For an industry that prides itself on its analytical ability and abstract mental processing, we often don't do a great job applying that mental skill to the most important element of the programmer's tool chest - that is, ourselves.

I'm going to take this column to get back to more of that “management” stuff that so few developers ever spend any amount of time studying.

For quite a few years now, various “thought leaders” in the developer space have been talking about how individual developers need to “build a personal brand” and offered some insights and/or advice on how to do that. To a lot of the recipients of this advice, this seems either overly simplistic, completely inappropriate, or entirely out of their reach. It turns out that it's none of the three, but understanding exactly what a brand is a necessary condition to being able to execute on the idea.


Have you ever looked at a Coca-Cola ad?

I don't mean “Yeah, I've seen them before: red, white, a little ancient cursive writing with their name, whatever.” I mean actually sat down and analyzed a Coca-Cola ad with some degree of thoroughness.

Let's begin with the basic question of “why”. Why, exactly, does Coca-Cola feel the need to advertise? Seriously? InterBrand - a company that really does nothing but examine corporate brands and their efficacy - claims that Coca-Cola is the number one brand in the world. Which means, essentially, that more people recognize that swooshy-scripted “Coca-Cola” logo more easily than they do any other corporate logo. So why, pray tell, does Coca-Cola feel the need to spend billions of USD on ads? One obvious answer is that they don't want to lose their “number one brand” status, but realistically, that just begs the next question.

What, exactly, does all that “branding” get them? Does brand somehow work at a subversive psychological level to brainwash the unwary into buying a Coke instead of something else? In some ways, that's exactly the point - as psychological research has shown, the brain likes the familiar. The amygdala, also called the “lizard brain” in some circles, reacts more favorably to things it recognizes, as opposed to things it doesn't. (Which is also largely why Hollywood prefers to use the same movie stars for blockbuster films, regardless of their actual physical resemblance for the role - or, sometimes, their ability to actually act.) So if, for example, a customer is standing there at the counter, looking at the collections of branded bottles and sees something that she'd never seen before, right next to the Uber-familiar red-and-white branded bottle of Coke, all that branding is going to lean her in the direction of the Coke.

But branding also works at a more indirect level, too. Consider the ubiquitous (and brilliant) “Mac/PC” campaign that Apple ran a decade ago. Very simple campaign - plain white backdrop, no other decoration, as two friends, one bearing glasses, bowtie, dressed like your classic slightly-awkward nerd friend in a dress shirt complete with pocket protector, the other more “hip” and “cool,” with shirt untucked, good hair, and an easy smile. The hipster-cool-guy-on-the-right says, “I'm a Mac.” The nerd-on-the-left (notice the positioning here?) says, “I'm a PC.”

OK, without either of them opening their mouths to say anything more, even a five-year-old can see what Apple is trying to do here. It's classic marketing/branding: take positive qualities that we want attributed to your product/corporate image, and put your company squarely at the center of it. Apple: hip, cool, “with it,” friendly, easy-going, good-looking, you name it. Nothing in that picture was ever given to chance. For bonus points, take your competitor - and for extra bonus points, never actually name them by name, so he's “PC” and not “Windows” - and frame them with all the negative qualities you can. PC: awkward, unsure, clearly not “cool,” socially maladjusted perhaps, and definitely not the sexier of the two. (Ladies reading this article, be honest - which of those two characters would you prefer to introduce to your girlfriends?)

Pure. Branding. Gold.

... and Practice…

So how does the individual developer benefit from this? How do we start with branding ourselves, and what positive results do we get out of it?

At the risk of sounding boastful and/or putting myself squarely in the bull's-eye of the Internet commentary machine, I'll explain the efforts I've used to build my own personal brand, and the results I think it's achieved. Granted, some of you reading this may get annoyed with me for what some could call blatant manipulation, but I think overall, the honesty and vision behind the curtain (so to speak) will serve better than some kind of vague weasel-words on the topic.

