Learn how to build a community of people through your reputation!
Whether you know it or not, we all have a "personal brand". It's the summary of the part of yourself that you present to the public. And while there are negative connotations to the term, it doesn't have to be that way.
Building a personal brand for yourself is a very useful tool for cultivating a community of like-minded people. But it's not a quick process, and it's not something that you can hack if you want the real thing. In this episode, Josh Comeau chats about how he grew a community and reputation around CSS, and how the lessons he learned can apply to you.
Take an hour to draft a blog post in markdown without worrying about how you are going to build your website.
Kent C. Dodds (00:00):
Hello friends. This is your friend Kent C. Dodds joined again by my friend, Josh Comeau. Say hi, Josh.
Josh Comeau (00:05):
Kent C. Dodds (00:06):
There we go.
Josh Comeau (00:07):
Did it this time.
Kent C. Dodds (00:08):
Josh Comeau (00:09):
Long time, no speak Kent.
Kent C. Dodds (00:10):
Josh Comeau (00:11):
I think that's the obvious joke, but I had to go for it anyway.
Kent C. Dodds (00:14):
It's perfect. Yeah. So if you didn't already listen to Josh's first episode, we talked about CSS and finding the actual solution to problems, digging deeper. Great episode. Definitely give that a listen, especially since I'm not going to give Josh an opportunity to introduce himself for this one. Because we want to talk about building a reputation in the community and yeah. So we'll just get started with that. Josh, how long have you been doing software? You said seven to 15 years, right? Depending on how you count.
Josh Comeau (00:43):
Yeah. I can unpack that a little bit, which is I started building websites in 2006, 2007 for a long time. I was just building static websites, doing a bunch of different things and just trying things out. I started using jQuery in 2013, maybe. That's a wild guess, but it wasn't until 2014 that I got my first job as a software developer. And I started doing Ruby on Rails at the time. So I've been building for the web, for the main thing that I've been doing with my careers since 2007 or so, but I've been a software developer doing more than static webpages since 2014.
Kent C. Dodds (01:17):
Yeah. Yeah. Cool. Sweet. So, were you born into this desire to develop a reputation for yourself in the community? Or is this something that you decided would be useful later on? Where did that start coming from?
Josh Comeau (01:33):
Yeah, so it wasn't really, I think the biggest motivation for me at first was just to remember things for myself. So I started a Medium blog. And the goal really was just, I'm learning these new things and I want to make sure that I have a reference for myself. And I also thought it would be cool. Maybe I'll share these and other people will find them and find them helpful too. I liked that idea. And then the thing in the back of my mind was in a few years, if I want to get a job at a major company, like a FAANG company, it might be helpful for that purpose. That if I have open source work and blogs and all that stuff, that might be a feather in my cap when I want to apply to these kinds of companies.
Kent C. Dodds (02:13):
And has that, how has that been? Has that desire, that initial thought, maybe this could be a thing, has that proven to actually be a thing?
Josh Comeau (02:25):
Yeah. I mean it's interesting because over the years my ambitions have changed a few years ago. I realized that actually I don't really want to work for those kinds of companies. At the time I was thinking I would, I thrive much more in smaller companies. Maybe the most fun I've had at work was when I worked for Unsplash and that Unsplash, it was, I think it's the 300th most visited site on the internet, something wild like that. And we were a team of six people. I was the front end team for a while.
Kent C. Dodds (02:47):
Wow, I actually didn't know you worked at Unsplash. That's awesome.
Josh Comeau (02:51):
Kent C. Dodds (02:51):
I use Unsplash for all of my blogs and everything. Yeah. I love Unsplash.
Josh Comeau (02:55):
I was only there for a few months. I moved from there to Khan Academy and honestly, I feel kind of bad that I didn't stay there longer, but it was more a matter of this amazing opportunity came by. Yeah. So it was really cool that I had this designer that I worked with and we would just brainstorm and build something and then ship it to millions of people. So there is, it was wild. So I kind of realized around that time that, I had some, I worked at Digital Ocean, which is still relatively a small organization. I think there were 600 people. Anywhere from 500 to 1500. I don't remember the number, but somewhere in that range. And even then it was like, the amount of additional steps from, I have an idea, and it is live on the internet.
