Technical thought leadership can accelerate your career and grow your engineering or manufacturing business. But before you invest time and effort into writers, platforms, and distribution, consider the following questions:
1. Why do I want to become a tech influencer?
Maybe you want a book deal, to do more keynotes, or to sell more products. Perhaps you just want to build an audience for your thoughts — all perfectly fine.
Get clear on why you want to invest in thought leadership to avoid quitting when it gets tough (and it will). And remember: you don’t have to become a tech thought leader — it just lubricates your career growth.
2. Who’s best suited for engineering thought leadership?
You can start at any point in your career, but if you’ve founded a startup, contributed to open source, or worked in developer relations, you’re right on track.
Millions of engineers out there could use some of your expertise, and giving away your secrets endears them to you.
The easiest way to approach tech thought leadership is to write for your younger self. An engineer is born every minute, and they’ll need guidance to avoid your mistakes. That’s your prime audience.
3. What does good technical thought leadership look like?
Think @lethain and @rands. Their content is concise, detailed, and practical. Writing for engineers requires a slight mindset shift, as you’re talking to people who skim information quickly for a living. If you can’t deliver value consistently, they’ll write you off.
You don’t have to talk about code or technical topics only – you can write about other things tangential to an engineer’s life, such as salary negotiations (see this salary guide from Patrick McKenzie), product development, engineering career paths, or mental health.
I like Jakub Czakon’s developer marketing newsletter, Lenny Rachitsky’s software product newsletter (join the Slack group), Will Larson’s detailed newsletters on engineering leadership, and Shawn Wang’s developer content. And of course, Paul Graham’s blog.
4. Where can I share engineering thought leadership?
Writing is the lowest-bandwidth way to get your thoughts out into the world. Writing sharpens your thinking, and good writing compounds and spreads quickly.
Most engineers start with blogging but thought leadership isn’t limited to writing online. You can:
- Write a book (much harder)
- Give keynotes (takes practice)
- Stream on Twitch (takes effort)
- Start a podcast (high bandwidth)
- Attend conferences (slightly easier)
- Hire a LinkedIn ghostwriter (much easier)
Pick a medium you’d feel most comfortable in and experiment with it for at least 6 months. Switch to something else if it isn’t working out, but always give it your best shot.
5. What’s more important: content quality or distribution?
First-time founders build products; second-time founders build distribution. The same applies to content. It’s less about what you say and more about how many people you can spread the message to.
If you’re serious about technical thought leadership, focus on building a content distribution channel: a newsletter, blog, YouTube/Twitch/TikTok channel, or podcast.
Social media is great for testing content ideas and getting early traction, but you don’t own your audience and can get booted off at any time. The only thing you’ll ever own is your email list, so build that from the beginning.
Distribution isn’t limited to your own channels — you can borrow distribution from other tech influencers. In fact, I’d recommend aiming for appearances on other people’s distribution channels at first.
Ask that podcaster if you can come on, ask to write for that newsletter, and request 5 minutes on stage at that event. It’s a quick, easy, and cheap way of getting your name out there.
6. How will I know if my technical thought leadership is working?
Thought leadership is measurable. Some metrics you might want to track include:
- Page views: Search Console gives you a good idea of how people are stumbling upon your blog online, which tells you what you can focus on. If you’re working on distribution, this number should be fluctuating upwards.
- Speaking invites: Who’s asking you to come on their podcast or to their event to share your thoughts? How many people want to do a YouTube episode with you?
- Book sales: Book deals might be fewer and farther between, but sales are a high-quality indicator. It takes a few hours to complete a book, so someone investing time into your thoughts indicates gold.
- Subscribers: You’ll know your newsletters are resonating when your numbers climb up and to the right. You can incentivize email subscribers to share your newsletter with giveaways and other tactics.
- Conversations: Inbound DMs and comments are a great indicator that your content resonates. Good thought leadership produces more thoughts, and it’s your job to engage with them.
- Funding: Your writing can draw the attention of LPs, angel investors, and VCs interested in your vision of the future. Packy McCormick of Not Boring launched a VC fund off the back of his tech newsletter, as did Lenny Rachitsky. You don’t have to convince investors who’ve been following your work for a while.
Tie your efforts back to your initial goals, but focus on leading instead of lagging metrics. Better and more frequent input leads to the output you want.
For example, if your goal is to get a book deal, don’t measure how many agents have emailed you — measure how many words you write each day.
If growing an online audience is your goal, don’t count your followers — count your weekly posts.
7. How long does it take to see results?
Months, at the very least. Years, realistically. At least a decade, if we’re being honest. Time and momentum work in your favor.
Rands has been blogging since 2002; Will Larson since 2007. Marques Brownlee, one of the top tech YouTubers in the world, has been in the game since 2008.
This is because a single viral hit isn’t typically enough to sustain your momentum, and it usually takes a few years before you’ve properly formed your own thoughts on a topic.
There’s no way to know what’ll land, so take as many swings as you can.
8. Should I even bother with technical thought leadership?
You can build a successful technical career without ever writing a single Twitter thread, LinkedIn post, blog post, or video. But technical thought leadership helps propel your career forward.
The best time to start publishing was 10 years ago. The second best time was
today yesterday. Start now.
At Column, I help technical leaders build their online profiles. Here’s how I do content marketing for dev-focused startups, a previous interview with Leo Anthias, CEO of data science platform Datapane, and my chat with Chris De Vylder, CRO at Sentry.io.