My own personal branding story began in the late 90s, somewhere around '95 or '96 (I don't recall exactly when I started with this) when I was sort of rolling out of the C++ world and into the Java world. Specifically, I was contracting for various local firms in the Sacramento, CA area, and if you're not familiar with the industry out there, let's simply say that at the time, it was not the Silicon Valley - I was bumping into a price ceiling of around $50/hour, and frankly, I wanted to find ways to either get around that ceiling or smash right through it.

That meant one of two things: Either I had to somehow demonstrate way-beyond-normal (for the area) expertise, or I had to somehow make myself known to people outside of Sacramento. Or both. How best to do this? I won't go through all the various permutations of ideas (most of it was based on intuition anyway, not any formal study, so I don't know if I could even recreate the process, to be honest), I hit upon the idea of trying to extend my reach through the Internet by writing.

I had just (more or less) finished writing a pair of books for Manning Publications, Core OWL 5.0 and Advanced OWL 5.0, on the Borland Object Windows Library, which Borland killed off about two months before the books hit the shelves. Obviously, that was a little disquieting: It was probably about eighteen months' worth of work that was effectively going down the drain. Java was starting to pick up interest, and I decided I wanted to jump on this bandwagon. But, to me, a book was probably not the best answer.

Computer Science historians reading this will, of course, recognize the timeframe - the World Wide Web was just getting off the ground, in some ways - and pretty easily predict what I did next: I set up a simple website, which I called Rather than try to create a forum or content portal, though - remember, I wanted the branding to be about me, and I wanted to use this as a vehicle to demonstrate that I was an above-average expert - I simply used it as a place on which to store some white papers (basically articles that no magazine paid for). I posted, over the next half-decade or so, about a dozen different papers to the site, in PDF form. It was, in some ways, an ancient predecessor to a blog or content portal, but it was not nearly as easy to publish (I used Word, printed to PDF, then uploaded) and there was no aggregation feed (RSS) notifying people of new content.

... and Results

So what came out of that? Here's my final analysis on that particular effort:

Nobody ever contacted me with work solely because of the site. I had vague, indeterminate hopes that somebody would read a paper on the site, be amazed at my technical brilliance, and immediately fire off an email asking me to contract with them for $500/hour, but it never happened. Quite frankly, I've never heard anyone of my speaker/writer peers claim that's happened to them, either, but I suppose it's certainly possible.

I did get a certain amount of reputation out of it. As I started engaging in other activities, I did occasionally have people come up to me and say, "Wait, are you the guy that wrote that paper on….", which in turn was helpful to establish my technical bona fides with new clients.

It was helpful during interviews. When I was trying to land a next job, it was an easy way to directly prove my technical chops to the interviewers, and at times helped me when I was negotiating the contract rate or job salary. It also really put to rest any question the interviewers might have had around my communication skills.

It gave me some assets that turned out to be helpful later. Shortly after setting up the site, I started teaching Java for DevelopMentor, a corporate technical educational firm, and when the marketing department was looking for some assets to put on the site (which was reinforcing my intuitive decision that had been a good idea!), I volunteered a couple, which then had, from my perspective, the two-fer benefit of pushing the company brand as well as my own, since my name was listed as the author; in essence, just pushing my name further out and getting me more reach.

... and Summary

In the long run? didn't make my name, but it was a start, and it helped get to that next stage, which in turn led me to do some other branding, which in turn led me to the next stage, and so on.

Has branding helped me in general? Ask yourself this question: if I'm speaking at a conference, and you have a choice of listening to me on a topic or somebody else you don't know on the same topic (or two topics of equal weighted interest), who are you going to choose?

If I did my branding right, it's the former, and frankly, conferences bring me to their show based on the idea that my name appearing on their website will help you decide to spend your (or your company's) money to come to the show. CODE Magazine banks on the same idea: that you will continue to read their magazine - and look at their advertisers' ads - because you want to read what I've written. And so on.

Branding is subtle, and it's extremely difficult to measure the results. But if Coca-Cola sees value in spending billions of USD on branding activities, it's probably worth it to you to spend a few hours to set up a blog and start pushing your own name out into the world, don't you think?