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How to Become a More Valuable Software Developer

Let me ask you a question.

Why do you think Bill Clinton gets paid $200,000 to speak for an hour?

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Is it because he is such a good speaker that just hearing the magic words come out of his mouth will make you a better human being and drastically change your life?

Or do you think it might have something to do with the fact that he was the president of the United States of America?

I’m not doubting the Bill Clinton is a good public speaker. He is likely one of the best, but it is not his skill alone that commands such a high price. A large portion of his price tag comes from the name he has built for himself.

You might say that he has…

Style and substance

Just having style is not enough. Style is just a name without anything to back it up.

Have you ever been suckered into buying one of those products on late night TV? You know what I mean, the ones that they sell at 2:00 AM and throw in all kinds of extra things if you only act now?

That is an example of style, but no substance. You aren’t getting what is being sold. The infomercials are advertising a product much better than what you actually receive. When you open the box and try out the product, you feel like you got ripped off—and you did.

Substance alone is not enough either. I’ve known many very skilled people that couldn’t market their skills worth a dime. Often people who focus on developing their skills don’t feel that they have the ability or time to learn how to market those skills, so those kinds of people go underappreciated and never live up to their full potential. As a software developer, you are probably more likely to fall into this category.

To reach the ultimate level of success and truly increase your value, you have to have both style—the ability market yourself and make a name for yourself, and substance –the skills that pay the bills.

Whether you like Bill Clinton or not, you have to admit that he does have both; that is why he commands such a high price tag.

Skills are not as important as you think

One thing that many programmers and software developers find hard to believe is that skills are not the most important thing in advancing your career.

Don’t get me wrong, you have to have some skills and knowledge. Just like the dice-o-matic you bought at 2:00 AM and quickly discovered was actually a piece of junk, if you pretend to have skills and abilities that you don’t actually possess, your customers and clients will be just as disappointed and look for a trash can to drop you off in.

But, at the same time, most people can’t recognize the difference between someone who is in the 95% margin of skill in a field from a person who is in the 80% margin of skill in that field, unless they also happen to be an expert themselves in that field. Unless you are a doctor, or dentist or auto mechanic, you probably don’t have a way of really evaluating how good a doctor or dentist or auto mechanic is—although you can probably quickly spot a phony.

So, why is this important?

Because, if you are like me—or at least how I was—you are probably spending way too much time focused on increasing your skills and not enough time increasing your style; building a name for yourself.

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What I mean by this is that if you are at a decent level of skill, you will see much bigger benefits in building a name for yourself than you will in increasing your skill further.

It doesn’t matter if you are an independent software developer trying to get more clients or sell a product, or you are looking to work for someone else who will pay you more money, or you just want to get that promotion at your current job. Whatever your goal or situation is, complimenting substance with style will multiply the value of your skills much more than increasing those skills themselves.

The equation

The best way to think about this is like a mathematical equation.

(Style ^ 2) * Substance – Expectation = Value

Let’s break it down.

Style is more important than substance, because while skills are essentially capped and become harder to increase over time, style can be increased to a much larger degree—you can always build a bigger name; get a bigger audience.

Plus, the effect of having a larger audience tends to increase exponentially. That is why commercial spots for the Superbowl are so expensive.

Now, from the style and substance multiplication we have to subtract expectation to get a true sense of value.

Consider the case where you bought that dice-o-matic from a late night infomercial. The style points were pretty high. Lots of great marketing techniques were at play to get you to make that purchase, but those techniques also tend to setup some pretty high expectations of what the product should do. When you see the guy on TV using the dice-o-matic to chop an iPhone into tiny pieces, it sets a pretty high level of expectation.

Style is high, but substance is pretty close to zero and expectations are high, so in many cases value can actually be negative.

You have to consider the same thing in your career, when you are marketing yourself and your skills. Some of the marketing techniques you could use to get a quick audience would also produce a very high expectation, so if you don’t have the skills to measure up, you are going to create some negative or very low value.

On the other hand, if you have a high enough level of substance behind what you are promoting and you are able to promote yourself in a way that doesn’t build up more expectation than you can deliver, you are going to be able to bring a pretty high amount of value.

Increasing your value

So, for many of us software developers and programmers the answer is simple. The most effective way we can increase our value is to learn how to market ourselves; a skill that I have found many IT people tend to lack. Of course there are some great examples of developers who do not lack this “style.” Most conference speakers and well known authors or consultants are very good at promoting themselves and really increasing their value by carefully paying attention to the equation above.

Now, of course, this is much easier said than done. I’ve also found that most software developers don’t really know how to go about marketing themselves. I didn’t either for too long of a time—and I am still learning how to do it every day. But, I have learned some valuable techniques that I think just about anyone can apply to build some points on the style side.

If you are interested in learning about how to market yourself to really increase your value, sign up for my newsletter here, so I can keep you updated on my future posts and videos covering that topic and much more.

I am planning some pretty exciting content around all of the information I’ve gathered over the years about marketing yourself as a software developer and I’ll be sharing a large amount of that information here on this blog.

