The world of software engineering influencers, what I typically like to refer to as “tech-fluencers”, has grown significantly in the last few years. There are people who have built entire personal brands and businesses solely on the basis of their online tech content. And many massive technology companies now participate in the same spheres that 5 years ago would have been unheard of (just think about all the memes major tech companies have created in the last few years).
And with the rise of platforms that promote short form video content, like TikTok and YouTube shorts, it’s now easier then ever to build branding and create a catalog of niche content designed to fulfill a void somewhere out there on the internet.
But I’ve seen a big problem with all of this.
We often see others with significant reach in online tech spaces and assume that the only way to achieve that kind of corporate success, financial well-being, confidence, seniority status, or whatever else their persona amplifies, is to emulate them and make content to also achieve that reach, success, and influence in the industry.
From my first hand experience, this is simply not true.
Years ago, I fell into the mental trap of creating tech content online: partly out of boerdum during the pandemic and partly because I was looking for new ways to level up my career. I thought that creating content online, like I saw so many other people doing, would be an accelerator for me. I started a TikTok account. During it’s heyday, the account reached over 140 thousands followers. This lead to a YouTube channel, a Twitch stream, daily content generation, and much more.
And honestly, after hundreds and hundreds of videos, none of it really sticks out as actually being significant to my career. After all, most of it was fluff and memes without alot of sustenance.
This is the trap of content creation that is all too tantalizing: maybe start with pure intent but eventually find yourself feeding the algorithms a never ending stream of content for the hopes of achieving some amorphous goal that has bastardized into something you don’t recognize anymore.
I eventually took a big step back from the content creator grind and ultimately felt pretty disappointed in what seemed like a huge wasted effort.
I think Will Larson sums this all up incredibly well in his piece “How to be a tech influencer”. He says:
Most successful people are not well-known online. If you participate frequently within social media, it’s easy to get sucked into the reality distortion field it creates. Being well-known in an online community feels equivalent to professional credibility when you’re spending a lot of time in that community. My experience is that very few of the most successful folks I know are well-known online, and many of the most successful folks I know don’t create content online at all.
Instead, there is an alternative approach: prestige.
Building a long term, successful tech career is not about having large followings in online tech spaces or massive engagement on content. Chasing those metrics will only lead you down that road of churning out content for the sake of staying relevant in whatever algorithm you’re participating in.
No, one of the many puzzle pieces in building a fruitful tech career involves building prestige.
Prestige is the “idea” of someone and is based on the respect for the things achieved, battles won, and quality of their character.
When I was at AWS, I could tell who the prestigious engineers were based on the way other people talked about them, how others approached that person’s code, and how that person could command a room. Prestige is easy to see, difficult to measure, and illusive to obtain.
Don’t be mistaken: you may read that and assume prestige and fear are close neighbors. But prestige is not about control, making others do what you want, or power. Prestige on one hand is about gaining other’s respect. But on the other, it’s about having self respect, owning your mistakes, being humble, kindness, and above all, keeping yourself accountable to the high bar of quality and character that you hold for yourself.
Measuring your prestige is much more difficult than tracking your influence. It’s easy to see the number of followers on your online accounts go up, but tracking the respect and repute people have for you is a whole different challenge.
This can make attempting to generate prestige difficult. How can I drum up respect and prestige for myself across the industry if I can’t really measure it effectively?
Ironically, generating prestige with online content can be a very successful way to go about amplifying your existing reputation. Experimenting with different forms of content and distribution models is important, but I want to stress that creating content to amplify your prestige should not be the same as content creation (at least in the typical, 2023 sense). You should not fall prey to the temptations of algorithms designed to steal your attention and sap your creative energy. You should simply use them as a tool of distribution if necessary.
But more importantly, the quality of your content matters significantly more than the quantity. Typical social media influence dictates that you must post on a regular schedule. But for the engineering leader looking to grow their prestige, one or two extremely high quality pieces go a very very long way. It’s not necessary that you always be chugging out content since relevance in typical social media algorithms should not be your end goal.
So, how do you actually go about building prestige? Here are my 5 approaches to growing your prestige within your engineering organization and online:
You should be finding ways to solve big technical problems that have increasing impact and that grow your status within the engineering org.
This should really be the prerequisite to building any sort of prestige. But it may not be obvious to all: it can be easy to get stuck in a loop of finishing tickets and completing all your tasks during a sprint without expanding into more challenging territories.
But if you’re not finding technical problems to solve that require innovation, expertise, and abit of the inventors mindset, you’ll eventually hit a career ceiling.
It is possible to build prestige without inventing. You can get pretty good at taking credit for others work or faking it till you make it. But eventually, this catches up with you and you reach a point where your persona is hollow and it’s clear the achievements where your reputation is build upon can’t be trusted or respected.
Inventing, building, and solving increasingly challenging technical problems is the backbone of building any kind of technical prestige.
Internal newsletters to your organization are a great way to communicate what you’re doing, what you’ve invented, and brag abit about some of your technical achievements.
For some, this may seem too out of reach. Aren’t these types of newsletters within my company only for VPs and engineering leaders?
Not necessarily. An opt-in type newsletter is the best place to start (i.e. don’t start a newsletter and send it to everyone in the company). Your manager and other teammates will likely want to opt in. After all, why wouldn’t they want a regular email of what you’ve been working on, things that interest you, and pieces of work you’re particularly proud of that week?
Newsletters are also a great habit to be in since they force you to quantify and qualify your work on a regular cadence which can then be translated latter into talks, deep dives, promotion documents, or other content that you can share with your org or the wider world.
Some people take this to the next level and publish a public newsletter. This can be a really cool avenue for those working “in public” and can be a great way to start connecting with other technical leaders out in the industry.
Technical talks come in many different shapes and sizes. I would consider a “talk” to be anythying from showing something off during your team weekly demos all the way up to international keynotes at large conferences.
The different ends of that spectrum obviously have different levels of reach and impact, but both help to establish you as a subject area expert in that thing you’re talking about. It’s an automatic way to gain some prestige about the topic and it’ll likely open you up to connecting with others in the audience that may lead to further opportunities (as the wheels of prestige go round)!
4. Deep dives
Technical deep dives also come in many shapes and forms. It may be a written piece (like this!), a video, a seminar, or really anything that can deeply communicate a technical topic.
Deep dives are great for generating some prestige since they can be easily referenced latter. They sort of end up being a time machine for you to use and recycle in powerful ways. I’ve seen people take deep dives and turn them into conference talks, business pitches, and even entire products!
But they are ultimately useful for establishing your expertise and prowess in a given technical matter.
5. Get others to talk about it
The most powerful, and maybe most difficult avenue to building prestige, is to get other people to talk about you and your work. At this point, the wheels of prestige are fully turning and they will move on their own for a fair amount of time.
Having a wealth of talks, deep dives, and newsletters ensures that other people (like your boss or your co-workers) have something to talk about.
And remember, prestige holds you to the highest bar of quality. So at this point, regardless of how many years it’s been, you can be assured that if people are talking about you, discussing a talk you gave, or chatting about something you’ve achieved, you know that it’s something that you can be proud of and respect yourself for.
Prestige is an incredible tool to build within your engineering organization and out in public. It should be a good approach for anyone looking to really leveling up their career. And in my experience, it’s a much preferred method to the typical “tech-fluencers” content grind.