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Why online identities are smart career moves

The final catalyst for me eventually taking the leap into the blogosphere came from an unexpected source. It was actually my own response to a Stack Overflow Question where I’d suggested that one of the best ways to make yourself more marketable as a software developer is to have an active online profile. I don’t necessarily mean to try and achieve semi celebrity status like Scott Guthrie or Joel Spolsky, rather to be able to illustrate that over time, you’ve been actively involved in the areas in which you profess to have expertise. It’s one thing to present a CV or a LinkedIn profile which says you’ve done everything from writing enterprise software to creating perpetual motion, it’s quite another to be able to reliably substantiate it.

Why is it important to me?

Let me get one thing cleared up right away; I’m not looking to change my job in the near future and for the most part, I enjoy what I do. The thing is though, building an online profile is not an overnight process and I don’t know if I’m still going to be as enamoured with my job (or my employer as enamoured with me!) in two years, five years, ten years; whatever! It takes a lot of time to build a public identity and waiting until you actually need one is just not going to work.

The LinkedIn LoveIn

There are a couple of big issues with the current system when it comes to people marketing themselves. The first is the self-ingratiating, reciprocal backslapping that goes on with LinkedIn, a practice I’m coining the “LinkedIn LoveIn”. The LinkedIn LoveIn surfaces itself through the recommendation system where person A espouses how fantastic person B is in return for an equally impressive recommendation from the recipient. Worse still, the practice is rampant between people who have been unceremoniously shuffled out of their previous employment.

clip_image001This is all very warm and fuzzy for the participants involved in this practice but it doesn’t do a lot for the potential employer who later interviews them, as although the reports are all very glowing, they’re very difficult to substantiate. Of course this problem is not new, it’s just much easier to propagate now as it only takes a couple of clicks to get a recommendation from someone who can carefully construct a glowing report in their own time as opposed to the old fashioned way of being questioned on the phone and needing to provide answers off the top of their head. And to that effect, when a phone reference is done it’s usually with the subject’s superior unlike the LinkedIn model which is essentially a free for all.

And just in case you were thinking LinkedIn recommendations are really only a problem for future employers, here’s a quote from the National Law Journal in an article titled Lawyers warn employers against giving glowing reviews on LinkedIn:

Plaintiffs' lawyers, they fear, are scouring these sites, looking for evidence to dispute firings, as most LinkedIn recommendations are positive. So if a supervisor claims that an employee was let go due to performance problems but gave a rave review about him or her on LinkedIn — that, the lawyers stress, won't look so good.

Certainly makes you think twice before going out on the public record and waxing lyrical about someone’s performance. And yes, I know, the risk here is more if you’re directly involved in someone’s departure on the one had and slapping them on the back with the other but either way, you want to be pretty damn sure about who you’re recommending and what the repercussions can be further down the line.

Setting the bar very, very low

The next big issue is just how low the competence bar seems to have been set in the software industry. The number of times I’ve interviewed people and they struggled with the most fundamental of questions is staggering. Granted, recruitment agencies have a lot of blame to share but at the end of the day if you’re calling yourself a senior .NET developer and can’t even write code to declare a nullable type or instantiate a generic collection, you’ve got issues.

It’s not just syntactic ability either, it’s general awareness of the industry. I tend to ask a lot of questions about what has changed between versions of technology the interviewee professes to have expertise across or what might be in the future pipeline and very frequently I’m met with a blank stare. In many cases people just don’t seem to have an awareness of the concepts many of us take for granted. In short, there’s a lot of unconscious incompetence floating around.

The importance of an online identity

It’s very hard to consistently fake competence over a long period of time through an online identity, certainly if it involves discussion with a community of peers. That’s not to say that every word someone puts out in the public domain should demonstrate their superiority in the subject of the day, it’s simply that through their online identity a person discloses a certain amount of information about their competencies. There’s nothing wrong with .NET developer asking about how to build their first “Hello World” application in SharePoint and this sort of active information seeking is great, just don’t come looking for a job as a senior MOSS developer the next week!

Building an identity

The way I see it, you’ve got three key avenues to create an identity for yourself these days:

  1. Twitter; probably goes without saying given it seems like every second person is tweeting these days, but Twitter is about the easiest way there is to get yourself out there.
  2. Forums; sites like Stack Overflow are a great way to build up a public profile and of course you’re helping your fellow professional as well.
  3. Blogging; sure, this takes a lot more work than the first two but also gives you a pulpit not limited to 140 characters or a discrete topic.

If I can’t find any information about someone whatsoever in any of these sources, it does start to make me wonder. At best the person doesn’t tend to use these medium as they’re simply passive online users, but at worst, they simply haven’t been as active in their professed subject matter as they’d like you to think. Either way, no online identity means you’re left wondering.

Recently a friend of mine told me about the interview he went through for his current job. He had difficulty answering some questions on the spot and tying them back to actual experience he’d had. He felt he’d bombed. It was much later on he found out the only reason he got the job was that his employer was able to substantiate, through his blog, that the guy really knew what he was talking about and had simply had a bad interview.

My identity

I’m pretty clear about what it is I think I do well and the general sort of thing I want to be doing in the immediate future (at least technology wise). I’ve had the better part of a dozen years actively involved in coding and while I’ve really enjoyed it (and still really enjoy it), it’s not something I do a lot of any more and quite frankly there are people out there who do it a lot better than me (refer to some of the other blog links on the right hand side). So I’m not going to focus much on actual code in this blog and the syntax I do post will probably be pretty rudimentary.

My online identity will focus on the more practical use of software within business and enabling others to deliver it effectively. I’ve found myself spending more and more time lately working to try and bridge the gap between how software developers like to work and the expectations enterprise has of them. And that’s a two way street; developers are generally not very well understood by those not actively involved in the coding process but by the same token, developers frequently have trouble relating their work back to something that makes real commercial sense.

So that’s what I’m setting out to achieve with my identity; bring some sanity to the developer / business relationship, try and show it’s something I’m actively involved in and have some idea about and all things going well, not need to rely on LinkedIn recommendations further down the track!

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Hi, I'm Troy Hunt, I write this blog, create courses for Pluralsight and am a Microsoft Regional Director and MVP who travels the world speaking at events and training technology professionals