There were so many more intermediary steps and stakeholders and meetings. And all of this stuff that comes along with doing work at a large organization that I just didn't enjoy anywhere near as much. But I was still doing, at this point I had my Medium blog, and I had done my own personal blog, but that was much smaller than it is now. And it was still just a matter of oh, I like doing this. People seem to find it useful and I enjoy that. And it'll probably still come in handy for something. I also, I started around this time thinking, I would see what other developers were doing in terms of, Wes Bos creating courses and think, "well, that would be kind of fun." And that to me definitely seemed like, well yeah, if that's something that I think I might want to do, that will be made infinitely easier by having people. I can tell that, "hey, I built this thing." So yeah, it shifted a little bit, but it wasn't until the past year or so that it became truly part of my strategy.
Kent C. Dodds (04:27):
Yeah. I actually have kind of a similar experience. For me, I was always just really interested in sharing my knowledge because there was just a very natural thing for me to do. And I have maybe, I'd like to say it's a healthy amount of hubris, but some amount of hubris that says, "people will find this useful." Where I actually feel like this could be helpful to some folks. And so that would make me excited about sharing my knowledge. And then eventually when I started selling courses and stuff, I realized that it was useful for being, like you said, telling people about it.
And then I also realized that it was good job security too. Because when you're, if tech became a bubble again, and then it popped, it's not like all software engineers are going to get fired all of a sudden. We'll probably still need software engineers. I mean, unless we get the apocalypse and electricity doesn't work or something, but then we have other problems. But assuming that there are still jobs out there, you're more likely to be the one that employers will hire if they know that you know your stuff and you have a vast amount of people who can say, "yes, this person really knows what they're talking about." And so producing content and just becoming known, developing a reputation, kind of became a job security for me as well.
Josh Comeau (05:58):
Yeah. That's super interesting. And it's not exactly how I saw it, but having, definitely now that I've been doing this for a while, I absolutely see the same thing where it's just very frequently I'll hear from people that are just, they need someone for a project and I'm the person that comes to their mind. So certainly, and granted, I think, I forget. Oh goodness, I wish I remembered who was talking about it. Someone was saying that, as someone with a relatively large following, it made it super easy to get job interviews. It didn't actually make it that much easier to get job offers because of course companies still want you to go through the standard process, but just being able to be pretty confident in the ability that if there is a job opening, I will be able to meet with them and make the case for myself and demonstrate my skills. It is a wild advantage.
Kent C. Dodds (06:46):
Absolutely. Yeah. And that's been my experience as well, just because you have a large following doesn't mean you're going to get the offer for sure. And so you need to have a large following and actually have the skills too. Just to get it, skip in and then pretend that you know what you're talking about. Maybe some companies that works, but I mean maybe neither one of us is quite big enough. Maybe at some point you do get to that point, but you and I both went the route of becoming our own boss and so we may never find out. So I actually, I'd be interested to get into your decision on going full-time on your own maybe a little bit later.
I want to dive a little bit deeper on developing a reputation or a personal brand or something like that. Early on for me, I always kind of thought of the phrase personal brand as kind of, I just felt kind of dirty thinking about it. I don't know. It just feels weird. You know what it is, it feels inauthentic is what it feels like. Was that your experience and how do you combat that feeling? Do you think that's a justified feeling? Or if maybe there's, it's not that simple.
Josh Comeau (07:58):
Yeah. I would say that there is this idea of, especially now that I've done the course thing, I've started listening to some internet marketing podcasts. And a lot of it is just so cringey, there is this idea. It is a little bit, personal brand, it makes me roll my eyes a little bit. But I think that the really valuable part there is, so in my case, right? I have particular interests. The things that I really like are animation. I really like Whimsy. I really like doing fun things with CSS, doing those things. Right? I never thought of it in these terms, but essentially that has become my brand because these are the things that I'm sharing tutorials about. I'm talking about, I'm sharing on Twitter, and all of that has been wildly useful in terms of just building a cultivated set of people that also enjoy this thing and want to learn how to do it.
And I think something that surprised me is, I've been doing this for the past year, primarily because I liked the idea of being able to create educational content, right? Courses. But I've gotten all kinds of opportunities that I never would have had otherwise. And they're noticeably different from the stuff that we all get on LinkedIn, where someone that hasn't read your resume or your thing is like, "Hey, we're looking for someone with eight years of Java experience." Okay. Good luck finding them. It's not me. Yeah.
