On Building a Personal Brand

How do you balance loyalty to yourself and loyalty to the company you work for?

This might seem like an odd question, but it’s an important component of work/life balance many of us just don’t think about any longer because, as Pete Davis says in Dedicated, we live in a world of infinite browsing. We’re afraid of sticking to one thing because it might reduce our future options. If we dedicate ourselves to something bigger than ourselves, then we might lose control of our direction. In particular, we should not dedicate ourselves to any single company, especially for too long. As a recent (excellent!) blog post over at the ACM says:

Loyalty is generally a good trait, but extreme loyalty to the organization or mission may cause you to stay in the same job for too long.

The idea that we should control our own destiny, never getting lost in anything larger than ourselves, is ubitiquos like water is to a fish. We don’t question it. We don’t argue. It is just true. We assume there are three people who are going to look after “me:” me, myself, and I.

I get it. Honestly, I do. I’ve been there more times than I want to think about. I was the scapegoat in an argument between people far above my pay grade early in my career, causing much angst and pain. I’ve been laid off,—I cared about a company that simply didn’t care about me. Most recently, the family I’d dedicated more than twenty years of my life to ended through a divorce.

I can see why you might ask yourself hard questions about dedicating yourself to anything or anyone.

The problem, as Pete Davis points out, is that the human person was not designed for the kind of digital nomad life represented by the phrase “live for yourself.” We can try to substitute an online community. We can try to replace community with a string of novel experiences. But the truth is it will eventually catch up with you. When you’re young it’s hard to see how it will ever catch up with you, but it will.

Returning to the top—the author of the ACM article advises balancing between dedicating yourself to a company and dedicating yourself to your career. This is wise advice, but it leaves me wondering “how?” Let me lay out some thoughts here. They may not be all of the answer, but they will, I hope, point in the right direction.

First, resist seeing these two choices as orthogonal. They might be at odds in some companies—there are publishers who want your content to build their brand, and they specifically work at preventing you from building your brand. There are companies that explicitly want to own “your whole professional life.” They don’t want you blogging, going to conferences to speak, etc. Avoid these companies.

Instead, find companies that understand your personal brand is an asset to the company. Having a lot of people with strong personal brands in a company makes the company stronger, not weaker. People with strong brands will form communities around themselves. This community is a pool of people from which to recruit top-flight talent. This community allows them to collect new ideas that can be directly applied to problems in the organization. People with strong personal brands will have greater influence when they walk into a room to meet with a customer, a supplier, or just about anyone else. A company full of people with strong personal brands is stronger than one where everyone is faceless, consumed by/hiding behind the company logo.

Second, learn to manage your time effectively. I understand it’s possible to spend so much time building your brand that you don’t get your job done. As an individual, you need to be sensitive to this and learn how to manage your time effectively.

Third, seek out the win/win. Don’t think of every situation through the lens of “it’s either my brand or my employer’s.” There may be times when you cannot do something because, while it would help your brand immensely, it would harm your company’s. There may be times where you need to have a delicate discussion with your manager because you’ve been asked to do something that would be great for the company but would harm your brand. There is almost always a win/win, you just have to find it.

Fourth, seek out a community that’s not attached to work and dedicate yourself to it. Find something larger than yourself. A community that’s not tied to work will be your lifeline when things go wrong.

Finally, expect to get hurt. I know I have (an old saying in my community—never trust a man who doesn’t walk with a limp). You can be the nicest, humblest person in the world. Someone is still going to take advantage of you. In fact, the nicer and humbler you are—the more you care, the more likely it is people are going to take advantage of you. I am amazed at how much people seem to enjoy hurting one another when they believe there won’t be any consequences.

But … if you expect your life to be perfect, you were born in the wrong world. Build up the mental reserves to deal with this. Build a community that will help carry you through. There is nothing better than sitting down and sharing your hurt over a cup of coffee with a good friend (except I don’t drink coffee).

I get it—the world has moved into a YOLO/FOMO phase. If you don’t “grab it,” and right now! you risk missing something really important. We pile up alternative possibilities in our minds, wondering what might have happened if we’d chosen otherwise. We have deep angst over our personal brand, overthinking the concept to the point of diminishing returns.

The solution, though, is not to draw into yourself, to become self-centered. The solution is to find the balance, seek the win/win, dedicate yourself to something bigger than yourself, and find the right way to build your personal brand.

Hedge 128: Network Engineering at College

Have you ever thought about getting a college degree in computer networking? What are the tradeoffs between this and getting a certification? What is the state of network engineering at colleges—what do current students in network engineering programs think about their programs, and what they wish was there that isn’t? Rick Graziani joins Tom Ammon and Russ White in a broad ranging discussion on network engineering and college. Rick teaches network engineering full time in the Valley.

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The Hedge 88: Todd Palino and Getting Things Done

I often feel like I’m “behind” on what I need to get done. Being a bit metacognitive, however, I often find this feeling is more related to not organizing things well, which means I often feel like I have so much to do “right now” that I just don’t know what to do next—hence “processor thrashing on process scheduler.” Todd Palino joins this episode of the Hedge to talk about the “Getting Things Done” technique (or system) of, well … getting things done.

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Time and Mind Savers: RSS Feeds

I began writing this post just to remind readers this blog does have a number of RSS feeds—but then I thought … well, I probably need to explain why that piece of information is important.

The amount of writing, video, and audio being thrown at the average person today is astounding—so much so that, according to a lot of research, most people in the digital world have resorted to relying on social media as their primary source of news. Why do most people get their news from social media? I’m pretty convinced this is largely a matter of “it saves time.” The resulting feed might not be “perfect,” but it’s “close enough,” and no-one wants to spend time seeking out a wide variety of news sources so they will be better informed.

