Most months I get at least one email from an engineering leader who believes they’d be a candidate for significantly more desirable roles if their personal brand were just better known. Similarly, when funding is readily available during periods of tech industry expansion, many companies believe they are principally constrained by their hiring velocity–if their engineering organization’s brand was just a bit better, they believe they’d be hiring much faster.
Writing a great deal online, and working at companies during periods when they invested heavily in their external engineering brand, I’ve seen the opportunities and limitations of personal and organizational brand building. From those experiences, I’ve come to believe that the value of brand building is overemphasized, but that the impact of enhancing prestige is underrated, and that there’s a relatively straightforward playbook to increase your personal and organizational prestige.
In this post, we’ll work through these topics in building eng org and personal prestige:
- The distinctions between building prestige, building brand, and building an audience
- Deciding whether it’s valuable to build your personal and engineering brands
- The playbook to manufacture prestige with a small quantity of high-quality content
- Pitfalls of measuring prestige, and what to measure instead
After reading, you’ll be equipped to decide whether to invest into these areas for yourself or your engineering organization, and a clear path forward.
This is an unedited chapter from O’Reilly’s The Engineering Executive’s Primer.
Engineering brand versus. external communication
Sometimes you’ll hear an argument that personal brand is important for engineering executives because they play an important role in external communication, but in practice that’s fairly uncommon. Few companies lean heavily on their engineering executives for external communication. When this does happen, it’s generally done by a founding CTO, such as Honeycomb’s Charity Majors, who has been very successful in using her considerable reach to create visibility for the company. You’ll rarely see an external CTO hired to take on that sort of role, and there are even fewer examples of individuals succeeding as an external CTO hired into such a role.
After raising their Series A or Series B, most companies bring in specialists to lead external communication roles. If they’re trying to generate more marketing qualified leads, then they’ll likely want Marketing to lead that. If they’re trying to increase product sign ups, then they’ll likely want either Developer Relations or Growth teams to own that.
Engineering brand is a bit different, as it’s generally viewed as a priority because of its impact on Engineering hiring, rather than being a central business function. In such cases, efforts are usually steered from within Engineering itself. Things get a bit messier at companies that sell to developers, and these efforts might fall anywhere within Engineering or Marketing at such companies.
Brand versus prestige
Brand as a deliberately crafted, sustained narrative that is actively known about you. You don’t have to research Google engineering to have an opinion about Google engineering. In your career and as an engineering leader, you will likely be given the advice that it’s very important to build a brand.
If you participate frequently in social media, it’s easy to get sucked into its reality distortion field. When you spend a lot of time in a given online community, being well-known in that community feels equivalent to professional credibility. However, my experience is that 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. Maybe they have an Instagram account, but it focuses on their family and non-professional interests.
Enough folks find this counter-intuitive that I’ll emphasize this theme a bit. The majority of successful executives I’ve worked with don’t write online. They won’t post on Twitter or Mastodon. They haven’t written a book. They don’t speak at conferences. They don’t have a YouTube channel. They don’t stream on Twitch. In your engineering leadership career, you will at times be immersed in the message that you need to be creating content to be successful, but there’s abundant evidence to the contrary. You absolutely don’t have to do this sort of thing.
Similarly, most Engineering organizations spend little time developing their external brand, and are not externally well-known. For every Meta Engineering blog or Netflix Engineering blog, you’ll find hundreds of engineering organizations with limited public visibility around their work. Many of those silent organizations are doing very interesting work, they just don’t spend much time talking about it publicly. You can, without a doubt, be a successful engineering organization without ever doing any external communication to build your brand.
Prestige is the passive-awareness counterpart to brand. Rather than being what someone actively knows about you, it’s what someone can easily discover about you if they look for it. Many interviewers won’t know anything about me, but a few minutes of research will find my writing, conference talks, and work history.
