Being Yourself On The Internet

being yourself on the internet

I’m Cate, I work for Google as a Software Engineer (on mobile Gmail). For fun, I’m a qualified ski instructor and I love to kickbox. I was the Instigator of Awesome at Awesome Ottawa, and I do various things around getting more women into CompSci.

I have a BSc from the University of Edinburgh and some portion of a Masters from the University of Ottawa. I’ve taught programming and developed programming curricula in the UK, US, China and Canada. I was also in IBM’s Extreme Blue program. Coming out this year, I have an academic paper, an educational paper, and an industrial paper.

Credit: xkcd

I got hired by Google because I studied really hard and rocked my interviews. It may be different if you come in not as a new grad, but for me my “personal brand” was negligible in getting the job. Stuff that I’d worked on and written about was a conversation starter for two interviewers (one each round) but that was really the extent of it.

Where it made a difference, is after I started. Perhaps because I’m very open about my research and my interests on my blog, I was connected with someone working on an amazing project when I was training in Mountain View, and my first week in Canada it was suggested I move to that project (which I will do at the end of the month). I also connected with someone at Google whose blog I follow (Jenny Blake – she writes Life After College and has a book of the same name coming out – Amazon) which was great, I just pinged her on Twitter and we had coffee. I think because I’ve been writing about women in tech and posting talks that I give etc on my website, that made it easier for me to get involved in outreach stuff.

And, setting up a team-mate on a date via Twitter certainly piqued the interest of my colleagues! So far it’s going well, although I have no plans to set up an online dating service in my 20% time.

Credit: xkcd

I don’t really like the term “personal branding” – for me, I’m really just myself, only on the internet – which allows me to scale in terms of the volume of interactions. I gave a talk to less than 20 people, but it got posted on Geek Feminism which really increased the reach and that was amazing. Being from the UK and having travelled about a bit, Twitter and my blog help me create, build and maintain more remote relationships.

So, I said that my “personal brand” didn’t help me get the job, although to be fair it has resulted in people pinging me with interview offers, which I haven’t taken up. Actually, I think that depends how you look at it. Does the number of results you get when you search for me help? No. But here’s what did:

  • Blogging has been tremendously helpful for improving my writing and general communication skills. The guys who started Stack Overflow (Joel on Software/Joel Spolsky and Coding Horror/Jeff Atwood) really think that in order to be a good software engineer you have to be a good writer and I have really come to see their point.
  • Writing something also serves to improve my own understanding of it. I wrote up interesting pieces of assignments when I was at school, now I try and write up the books I read.
  • I doubt I would have put myself forward for the Holiday Science Lecture at UO if I hadn’t been blogging, which improved my public speaking no end. Thoughts turn into blog posts which turn into talks, and putting all the talks I give on my blog improves the talk itself (more time thinking about it, feedback), and increases it’s reach.
  • Doing interesting things makes it easier to have interesting conversations with people. My blog and Twitter have resulted in a number of great experiences. and, having moved to a new city the ease of Twitter for connecting with new people has been really helpful.
  • Twitter and my RSS reader makes me better informed – I have not found another medium through which I can get such diverse and timely information.

Some advice for getting started on the “virtual” you

Start

Credit: xkcd

This can seem like the hardest part – and I know because I’m trying to start my internal blog right now and I’m completely overwhelmed by what to write. One think I suggest to people thinking of starting up a blog is to try and write 4-8 things and schedule them – that’s your first month’s content.

Keep going

Credit: xkcd

At first Twitter seems like talking to yourself in public. A blog is worse, because the form is longer! I was getting enough out of it that it was worth writing for myself, but now I have a good amount of subscribers and get comments on about half of my posts. I think the thing is to give yourself a realistic schedule and stick to it. I often schedule blog posts in advance, and at the moment I aim for about two posts a week. I also started using Twitter, and eventually had things to say that required more than 140 characters – that’s when I started blogging.

