January 30, 2021.
In a one-on-one before the holidays, a coworker expressed an interest in being more influential outside of the company and wanted my advice. There’s a similar email I get semi-regularly asking whether folks looking to advance their career should start blogging, write a book, or whatnot.
Although few folks meaningfully influence the industry through content creation, a vast number of folks further their careers by creating content. Create a small number of meaningful pieces, develop a distribution plan for each piece, keep doing it until a piece gets lucky with distribution, then stop; that’s all you need to do for job searches and hiring to be a bit easier.
If your goal goes further than that, then I have some advice.
What is a tech influencer? Yeah, I’m not really sure. I think a lot of people would use the term to describe someone well known who talks about tech, and that seems like a reasonable definition. In this case, I’m thinking of it as someone who tries to shift industry practice or thinking on a given topic. For example, Tanya Reilly on Being Glue, Cindy Sridharan on Testing in Production, or Dan Luu on Hiring and the market for lemons.
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. Maybe they have an Instagram account, but it focuses on their family and non-professional interests.
Further, the majority of successful folks I’ve worked with don’t write online. 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. If you fall into a community that’s heavily online, you will be immersed in the message that you need to be creating content online to be successful, but that’s just not true. You absolutely don’t have to do this sort of thing.
I believe that you'll be more influential by channeling your energy into long-lived and semi-private communities (learning circles, meetups, etc) instead of publicly.
Being well-known online can be bad. For every person I know who has improved their career prospects by being well-known online, I know several who experience harassment or who have harmed their professional prospects. Visibility can go wrong in more ways than it can go right. The internet is a very public space.
Most successful folks are prestigious in some way. For folks who don’t graduate from a well-known university, I believe manufacturing prestige is an important tool for a successful career. Prestige is a universal lubricant. It makes you a more compelling candidate. It helps you build out a network of folks willing and able to help you. It opens the door to senior roles at many companies. You can do all of those things with less prestige, but it’s always easier with more.
Content creation is an effective way to create prestige. The most effective strategy to manufacture prestige is to spend time at a couple of prestigious companies, but creating content online is more accessible to many folks than joining a FAANG company. You can create content from Danville, Kentucky where I started writing, or from 飛騨市岐阜県 where I wrote while teaching English.
It’s hard to measure influence. If you have a concrete goal around influence, then you’re very likely to accomplish your goal, so long as you keep working at it for a decade or two. If you don’t have a clear goal, then you’re going to keep striving endlessly and to spend a lot of time feeling bad about your lack of progress.
Pageviews are a common measure of influence, but they’re a pretty bad one. It’s far easier to be controversial than to be influential, and while they’re related concepts, they’re very much different. Pageviews also incentivize selecting large audiences (“early-career software engineers”) over influential audiences (“technology executives”).
Social media followers are a good measure of reach. Reach is part of distribution, and distribution is a big part of influence, so this is probably a useful measure of influence, but again suffers from the challenges that plague pageviews. Most influential folks spend some time early on directly developing their followership, but that seems to be one particular phase of influence, not something that folks continue to focus on, and many folks develop their audiences in ways that are distinct from how they later hope to be influential.
Book or dollar sales are also tempting for folks since they’re easily quantifiable, but they’re not a particularly effective measure of influence from my perspective. Who reads the book and whether the book changes their behavior matters much more, and is very hard to measure.
Volume of writing is also tempting, but anyone can write a lot without that writing have much impact. There are a lot of LiveJournals out there to testify to that fact. Conversely, I think a lot about Being Glue as an important post, and its impact stands on its own without an ocean of related posts written around it.
Inbound conversations is a measure that I find useful. How many folks reach out for advice or perspective from you? To some extent, this could also mean your writing is confusing, but my general experience is that folks give up on reading confusing things and only reach out about things they’re moved by (or strongly disagree with, circling back to the previous point on controversy).
Conference or podcast invitations from folks seeking you to participate in their event probably is a useful measure of influence, as folks running podcasts get good at identifying guests who will engage their audience. There is a broader category of similar requests: book proposals, angel investing, mentorship requests, etc.
Personally, I set goals around my writing habit, which is the thing that I want to focus my energy towards. For example, in 2018, I set a goal to publish one post every month, which was helpful “influence funnel metric” for me. I don’t think this invalidates my advice that you should know how you’re measuring this, even if the best you can do is to acknowledge that you’re not really sure what you’re trying to accomplish–that’s useful to say out loud.
A little goes a long way. I write a lot because I write to process ideas and free up space in my head. I don’t write a lot because it’s an effective way to be influential. I don’t even necessarily think writing a lot is a good way to become a better writer–I play at writing rather than practicing it. If your goal is to be influential online, don’t pattern match on a prolific content creator.
If you want to reap the benefits of influence, you don’t need to create a lot of content. Just create a few great things. You could start a Substack and end up writing a weekly post for years and never accomplish the impact of one great piece. For one example, consider Patrick McKenzie’s Salary Negotiation piece. I suspect vastly more folks can name that one piece from Patrick than can name two pieces from Patrick, but that one piece alone has influenced the industry in an important way. I’ve written hundreds of posts, but only flagged about twenty of them as influential (for a somewhat generous definition of influential–really it just means I like the piece), and by a stricter definition maybe only Migrations, A forty-year career, Sizing engineering teams, and Productivity in the age of hypergrowth–roughly a 1:150 ratio of posts to influential posts.
