Your Personal Narrative

Sorting out how other will remember your story.

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You should now have a good sense for exactly what positions you are interested in and the kinds of things they will be looking for in their candidates. How can you fit into these expectations when they find you? How can you make sure they do find you in the first place?

You are a developer and you probably care far more about building things than how you are perceived. We get it. Unfortunately, no one is going to find out how awesome you are unless you do a good job of selling yourself by developing and supporting your personal narrative.

Some people are good storytellers and do this naturally. For others, it needs to be approached a bit more deliberately. Regardless of which kind you are, this should be a helpful exercise and thought process.

The broader category we are talking about is "Personal Marketing", and it is a core component of implementing the Viking Method for Getting Hired.

Personal Marketing is about how to present your story and then working to make that a reality through your studies, your web presence and in your interactions with other people. On the most basic level, this means figuring out what you want other people to see when they search for you and then backing that story up by creating lots of content which aligns with it.

It's really a 2-step process:

  1. Figure out what story you want to tell about yourself. This is your Personal Narrative
  2. Support that story with lots of evidence. This is your personal Vapor Trail.

In this lesson, we'll talk about the idea of your Personal Narrative and we will explain how craft your own. This will help you to clarify how you present yourself online and to future hiring managers and teammates at all stages of the process. We will discuss supporting this with a strong Vapor Trail in the next lesson.

Crafting Your Personal Narrative

The first step in getting others to understand your career transition is being able to explain it to them in a compelling fashion. If you can connect the dots between your past, present, and future; identify the underlying themes in your career trajectory; and explain the unique value you can bring to your new endeavor, you’re on your way to winning their support.

-- How to Explain Your Career Transition

When you meet someone new, they typically ask you questions about who you are and where you came from. How you respond to those types of questions helps them figure out your personal narrative. This happens whether you think about it or not -- it's just the way people operate.

What Story Do You Want Them to Hear?

This narrative is what people actually remember an hour or a day or a week later. They don't remember facts about what school you went to or how old you were when you left home but they do remember the arc of a highly motivated and talented individual who tackled successively more difficult milestones along the way to their current position.

This may sound like a bunch of soft nonsense but when you're having conversations with professional implications (like when you're talking to other developers or employers), having a clear narrative will help you to stand out and be memorable. You usually only get two or three sentences to leave an impression.

The idea of a narrative also extends beyond just when you're meeting people face-to-face -- whenever someone Googles you, reads your Tweets, or hears other people talk about you, they're going to build a mental model for who you are based on that information. If your narrative is inconsistent or boring, you've wasted an opportunity.

Building a Good Personal Narrative

Everyone can tell a story.

Lay out the facts about where you've been, what you've done, and what you've learned. What aspects of those facts can be stitched together with a compelling story? What strong themes have been present throughout? And, most importantly, how does the trajectory of your story make you valuable to a potential employer/partner/employee/investor? In particular, how can you demonstrate an exponential personal growth curve and a sense of inevitable success?

Build those things into your story and take ownership of it. Actually put it into writing. How does it look? Are you impressive? What story would the "ideal you" tell? Does this align well with the "ideal developer" narrative we built previously?

The goal here isn't to make things up just to make you look good. Instead, we want to warm up the cold facts of your past with a memorable narrative which helps people understand you.

Once you've started to pull your narrative together, take advantage of every opportunity you can to tell it. Think of each time you have to talk to someone new or write about yourself as practice. Over time, you will have a better and better answer for the question "How and why did you get into web development?"

Leveraging Your Unique Strengths

Though you will need to build up credibility as a developer the old-fashioned way (by building lots of cool stuff!), you have a certain advantage if you've come from a less traditional path. Whatever you've done before can probably be turned into a strength which makes you uniquely suited for particular aspects of your next role.

Libby Wagner, a poet and tenured community college professor, felt apprehensive sharing her background when she first transitioned into her new career as a management consultant. “I didn’t want anyone to know I was a poet,” she says. “I had a lot of tapes going in my head.

The economists I had worked with had really talked down to me, and people in business certainly weren’t interested in what I did.” But she eventually came to realize her history wasn’t a liability, but a unique strength in her business. “The way I see the world is very language-driven,” she says. “I’m going to be listening for nuances and connections and patterns. That’s the way I look at the world and I take that to any interaction with the client, so I’ve learned to ask really good questions.”

Today, Libby has consulted for Fortune 500 clients including Boeing and Nike — and she’s christened her monthly e-newsletter, The Boardroom Poet.

-- ibid

Identify the aspects of your past or prior experience which make you interesting, technical, hungry, or creative. Stitch these together to paint a picture of yourself in the most favorable light.

This may sound strange, but sometimes a good way to approach this (particularly if you are uncomfortable thinking about yourself in this way) is to imagine someone writing a comic book about you. How would they write about you, the hero? How would they blow everything you've done completely out of proportion and make you sound way better than you actually are? You obviously won't do exactly that, but thinking of it that way should help shake loose some of the adjectives you can use to describe your assets and strengths.

Your "About Me"

This isn't just a theoretical exercise. Your first step is to write a paragraph about yourself which describes your personal narrative. Think of this as your "About Me" section of your website. We don't want to spoil the big surprise, but there's a non-zero chance that this will become your actual "About Me" in the near future...

The key here is to remember what we've talked about:

  1. Find the strengths in your background and stitch them together into a short story about yourself.
  2. Focus on showing the characteristics of an "ideal developer" and a sense of inevitable growth.

Next, practice saying it out loud as if someone had just asked you the question "Tell me about yourself... why did you get into web development?"

You will answer that question dozens of times so you might as well have a good answer for it. You don't need to memorize anything specific, but again be mindful of how you present yourself. There is a world of difference between an answer which basically says "I don't know, I just like building stuff" and one which highlights your passion, creativity, and remarkable milestones along the way.

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Next Lesson: Your Vapor Trail