Engineer, promote thyself Increasing your value as a software engineer, two steps at a time

Most of us chose software engineering as a career because we love what we do. Few other fields can reliably give us the satisfaction that writing software does. But there comes a time when you as an engineer will need to decide whether you’ll be content with a career as an individual contributor, or whether you want to advance in your role, taking on more responsibilities and more interesting challenges (and, or course, making more money).

If you plan to stick with simply writing code until you retire, then this article is probably not for you. But if you’re reaching the point where you want to expand your career beyond the individual contributor level, then read on.

Face it: you need to market yourself

Many of us (myself included) have become spoiled by today’s job market. Software engineers–even mediocre ones–tend to be in high demand. But the fact is, plenty of companies can still afford to be picky about who they hire, particularly when it comes to technical leadership roles. In order to compete for the best roles at the best companies, we need to make ourselves more valuable. But being more valuable is not not enough. As they say, perception is everything. So we need to do something that most of us aren’t comfortable with: marketing ourselves. In other words, we need not only to be the most valuable, but also to convince our future employers that we are.

Below are some ideas about how to go beyond simply writing code for a living. All of these ideas have two distinct advantages. First, they show the rest of the world that you know what you’re talking about. That you are thoughtful about what you do, and that you can articulate your knowledge. In other words, they make you appear more valuable.

Second, they force you to sharpen your skills. They ensure that you’ve considered different points of view and are still certain that yours is the best. They help you stretch your skills beyond writing code, improving your research and communication skills. Many of them also open the door to networking with folks who are well-entrenched in the industry. In other words, they make you become more valuable.

Writing

Start a blog

You’ve probably already written a lot about programming. Maybe you’ve contributed to your company’s wiki page. Or you’ve replied to questions on StackOverflow. Maybe you’ve written notes to help yourself remember how to solve a particularly vexing issue. Or you’ve written an email to another engineer explaining a particular programming topic.

There is no reason why you can’t apply those same skills and write some articles. For starters, you can create your own blog. There is some overhead to creating a blog, but not much. If you have already have an account with a cloud provider like AWS, then firing up a new instance to host a WordPress site is trivial. Even easier is to simply set up an account with a site like Blogger. Any time you figure out something interesting, blog about it. 

You will of course want to spend a bit more time on a publicly-facing article than you would otherwise. Proofread it more carefully. Let it set for a day or two and re-read it to make sure it makes sense, and edit it as necessary. Maybe have a trusted friend or colleague look it over as well.

Once you’ve posted it, you’ll want to market it. Depending on the topic you write about, you may simply get traffic directly from organic online searches. Beyond that, you’ll want to be sure to that you’re linking to your articles from anywhere else that you have an online presence: Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.

Publish articles on other sites

Once you’ve sharpened your writing skills, you can try publishing your articles on existing online engineering publications. You might think that articles on the likes of JavaWorld and DZone are penned by professional writers, but that’s not the case. In fact, most articles on these sites are written by software engineers like you, and most of these publications allow you to submit articles.

Getting an article published in such a publication is a little (but not much) more work than writing for your own blog. For starters, there’s no guarantee that your writing will be accepted. You’ll want to be even more scrupulous with your writing if you choose this route. Different publications will have different guidelines that you’ll need to follow. Some require you to first submit a proposal before even submitting your writing at all. But they provide a large built-in audience, and carry with them a certain amount of prestige.

Another option is to get yourself involved in engineering communities that interest you. Show enough interest and expertise, and you may be invited to contribute. As an example, I became interested in the Vert.x framework, so I began participating in its discussion forums, and occasionally tweeted about it. After one tweet about how quickly my colleague and I were able to use the framework, I was asked by a Zero Turnaround evangelist–who was also active in the Vert.x community–to write an article about my experience.

Write a book

Depending on your area of expertise, and what ideas you might have, writing a book can also be an option. It’s a time-consuming effort, for sure, but one that can pay off in spades in terms of establishing yourself as a subject matter expert. These days, you have a couple of options:

  • Sell your idea to a publisher like O’Reilley or Manning
  • Self-publish your book
Working with a publisher

Granted, you’ll generally want to start with a novel concept; most publishers will already have authors lined up for How to Program with Java 12, for example. But you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to pitch a niche topic. I was once in a conversation with a publisher from Manning, when he asked me about any topics that I thought would make a good book. As a Java developer who had recently spent time learning Objective-C (this being before Swift came along) I mentioned that Objective-C for Java Developers would have made my life easier. A few days later the publisher contacted me and asked if I’d like to write that book.

