Creating and Taking Ownership of Your Personal Brand

Photo by Jeff Stvan

“Iron Sky” by Jeff Stvan

In the beginning

When I began programming it was a solitary pursuit. I didn’t connect with any other hobbyist or professional programmers for several years until my first real job. At that same time I bought this domain without an idea of what I was going to do with it. I remember the desire to claim a space online, and to create a personal presence. This wasn’t my first domain, and I regret not continuing the pay for my registration of older domains. I remember someone I didn’t know well coming up to me in high school and asking why my site wasn’t live anymore. At that point I realized I could have an effect on someone without ever knowing them; simply by publishing my own presence online. My personal brand uses my own name: Barrett Sonntag.

Our modern development space is an open book

During this time Linux was fighting for enterprise respect while being created by countless programmers from all across the globe for the love of creation. I watched this open source software movement being vilified and fought. Any developer today can look around, look at GitHub, and see just how much benefit open source software has brought to our chosen profession. Everything in GitHub is tracked, and everything has a unique name on it. That unique name links to a page which lists all of their contributions, which languages they use, and which projects they contribute too. With just a little searching you can create a complete picture of a programmers activity online. Even the lack of activity is knowledge that asks questions. I can’t share the code for private projects, but by contributing publicly I can share a bit of my experience and passion. Your accountability in code is easily viewable so think carefully about cursing in your comments.

My turning point to making the Barrett Sonntag brand

In 2007 I made a conscious decision to own my personal brand, that is Barrett Sonntag. Some coworkers and I started searching ourselves online. Those with common names didn’t appear at all, but since I am blessed with a fairly unique name some content came up. Some stuff I forgot about, but was proud of. My good friend Ronald Figueroa bought his own domain not too long after that conversation. At the same time I saw a possible future where someone else would come into the Internet with my name, and I wouldn’t be able to recoup ownership of my name. I had a head start and I took it. I took ownership of the Barrett Sonntag brand, and that extends beyond my personal reach. It is my creation, it is what I have chosen to publish and relate to myself. I have gone to the source where my employers, my clients, and my customers go searching for truth to create my personal brand. Search engine optimization for the self!

The information super highway

Thousands of people are intentionally doing the same thing right now. There are personal blogs of developers, designers, project managers, or hire me sites, that are purpose built. These personal brands are extremely valuable, increasing your future potential earnings, discoverability or providing an edge in getting your next job. The Internet is how we discover the world outside our personal network. Even when I get a personal recommendation for something I turn right around and enter that into the search engines of the Internet to get a feel for the general consensus. The idea that I did Internet research on potential clients and employees was novel at the time in my personal network, but is common place today. At the same time over these last few years we’ve had more people join the Internet as consumers. They only created content on social networks, and learned hard lessons about the permanence of the Internet. The pictures you post, the words you say have an unknown lifespan, and that idea is hard to understand. So we have these personal brands being created right now whose value does extend beyond the person who is creating them. The creation of your own personal brand is a way to take control of reality in relation to yourself. You have an opportunity to be selective about the picture of you that someone else builds in their mind when they search for you online. You can highlight your achievements, point out your contributions, and wax poetic about something related to your brand.

The risks of connecting the virtual and physical

The creation of your online presence, your personal brand, or your history on the Internet can also be a security measure. Defamation of character as I understand it is a matter between two entities. Someone has stated false claims on my brand, or another person whose name matches my personal brand does something newsworthy, creates a lot of noise unrelated to what I have created. The more effort placed into my brand the more robust I believe it might be in that event, and no I haven’t had to test that yet. There has also been many instances of unorganized but large amounts of individuals acting aggressively. They will tweet, post to blogging platforms, share on social networks. I don’t know if there is a defense of that to be honest. There is a large amount of risk taken in creating your own personal brand connecting an online presence with your physical presence. The risk is not only to yourself but to those near to you whether you’re in the right or not. A statement can be taken out of context, an opinion you gave, and comments you made in the past can haunt you if it is connected to your personal brand in a negative way. Your personal social media pages that are public or private can be connected to you. Private social networks can be made public in the blink of an eye by accident or on purpose. Those photos you thought were cool or comments you made in college might not reflect who you are now, and can hurt your personal brand.

A personal brand is free to create, but I can only imagine how much PR disaster relief can cost. It doesn’t even have to be done with the intent of creating a formal brand. You can create, with some effort, the picture you want, and the reality you want. Don’t be fooled though, there is not enough potential value to risk lying. I only publish the truth as I know it at that moment, it’s a lot easier to be consistent, I am always able to change my opinion based on new information, and there is no web of lies. Nothing goes away in the information age, there is no secret that can be kept once it gets uploaded, and if you lie it will eventually come back around. Even offline sleuths can uncover public records that are then uploaded and spread. There isn’t a defense strong enough to suppress the truth once it hits the Internet.

Another consideration to keep in mind when you strike out to create a personal brand is hacking. A stale site that isn’t up-to-date is a prime target for hackers. They don’t make any noise when they infect your sites and are very difficult to get rid of. I’ve had more than one time of my own dealing with security vulnerabilities so keep your brand active and the problems if they arise won’t go unnoticed.