In this case, I'll get these emails that are so, so tailored to the things that I like, where it's like, "Hey, we're looking for someone to help us with this nonprofit, needs this amazing website that needs all these interactive elements. And it's for a really good cause." If you can get yourself known for a thing and ideally it's a thing that you enjoy, right. Honestly, I think that's the only way because you need to have a lot of motivation to do this. If you can become known for this thing, then anytime anyone has the need for the thing that you're known for, they're going to send you an email and you'll just have this inbox overflowing with incredible opportunities that honestly, I feel bad saying no to. But just, goodness, I wish that I had gotten these years ago.
Kent C. Dodds (09:50):
Yeah, absolutely. So all of the really cool things that, lots of really cool things that I have done have been from the extra stuff that I do as well. Even some of the jobs that I've gotten, I haven't necessarily gotten because I was doing all this extra stuff, but it was vastly helped because of this, the extra stuff I was doing. In fact, like my PayPal job, I got through Twitter, but somebody said, "Hey, why don't you come work for PayPal?" Cause I was complaining about something I wanted to do. And so I've found that developing a reputation for yourself, and this doesn't have to be a public reputation. It can also be just within the company. You're really well known for being this guy or gal or whatever. And so developing a reputation for the kinds of things that you want to do just gives you more freedom to do the kinds of things that you want to do. And sometimes you have to be a little bit more assertive and kind of push your way into that space. And the best way to do that is by either creating content of some kind, or yeah. It typically ends up being content. However you label that. Whether it's in some form, you're communicating your preferences and the things that you're really good at.
Josh Comeau (11:02):
Yeah. I mean, I think that, when I started doing this, when I started blogging and that. I imagined it would be good to help generally, or I imagine generally this will put me on the radar of X company and that it would be cool what I hadn't anticipated. And part of the reason I wanted to do this podcast, I think it's so cool is if you can find the thing that you really like, maybe that's SVG animation, maybe that's some getting really, really good at TypeScript and understanding generics, which is a thing that one day I hope to understand in its true form. You will then become known for that. And the opportunities that will come from that are just amazing.
And otherwise things that just, through the imperfect nature of distribution, right? You would otherwise just never know that they exist and they would never know you exist and someone else would get that job. Maybe someone that wasn't really specialized in that thing. So it's just an incredible, if there's a thing that you really like doing, I don't know of a better way to make sure that's the thing you can get paid to do.
Kent C. Dodds (12:00):
Absolutely. And it's never too early to start. When I was even still in school, I decided to host a workshop, teaching my classmates how to write AngularJS.
Josh Comeau (12:15):
Kent C. Dodds (12:15):
It was extra stuff on top of all of the class stuff that they were doing. But I just decided, hey, I got this workshop from a buddy at work. And I asked him if I could use it. And he said yes. And so I actually got Firebase to sponsor us pizza, which was awesome, so that people would show up. And what happened was when we graduated a few months later, one of my classmates started working at this company that was local to where I was living and they needed a front end guy. He was doing all the back end Python, Django stuff, and they needed somebody to do the front end.
And I was the first person he thought of. And why did he think of me? Because I was the one who, I was the angular guy. And other classmates I know new AngularJS, but I was the one who was basically showing off my skills by creating this content, giving this workshop and doing these things. So it's a great way, like reading content, whether you're doing a blog or a YouTube or podcasts or whatever, even community moderation is a great way to kind of put yourself in people's face and say, "Hey, I can do this." And so you don't have to necessarily be the best or most qualified, but you're the first person that people think of. And that's what makes the real difference.
Josh Comeau (13:38):
Yeah. And I think it's such a good point that it's never too early to start, because I don't think a lot of people that read my blog and know that I started on Medium. I had, I think, 70 or 80 posts on Medium. So I was there for a while and most of them are terrible because I didn't know what I was doing, right. Of course, it's a new skill for me. I was never a good writer. So most of them have 75 views. And I look at them now and I'm so embarrassed, but ultimately it's so good that I started in 2014. So that by the time we hit 2019, I had developed this skill and then people would actually, I think that, and this is something too, certainly luck plays a big role in this, right?
