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How to Market Yourself (without Being a Celebrity)

Season 3, episode 7 of the DataTalks.Club podcast with Shawn Swyx Wang


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The transcripts are edited for clarity, sometimes with AI. If you notice any incorrect information, let us know.

Alexey: This week we will talk about marketing ourselves. We have a special guest today, Swyx aka Swyx. Shawn is a developer, PM and angel investor, who is active in the development community. He is a frequent speaker and writer. I bet you already know him from his “learn in public” movement that he advocates. Welcome! Thanks for coming today. (1:09)

Swyx: Thanks for having me. I have been hanging out in the DataTalks slack. I have been getting a lot of questions on the book. It’s been really great — sharing thoughts on these things. I don’t think we discuss this stuff enough as developers. It’s soft but it’s as important as coding. (1:46)

Shawn’s background and his book

Alexey: I agree. That’s why I thought it’s a really great idea to reach out to you. I was very happy when you said that you want to join our podcast. But before we go into our main topic of marketing ourselves, let’s start with your background. Can you tell us about your career journey so far? (2:03)

Swyx: I am originally from Singapore. I moved to the States for college. My first career was in finance. I did everything from central banking to investment banking to hedge funds. If anyone is familiar with the finance industry — that is a grand tour of everything there is to do in the finance industry. To level up in finance, you learn to code — in order to run quantitative models and risk management and pricing and all that. That’s what I did. I realized that was something I wanted to do and was better at than the finance part. (2:24)

Swyx: I did a career switch at age 30 and started over as a junior. I went to a bootcamp, did freecodecamp and worked my way through the ranks. I joined 2-sigma as a front-end engineer, then I got noticed by Netlify. That is when I started really doing the learn-in-public stuff. New York City was just a really good place to do speaking. I started blogging about reacts as well. I worked at Netlify for two years. Then I joined AWS. I recently left AWS to be head of developer experience at Temporal.io.

Swyx: Last year I wrote down a book of career advice. As much as my writing on React and Svelte and JavaScript has been popular, the most popular stuff has been the non-technical stuff. I decided to write down everything that I have absorbed. I have resources that I collect — I am a part of “building a second brain” movement. I have my second brain. “The coding career handbook” is my second brain of 1500 links, resources, tweets and advice that I have collected from other people. I am not the authority, but I borrowed authority from other people. It was a good exercise to write. It resonated with a lot of people. People are learning how to code, cracking the interview, then they get past the interview, they get the job and then they are like “now what?” There is a huge gap between that and being a senior. Everyone only wants to hire seniors. My goal is to help people level up from junior to senior.

Swyx: I work at developer relations. This topic of marketing is a big one for people. According to a survey that I saw, most developers understand that there is some value to marketing. They just don’t see themselves doing it. They see other people doing it. They see it, they are like “This person is already internet famous. That is not for me”. A part of what I am trying to do here is to dispel that notion that you have to be internet famous. There is some level of self-marketing that you should do, otherwise people are not going to know what you did or how good you are.

Alexey: Interesting! You started in finance, you worked as quantitative analytics. And you also now join Temporal.io which is a data processing company. You are a lot closer to data than I thought. (5:41)

Swyx: I work on the front end of that company. I don’t know all the details. But yes, it can be used for data. We are not focused on just data, but we can talk about that when the time comes. (5:58)

Marketing ourselves

Alexey: About marketing ourselves. You are one of the people I follow on Twitter for stuff like marketing ourselves and learning in public. So I wanted to ask you, why should we market ourselves? Why is it important for our careers? You have touched it a bit, but maybe we can expand it. (6:16)

Swyx: There are a lot of whys. It’s very personal. Why do you do what you do? It’s very different from why I do what I do. There is part of it which is getting recognition for your skills and your work. If you ever wondered, why did you not get that promotion? Why someone else, who seems to know less than you, seems to do better as a career? It’s perhaps because they are marketing themselves better than you are. That’s an easy thing to fix — the hard thing is actually doing stuff. I want people, who have the quality and have the genuine skill, to be able to represent themselves better, so that they can get in front of the right opportunities and the right employers and do better for themselves. (6:43)

Swyx: If you don’t market yourself, then other people, who are less shy about it, will put themselves out there. They will get those opportunities. Maybe they wouldn’t do as good of a job as you might. That’s ultimately the breakdown. At a bare minimum, when you market yourself well, you get more money — more lifetime opportunities that translate into earnings. That’s a fundamental motivator for anyone.