You can build prestige by attending a well-respected university, joining a well-known company, or giving a recorded conference. Companies can build prestige by focusing on a problem that’s immediately attractive to software engineers, finding an attractive way to approach that problem, or retaining prestigious employees. More engineers are interested in working on self-driving cars than on automating personal taxes. If your company does work on automating personal taxes, engineers would certainly be more interested in fully automating that process than streamlining back office processes for a team of accountants.
While many successful engineering leaders and engineering organizations don’t have much of a brand, most are prestigious in one way or another. Prestige is a universal lubricant. It opens the door to taking senior roles and recruiting senior candidates. It creates edges in your network graph that open doors across the industry.
Is building prestige worthwhile for you?
Here are some questions to consider when evaluating whether to invest more time into building prestige:
- Are you able to start the interview process for jobs you’re interested in? (Not necessarily receive an offer, but start the process.)
- Is an executive recruiter able to match you with interesting roles? (Particularly roles that are more complex or desirable than your current role.)
- Are you able to hire senior candidates to work in your organization? (Particularly those with more applicable experience than you.)
- Does your team seek you out for career advice and advice beyond the immediate scope of their current work? (Not just your direct reports, but more widely.)
- Is your network expanding by default, allowing you to reach out further and to more senior individuals? (Prestige expands its reach by default, as those you already know go into more senior roles.)
If you answer “yes” to most of those questions, then I wouldn’t invest much additional energy here. On the other hand, if you answered no to many of those questions, if you didn’t attend a prestigious university, work at a prestigious company, or select a core business space that software engineers are interested in, then it’s worthwhile to learn how to manufacture prestige.
Manufacture prestige with infrequent, high-quality content
In my experience, engineers confronted with a new problem often leap to creating a system to solve that problem rather than addressing it directly. I’ve found this particularly true when engineers approach a problem domain they don’t yet understand well, including building prestige.
For example, when an organization decides to invest into its engineering brand, the initial plan will often focus on project execution. It’ll include a goal for publishing frequency, ensuring content is representationally accurate across different engineering sub-domains, and how to incentivize participants to contribute. If you follow the project plan carefully, you will technically have built an engineering brand, but my experience is that it’ll be both more work and less effective than a less systematic approach.
Prestige is an ambient, positive familiarity. This doesn’t require an organizational program or a strict content calendar, rather it depends on building awareness of a small amount of noteworthy accomplishments. The most effective approach I’ve seen is doing a small amount of writing or public speaking, and then ensuring that work is discoverable.
The steps to that approach are:
Identify a timeless topic where you have a meaningful perspective, and have an atypical perspective. You’re looking for topics where your writing can remain relevant for decades, and perspectives that demonstrate depth rather than chase controversy. Be mindful that atypical doesn’t mean controversial, it’s usually introducing an additional layer of detail to a low nuance debate.
For a few example topics, consider Productivity in the age of hypergrowth, where I argued that effective onboarding was the key constraint in hypergrowth companies rather than hiring. Or in _Migrations,_where I argued that the value of technical platforms should be foremost evaluated through migration cost rather than the capabilities of the technical platform. Both of these topics remain relevant today, and will hopefully remain relevant for much longer.
Pick a format that feels the most comfortable for you, typically this is either a blog post or a conference talk. The ideal format is something that you’re excited about, you can iterate on the content until it’s ready for release, it’s small enough that you can iterate quickly, and it generates a permanent digital artifact (e.g. a video or piece of writing).
I recommend avoiding books and podcasts in this step. Podcasts are hard to iterate on, as you generally get one take plus whatever you can fix in editing. Books are a difficult format to learn in, as iterating on the content can consume a great deal of time.
Once you’ve picked a format, create the content! Go into this process assuming that you will throw away two or three drafts. Get early feedback, and get that feedback from folks who are experienced in that format: everyone has an opinion on what good content looks like, but not all opinions are equally valuable.
Your content is done when readers can accurately identify your key insight and enjoy it enough to read or listen to its entirety. It’s a good sign if some readers disagree with you: anything interesting will generate some disagreement.
