I don't need to tell you: the technical industry is incredibly competitive! Whether you're trying to get a job, win a contract, build your client base, or simply get your voice heard, it can be difficult to get ahead.
Things get even more difficult when discrimination slips into the mix. Competition is hard enough without having to overcome stereotypes on top of everything else.
I've been blessed not to have to deal with much discrimination, being male and (ostensibly) white. However, my age and my disability have been taken as marks against me discouragingly often. Not many people are quick to take an entrepreneur seriously when he's a 20-something with unpredictable communication glitches.
Over the years, I've mastered the art of defying stereotypes. I've built a career for myself, and earned the respect of both my peers and my seniors in programming and business alike. Surprisingly often, even the most prejudiced individuals cannot guess my age — I was once supposed by an astute 60-something in an IRC room to be at least 60.
There's no magic here. There are eight things I've done that lend legitimacy to my professional side.
There are two predominant forms of communication among professionals: phone and email. Use them! Everything else comes second to these.
There are benefits to having SMS, Skype, LinkedIn, Twitter Messaging, and all that other jazz, but these should not be your default choice for corresponding with other professionals.
For the love of everything, please set up your voicemail! There's not really anything quite as unprofessional-sounding on this front than the default message, "This voicemail box has not been set up yet." It indicates that you don't care about the medium, and you should care, since it's a standard first line of communication.
Your voicemail message is often your first impression. Don't use the defaults. Take the time to actually record a real, professional-oriented message. Don't be cutesy or clever about it ("Hello? Ha ha, this is voicemail." stopped being funny in 2012.)
Here's an old, reliable template, although feel free to make it your own:
You have reached . I can't take your call right now. Please leave a brief message with your name and number, and I'll return your call.
...and then return the calls! It's equally distasteful to hear "This voicemail box is full." Check your voicemail regularly!
In the very least, if voicemail isn't your thing, be up front about that in your message. For example:
You have reached . I can't take your call right now. Please email me at , and I'll get back to you.
I strongly recommend setting up a dedicated email address for your professional life. Use your name or professional moniker (see #6). Email addresses like
email@example.com make you look like a hobbyist, rather than a professional; save those for your personal accounts instead.
Reserve your professional email address for career-related purposes. Check it regularly. Respond to messages in a timely fashion.
Punctuality is one of the best ways to build a good first impression. Conversely, being late puts you in a negative light, especially when it happens regularly.
Understand, by "on-time", I don't mean you race in the door at the top of the hour. 5 to 10 minutes early is "on-time". By being a little early, you're giving yourself a few minutes to calm down and mentally prepare for your meeting or appointment. You're also providing a cushion of time for when the unexpected happens.
Don't be afraid of being early! Successful people make the most of waiting time. Instead of defaulting to social media, use that time to mentally prepare, jot down notes about ideas, or to read an article or a few pages of a book.
My friend Robert is one of the best conversationalists I know, primarily because he knows how to listen actively.
Focus your attention on the speaker. Choose body language which is open and oriented towards them. Provide feedback through genuine facial expressions and subtle body language (smiling, nodding, furrowing brow, etc.)
Ask clarifying and prompting questions. Encourage the speaker to keep going.
Be amenable to pauses. Allow the other person to pause and think, without fear of you jumping in. Learn to be okay with moments of quiet. Don't focus all your energy on planning your response. Let the conversation flow naturally, without needing to be forcefully steered.
There are personalities which don't encourage active listening. On occasion, you'll encounter people with whom you'll need to be more proactive to "get a word in edgewise" with. However, a little active listening goes a long way, and often encourages the other person to return the favor when it's your turn to speak.
When scheduling, there are some things you really shouldn't say:
"I don't know what my schedule looks like."
"I'm not sure when I'll be available."
"I'll get back to you about possible dates."
The default outcome of this approach is that nothing ever gets scheduled! Nearly always, when someone tells me this, the result is that they never call me back.
Instead, pencil-in tentative appointments. You'll virtually always have some idea of your schedule, and even if you don't, you can guess.
This does three things:
It tells the other person "you are a priority."
It shows you are capable of time management (a key professional skill).
It facilitates scheduling. You can usually schedule around the tentative date, and even if you can't, it is usually simple to reschedule.
The benefit of this approach is that you always default towards keeping the appointment.
On that topic, don't leave your calendar to your memory and guesswork. Find a system that you can rely on to track your schedule, whether it be an app, a PIM, or a paper calendar. Whatever it is, make sure you can access it readily when you need it.
Contrary to pop culture trends, spelling, grammar, and style matter in communication! They are key components of communicating clearly, effectively, and concisely. Here are a few tips:
Poor spelling and grammar lead to ambiguous, muddy language. Grammar and spelling, used well, let you express ideas with clarity, and proves that you are willing to put time and effort into doing things right.
It is better to employ single, well-chosen word that expresses an idea precisely, rather than having to fall back on a long, complicated approximation. Good vocabulary helps you express specific ideas concisely.