A natural progression to personal brand creation

This personal brand, Barrett Sonntag, is something I never imagined when I started programming. I never considered that I would work with other people on enormous code bases that were created by our predecessors. You’re probably already on your way to creating a personal brand of your own. Open source software has won the day, programmers have put themselves out their, and connected themselves with their code. You can trace contributions, bugs, comments, successes, and mistakes back to the person that created them. The connections may be created innocently at first, perhaps as leverage in an interview, but soon build into a map or history of your footprints across the net. To make this personal brand and directly connect it to yourself takes courage. It is to become vulnerable, and is a commendable step for people with less supportive environments. You are spreading your arms wide and saying here I am, this is my mark. I want to show you what I am proud of, what I think makes me valuable, how I act, and how I think. Many people have become social through these personal brands only in the way today’s Internet understands social interaction. It never requires any physical presence to create a brand with a social appearance. The stereotype of a basement dweller can be one of your most prolific sources of information and have an extremely valuable personal brand.

Be the authority on your personal brand

Why do we take the risk in curating a personal brand? Because there is no other option to create opportunity besides a true network of people who know you. That true strongly linked network will have a short reach, and has the chicken and the egg problem. You can create a larger weaker linked network that has a long reach in your spare time. These personal brands persist beyond social networks that rise and fall, and so long as you maintain them they will be the single source of information on you and your curated personal brand. Your guest posts to other blogging platforms could vanish overnight, or the platform might decide that they want to kill a feature that you’ve invested time in. The longer you own your personal brand’s domain name the more value it has. So take a look at your own footprints across the sites you use, and objectively see if you’re creating a brand you’d be proud of. Then take ownership of your personal brand and stake your claim for your online presence.

How to Hide Your JavaScript Source Code (Don’t!)

Just don’t. If you are trying to focus on hiding your trade secret sauce that you’ve written into your new single-page JavaScript application you’re just wasting your time. If you’ve coded the entire framework and all your libraries by hand then no one will be able to understand your code enough to steal pieces, they will do an entire copy of your website. The odds are however that you’ve leaned on some existing libraries, that more of the code in your final product was written by someone else entirely. That’s completely okay! For years now as developers we’ve stood on the shoulders of giants to create our finished work. Great libraries like jQuery, frameworks like AngularJS, layout frameworks like Bootstrap all give us a great and well tested path of least resistance to launch.

The idea that you’re able to protect your code through minification or obfuscation isn’t new. ActionScript decompilers started coming out much to the dismay of Flash developers and shortly after that the ActionScript obfuscators hit the market. Minification is the process of removing all extra spacing and lines from a file or set of files for the reason of saving space. Obfuscation is the process of making your code illegible, even going so far as to encode strings that are later decoded. Obfuscation can lead to introducing hard to debug issues, and only protects your strings from a first glance as it is simple enough to unencode the entire document and retrieve said strings.

It’s the strings that can allow anyone to see in your code what your trade secret sauce is. What combination of libraries you used in a project help make it unique, but the interconnecting code that brings them together is what make it a product. Each library has a certain set of strings in them that act as markers, version numbers, unique variable names that will allow those libraries to be identified even in a minified state. You can’t hide the recipe for your JavaScript application. So stop trying! There are also restrictions on certain libraries that ask for attribution, or that they remain as part of open source projects.

View source is the spirit of the web, being able to look at how the documents and applications are structure is part of how the World Wide Web became so popular. That low barrier to curiosity where you could simply inspect the client side code being delivered to you allowed for a generation of tinkerers to be born. Those same tinkerers went on to build the libraries that you have now brought together to make your application. Don’t focus on hiding what you’ve created. Focus on making the best product possible and be proud of the libraries and frameworks you’ve used to create your product. Without a herculean effort, no one will be able to discern a gem of code that you’ve wrote, pull it out and then profit off it. Stop worrying and get back to making sweet JavaScript applications.

Knowledge Alone is Not Enough to Succeed

I’ve been reading technical texts for years; ever since I saw dinosaurs come to life in Jurassic Park. I went to the library and started reading all the books on genetics a middle school library might have. I didn’t then and still don’t really know what I was reading, but I just kept reading for a while until my interest waned. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that this was how to be successful:

  1. Read non-fiction books
  2. Learn “useful” knowledge
  3. ???
  4. Profit!

I continued this trend when I first began my interest in computers. I tried staying away from books that covered a product (FrontPage!) since they moved so fast. I read several books talking about compilers, but I never got anywhere. I couldn’t find that piece to take the text in the book and run it on my family Windows computer. I was stuck programming on my calculator which taught me a lot of basics. None stop reading, I kept reading technical books and haven’t stopped for years. I just finished getting an MCSD that took four books. I’m so tired of working like this though, there has got to be a better way of making it in life. In my quest to master one thing I’ve become a polyglot programmer, never feeling certain if the path I’m on is the one that will lead me to the financial success I seek.

That’s what it ultimately comes down too, what technology can one become invested in that will take them to financial freedom they desire. Work for yourself, or at least remotely the majority of the time. Own a nice McMansion home you can decorate during holidays that has a two car garage in a neighborhood you can feel safe in and that has great internet speeds. I’ve found out the answer; there is no right choice.

I jumped ship on Flash development a few years back but even with that I could have continued and move into Flex and Air, both are still being used in enterprise development. That leaves me with trying to make educated guesses about which technology will enable me to reach my goal faster. Technology is wonderful and a kind of hell in that way. You can get work and complete a task in a myriad of ways. Too many choices can lead to over analysis and a paralyzing feeling that I’m making the wrong choice. There it is again, the fear that I’m making the wrong choice to get to my end goal.

There is no right choice, no one technology that will open a door that wouldn’t have opened otherwise. So long as you have your nose in a book and your head down learning you’ll never take enough action, you’ll never see the door open when it finally does. It’s not enough to learn something without acting upon it. So here’s to action over planning, to decisions over analysis in the new year. No one will see all the knowledge you’ve got and point you to that open door. Don’t wait, write, program, start something, because just knowing how to run a program won’t get you anywhere.