Honestly, I still can’t guess which posts will be influential, but I can guess which posts have no chance of being influential, and I think most authors can self-edit to that extent as well. If your goal is to be influential, then distinguish between writing for practice and writing for influence, and don’t mix the two.
Experiment across mediums. There are a lot of opinions about what kind of medium folks should work in. Is writing better than speaking? What about keynoting at a big conference? Should I do a Substack or a blog? A self-hosted blog or Medium? What about streaming on Twitch? Speaking at conferences or creating YouTube videos of the same content? Should I write a book?
My advice is to find ways to experiment with all the mediums and figure out what you enjoy. Spend enough time at each to develop your skills somewhat. It’s valuable to you to have a few longer clips of you speaking online. It’s valuable to have a few pieces of your writing in a published book or magazine.
There are diminishing gains to having many published pieces or many talks online unless you have directly related professional goals (e.g., to support yourself financially from public speaking or publishing your writing). Unless it’s something you love doing, look at it as a self-development challenge, and then move on to something else afterward.
Distribution matters at least as much as content quality. Even if you create something amazing, it won’t be influential if folks don’t engage with it. The first part of engaging with something is discovering it, and distribution is a huge part of that. A coworker once told me, “Books are sold rather than bought.” That line of reasoning applies to most writing online.
Develop a distribution plan for your best content. If you want something you’ve written to be influential, you should develop a clear distribution plan for it. Even with a distribution plan, what you’ve written may not get much traction, but without one it’s quite unlikely. The simplest effective distribution plan is coordinating with a few more visible friends to share your article. If you get ten people to commit to sharing your article around the same time, that’s honestly a good enough distribution plan for a snappy piece of content.
There’s an entire distribution ecosystem. If you create and distribute enough content, you’ll start to find there’s a fairly complex ecosystem of content distribution. There are secret chat rooms where social news voting rings promote content onto Reddit or Hackernews. There are weekly “best links” mailing lists that distribute new content. As a primary content creator, as opposed to these various forms of secondary content creation (e.g. “best links” lists), your interests are well-aligned with the ecosystem, and you can mostly ignore it.
In that case, occasionally something good and unexpected will happen, but mostly it won’t. If you invest a lot of energy into that ecosystem, you’ll end up spending most of your time on the distribution of other folks content, which is somewhat adjacent to your original goal of influencing your industry.
Building distribution requires quantity and consistency. Nurturing most distribution channels requires generating an ongoing volume of work. Mailing lists, RSS feeds, social media—these all depend on consistent creating appealing content or being a noteworthy individual in some regard. You can’t create major distribution with infrequent, one-off content, which is why many folks end up thinking they need to focus on distribution in order to become influential.
Distribution is always a problem, but it’s never the only problem. A lot of folks get fixated on distribution as the sole explanation for why their work isn’t having the sort of impact they believe it should. You may need to edit your piece more. It might be boring. A lot of stuff that you write has been said before, and might not land effectively. Thought leadership is cyclical, with various viewpoints become popular and unpopular before switching a few years later, and your piece may be out of sync with current thinking.
Corollary: content is always a problem, but it’s never the only problem. People often get caught up on the idea that everything’s already been said. I’ve even chatted with some folks who were upset that someone else wrote a very similar post to one of their own. If you write something very similar to another recent post, you will likely get less traction, but that’s it. You will find some folks who get upset about stuff like this, but I think it’s fairly unrealistic and self-important to assume folks should check if others have written on a topic before writing on it.
If you learned from a specific post on a topic, you should, of course, acknowledge it.
You can borrow distribution. If your goal is to be infrequently influential, then you don’t really need to bother developing your own distribution channels. Instead, just find folks who like you and ride on their distribution channels. Write a post on their blog, publish to their mailing list, speak at their conference, contribute to their book, or whatever. Prolific creators generally aren’t willing to let you publish a lot of content through their distribution (feels like getting taken advantage of), but they’re usually glad to help an irregular creator get visibility if they write something high-quality (solidifies them as a discoverer of a quality creator).
The more content that you have to deliver, the less you’ll be able to borrow distribution to deliver it. Fortunately, this works out pretty well: if you have enough content then you can develop your own distribution. If you don’t have enough content, you can borrow someone else’s.
My last piece of advice is: don’t assume everyone’s playing the same game. One way that folks get into trouble in creating content is that they assume everyone is playing the game that they are playing and ought to be playing by their rules. In practice, folks are playing many different games when they create and distribute content online, and the rules and values conflict. Many folks are focused on creating visibility for themselves, and assume others are doing the same. Many other folks are heavily financially motivated, trying to make a living by selling their content. Others make their living distributing others’ content, occasionally for direct compensation but usually for indirect compensation (e.g., podcast hosts and guests: a small percentage of guests do get paid for a small percentage of podcasts, but most podcasts don’t pay any guests and even for podcasts that do pay guests, most guests are not paid).
Be mindful of your values, and the values of others!