Alexey: Like for a company who cares about some internal KPIs, at the end, what they care about is profit, right? (8:21)

Swyx: I don’t want to make it too commercial. When you create an open source project and you want people to use your stuff for free, you still have to market your project. That’s a similar skill. Or whenever you are trying to push an idea that you want to promote within the company. Let’s say you want to switch to this other tech stack or you have this feature idea, you have to market that idea. (8:33)

Swyx: These are all parts of marketing yourself. They will be affected by your credibility, but also your ability to market that idea. These are all related skills that you should practice and compound through the rest of your life.

Alexey: We want to do this because we want to get more recognition. We want to get more recognition because we want to be promoted. We have the technical skills, but for people in tech, myself included, it’s easier to code rather than go and stay in front of people. Even just tweeting is also difficult. You can start thinking “what people will think about me”. But compared to what we are doing as developers, this is a lot easier, it’s only 280 characters. It’s easier than writing a big system. We should use this opportunity and then get that promotion or get a better job or get recognition. And if you are an open source author, people will find your library. Right? (9:20)

Swyx: Yes sir. Exactly! (10:23)

Components of personal marketing

Alexey: Let’s say I want to become better. I want to get recognition outside of my company. I know how to code. I am relatively good at this, maybe better than some of my colleagues, and worse than some others. I’m an average developer. What do I need to do to be better at personal marketing? What do I need to do? (10:26)

Swyx: That is a very broad question. When I wrote my book, I published a chapter from there for free. It was part of marketing for the book. This is very meta — writing about marketing while marketing. There is a graphic where I break down marketing in terms of personal branding, the domain that you pick, the business value that you can deliver, the tech skills that you have and the channel which you are delivering to — whether you are talking about public marketing or internal within work. (11:17)

Swyx: You are talking about public marketing, it’s still going to derive from those primary factors. The channel does not matter. You need to understand what your personal brand is. To be able to communicate that and tell that story effectively, you need to understand what domain that you are picking and you are planting your flag on. You need to understand what business value you have delivered in the past and be able to tell that story — have numbers and concise descriptions of the projects that you have had. Then you need to work on your skills to do cool stuff and cover your bases. So, there are just so many details here, like we can go into any one of them.

Personal brand for an average developer

Alexey: Let’s say I already have some skills. I’m not the top developer but I know how to code. Let’s say I know Python or JavaScript, or I’m good at data science. How do I find my personal brand as an average data scientist or as an average software engineer? (12:36)

Swyx: First of all, you shouldn’t see yourself as average. That is starting on the wrong foot. Look for anything about you that is not average. That could be anything about your identity, your opinions. Maybe you’re very opinionated about one particular thing. A really cute way to think about whether you have a personal brand or not is — can people make a meme of you? Can people, your employer and your friends make fun of you? If they can and everyone gets it, then you really have a personal brand. It’s because you say something so much that people feel comfortable making fun of you — you’re not going to be offended. It’s something that you believe in. (13:07)

Swyx: There is another thing, like having a consistent photo and consistent naming. Consistency is important because you form brand impressions. This is something that is practiced at the highest levels of marketing, like Cola, Nike. They spend millions of dollars making sure that like the curve of stripes logo is always 35 degrees, they make sure that the color of Coca-Cola is always the same red. In the same way we need to make sure in our own personal branding that the same things appear in the same way every single time.

Swyx: It takes between 17 and 40 repeated impressions to imprint upon somebody that you stand for something. People should go take a professional photo — the photo is seen more than your actual face. All the communication is in slack these days or on twitter. Your photo matters a lot. Have a nice photo, smile at somebody that you have not met before and have a good general impression of you. That counts for something that is your digital storefront. They see that more than your name.

Swyx: Your name is the second most seen thing. Sometimes you can just go by your regular name. But sometimes that can be hard for people to remember. For me I have my nickname Swyx, which is my English and Chinese initials. I’ve had that since I was 13. It’s a unique name: I have the domain, a handle on most social media sites. It’s a good name.

Swyx: Some people might choose to brand themselves a different way. I have a friend who was “JavaScript Joe” for a long time. He was the JavaScript guy for his company and within his network. There is another guy who is “The Entrepreneurial Coder”. He studies a mix of business and development. You can brand yourself in a different way. As long as people refer to you in the same way, then that starts to compound and accumulate your branding.

Swyx: I have another friend David Khourshid who shows up any time the word “state machine” is mentioned. We make memes of him and make fun of him. It’s great, it’s a consistent brand — anytime someone has that problem, he comes to mind immediately. That is what you want to achieve. You want to achieve such a strong association with some important problem that you can solve. We don’t go out and survey the entire universe with 40 million developers to know who’s the best at this thing. We just think about the top three or five people that everyone thinks about.

Swyx: Your goal as a personal branding person or a self-marketer is to get into that consideration. Pick 3-5 options and do that enough so that your name comes up. Then you get exposed to so many opportunities.