It’s a conversation

Credit: xkcd

I confess – I am a terrible lurker when it comes to blogs. I love Google reader because it’s so fast and I consume massive amounts of content through it – but I don’t click through enough to comment. When it comes to your blog, no-one knows how much you interact with other people’s, but on Twitter the people who are only in it for self-promotion are really, really obvious.

I actually schedule some of my Twitter feed because I tend to consume large amounts of information in one go and I don’t want it to go out all at once and drown people’s streams. For me, Twitter is 95% trying to share stuff that’s interesting and/or informative, and if someone has a question or something worth commenting on, I’ll respond to it. The other 5% is sharing my own blogposts and asking questions myself.

Don’t dismiss other forms

Credit: xkcd

I pinged Jon Skeet – fellow Googler, C# Evil Genius, and #1 on Stack Overflow to ask him about how he built his personal brand. In large part he’s used forums and question answering sites like Stack Overflow (which did help him get a book deal, as well as a job at Google). For me, blog and Twitter has worked to build my presence and share what I’m interested in, but depending what you’re interested in it’s not necessarily the best format.

Be human

Credit: xkcd

I think we all have those “friends” on Facebook who are constantly posting long angsty moans about their life. It’s a primary reason why I rarely use Facebook. People write long angsty blog posts as well, and on Twitter some people I know (and like) in person share such detail about their life that I’ve actually started to dislike them. I’m going to say what everyone says – don’t share too much, don’t expect other people to be interested in every minute detail of your life. But, don’t be a robot – be a human. I balance the stuff I share with bits of my day that I hope are amusing, often stuff that my teammates say to me, for example on my tea consumption, “is there any blood left in your anti-oxidant stream?”, or after starting two small toaster fires that I’m measuring success in a commits to fires ratio. It’s the same on my blog – I write about failing, because I learn so much from it. And there’s a balance, because I don’t want to come across as some kind of fembot, but nor do I want to moan. But sharing my human failures, for example when I dropped out of grad school, revealed so much warmth and such great advice from my audience.

Advice from other people

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/fillenumerique/status/36051151917035520″]

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/jonskeet/status/36088674739294208″]

Some General Advice

1. Give Yourself Permission.

Credit: xkcd

Don’t wait for someone to say, “It’s time for you to have a blog. You have something to say” – I mean, I can tell you that right now, but really you have to convince yourself and believe that you can write something worth sharing, first.

I think this applies to everything. Don’t wait for people to tell you what you get to do, go out and make things happen. (And read What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, which is where this advice comes from)

2. Fail.

Credit: xkcd

You will write things that no-one will comment on. You may even write things that no-one reads. It’s demoralizing. What I did, was that I got enough out of writing for me that kept me going when no-one was reading, and it was a shock when people started commenting, and emailing me, and sharing what I’d written on Twitter.

Stop caring that no-one will read what you have to say and write it anyway. Write something stupid, and learn to make a better argument next time. Stop worrying about failing and go ahead and fail – it’s not as bad as you imagine, I promise. Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself and succeed, and always you can learn something.

Again, this applies to any number of things. One of the things I love about working at Google is that we embrace failure as a learning experience. We set impossible goals, and fail to reach them – but that’s OK because “Achieving 65% of the impossible is better than 100% of the ordinary” (see this post by Don Dodge). I like that, I am always setting myself impossible goals, I don’t think I know how not to do that. And so, I’m always failing. But what that means is that I’m always learning, and making progress little by little on my impossible goals.

3. Don’t Expect to Learn Everything in School.

Credit: xkcd

Unfortunately, most professors aren’t on Twitter and don’t blog. They may not get what you’re doing and they are probably not going to grade you on it. You have to figure it out, mostly by yourself. Find yourself a network of interesting people on Twitter, and find yourself some interesting blogs to read. Interact with the people you find.

Software development moves fast. At the moment, I code mostly in Javascript and do some CSS – neither of these are things I learned in school. To stay current in our field, we have to keep learning and investing time in personal development. You probably won’t learn how to write a great blog in school. But you also probably won’t learn a fraction of what you need to be a great software engineer, either. The best thing you can learn, is how to keep learning, and teaching yourself, and finding resources that help you progress.