The reason that I have a blog that gets reset, I think, I don't know the exact number, I think you get 100,000 visits a month, something like that.
Kent C. Dodds (14:21):
Josh Comeau (14:22):
Yeah. Just surprisingly big. And luck plays a huge role in that, privilege plays a huge role in that too. But the reason I was able, in a spot to get lucky, was that I had learned how to do this and I just kept pushing out stuff. So every time I publish something, it's another roll of the dice, right? And eventually if you keep pushing stuff out, I mean, not always, but often the odds will just become so much in your favor. That it's just a matter of time.
Kent C. Dodds (14:47):
Yeah. Yeah. I think that we often undervalue consistency in this. People will often ask me, "Hey, I've written some blog posts or I hosted an AMA or something. And nobody came or nobody's reading my blog posts. And how do you get so many people to participate in whatever it is that you're doing?" And I say, "well, have you been doing it for six or seven years yet? It takes a long time." And it's patience, but the nice thing is that it's not always just about developing a reputation in the community. At least it isn't always that way for me. A lot of it is, as you mentioned, to remind yourself and to solidify my understanding, cause the process of taking something that you think that you know and writing it, or presenting it in a way that can be consumable by other people, that reveals a lot about what you don't know. And so you have to dig deeper.
Josh Comeau (15:46):
Absolutely. Yeah. So I've been teaching at a bootcamp now for the past three or, three years or so. And the main reason I started doing that, it was honestly kind of a selfish reason. Was just that, and I don't remember where I had heard this, but I had heard that yeah, if you think you know something, try teaching it, because you'll discover very quickly that you don't actually know this thing very well. And it was such a valuable experience that I essentially, I was a technical coach at first. So I was essentially someone on staff that was just there to answer student questions. So there'd be an instructor that did the lecture and then me and two other people would be there to answer questions. And you'd get these questions that are so, from a different perspective, right? Someone that has such a totally different mental model.
And very quickly you realize that, oh, in trying to explain this thing, I'm realizing how many of these questions I just don't have a good answer for it. I can tell you if your goal is to do X, I can kind of show you how to do X. But if your goal is why is X, then it's like, oh goodness, I don't actually know. Let's figure this out.
Kent C. Dodds (16:42):
Josh Comeau (16:53):
Kent C. Dodds (16:54):
[crosstalk 00:16:54] ...good times. Still relevant, some of it. But I think it was the first or second episode. She said, "teaching is nature's way of solidifying, or of revealing to yourself how little you, or how sloppy your understanding is." It was something like that. I used to know it verbatim, you can go watch the episode with Ashley, but I just think that is so true. And so by, whatever it is, not everybody wants to be a blogger. But some form of communication from you to another person or to your stuffed animal, I've got Cody, the koala bear here. To someone else, trying to explain what you think you know will just help you realize, oh, I actually don't understand what the difference between let and const is, or display flex versus display grid.
You can do some of the same things with them, but what's the real, what are some use cases? When you're doing this explaining, you're starting to think about, oh, what are the questions they're going to ask me? Oh, I need, I don't know the answer to those questions. And so you have to dig a little deeper to get the answer to those questions. And then in the process, if that's your goal, the side effect is going to be that you develop a really awesome reputation in the online community. If you want an awesome reputation, then the side effect will be the opposite that you'll understand things better. So either way it's a win, regardless of your motivation.
Josh Comeau (18:20):
Yeah, and I think that's so helpful that, because it is true that when you start a new blog and you're starting from zero, right? You don't have anyone, maybe you have a tight, a close group of friends you can show. So you get five or six pages from that. It can be de-motivating, right? If your goal is to build this massive audience and you're just publishing blog post after blog post, that's getting 13 people to see it. But it's true. If you can switch your perspective to, no, this is actually just valuable for myself, right? It's helping me understand this thing better just by trying, the process of writing. It doesn't even matter if you publish it or not. The process of writing is making you realize how much you still have to learn and helping you find those blind spots that are otherwise so tricky to find. Anything else that comes from that is just a bonus. And almost paradoxically, the more you're focused on not building an audience, the faster that audience can build, because you're, I think that it's, you'll see some folks that clearly are tweeting for engagements sake.