Develop an explicit distribution plan to share your content. The simplest effective distribution plan is coordinating with a few more visible friends to share your article online: ten people committing to share your article online around the same time is a fine distribution plan.
Make it easy for interested parties to discover what you’ve written in the future by collecting them on a personal website and your various presences online (e.g. LinkedIn).
Repeat this process two or three times over the next several years.
You’re done! Many more folks will have ambient, positive awareness of you, and whenever you interview for a role or show up as a hiring manager, it will be easy to discover this previous content that reflects positively upon you. If you enjoyed the process, you can do more, but you don’t need to spend more time on this unless you particularly enjoy it.
This approach works equally well for building your company’s engineering brand as it does for building your personal brand as an executive. In both cases, a small amount of positive, thoughtful content will go further than a larger volume of lesser content, and the short-term distribution benefits of engaging in controversy is at odds with your goal of building prestige.
If this advice feels counterintuitive–if it feels too easy–it’s likely because you’re applying advice for building a brand or an audience to the rather different topic of building prestige. To build a brand that you measure through an audience, consistency is valuable, and volume does matter. Prestige doesn’t need all that, just easily discoverable content that paints a positive connotation.
Does anyone follow this advice?
Viewing myself through this lens, I’ve written hundreds of posts, but probably only about four have generated significant prestige: Migrations, A forty-year career, Sizing engineering teams, and Productivity in the age of hypergrowth. I’d very likely be equally prestigious if I’d simply written those four without the surrounding six hundred.
Going beyond my writing, examples of others who’ve created significant prestige from a narrow slice of their visible work:
Certainly some of these folks are written or spoken widely, but they could have accomplished their prestige-related goals without doing so.
Measuring prestige is a minefield
All corporate initiatives demand a metric to measure their outcomes, which brings us to the messy topic of measuring prestige. I recommend making a small, timeboxed time investment, tracking how often content comes up in hiring processes (both as a candidate and as a hirer), and avoiding spending any more time on measurement.
There are several measures I specifically recommend avoiding:
- Pageviews are usually the easiest measure to instrument, but establish the wrong incentives. This is because it’s much easier to drive pageviews by being controversial than by being thoughtful, but controversy reduces prestige rather than enhancing it. Pageviews also incentivize selecting large audiences (“early-career software engineers”) over influential audiences (“technology executives”), whereas the influential audiences will become increasingly important to your career and hiring priorities as you get further into your career.
- Social media followers are a good measure of reach. Reach is part of distribution, and distribution is an important part of building prestige, so this is a useful measure, but again suffers from the same issues of incentives as measuring pageviews. There are many ways to build social media reach that are at odds with building prestige, particularly anchoring on controversy, which makes this a poor measure.
- If you’re selling your content as a book or course, then measuring sales is attractive. Unfortunately, once again the correlation with prestige is questionable. Particularly if this is your only content, it’s likely that selling it will reduce your reach.
- Volume of writing is also tempting, but this will orient you towards building an audience rather than building prestige. There’s certainly nothing wrong with writing a lot, but it’s an inefficient route towards prestige.
If you build out a heavy investment into your brand, it’s unavoidable that you’ll end up measuring the above measures, but it’s very unlikely that this measurement will be useful to you. You can fight that by looking for better measurables, but I’ve found it’s much easier to address that friction by limiting yourself to a modest investment, and channeling the saved energy towards something more directly useful to your business or career.
In this piece, you learned how to build prestige for yourself as an executive, and your engineering organization as an employer. You also spent time on the distinction between building prestige and building an audience, and why it’s more efficient to prioritize prestige unless you’re selling directly to software engineers. You further spent time on why most measurements will steer you away from your goal, which should encourage you to timebox your investment rather than invest more heavily into measurement.
If you only take one idea away, it’s that you should be lightly skeptical of following advice and patterns from the companies and executives around you. Companies and individuals play many different games when they create and distribute content online, and the rules and values conflict across many of those games. Make sure you know what game you are playing, and why you’re playing it.