Self Investment

04 March 2007


salt.jpgI've been having the same conversation repeatedly over the past few weeks, with several of my friends. I'm tired of having the conversation, so I'm now going to sum it up with a URL I can paste in place of it.

I know a lot of really good guys. Really excellent engineers who have that spark, that passion, that inquisitiveness that you want to have on your team. Unfortunately, it's difficult for potential employers or their recruiters to see and understand these from a resume and a cover letter. Especially when the job has been posted on Craigslist, a magnet for crap.

How does an engineer stand out and differentiate himself?

Ultimately, you need to build a reputation so that you can stop having to submit resumes for jobs. When you are judged by a resume, there is a common set of criteria all other candidates are also being judged by.

Look! Todd has 8 years of experience with SQLSmasher 6000, while Jerry only has 4.

Instead being one-of-many who satisfies some matrix of skills and experience to varying degrees, you need to build a monopoly. A monopoly of yourself.

First, take a stand. Some stand. Any stand. Just stand for something. Preferably something you actually believe, else you won't get all that far. But none-the-less, have an opinion. People without opinions end up as laborers. That's not what you want. You don't have to become a frothing dogmatic zealot. But know what you like and know what you don't.

Next, do something with that opinion. Taking a stand isn't enough if you end up just sitting on your ass.

You may be looking for a job, but ultimately you're an entrepreneur. You're building the business of you. You're basically asking an employer to invest your salary into 100% of your intellectual equity. You obviously want a pretty high pre-money valuation.

Now, maybe if you were a traditional entrepreneur, you'd incorporate, invest some time and probably a lot of money, and create something you want to sell. Problem is, perhaps you don't have the money to invest. Or the time and expertise to sell something.

You move on to employment entrepreneurship. You invest in yourself by increasing your valuation, but without the same costs as actually starting your own company.

Opensource allows you to invest merely time.

You have a few options, each with varying results.

  1. Join a project

You can join an existing project. That means you have to use it. You have to figure out how it's built, what the architecture is. Then you have to prove to the current contributors and leads that you actually honestly do understand all that you have learned. And that you can turn that knowledge into useful improvements to the project.

That sounds like a lot of work. And it is. But do it long enough on the right projects, and you'll begin to trade more and more on your reputation instead of your resume. It mostly just takes perseverance, but it'll ultimately pay off in the end.

  1. Start a project

Hey, you're a smart cookie. Why not just start your own project? You can do that. And your project might do great and lead to great things. Or maybe it'll get lost in the sea of projects that float around. It's a risk. One way to reduce the risk, you would think, would be to simply do your own version of an existing project. Yet-another SOAP framework. Yet-another web presentation framework. That works. Sometimes.

To stand out in the sea of projects, it's better to think of some small slice of the world that hasn't been solved before. Targeted tactical projects that solve specific problems. You'll have the full attention of this possibly small, unserved community. You can shine and delight them with an elegant solution. Or not. It's a risk.

If you start a small project, manage the scope of it, and apply some dedication, you can ship something reasonable in 6 months. That's a lot quicker than learning an existing project, convincing them you're not a dud, and making a meaningful contribution.

Either route you chose, you ultimately go beyond your resume to your reputation. You're no longer just a SOAP developer. Instead, you end up being someone like Dan "Mr. XFire" Diephouse, or Brian "Mr. Too Many To List" McCallister. You are a unique brand over which you have the monopoly. There's only one supplier of you in this world.

Ultimately, an employer decides they don't want just any engineer with the appropriate skills listed on their resume. They want you.

Don't be a commodity. Invest in yourself.