I had a revelation the other day. I realized that the terms "programmer" and "employee" are inadequate to describe what I am. What I am is a product, and you are one too. If you want to develop your career, you need to approach your career as a product development problem.
You sell yourself for various things: money, status, the opportunity to work on interesting problems, good coworkers, etc. In this post I'll be referring to this as "getting paid", but please keep in mind that "getting paid" means more than just money.
Supply and Demand
Like any product, you have supply and demand. Your supply is what you can do for a company that hires you. It's your ability to make beautiful websites. It's your ability to scale a database. It's your ability to get the best work out of others. Your supply is the actual value you will provide to a company that hires you.
Your demand is what companies think you can do for them. Your demand is your perceived value by others. At the end of the day, you will be paid according to how you're perceived, not by the actual value you can produce. This is why so many 10x engineers don't actually get paid 10x -- they're not publicly perceived as 10x engineers so normal market forces are unable to bid up their value.
I see way too many people say to themselves "As long as I just put out quality work, I'll be taken care of." This is bullshit. This way of thinking prevents you from reaching your potential. It prevents you from being paid what you should be getting paid, and it prevents you from bettering your status. You cannot just focus on your supply. Supply is only 50% of the equation. You could be the greatest programmer to ever live, but if no one knows that, it won't help you. You are a product, and if you want to get paid appropriately, you have to work on your demand.
Influencing your demand is called "personal branding." It's marketing. Your actual value -- your supply -- is important to the extent that you can use it to raise your perceived value -- your demand.
Personal branding is inherently a public activity. Market forces rely on information being public. You want lots of people to believe that you can provide them with lots of value. This will lead to opportunities for you. Many of these opportunities will be out of the blue and unexpected.
There are lots of things you can do to increase your demand. Start a blog and promote it through Twitter and social news sites. Speak at conferences. Build social proof by building up your Twitter follower list. Participate in open source projects and write blog posts about the work you're doing on the projects.
I think open source is the best activity a programmer can engage in. It makes public your actual ability to solve problems and write code. You should strongly prefer to work at companies with a culture of making and contributing to open source projects, as that gives you the opportunity to market yourself.
I think the best personal branding activities are rooted in the actual value you can provide to others. There are other activities that can increase your demand, like taking credit for the work of others, that are flat out unethical. Don't be a product that's just smoke and mirrors.
Marketing yourself takes work, but it's something that gets easier with practice. It would be stupid to release a product to market without promoting and marketing it. Likewise, you should treat yourself as a product and market yourself as such. When you do, you can watch the forces of supply and demand work their magic.
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