Kent C. Dodds (19:15):
Josh Comeau (19:15):
And that can be helpful. Honestly I can't even think of an example off the top of my head. So...
Kent C. Dodds (19:21):
We all know them. It's so clear when they're just tweeting for engagement and that's where the personal brand thing comes in and you're like, "Ugh." That's where it feels inauthentic, it's just, it doesn't feel real.
Josh Comeau (19:36):
Yeah. And I think it's a short term win for a long-term, it's not going to give you the same results because. And this is another thing too, follower counts, right? I think that people get so fixated on the number, but that number doesn't really matter. If you have a bunch of people that follow you, that don't have any sort of mental picture of who you are, other than you ask fun questions on Twitter, it's not going to have the same result. People aren't going to, no one's hiring for the person that can ask the most controversial question on Twitter. So yeah.
Kent C. Dodds (20:06):
Josh Comeau (21:19):
And so we just started, when I would have these moments of huh, that's strange, why is this thing behaving like this? And I would spend the 10 minutes and dig into it. I would then create a minimal reproduction on CodePen, screenshot it, add a little annotation. Add some alt text and then post that on Twitter as, hey, this is a cool thing. And I found those tweets started getting the most engagement, my most popular tweet ever. It has something like 6,000 likes. It's about how filter drop shadow can be used on transparent images. Whereas box shadow will always just put a box around the image. If you have a transparent PNG and that image has a treasure chest inside, the shadow will go on the content of the image. Really cool thing. I discovered that literally just by accident, or I forget, I stumbled upon it and well, that's cool.
Kent C. Dodds (24:37):
Yeah. So you absolutely can control your perception by the types of content that you're producing. I switched from the AngularJS community where I produced a lot of content to the React community. And that actually happened pretty rapidly. So if you decide, Hey, I'm super into doing back end stuff, but I want to get into the front end stuff. This industry moves so fast and that you can just hop on the train wherever you're at and get up to speed very quickly. Which is very cool. I love that aspect of this community, especially when I was a year into it, I was already traveling internationally to speak. It's like, wow, this is amazing. How did I get here already?
But that's just because the industry moves so, so quickly. So it's not too early and it's not too late and you can totally develop a reputation for yourself and give yourself the freedom to decide what you work on. I sometimes I have to do work on things that I don't really want to, everybody has to do that. But in general, if you develop that reputation for yourself, then you'll have a little bit more freedom and choice.
Josh Comeau (25:53):
Yep. Yeah, definitely.
Kent C. Dodds (25:55):
Cool. Well, we're wrapping up here. We're coming down toward the end of our time. Is there anything else that you wanted to bring up before we finish up?
Josh Comeau (26:02):
Yeah. A couple of things. The first is I just want to make sure that we acknowledge the role that privilege plays in this because I think that as white guys, we have an inherent advantage there, and it's not to say that it's impossible. I've certainly seen plenty of folks follow the same path and have success, but just to be aware that it's not an even playing field and it is a little bit harder for some folks than others. Which is totally unfair and frustrating, but I also want to make sure that we're not just sweeping that under the rug because it is, I think it's helpful to point out. So the other thing is not everyone likes to blog. And I think that that's, the path that one person takes, I think blogging is a great way to do it, but it's certainly not the only path.
So if you're interested in building a reputation, because you think it could be advantageous to your career, we've talked a little bit already about some of the options. You could get involved in moderation, right? Find the community that you really like. If you really enjoy talking to people more than creating static things, there's also, you could do YouTube. If you really like being on video more than writing start a podcast, there's all kinds of possible venues. And I think it's totally worth finding the thing you like doing, because I think ultimately it's tough, right? Especially if you're, and I assume most people are doing this in addition to their job, it's tough to find the motivation to do something that you don't like doing. So, and it's such a long game, right? Everyone, or not everyone, but I think it's easier to come up with enough motivation to do something for a month. Whereas, if you don't enjoy it, it's going to be really tough to do it for five years. So I think it's worth experimenting to figure out what you enjoy.