Alexey: So, the first thing you said, stop thinking of yourself as average. There is something you must be good at. Then the second thing — get a professional picture. (17:28)

Swyx: You don’t have to use your real face, by the way. Some people are not comfortable with that. You can just use a logo. Nobody knows what Sebastian Markbåge looks like. He uses an eucalyptus plant. He’s used that for the past 10 years. He’s the eucalyptus guy, that is his face. That’s fine as long as it is consistent. (17:44)

Alexey: You also said you need to appear at least — I do not remember the number — 60 or 80 times. (18:04)

Swyx: 7 to 40. I picked this up from digital marketing guys. (18:12)

Alexey: It means that we need everything we just said plus 40 impressions. (18:15)

Swyx: Yes. In the same way that people do marketing on you. They retarget you and try to make their brand show up in front of you multiple times. That is how you are going to be to other people. We work the same way. We’re not different from brands. We are brands. (18:27)

Picking a domain: what to write about?

Alexey: How do we do this? The picture is clear, we go pay somebody to take a picture, a professional picture of us. With the name, it’s also somewhat clear, it’s either given by our parents or maybe it’s a nickname. But what to write about? What to tweet about? (18:43)

Swyx: It’s more about the domain. I want to double down on the picture thing. If you have the same picture on different platforms, people form a strong emotional connection to you, even though you barely know them. That’s how it works for you. I really want to emphasize consistency and repetition. (19:03)

Swyx: Let’s talk about domain. A domain is something that comes from you. What do you work on? What are you interested in? People might have decision fatigue. You could be interested in a hundred different things. The advice I normally give here is to realize that when you pick something, you are not closing doors. You are not saying “I will not do anything else for the rest of my life”. You are just saying “this is what I am currently interested in”. You are allowed to change.

Swyx: Having some top topic is much better than just saying “I am equally interested in 10 different things”. That’s not branding. That’s not a good way to market you — I don’t know what your trigger point is. I cannot say “you are my whatever person”, like “you are my data warehouse guy”. If that’s your thing. If you are in all the conversations, you cannot stop talking about it. I will just mention the topic, and you can go on a podcast for one hour. Then that’s your domain. I can use you as my expert. I can send people your way, if they are also interested in learning more.

Swyx: That’s how marketing works. You have to pick a domain. People are refusing to pick a domain out of their fear of closing doors. They should realize that people change domains all the time. It’s totally fine. But just pick one up.

Being too niche

Alexey: How niche should it be? (21:08)

Swyx: The niche should not be too niche. There is such a thing as too niche. But the narrower the better. You should prove expertise, and it’s hard in a very broad domain. Let’s say you want to pick expertise in Python. You are going up against Guido van Rossum or whoever else. But if you pick a specific domain and you specialize in that, you have a better chance of reaching it. And people can slot you into their universe without competition — that’s an existing white space. I like niches, but be careful about being too niche. To prevent yourself from being too niche, be mindful of how many people have the problems you solve. As long as you can fill a room of 50 people with that problem, then you can have a meet up. That’s a good niche. (21:12)

Finding a good niche

Alexey: How do you find this out? Do you try to run a meet up and see how many people show up? (22:18)

Swyx: I have actually done that. (22:23)

Alexey: Okay. What did you try? What was it? (22:24)

Swyx: Svelte. (22:24)

Alexey: Is it a JavaScript framework? (22:25)

Swyx: Yeah, it’s a JavaScript framework. It’s one of the newer ones compared to React and Vue. It’s niche because it is the smallest one out of the big four. But it was just enough interest that I could start a meetup. Now we have a global community of about 10000 people. (22:32)

Swyx: You don’t have to start a meetup. You can pay attention to what people are talking about. Subscribe to your industry newsletters. Look out for industry conferences, look at the schedule of the talks. You do not even have to show up to the conference, you can just look at the schedule to understand what people are working on.

Swyx: You can look on hackernews and see what people are very interested in discussing. If there is a new announcement and then there is not much engagement then whatever. But if there are 500 comments, that’s a topic that gets people excited. If you can specialize in that, then you become an authority that people care about.

Swyx: It’s always this intersection. I call this a “nexus of interest” — the things that you are interested in and things that other people are very interested in. You need to find that intersection. You cannot just work on things that only you get, because nobody is going to care. Don’t be surprised if nobody cares.