Of course, be smart about it; don't use ten-dollar words when fifty-cent words will do.
I get it. Some situations just feel like they call for a four-letter word. I'm not making some moral point here; I'm not going to crumble because someone dropped a vitriol bomb.
The important point here is that most obscenity has no useful meaning. An F-bomb is not suitable as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb; when you use it, you are also choosing not to use a word that adds value to your message. Obscenity is mostly filler, substituting raw force or shock value in place of precise meaning.
Besides that, obscenity in excess or in the wrong situations can close your audience to your message. It raises the temperature of the conversation, often evoking a strong emotional response in your listener.
The informality of the internet has driven much of the beauty of good communication out of our collective memory. If you read "The Letters of E.B. White", you'll find that E.B. White (the author of "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little" honed his enviable brevity and sparkling prose through years of letter writing! Learn to write good, old-fashioned letters.
This form of communication has opened many unbelievable doors for me. It has allowed me to ask advice of some giants of programming, like Donald Knuth, Bjarne Stroustrup, and Guido van Rossum. It has allowed me turn curt rejections into valuable professional connections. It has helped resolve conflicts. A good letter can accomplish much!
Fact is, you'll seldom get an email from me that doesn't resemble a good, old-fashioned letter. That extra care and attention pays dividends in connections made and knowledge gained.
If you want to learn to write a good letter, it helps to read good letters, like the book I mentioned above. There are also many excellent books and resources on how to write effective business letters. Age doesn't matter here! One of my favorite books I've read on the topic is nearly 40 years old, but is just as insightful today as it was then.
Unify your online identity! There are so many amazing tools for building your career, each of them powerful alone, but quite potent when combined.
Here are a few things to consider:
Choose a single username, either one based on your name, or a professional moniker. For example, I'm known across the internet as "CodeMouse92", and I use that as the core of my brand. (You should also have a uniform backup username, should the primary be unavailable.)
Get a high-resolution, professional-looking profile picture. Use this across the internet to build visual recognition. When someone knows you on one platform, and comes across your profile picture elsewhere, they'll know it's you right away.
Create a personal website. Keep it simple, and make it reflective of you and your skills. Make it an extension of your resume.
Build your LinkedIn profile! It's an incredibly useful tool for expanding your business network.
Reserve your username on all major platforms you can forsee using. I have "codemouse92" accounts on GitHub, GitLab, Atlassian, Launchpad, and so forth. Even if I seldom use some of those sites, I've protected my username from squatters and imposters.
Design an actual brand for yourself! Choose colors, fonts, and simple visual elements that you can replicate across your website, resume, business cards (if you have any), online profiles, and so forth. Create a tagline for yourself.
Choose key professional topics you are passionate about, and focus on them in your blog posts, social media posts, and the like.
Reading a diverse range of books exposes you to hundreds of ideas, perspectives, and topics you may not otherwise encounter. Active reading — asking questions of the text as you read — also builds critical thinking skills, and helps you retain the content.
Reading books in your domain of interest and expertise is always helpful, but don't get confined to that. Branch out! I've learned so much from autobiographies, history, classic fiction, science, and the list goes on.
You've heard the phrase "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have." Your appearance does matter, especially when it comes to professional situations! This includes job interviews, conferences, networking events, client meetings, and so forth.
The idea here, however, is not to dress formally at all times. A good look for you should be...
Clean: Good hygiene and clean clothing is actually essential; lacking either closes many doors. This should go without saying, but I've had job applicants who showed up in dirty clothes, not showered, and with very bad breath (and they weren't homeless.)
Decent: Don't wear clothing that's tattered or hole-filled, if you can at all avoid it. The Hollywood image of the hacker in the shredded jeans and beat-up hoodie is fiction; trying to replicate it in a professional setting won't make you look like a hacker, it'll make you look like you don't care.
Appropriate: This goes for both guys and girls! I can safely assume you're there for professional reasons, not to find a new romantic partner. Get noticed for your skills and ideas, not because your outfit would make Grandma Miller turn scarlet. That's the sort of attention you don't want as a professional.
Serious: It's useful to own at least one nice business outfit. I have a couple of sport coats, several button-down shirts of various colors, dark slacks, and a vast collection of bowties. You don't have to copy me; just find a business-oriented style that works for you.
You might feel a bit of an objection to all this: "I don't want to change myself to make other people happy!" Of course you shouldn't!
Understand, the goal of these tips is not to change who you are, but rather to emphasize those skills and personality traits that will best help you build your career!
There's nothing wrong with being, say, a cyberpunk skateboarder with a love of heavy metal and energy drinks, or a live-streaming gamer nerd with a vast collection of superhero Funko figures...but those parts of your personality probably won't do much to help you in your job search or at your next networking event.
You don't have to bury who you are; simply let some things temporarily move into the background, so your career skills can take center stage and shine. No matter who you are, you can be a professional!
Putting these tips into practice will help you do just that.