While I didn’t wind up writing that book (I did receive a contract from the publisher, but decided to focus my energy on the startup company I’d just joined) in retrospect I often wish that I had. While I’m certain I would’ve made little direct money, I’ve heard from other tech authors about the boosts that they’ve seen in their career. They garner more respect from other people, and in general find it easier to do what they want with their careers, be it getting the job they really want, speaking or publishing more, commanding more money, etc. And along the way, they’ve sharpened their skills and researched their area of expertise far more than they would’ve otherwise.

Working with a publisher has its drawbacks. For example, most publishers have a style in which they want their books written. You’ll work closely with editors, iterating and rewriting. While this will typically result in a much better-written text, it can be time consuming at, at times, frustrating, as you’ll be forced to relinquish much of your creative control to someone else. Typically, while publishers will often offer you a monetary advance as you’re writing your book, you’ll wind up make a small fraction for each book sale.

Self-Publishing

By contrast, it’s become quite easy these days to write and publish your own book. Publishing platforms like LeanPub allow you to focus on writing your book the way you want to write it. They handle the mechanics for you: formatting and publishing, promotion, payments, etc. Most also make it simple to integrate with publishers of physical books (such as Amazon’s CreateSpace). And you’ll be able to keep a much larger percentage of each book sale. Plus, while a publisher can turn your idea down, no one will prevent you from self-publishing.

Of course, when it comes to actually writing the book, you’re on your own. You’ll have no editor guiding you through the writing process (which can be a positive as well as a negative). You’ll be forced to create, and stick with, your own writing schedule (again, this can be a pro or a con). The differences can be summed up like so:

  • Guarantee: First and foremost, self-publishing guarantees that you’ll be able to write about what you want to write about. Established publishers might turn you and your idea down.
  • Prestige: While both options go a long way towards marketing yourself, there is a certain amount of added prestige when working with an established publisher.
  • Control: When self-publishing, you retain control. You write what you want, according to your own schedule. Publishers will insist that you work with an editor, and that you follow their timeline.
  • Monetary: Neither option is likely to make you rich–at least, not directly–so this should not be your primary motivation. With that said, self-publishing allows you to keep a higher percentage of books sold, while working with a publisher generally garners you an up-front advance. Also, while a publisher will keep more money per book, they are likely to be able to increase the overall number of books sold.

Speaking

Speaking is another great way to market yourself and hone your skills. If you haven’t done much speaking before, it can be intimidating to just step in front of hundreds of strangers and start talking. However, there are a number of baby steps that you can take.  

Speak at your own company

A great way to build speaking skills and confidence is to start with a small, friendly audience. Assuming you work at a company with other people (engineers or otherwise), giving a technical presentation is a great way to get into public speaking. You first question might be What should I talk about? My advice is to pick from one of the following:

  1. A topic that no one else in the company knows much about, but is important for people to understand.
  2. A topic that other people in the company may be familiar with, but that you in particular excel at

For item #1 above, often you’ll find interesting topics at the at the periphery of programming that have been neglected at your company. Maybe no one knows how to write a good integration test. Or maybe monitoring and tracing might be something your company hasn’t gotten to yet. Take it upon yourself to research and learn the topic, well enough that you can explain it to your colleagues.

For item #2, is there anything for which your colleagues regularly rely on you? This could be anything from git, to specific frameworks, to patterns and best practices. Be sure to outline your talk first. Don’t plan to just wing it. At the same time, don’t fully script your talk. Give yourself permission to ad lib a little bit, and to adjust a bit (say, go deeper into one particular topic, or to pull back on–or even skip entirely–other topics) if you feel that you need to.

Find a meet up to speak at

Engineering meet ups have become extremely common lately. The problem is, lots of engineers want to attend meet ups, but few want to speak. As a result, organizers are often searching for presenters. You can use that to your advantage.

If you haven’t already, find a few good local meet ups to attend (in and of itself, it’s a great way to network and to explore stuff that you don’t typically work with). Get to know the organizers. Then, once you’ve gotten a few talks down at your own company, you can volunteer to present at one of their meet ups. Odds are they’ll be thrilled to take you up on your offer. What should you talk about at a meet up? I’ve been to some great meet ups that have fallen under the following categories:

  1. Deep dives into commonly-used technologies
  2. Introductions to new/emerging technologies
  3. Novel or interesting applications of a given technology

Ordinarily, talks falling under the first category are best given by those most familiar with the technologies. Since they are commonly-used, then almost by definition, the audience will be filled with folks that already know a fair amount about the given technology. For example, I’ve been to a talk about RxJava, given by the team from Netflix that ported the reactiveX framework from .Net to Java. I’ve also attended a talk about Hazelcast… from one of the main Hazelcast developers.

The second category, however, is a different story. If you’ve become familiar with a new technology that has yet to gain widespread use, then you’re uniquely positioned to provide an overview of a technology that few people are using. A year or so ago, for example, I attended an interesting talk about Kotlin given by members of an Android engineering team. The team had no special association with Kotlin itself, other than having adopted the language awhile back. Yet their presentation was well-attended and well-received.