Learning in public

Alexey: To find a niche, you don’t have to start a meetup. You can subscribe to industry newsletters, have a look at twitter, hangout in hacker news and reddit, and check conferences. Then you find a topic that people seem to be excited about. Now you want to start writing and tweeting about this. How do you market yourself? For marketing we need to have a marketing channel. So, how do we select a topic? And how do we communicate that we know this topic? (23:53)

Swyx: Well, when you start out, you actually don’t know this topic. You should not try to be an overnight expert. A lot of people, when they view learn in public and marketing yourself movement, they see a lot of hucksters, scammers or grifters — people who are not genuinely caring about this phase. They are just there to market themselves and grow their following. I definitely don’t encourage anybody to do that. Be genuine, be authentic and say “I don’t know anything about this space, but I am learning. Here is what I have learned so far” — that’s all you do. (24:30)

Swyx: You progress every single day. You become a little bit better than you were the day before. People can follow along on your journey. People can correct you if you are wrong. Eventually you will have been corrected of all the basic mistakes. When you look back, you’ll go “I am now an expert. I have made all the mistakes. I have answered a lot of other people's questions. Now I am an expert. But I have earned it”. You have to earn it. You cannot just say “Because I am a good marketer I can skip all the other steps”. No. You have to earn it.

Borrowed platforms vs own platform

Alexey: So, learn in public, inform others about your progress. What could be the best media for this? Social media, like Twitter, LinkedIn… (25:41)

Swyx: Social media is a borrowed platform. You are working on these platforms to get more distribution. But you don’t own any part of it. Twitter can lock you out at any time. I’ve been locked out twice by Twitter. People can cancel you. You can suddenly lose relevance — the algorithm changes and your pages vanish from Google. These are all borrowed platforms. The channels that you ultimately own are your own personal domain, your own personal mailing list, your own personal podcast. These are the things that I am focusing on right now. (25:54)

Swyx: You can start off with social media, but try to link people back and grow your own platform. Someday, when your platform is big enough, then social media becomes the extension of “Hey, I have a new post or talk”. That’s a fundamentally long-running way. There will be a day when Twitter dies or YouTube dies.

Alexey: Or somebody bans you from Twitter. (26:59)

Swyx: But the open web is going to last longer than any of us. (27:04)

Starting on social media: Picking what they put down

Alexey: So, you said build a mailing list. I just picked a topic and want to start learning this in public. I tweet about this every day. How do I go from there to having my own website with a mailing list? Should I have this right from the start? How does it work? (27:12)

Swyx: I don’t think it hurts. It’s not that hard, especially for developers, to throw up a blog. Just don’t expect anyone to go to your site. They don’t know you. But as they start to know your work, then they will start to visit your site. It took a long time to get up to 50000 visits a month. You only go social to build your distribution from there. And then take it off those networks. (27:33)

Swyx: To me that is not the issue. The issue is what are you writing about or speaking about and does it matter to other people.

Swyx: I have an idea called “pick up what they put down”. When people start a public learning or content creation journey, they will write what they want to read. Then they will be very surprised that the reception is not that great. There are a few factors. One is they are new to it, they do not have a lot of practice. Don’t expect that greatest result. Second, they have not invested in the interests of other people. They don’t really know or have a sense of what people really want to hear.

Swyx: Having a conversation with somebody is really interesting. This idea of “picking what they put down” — you have mentors and leaders in the community who are putting out ideas all the time. They are too busy to follow through on most of them. They are always looking for partners and experts and mentees to follow up on the stuff that they do. If they put out a new blog post, read it and respond to it. If they put a new demo, try it out the code and report bugs. If they put out a new book, go through and summarize it and promote it for them.

Swyx: These are all interesting ways. Individually they may not work at all. You just might get ignored. But your chances of being noticed and responded to are way higher than the average. I had someone who was like “I am going to start learning public”. The first thing that they wrote was a guide to man pages in Linux. I don’t get up in the morning and read a guide for man pages. There may be people who do that, but I am not going to find them. But if you wrote a response to a blog post that I just put out this morning, I am going to read it.

Alexey: What did you post today? (30:25)

Swyx: I just posted a blog post about Stripe. Paul Graham tweeted this a few months ago. I’ve been thinking about it — what if Stripe is the next Google. Stripe is currently worth 100 billion dollars, Google is worth 1500 billion dollars. How do you position yourself if Stripe becomes the next Google and you knew that for a fact? There is so much economic and career opportunity there. Nobody is thinking about it. We always think about where things are today. People try to optimize for FANG. but stripe is an up-and-coming FANG. It’s better to tie yourself to a becomer rather than something that is already at the top. Paul is probably going to read my post. I directly addressed him. But if someone else responds to my post, I will read that. (30:27)

Swyx: It’s the same thing at a company level. Part of the reason I got noticed by Netlify is because I started using them. I started tweeting about them. And guess what? Every single startup, every single company has a Slack channel that is dedicated to people tweeting about their service. They want to know, they want to read, they want to respond. If you want to guarantee yourself being read by someone, criticize them, praise them. It becomes focused on their interests rather than yours.