@catehstn

http://accidentallyincode.com

Good luck!

12 Thoughts

  1. Anonymous says:

    I totally agree with your comment on blogging even when you think no one will read it. I have put off writing a specific blog post for a really long time, cause no one would appreciate it. When i did finally get it out there it didn’t make the huge splash I hoped it would. However the most important thing is that it has given me confidence to write more. I am more proud of that post than most I have written in the past 6 months!

    Loved the article.

  2. Kim Moir says:

    Great post! I agree completely that blogging improves your communication skills. I also find that it’s difficult to predict what posts will generate the most traffic. I use xkcd on my blog quite frequently but you have taken it to a new level – so impressive!

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks Kim! I was presenting to compsci students, so I geeked out on xkcd. Unsure about whether it’s a great way to present as it’s easy to get distracted and read the comics, and they are less immediately evocative of the point I’m trying to make… but that there is an xkcd comic for every occasion makes me very happy.

  3. Meggin Kearney says:

    I see blogging like all forms of writing – the most important aspect to get right in your head (and follow through on in your blog) is your audience and purpose. You need to have an idea of who is mostly going to read this blog, and for what purpose.

    My husband does not read my blog. He read a couple of entries, and he moaned and complained. But I warned him – he does not fit into my audience profile.

    The purpose of my blog is to come to grip with the concept of grey, where things aren’t always black and white. This is essential to the characters I am trying to develop in my fictional writing. My audience is mostly close friends and family – I occasional send on my blog to people who ask, but mostly I stick to the literary buffs who know what I am trying to do.

    I would say that there are all sorts of ranges of audience and purpose – getting this right is essential to the sustainability and success of a blog.

    • Meggin Kearney says:

      Forgot to mention in my last comment – I love the encouragement to fail. It isn’t easy writing in this space – you are sort of talking to yourself, sort of talking to a small group of people (some you know or stragglers you pick up along the way), and you are sort of talking to some unknowns who find you by some strange encounter.

      Sometimes the boundaries aren’t clear – but this is one of the coolest parts about blogging. You can really get a feel for what makes people react, what makes people keep reading, what makes people go away and not look at you for weeks.

      • Anonymous says:

        Thanks. I’m a little obsessed with failing, it’s often the most productive thing I do and I don’t think people in general are open enough about failure and what they learn from it. It’s also, what’s your metric of success when it comes to blogging? Number of comments? Number of subscribers? Number of ad clicks? The things that make me feel like this is worth doing are not so easily quantifiable – really insightful comments, or charming emails, or lovely tweets.

        BTW – looks like I’ll be back in California at the end of March. Hopefully we can hang out this time!

    • Anonymous says:

      I don’t think I’ve ever known who my audience is, I’ve always just written for myself – what I find interesting. I worry this makes it less coherent – this week I have this post about using social media, and scheduled others: on programming and visualization, and a more personal development one. There’s always the option to maintain multiple blogs but that increases the overhead and I’d have weeks when I only wrote on one and another went abandoned.

      I’m still working it out, maybe it’s less intimidating when you don’t know who your audience is 😉

      I totally loved your post on Egypt btw.

      • Meggin Kearney says:

        You totally have an audience and a purpose. Here’s my meek attempt to label (as if labels are required).

        Your audience are people looking for a level of engagement that is less egocentric than many bloggers, but one that still has an element of human. We are attracted to internet communication somewhat between the social and the personal. It is a boundary tricky to walk along, but quite interesting when done successfully, as you are doing in your blog.

        Your purpose is to make sense of this duo desire within yourself – to explore the work that you do in the context of the person that you are. This may seem broad in context, but it is quite specific in style and tone.

        Keeps me reading anyway.

        • Anonymous says:

          Thanks Meggin 🙂 I’m pretty different from my mentor Sacha (livinganawesomelife.com) but the whole theme of exploring life and sharing as much as possible resonates with me so that is what I try to do too.

          As usual, you’re more eloquent than I am 😉

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