedIn, for example, or a thorough review of your social media footprint. Before they make you an offer, they want to get to know you.

That’s why professionalism is such an important part of your brand. You want to be known as someone who shows up at work every day to get the job done. Someone who can work with other people, and who can accept that other people will have different opinions, backgrounds, and cultures. Someone who can manage their time effectively. Someone who keeps their word, who pays attention to details, and who can be a supportive member of a team.

You not only need to exhibit professionalism, you need to find a way to make it part of your brand. Have a blog? Don’t feel you always need to write about technology topics! Take a break now and then to write about professionalism, or an aspect of it, and what it means to you. Engage on social media with others on the topic. Offer suggestions for time management techniques, or share how you’ve struggled with interpersonal communications at work. Your brand is how you’re seen, and you want to make sure you’re seen as a person who thinks about professionalism, and is deliberate about professionalism.

You might be surprised at the opportunities this focus on professionalism unlocks for you!

How to sabotage your brand

There are lots of ways to sabotage your band. Some of them you can probably infer from reading this article: being inappropriate on social media, behaving unprofessionally, or misunderstanding your brand audience. However, there are other ways too. Becoming known as a poor manager of your own time is one way. Being thought of as lazy is another– you may not actually be lazy, but if it becomes part of your reputation it can damage your brand nonetheless. If you work remotely for some or all of the time, it is a mark against your brand to be seen as a poor remote worker–someone who goofs off without supervision, is not available during office hours, or who doesn’t answer calls or return emails promptly.

The simple-to-remember and hard-to-execute basic truth is this: everything you do at work, or in front of your colleagues or employer, affects your brand.

And again, whether you like it or not, you do have a personal brand. We all do: it’s simply the way other people perceive us, and think about us. We can either take control of that brand, and work to make—and keep—it a positive, career-enhancing thing, or we cannot take control of it and simply let the chips fall where they may.

Everything you do, every day, within sight of your colleagues and employer, affects your brand. That “within sight” piece has become much bigger in the past decade, with the rise of social media and our always-connected lives. It may seem unfair that an employer would penalize you for something you posted on Facebook, or that you didn’t get a new job simply because word got around that you were perceived as lazy. That’s the world we live in, though, which is why it’s so important to actively manage that personal brand of yours.

Further Reading

  • Introduction to Personal Branding: 10 Steps Toward a New Professional You, Mel Carson 
  • Branding Pays: The Five-Step System to Reinvent Your Personal Brand, Karen Kang 
  • LinkedIn for Personal Branding: The Ultimate Guide, Sandra Long

Action items

For this article, I’d like you to conduct an exercise that evaluates your brand. We all project a brand, whether we intend to or not, and by evaluating its current state, we can decide if we want to make any changes and what those changes might be. So for this exercise, consider:

❏ Where does my brand currently exist?This includes in-person encounters like those you have at the office, but it also includes social media, technologies communities in which you participate, and other online presences.

❏ What does my brand currently say?As developers know, empty is not the same as null; your brand says something, even if that’s just, “this person doesn’t seem to engage very much.” To find out what impression you are making on other people, you can ask colleagues and coworkers what expectations they have of you, based on your past performance. How do they expect you to handle a project, collaborate on a team, and behave on the job? Set up an anonymous survey if that helps them be more candid with you. Ask the people who encounter you online the same thing: What would they expect from you, based on what you post? For example, I had one friend who, when performing this exercise, was alarmed to learn that many of his Facebook friends considered him to mainly be a person who was primarily interested in politics. Turned out, that was the main content he re-shared on the platform, and so it was the main image of his brand there.

❏ What about my brand contributes to my success definition (For more on creating your own success definition see this article)?Go back to your success bullets. What aspects of your current brand help support some of those bullets? Does anything about your current brand detract from any of those bullets?

❏ What could my brand do to better support my success?Considering all the places your brand exists, how could your brand better support your success bullets? For example, if part of your life definition and your success is to be a valued contributor to a technical community—are you visibly doing that? Can your contributions be seen in a way that help define part of your brand as being a contributor?

When you’re done, look at the results and decide if your brand could use a more deliberate approach. What might you do differently, to create a brand that more perfectly aligns with your success definition? Do you need to amend your success definition to include brand-building and maintenance goals?

This excerpt is pretty representative of the book. Many chapters offer suggestions for additional reading, and they all offer “Action Items” to help you put the chapter into your own personal context. While many examples come from my own experience, the book is very much written to help direct you, acknowledging that your goals and experiences will be very different from mine. It’s not a set of rules; it’s a set of things to think about and apply to your own success.

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