Swyx: I’m not saying to do this all the time. You should explore your own interests as well. But if you want to guarantee feedback, then think about what people are interested in. People are usually interested in themselves.

Alexey: If I’m starting on Twitter, I put out 100 tweets and they just go to the void. Nobody reads them because you don’t have any followers there. (32:08)

Swyx: Look at my own tweets from like 2016, 2017. Nobody read them, nobody responded. I should have given up. (32:24)

Alexey: So, the strategy to get noticed is to “pick it up where they put it down”. (32:34)

Swyx: Yeah. It’s an American saying. If other people are putting down something — leaving something on the table for people to continue on and carry on with — most people just leave it there. They ignore it. Or they say “Very nice. I have my own things to do”. But because you are interested in personal growth, you can pick it up and carry on with it. And then you become a partner with them. (32:42)

Career transitioning: mutual exchange of value

Alexey: Okay. I am wondering what’s the strategy for me? Let’s say if I want to market myself because I want to find a job. Would the strategy be different if I am a student? Or if I am somebody who already has experience in a different domain and want to transition to a new domain? Would my strategy be different in these cases? (33:11)

Swyx: Students unfortunately don’t have a ton to offer. A lot of times you are coming in with zero work experience. You can show how eager you are. You can show how much you are willing to invest in learning and being coached. You do something and people give you feedback. Do you take that feedback, internalize it and come back with the feedback incorporated? And also think “what else does this line of thinking lead me to do?” You show either your trajectory and the slope of your growth rather than the absolute position of your growth. (33:31)

Swyx: For people who are transferring from another field, maybe there’s something that you can give in terms of equivalence exchange? I have my domain, you have your domain. Together, we are actually better than if we both specialize in everything at once. I specialize in something and my friend has specialized in other things. I can always ping him: “I need help on that thing”. That’s a mutual exchange of value. Figure out what you have that’s valuable to others. And offer it to them in exchange for mentoring, tutoring, and opportunities.

Swyx: When I transitioned from finance to tech, it took two years. The first year I was a non-technical product manager for a fintech company. I turned from a customer of a SaaS startup into a product manager. I traded in my finance knowledge for the opportunity to work in tech — to figure out how it works, what’s the terminology and where I should be focusing my attention to. Then it took another year for me to code.

Alexey: How did you convince your future employer back then to actually hire you? (35:29)

Swyx: I was a customer. I turned from customer to employee. They needed someone who was a customer expert. I had one domain expertise and I was completely new to the other thing. I traded that in as a mutual exchange. (35:36)

Alexey: This is one of the most difficult parts. Let’s say I am transitioning from quality assurance or maybe from academia. I was doing research and now I want to go to development or data science. These things have some overlap. But it’s not that large. Then there is a company. I want to say “Hire me. Let’s have this mutual exchange”. And they are “We are not sure”. So probably you should focus on a specific company in this case? (35:55)

Swyx: Yeah that helps. There are people who brag about applying to 400 companies. It’s just like spraying and praying. There’s no way you are authentically interested in all 400 of them. I much prefer the focused approach. When I was applying for my first job, I applied to nine and I got offers at three of them. It’s a good conversion. You only need one job. Your conversion goes up because you have more time to research these companies and be more intentional about why you want to join them. What do you know? What are their processes? You can actually research the interview process. Yeah, there is just so much more that they can do when you focus. (36:35)

Personal marketing for getting a new job

Alexey: Suppose I am changing an industry. I want to promote myself. I want to go on Twitter and start tweeting about something. I have some domain — I work in physics and I want to go into data analytics. Here my domain is data analytics. Or JavaScript, doesn’t matter. We picked up this domain and we want to get noticed. We want to get hired by somebody. How do we do this? What should our marketing strategy look like? First of all you said we learn in public. So we are working on something and we just tweet about this. Is it enough? Or we need to do something extra on top of that? (38:30)

Swyx: You can always improve your chances. You can do informational interviews with people. Say “I am interested in joining the company. Do you have 30 minutes to chat?” A lot of people will say “no”, but some people will say “yes”. You can talk to them about the company. how it’s organized, what the mission is, what the product really is under the hood — anything that can help you in understanding the company to get the job. (39:15)

Swyx: There are other ways. For example if you are a designer, you can do an unsolicited redesign of the company's products. Show off what you could do for the company. Explain your thinking. Even if they may not use the ideas, they might use someone with this motivation. Even though you are not technically working at the company, you enjoy it. And you have some strong opinion about how the company should function. If they like it, they will hire you.