The problem, in this case, is that “close enough” is really a bad idea. We all tend to live in information bubbles of one form or another (although I’m fully convinced it’s much easier to live in a liberal/progressive bubble, being completely insulated from any news that doesn’t support your worldview, than it is to live in a conservative/traditional one). If you think about the role of social media and the news feed on social media services, this makes some kind of sense. The social media service tries to guess at what will keep you interested (engaged, and therefore coming back to the service), but at the same time each social media service also has a worldview they want to promote. The service largely attempts to both cater to what keeps you there and to pull you towards what the service, itself, believes.

The solution is stop getting your news from social media. period, full stop, end of sentence (although I’ve seen a recent paper indicating people find periods and other punctuation marks offensive in some way—when you find a period offensive, maybe it’s time to grow a little thicker skin).

So how should you get information instead? There are a lot of ways, from email based newsletters to watching television (please don’t, television turns everything into entertainment, including things that are not meant to entertain). My suggestion is, however, is through RSS feeds. Grab an account on Feedly or some other service, find the RSS feeds for the sites you find informative, and subscribe to their feeds. Some services have a learning mechanism that tries to accomplish the same thing as social media feeds—building intelligent filters to emphasize things you find important. I don’t tend to use these things; I have learned to just glance at the headline and first paragraph and make a quick decision about whether I think the post is worth reading.

Following RSS feeds can help you stop binging, jumping from place to place on a single site—essentially wasting time. It works against the mechanisms designers use to “increase engagement,” which often just means to consume more of your attention and time than you intended to give away. Following RSS feeds can also help you gain a broader view of the world if you intentionally subscribe to feeds from sites and people you don’t always agree with. It’s healthy to regularly read “the other side.” Following strong, well-written arguments from “the other side” will do much more for your mind than seeing just the facile, emotionally charged, straw-man arguments often presented (and allowed through the filters) on social media.

Further, services like feedly also allow you to follow lots of other things, including twitter accounts, youtube channels, and podcasts. I follow almost all podcasts through feedly, downloading the individual episodes I want to listen to, storing them in a cloud directory, and then deleting the files when I’m done. This gives me one list of things to listen to, rather than a huge playlist full of seemingly never-ending content.

All this said, this blog has a lot of different RSS feeds available. I don’t have a complete list, but these are a good place to start—

I keep these very same links on a page of RSS feeds you can find under the about menu. If you’re interested in the RSS feeds I follow, please reach out to me directly, as feedly no longer has any way to share your feeds other than pushing an OPML file (at least not that I can find).

Slow Learning and Range

Jack of all trades, master of none.

This singular saying—a misquote of Benjamin Franklin (more on this in a moment)—is the defining statement of our time. An alternative form might be the fox knows many small things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

The rules for success in the modern marketplace, particularly in the technical world, are simple: start early, focus on a single thing, and practice hard.

But when I look around, I find these rules rarely define actual success. Consider my life. I started out with three different interests, starting jazz piano lessons when I was twelve, continuing music through high school, college, and for many years after. At the same time, I was learning electronics—just about everyone in my family is in electronic engineering (or computers, when those came along) in one way or another.

I worked as on airfield electronics for a few years in the US Air Force (one of the reasons I tend to be calm is I’ve faced death up close and personal multiple times, an experience that tends to center your mind), including RADAR, radio, and instrument landing systems. Besides these two, I was highly interested in art and illustration, getting to the point of majoring in art in college for a short time, and making a living doing commercial illustration for a time.

You might notice that none of this really has a lot to do with computer networking. That’s the point.

I once thought I was a bit of an anomaly in this—in fact, I’m a bit of an anomaly throughout my life, including coming rather late to deep philosophy and theology (perhaps a bit too late!).

After reading Range by David Epstein, it turns out I’m wrong. I’m not the exception, I’m the rule. My case is so common as to be almost trivial.

Epstein not only destroys the common view—start early, stay focused, and practice hard—with reasoning, he also gives so many examples of people who have succeeded because they “wandered around” for many years before settling into a single “thing”—and sometimes just never “settling” throughout their entire lives. People who experience many different things, experimenting with ideas, careers, and paths, have what Epstein calls range.

He gives several reasons for people with range succeeding. They learn how to fail fast, unlike those who are focused on succeeding at a single thing—he calls this “too much grit.” They also learn to think outside the box—they are not restricted by the “accepted norms” within any field of study. It also turns out that slower learning is much more effective, as shown by multiple experiments.

There are three warnings about becoming a person with range, however—the fox rather than the hedgehog, so-to-speak. First, it takes a long time. Slow learning is, after all slow. Second, range works best in a world full of specialist—like the world we live in right now. In a world full of generalists, specialists are likely to succeed more often than generalist. What is different stands out (both in bad and good ways, by the way). Third, people with range do better with wicked problems—problems that are not easily solved with repetition and linear thought.

Of course, computer networks are clearly wicked problems.

That original quote that bothers me so much? Franklin did not say: jack of all trades, master of non. Instead, he said: jack of all trades, master of one. What a difference a single letter makes.

The Hedge 71: Nick Russo and Automating Productivity

When we think of automation—and more broadly tooling—we tend to think of automating the configuration, monitoring, and (possibly) the monitoring of a network. On the other hand, a friend once observed that when interviewing coders, the first thing he asked was about the tools they had developed and used for making themselves more efficient. This “self-tooling” process turns out to be important not just to be more efficient at work, but to use time more effectively in general. Join Nick Russo, Eyvonne Sharp, Tom Ammon, and Russ White as we discuss self-tooling.

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