If you’ve made interesting use of a certain technology, then you also have a great opportunity to present. Another interesting talk I’d gone to was given by an engineer whose team had used the Vert.x framework to create a novel in-memory CQRS product.

Conferences

If you’ve attended tech conferences, it can seem as though only engineers who are top in their field are invited to speak. But that’s simply not true. Even more than meet up organizers, conference organizers need to flesh out their conferences with a variety of speakers.

When submitting a conference proposal, however, the topic you plan to discuss becomes very important. While not everyone who speaks is an industry leader, chances are that organizers will be more particular about who presents general topics. Come up with a good niche topic, however, and you’ve got a good chance of being invited to speak. In other words, a talk on What’s new in Spring Framework 6 will likely go to an actual Spring committer. But a talk like, say, Rendering Serverside Graphics Using Websockets and LWJGL, would be open game.

How would you submit a talk? Generally, conferences have a Call For Papers (CFP), which is a period of time in which they are soliciting ideas for sessions. Check the websites of the conferences you want to target for the dates of their CFPs. You’ll find a lot of advice online about how to craft a submission, but common tips include:

  • Submit early in the process
  • Pay attention to your session’s title and make sure it’s both accurate and enticing
  • Don’t pitch a session that attempts to sell a product
  • Be sure you thoroughly understand–and follow–the speaker guidelines

Becoming Comfortable with the Uncomfortable Being a strong software engineering professional sometimes has nothing to do with software or engineering at all.

It’s comfortable to complain.

Most of us learned this the moment we were born. As babies, we quickly discovered that crying, loudly, got us what we wanted. A bit later in life, we applied these same lessons for ice cream, TV watching time, and staying up just a little bit later. As teenagers, well, complaining was just the thing to do.

Even as fledgling software engineers, we’ve gotten rewarded for complaining. Pointing out what’s wrong with an organization–its practices, its codebase, etc–initially got us positive attention. We should be using constants instead of hard-coded values in this class? Well done! We’ll assign someone to fix that. Our stand-ups should be moved from 9:45 to 10:00 in case people get in late? Good point. We’ll see about moving them. We should have detailed diagrams of our service architecture on our Wiki? Uh, sure… someone will get to it when they have time.

Because, let’s face it: complaining is easy. But pointing out flaws will only get you so far. At some point, someone needs to address those flaws. And before too long, you may find that your complaints are becoming a liability, and that it’s time to stop grumbling about problems and start doing something about them.

And if you’re like most of us, you’ll pick something comfortable. You write code, after all, so why not find some code to fix? You’ll spend an afternoon refactoring a class to make it more testable. You’ll spend an evening applying the command design pattern to some data access objects. Heck, maybe you’ll spend a weekend coding up a little framework to support your new command-design-pattern-data-access code (and, maybe, someone will actually use it). You’ll show everyone your work, and they’ll tell you what a good job you’ve done. And you’ll feel great, confident that you’ve shown everyone that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to help the organization succeed.

Except for one problem: you haven’t done that all. You’ve shown that you can create fun, interesting coding projects and do them. And before too long, folks will start getting tired of seeing the latest pet project you’d spent your time on while they’d been slogging away at un-fun, uninteresting tasks.

So what’s an enterprising engineer, who truly wants to solve problems and prove their worth, to do?

The answer is easy: find something that’s hard. Something that everyone knows needs to get done, but no one wants to do. Something that’s outside of your comfort zone. Maybe even so far out that you don’t know how to get it done.

In 2015 I joined a company, a Java shop, that was running its applications on Java 7. As I’d been developing on Java 8 for about a year at that point, I was a little disappointed. So naturally I made a glib comment to my new co-workers, and received some knowing grumbles in return. This, or some variation of it, happened for the next few months. Someone would ask in an engineering meeting when we would finally be moving to Java 8. The answer would always be the same: someone has to step up and make it happen.

Finally, one day, I decided that I would be that someone. I knew the task would be tough. I had a full workload, of course, so this effort would be above and beyond what I was hired to do, especially given that I was taking it on voluntarily. There was a lot of risk involved. Even if it went smoothly, we were bound to run into build issues from time to time, and everyone would know who to blame. And in the worst case scenario, I could introduce insidious runtime issues that would reveal themselves early some morning in production.

Plus, I flat out didn’t know how to do it. Installing Java 8 on my own Mac was one thing. But getting the entire organization–its various development, QA, and production environments; monolithic applications and microservices; homegrown libraries and frameworks–all upgraded? I mean, I’m a software architect, not a sys admin!