Alexey: Should it be done in public? (40:21)

Swyx: Oh yeah. (40:23)

Alexey: So, they just tweet, “Hey slack, here is my redesign”? How does it work? (40:24)

Swyx: Absolutely. This is very common for designers. For developers, it’s a little bit less visible. But you can build a clone. I’ve seen a lot of people build slack clones or clubhouse clones. It shows a level of understanding of the engineering decisions behind such a product. You can often skip quite a few interview rounds because you have already done the work and it just demonstrated your interest in the company. (40:30)

Swyx: I have one really good example. Go to nina4airbnb.com. Nina works in product management marketing. She really wanted to work at airbnb. She created a website that demonstrates what airbnb is missing by not being in the middle east, which is where she was from. She went into detail about how airbnb could expand and why she was the perfect person to be part of that expansion. She went to a different company but airbnb at least interviewed her because of this. It went viral.

Swyx: There is some other guy who also did it. He did “hire me spotify”. the whole website was in the spotify theme — to demonstrate that he understands the products and the company's mission. You shouldn’t do this for every company, it’s a very high effort. But when you are very interested in a company, that’s the kind of thing that gets you noticed.

Getting hired through the back door

Swyx: I should also mention: being hired is better than being unemployed for more than a year. Let’s say you are trying to go from non-technical to engineer. If you are not getting into the front door, it can often be easier to transfer laterally within the company. Join the company in a position that is not really what you want. Do well in that position and then offer to do free work, make friends with the department that you actually want to join. And then transfer internally after the year. (42:20)

Swyx: Companies have weird hiring bars when they hire you through the front door. They want you to pass all these weird tests but when they hire their colleagues, it is just more about, do they like you or do they trust you that are it and everything else can be taught.

Finding content ideas

Alexey: I imagine it takes a lot of time to build a spotify clone. Let’s say I work already. I am already experienced. I want to find a new job in the same domain. In this case what do I share? What do I write about? Stuff that I do at work? (43:17)

Swyx: You should not disclose secrets, especially if it involves other people's work, be very careful about that. Always, if in doubt, check with them. You can publish just new things that are going on in your industry, problems that you solved and overcame. War stories and production outages are always very interesting to people. (43:42)

Swyx: I never have a problem with this. People always ask me this. There are so many questions and ideas out there. I cannot possibly cover all of them. Just look out. Open your eyes to what's up there. I can listen to a podcast and come out with two blog post ideas. There are so many things that are unanswered.

Swyx: Many people think that if someone else has already written this blog post, there is no value that they can contribute. There is still value in having your personal take on something. Especially if it’s referenced multiple times by you. You can essentially write your own proxy of this idea.

Swyx: There’s this idea of anti-fragile from Nassim Taleb. He’s written the authoritative book on it. But instead of linking to that book on Amazon, you could link to your summary of that book. To your personal perspective. To any stories that you might have had that relate to this. These are nuances that you could cover by writing your own proxy of some bigger idea. Just because an authoritative link on something exists, it doesn’t mean you cannot write about it.

Marketing yourself in public — summary

Alexey: Let me go back and try to summarize it from the very beginning. First, we hang out on hacker news and reddit and see what people are interested in. Pick a topic. Then we start learning in public. We learn about this topic, we tweet about this every day. We start understanding it well enough. Eventually we get hired, start working in this area. While working we can continue exploring different things. If there is a new book, we can summarize it and put it out there. We keep up with public presence and learning in public. (45:43)

Swyx: Yes. Anything that you would have found useful, from 3-6 months ago, for your own professional interests — anything that will be shared by other people. Obviously keeping in mind what they want to hear as well. (46:25)

Open-source knowledge

Alexey: When I write about something, it really gets into my head. I remember it a lot better. For any concept, if I learned it and even if I applied it, I know how to use it. But if I sit down and write about this, publish a blog post, then I remember it much better. (46:41)

Swyx: Yes. It’s nice, especially if you have your own highlights from a book or a blog post. Then you can go on Google and type your domain name and then that search word. You can use Google as your own personal search engine for your notes. It’s really helpful when you are trying to look up something to reference people. (47:14)

Swyx: I should have mentioned the idea of open source knowledge earlier. We used to have encyclopedias like encyclopedia Britannica and others. They would hire thousands of editors and write 50 different books on everything on earth to know about. Then Wikipedia comes along with the 100th of their budget and it just destroys all of them. Now Wikipedia is the only encyclopedia anyone uses. We should have a thousand different small Wikipedia’s on every single topic.