Kent C. Dodds (27:28):
Yeah. I totally agree. And it is important to realize that you can change and you can do different things, but the real payouts come after consistency. And so if you can find something that you enjoy doing that you feel like you could do consistently for an extended period of time, then that that's where the, as far as the reputation goes, if you're just looking for, I want to write a blog post to solidify this in my mind, you don't need to be consistent for that. Like who cares? But if you want to build a reputation, consistency is important. So find something that you want to do. And privilege too, I think is, we can never overemphasize the impact of that. And we realize that not everybody has the time outside of their work to do this.
One thing that I've found to be pretty successful is, find a way to do some of this stuff on the clock, when you're at work. For me when I was at various companies, I would say, "Hey, I just learned this thing. Are you okay if I teach that to the rest of the engineers?" And of course, yes, we want to share knowledge. And then you say, "well, it's not really proprietary or anything. Could I put that on my blog and then just send them a link?" And yeah. Okay. Well now all of a sudden you're creating public content on the clock and that's how I, when I was working for an employer, most of my blog posts were written on the clock. And same with lots of the open source that I worked on. If we use that project at work, I could totally work on that on the clock too. So even if you don't have the time or something, you might be able to find a way to make that work, even within the constraints that you have. So, but we realized not everybody can do that, so.
Josh Comeau (29:13):
I think it's so interesting actually, because I had totally forgotten this. But actually I saw, you wrote a blog post about that and it was eyeopening for me. And I was able to use that, when I was working at Gatsby, I would write blog posts about Gatsby on the clock. So I've physically, literally having read what you wrote about that, was able to put that into practice in my own life. So thank you for that. Super useful.
Kent C. Dodds (29:33):
That's awesome. Yeah. Yeah. The blog post you're probably talking about is how I'm so productive and my assertion in there is, it's all an illusion. I'm not as productive as you think I am. So yeah. That's great. Hey Josh, thank you. This has been such a pleasure to chat with you. Let's give folks the homework. Here it is. We want you to spend an hour. So 60 minutes, trying one of the ideas that we've presented. So writing a blog, and remember, here's one little caveat on the blog thing. Don't spend all of your time building the blog.
It's more important that the content exists than the blog looks nice or has a hundreds on the Lighthouse scores or whatever. Just write the posts. If you need go to dev.to and start your blog over there, you can make your own blog later. But yeah, so I write a blog post or create a YouTube channel or a podcast. Join up and be a community moderator, get into open source. Something, you could make an Instagram account and be, or a TikTok and be the TikTok dev or something. Whatever it is that you want to do, spend an hour trying one of those things and see if it's something you can get into. Anything to add to that, Josh?
Josh Comeau (30:52):
Yeah. No, that's fantastic. I would also just say, for the blog example specifically, just open, create a new markdown file. Because yeah, it's so tempting to be like, "oh, let's make this fancy blog." And this is what you see, right? You see a bunch of developers, they have a fancy blog. They have one blog post, "how I built this blog."
What they discover after writing that blog post is they enjoyed building the blog a lot more than they liked writing the post. And it sits forever with that one post. And not to say that that's bad, honestly, if you enjoy building the blog, go for it. But I do think that if your goal is to actually start writing a blog, start by just writing and see if you enjoy it. Just create one Markdown and just start writing, and then you can always bring that to a blog if you like it.
Kent C. Dodds (31:35):
Absolutely. Yeah. You could even just make a bunch of GIFs. And then when you're like, "oh wow, I've got 10 GIFs in here of blog posts. That's kind of interesting. So now I'll make a blog for, so it's on my own site or something." Yeah.
Josh Comeau (31:35):
Kent C. Dodds (31:49):
That's great. Cool. Well, Josh it's been such a pleasure to chat with you. Thank you so much for joining us and giving us some of your time to talk about developing a career, as well as CSS and digging deeper and stuff. Where is the best place for folks to connect with you online?
Josh Comeau (32:05):
Yeah, I'd say the best way is probably to join me on Twitter. Follow me on Twitter. Message me on Twitter. It's Josh W. Comeau. My last name is a little funny. It's spelled C O M E A U. You can also go to joshwcomeau.com. That's my blog.
Kent C. Dodds (32:19):
And I strongly advise even just experiencing that website. It's fun. So, hey, thanks so much, Josh. And we'll see everybody in the future.
Josh Comeau (32:27):
Thanks so much. Bye.
Kent C. Dodds (32:29):