But I figured the flip side would be that I’d provide a huge service to the organization, modernizing it, and making a number of engineers happy. Besides, I wanted to use streams and lambdas, dammit!

So I announced that I would lead the effort. And it was indeed a large task. I researched the issues commonly encountered by companies doing the same thing. I created a detailed list of dependencies, which drove the order in which applications were to be upgraded. I recruited members of the devops and QA teams, as well as members from individual engineering scrum teams, to be a part of the effort. And indeed, as the project progressed, more than one engineering team ran into vexing build issues.

But most surprising to me was that everybody was fully on board. Despite the effort involved, despite the road bumps encountered, every last person involved was willing to pitch in and help push through. I noticed that the wiki page I’d set up to document common issues and solutions started flourishing with input from other teams. Within a few months, every system in the company was running on Java 8. Years later, I would still receive the occasional word of thanks from engineers in the organization.

Later in the same company, I found myself–along with a number of engineers and engineering managers–complaining about various recruiting and interviewing policies that the engineering organization had adopted. The answer came back: “Someone else needs to come up with better solutions to bringing in good engineering candidates.” I paused for a beat, then agreed: if I’m complaining about it, then I should be willing to find a solution. Again, I didn’t have any particular love for, or skills with, the topic at hand. I certainly was not a recruiter. But it was something that nearly everyone agreed needed to be done. So I assembled a series of agendas, and pulled together small teams to tackle each one. And slowly, we began to improve our recruiting a hiring process.

Since then, I’ve simply taken it for granted that if I identify a legitimate pain point in the organization, it’s my job as a member of that organization to help solve it–whether it has anything to do with software or not. As I spend less time writing code and more time in management and leadership roles, of course, I find myself tasked with a variety of non-engineering issues on a daily basis.

But even if you plan to write code for a living until the day you die (or, more optimistically, retire) taking on non-technical challenges is always a good idea. You’ll boost your own confidence, and your stature within the organization. You’ll get to work with different people, and learn some new things.

And you’ll find yourself with fewer things to complain about.

 

When hiring a new employee

Since I just joined a new company as a senior software engineer, I thought I’d write a few posts about my experiences, while they’re still fresh. This particular one is aimed at companies and hiring managers intent on hiring new employees like me. It’s advice, if you will, about how help candidates and new hires feel welcome in the company.

These points may be specific to my particular hiring scenario. But I think they’re general enough–and surprisingly common enough–that they’re worth pointing out. It’s also worth pointing out that there is still plenty that I liked about the company enough to join them (and to continue working there). Still, the whole process had room for improvement, and I figured hey, why not let other people learn from my experience?

Inside jokes during the interview

Try to keep them to a minimum. During the series of onsite interviews I had at this particular company, it seemed that every time my current interviewer ran across a coworker (during tours of the office, say, or when transitioning from one interviewer to another) the two would trade barbs of the “you’re lame” / “no, YOU’RE lame!” variety.

So what’s wrong with a little levity like that? Don’t get me wrong; I’d much rather work with people who have senses of humor, and who like having fun. But sitting in uncomfortable silence during these exchanges, with no real opportunity to join in (have you ever tried to join in on someone else’s inside joke, particularly when you don’t know the people sharing the joke? Don’t.) hardly instilled a sense that this was a team that was welcoming to new members.

Now that I’m a part of the company, I still cringe when I see new interviewees in the office, standing there awkwardly as their interviewer trades barbs with another employee.

In sum: candidates generally feel awkward already, and already know that they’re outsiders. You don’t need to reinforce that point.

Are your new hires people or numbers?

I joined the company as it was experiencing a large amount of growth. For the prior ten years it had remained a fairly small start-up, and only recently had started hiring aggressively. This was a fact which, it seemed, many of the old-timers loved to talk about.

For starters, every departmental meeting began with the observations like “wow, there’s a lot more people here than there were last week!” and “do you guys remember when we used to have our company all-hands in that little conference room?” It’s possible that comments like that were intended to impress upon what a great, exciting time it was to be at the company. But, at least for those of us who couldn’t remember that little conference room, it didn’t feel that way.

Instead, what we heard was that the old-timers were the ones who were the core of the company, the ones that mattered. The rest of us, we were just along for the ride on their coattails. And maybe that’s a valid point. But I know that as an employee, I’m most motivated when I believe, rightly or wrongly, that I’m an integral part of the company.

My new manager also decided that I was going to be the first new hire for which he wouldn’t send out a welcome email about me to the rest of the department. There were getting to be just too many people, he said, for these emails to be sent out. Most employees probably don’t even read them anymore. Well, maybe so. But would the token effort to show that you’re trying to integrate me into the rest of the company been so tough?

In sum: help new employees feel like they’re a part of the company, rather than doing the opposite.