Alexey: You mean literally Wikipedia, like MediaWiki? (48:18)

Swyx: Anything where anyone can contribute, crowdsource knowledge and curate it. Some curation is necessary. Like wikipedia has editors and a culture of contributing. You want to come along and contribute, you want the authoritative source of something. (48:22)

Swyx: The idea behind open source knowledge is we replicate Wikipedia for anything complicated, for things that people need to refer to. When I was learning React and TypeScript, the React team had their own typed JavaScript solution. They were not interested in documenting TypeScripts. And the TypeStript team focused on being framework agnostic, they were not going to document React. So I documented the intersection of React and TypeScript. That cheat sheet now has like 30000 stars on GitHub and people contribute. Now many people know of me through that work. That’s a little bit of marketing me as well.

Swyx: This is the idea of collaborative knowledge gathering. I saw today that someone compiled a reference list of all the header tags in html and it has 30,000 stars. It’s amazing. That’s the kind of thing that people need to reference all the time. If you keep a list and you let people contribute, then it automatically becomes part of your personal brand and marketing.

Swyx: It's a really nice way to grow. Learning and blogging is a very solo individual activity. But if you can build a community around the thing that you are trying to learn, that is even better. You are going to learn much faster.

Swyx: I call this the “big L notation”. In the big O notation, you have the scaling factors. People have different scaling factors around their learning. If you learn with other people, then you learn at a rate of L of N times P. I have a whole blog about big L. There’s some theory behind this which I really like.

Internal marketing: promoting ourselves at work

Alexey: I also wanted to talk to you a bit about internal marketing — internally within a company. For promotions, internal marketing can be more important than external. What is the best way of doing this? Do you have any recommendations on how we can market ourselves within the company? (50:39)

Swyx: This is a really important topic as well. No matter what you do, you have to promote yourself internally. The main advice here is to have a brag document. I got this idea from Julia Evans. A Bragg document is a 1-2 page summary of the things that you have accomplished at the company. Have it ready at all times. It helps your manager to advocate for you. Whenever you meet someone in senior management and they need to know what you have done, you can just share the document with them. You don’t have to give them the document, you can just say it. (51:10)

Swyx: Having your accomplishments in front of you helps as a motivational pickup. Sometimes when you have a bad day, you can just go back — “actually I have some value at this company”.

Swyx: You can also make it easy for other people to be your advocate. Personal brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room. If you have a strong personal brand, then you make it easy for people to say your top accomplishments and become your advocates.

Swyx: One simple way that engineers can do personal marketing within the company is to take advantage of demos and standups. People usually approach it from a very routine point of view. I have to go stand up, I will say my thing and then I will pretend to be interested in what other people say. Turn it into a story, an enjoyable experience, celebrate accomplishments and share the accomplishments of others with the rest of your company. Then you are seen as a source of positive energy in your team.

Swyx: When there’s a demo day, or a sprint showcase or a hackathon, most people do not volunteer. But if you take that opportunity, you get to put your work and your team's work in front of the rest of the company. People will know you better. That may seem like not very much, but when people need someone from your department, they will think of you first.

Swyx: Marketing is about getting to be first on people's minds. You provided some value in the past or you strongly associated yourself with some problem that people need. These are all valuable things within a company.

Alexey: So, we have a brag document which is a 1-2 page summary. We do demos every time it’s possible. And we network with people, share knowledge with them, talk to them, mentor them, and help them. Right? (54:00)

Signature initiative

Swyx: There is more than that. You can also do a signature initiative. This is a term that I picked up at AWS. It’s a big project that you hit on your own. That’s what you are known for. It gives you a chance to win outside of your team, to show individual accomplishment and leadership. (54:16)

Swyx: A friend of mine, Matthew Gerstman, works at Dropbox as a front-end engineer. He’s just like a thousand other front-end engineers within the company. But he decided to start a JavaScript guild within the company in his free time. He just sent an internal newsletter to keep people informed of the latest JavaScript developments.

Swyx: It’s very routine and nothing special. It involves JavaScript and it involves people — and that’s what people discuss internally at work. It became a small community within Dropbox. Then it evolved into an internal conference. Everyone had a whole day together where they discussed company specific issues within JavaScript. He became the JavaScript domain expert within Dropbox. It’s a huge deal. It has nothing to do with his team. He just created an initiative, the management supported him by giving him some funding and some space to do that.

Swyx: There are many opportunities to do that. It’s crazy that people don’t take initiative at work. A lot of people are just sitting back and waiting for people to tell them what to do. If you find an opportunity and take leadership of it, people will give you more responsibility. They are always looking for someone who can take that responsibility.

Swyx: I will give you another example. Zack Argyle used to work at Pinterest. He was a believer in the opportunity for progressive web apps at Pinterest. He was trying to promote PWA within Pinterest for a long time. At hackathon, he built a clone of Pinterest with PWA and presented it directly to the company CEO, Ben Silverman. He did it in two days and showed that the metrics were way better, that it was going to be a very good positive performance for pinterest. Now Pinterest’s full web app is a PWA. It’s because of him.