  • Programador Maldito

    Unfortunately you are right. I need to improve my “marketing”. Unfortunately too we have today a lot of people like these “infomercials”, with thousands of twitter followers and zero substance. In my life working for big companies I saw some of these “genius” making great presentations and leaving the company leaving more problems than before. This make me sad. Some companies today are hiring technical people based on number of followers on twitter. This is really bad.

    • jsonmez

      Yes, it is important to not be one of those people. The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to be sure that you are creating value for people. If you are creating value and marketing that value, you will not be like one of those “infomercials.”

  • Eric Andrew Lewis

    If Style is worth more than Substance, it shouldn’t have to be squared in your equation, Substance should be.

    • jsonmez

      Style has more impact. That is why it is squared.

      • Eric Andrew Lewis

        I don’t think what you’re trying to say works in an equation with other variables.

        If style has more impact, let’s say style = 100 and substance = 50. Then, in your equation you’re squaring style to try to emphasize this point, although it’s already worth more.

        • jsonmez

          I get what you are saying. But I think you get what I am trying to convey. :)

          • Eric Andrew Lewis

            I do :)

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  • Alberto García L.

    Hi,

    “Skills are not as important as you think”? for whom?

    I think an article saying that to be a good “smoke and mirrors creator” is better than improving your skills makes any favor to our profession.
    In my opinion a good professional should have good communication skills among others, not just strong technical knowledge or good programming skills, he should be able to communicate his ideas and to work with a team or whatever that require his concrete role position, that’s true, but that is all, that is enough.

    You are complaining about “infomercials, with thousands of twitter followers and zero substance”, well, this article is encouraging you to be like that…

    If you are working for a company that values more your style, and that you are pretty “cool” instead of your talent, your ability to make a designer robust and easy scalable or whatever, you are probably working for the wrong company. Is your commitment as professional to try to make him understand what is really beneficial for his company from your area perspective, and if they don’t want to understand you must leave.

    If you think that is more important to create a good (fake) reputation instead of focus on doing a good job, in to continuous learning and developing your skills in my opinion you would be one more of those who are discredit this profession overvaluing his facade over his substance.

    • Alberto García L.

      sorry I dont know why the comment was posted as guest, I posted again with my user. Feel free to remove the guest comment.
      Thank you

  • Alberto García L.

    Hi,

    “Skills are not as important as you think”? for whom?

    “How to Become a More Valuable Software Developer”? for whom?

    I think an article saying that to be a good “smoke and mirrors
    creator” is better than improving your skills makes any favor to our
    profession.
    In my opinion a good professional should have good
    communication skills among others, not just strong technical knowledge
    or good programming skills, he should be able to communicate his ideas
    and to work with a team or whatever that require his concrete role
    position, that’s true, but that is all, that is enough.

    You are complaining about “infomercials, with thousands of twitter
    followers and zero substance”, well, this article is encouraging you to
    be like that…

    If you are working for a company that values more your style, and
    that you are pretty “cool” instead of your talent, your ability to make
    a designer robust and easy scalable or whatever, you are probably
    working for the wrong company. Is your commitment as professional to try
    to make him understand what is really beneficial for his company from
    your area perspective, and if they don’t want to understand you must
    leave.

    “most people can’t recognize the difference between someone who is in
    the 95% margin of skill in a field from a person who is in the 80%
    margin of skill in that field” so that is a reason to stop improving
    your skills? if you like this profession, if you are a good professional
    you always are wanting to achieve the 300% and you don’t matter if
    people can recognize a 5% difference because is your professional
    commitment give the most you can.

    If you think that is more important to create a good (fake)
    reputation instead of focus on doing a good job, in to continuous
    learning and developing your skills in my opinion you would be one more
    of those who are discredit this profession overvaluing his facade over
    his substance.

    • jsonmez

      Don’t get me wrong. I am all for improving your skills and I do not condone smoke and mirrors types of hack or shortcuts to success.
      Success is built from years of hard work, but I tend to view a career like a business and I think more developers need to think this way if they want to be as successful as possible.
      If I create a good product, but I don’t market it well, then I will be missing out on some success that product could achieve.
      Developers should continue to gain skills and become better software developers, but they shouldn’t neglect how important marking your skills, (your product) is either.
      Some of what I am classifying as style is actually just another set of skills, soft skills.

    • forrest wu

      As I understood, style here regarded as a kind of soft skill which include professional skill, communication and cooperation still. Your reputation which built up based on those skills during your daily work. Dale Carnegie has some words like a people’s success, eighty-five percent communication and relationship and fifteen percent professional skill.

      Professional skill is importation, but not critical element. In particularly, as a senior technical people.

      • jsonmez

        Exactly. Well put.

  • http://abangratz.github.io/ Anton Bangratz

    Wow. This article reminds me too much of ‘Pick up artists’. The kind of people who definitely put success at any price before real achievements and substance. Oh, and unsurprisingly, he markets his newsletter as the solution that others with a similar problem will face.

    I feel truly sorry for the author, and pity for everyone who signs up.

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