Swyx: So, that kind of initiative. No one asks you to do it, but you believe that it’s good for the company. it will probably be good for your career as well.

Alexey: So, we can do everything that we discussed in the first part of this interview. Promoting ourselves to the outside world — we can do the same thing inside the company. We can start a newsletter inside the company. In this case our audience would be just the company. Then you become known for this thing inside the company. It’s interesting. I never thought about it. You can use the same tricks inside as you would use outside. (57:09)

Swyx: It’s the same thing except it’s a smaller audience. It can be good or bad. Good in a sense that people have to listen to you — they work with you. It’s bad when you are overly self-promotional, then they will have a negative opinion of you. But if you are trying to provide a service genuinely or do something beneficial for the company, people would back you. It’s less competition — you are just within your company. You can talk about more specific things and problems that your company has. People outside one are not going to know about it or you cannot talk about it — it’s a company secret. (57:48)

Swyx: There is so much space that you have within work to learn in public. People don’t appreciate how effective that is.

Swyx: Ultimately, what I am trying to do here, is create a path for people to market themselves without being a celebrity. You just get recognized for the skills that you have and the interests and the opportunities that you deserve. There are so many things that you could be doing that don’t involve being internet famous.

Public speaking

Alexey: Do you have any last marketing tips you want to share with us? Marketing hacks? (59:04)

Swyx: Speaking. A lot of people don’t speak. You probably have something to say. When doing talks — the work involved in making a talk is half of the battle. Once you have done the talk, you can send it around. Established speakers do well by showing leadership as a speaker in that domain. When you interview, that’s speaking as well. You should practice that as much as possible when you don’t need it. So when you do need, you have experience at organizing your thoughts and responding to questions. (59:11)

Swyx: I don’t think I am the best at it. I say a lot and I sometimes lose track of what people are saying. But at least I have more organized thinking about this. I have written about these topics. I have a fair amount of experience now in doing podcasts and speaking. I highly recommend people do that. When the time comes and you need it, if you don’t have the practice, don’t expect to do very well.

Wrapping up

Alexey: Anything else? (1:00:19)

Swyx: There are more marketing hacks. Check out the blog post about it on my website. (1:00:24)

Alexey: It’s swix.io. People can find you on twitter, somewhere else? (1:00:38)

Swyx: Those are the main channels right now. I have a newsletter on my site. It’s a work update for me. I feature the top 3-4 reads there with a little summary. Hopefully it interests people. It’s been doing pretty well, I like that. I just don’t pick a domain right now which is pretty funny. Apart from the learning public and career advice thing, I do not have anything else. (1:00:46)

Alexey: That’s probably enough because this is what a lot of people recognize and know you for. (1:01:20)

Swyx: Exactly. It’s weird because I don’t want to do this forever. (1:01:27)

Alexey: Too late. (1:01:33)

Swyx: It’s done well and I like invitations to speak on these things. I’m happy to do it. It has really changed my own life and it will change other people as well. (1:01:35)

Alexey: Thanks for sharing all these stories and your experience with us and I hope it motivated to everyone who is listening to this. (1:01:46)

Discount for the coding career book

Swyx: My book is the book of the week on DataTalks.Club. If you want 40% off, head to the site and get it. (1:01:57)

Alexey: If you go to our website, there is a link in the header that says “books”, click on that. Find the book, go there and then there is another link. You click on that link and the discount is applied automatically — we have this magic link with a discount code embedded in this. (1:02:13)

Swyx: I had to code that. I don’t like it when I buy something and then there is a coupon code there, but I don’t have a coupon. It’s very annoying. (1:02:40)

Alexey: You coded the whole thing yourself? (1:02:50)

Swyx: Yeah. It is not that hard, it is just funny. Yeah the source code is linked on the pages. (1:02:53)

Alexey: Of course! I would expect nothing less from you. Do you have anything else to say before I try to conclude it? (1:03:01)

75% of the engineering ladder criteria are not technical

Swyx: I don’t get to talk about the marketing chapter enough. There is so much to career development. I always want to invite people to have a discussion about this. We don’t talk about it enough. We always talk about code. We should talk about the 75% of the engineering ladder criteria that is not technical. (1:03:11)

Alexey: 75% you said? (1:03:33)

Swyx: Yeah. I studied 30 different career ladders up there. Most of them — even CircleCI, which is one of the most technical companies on earth — talk about communication, understanding of business impact, stuff like that. It’s not about code. That’s what the book was like. (1:03:35)

Alexey: Yeah, go check the book. That's the last thing I want to say today. And I want to wish everyone a great weekend. Thanks for joining. Good bye. (1:03:50)

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