Shawn Swyx Wang's career tips: Knowing how to market yourself is not scammy

Shawn Swyx Wang
Shawn Swyx Wang
Jan Tomes
Jan Tomes
0 min
15 Sep, 2021
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As it is with many developers, his path to coding was not straightforward. And looking at Shawn's bio, it's apparent he applied that experience to his whole career: he's the head of developer experience at Temporal.io, author of a bestselling book on progressing career in IT, and a sought-after mentor and speaker. His number one advice? “Marketing is not beneath you.”



What led you to software engineering?

My first career was in finance, and I did a lot of trading of currency derivatives and stock portfolios. We had to do a lot of number crunching in Excel, Python, and then Haskell. I was the guy putting together all that data. I didn't call myself an engineer, but I was writing software. I saw that there are many good ideas in software engineering that I should learn and that once I do that, my life will be significantly better. So I left finance and went through a boot camp to learn all the software engineering practices. My first job was at two Sigma as a front-end engineer. Then I joined Netlify as a developer engineer and then AWS. 

What is the most impactful thing you ever did to boost your career?

This will sound very similar to Ken's thing, and it's called learning in public. I did it when I was at Sigma because I wasn't learning much at work. I was in New York City, there were many meetups, and I decided to give myself my own mentors speaking there, writing blog posts, sharing them, and just finding more ways to grow apart from inside of my company. And I realized that it was way more effective than just waiting for the right boss or co-worker to teach me.

Also, the dev community has been so welcoming and supportive. You learn, share what you've learned, and people will correct you if you're wrong. And once you're wrong, you will never forget what you have been learning. So if you have a pretty thick skin and a low ego, you can learn a lot. In fact, with my most recent job, I wrote a blog post about what I thought was missing in the serverless ecosystem based on what I had seen at AWS and Netlify. Someone commented on my blog, a VC read the comments and hired that guy to head the products at Temporal. And then that guy turned around and hired me based on that blog post. 

For me, learning in public has opened up jobs and speaking opportunities on multiple continents. And I've made a lot of friends who are genuinely interested in technology.

What would be your three tips for engineers to level up their career? 

Understand that some marketing is unavoidable and that knowing how to market yourself authentically is not scammy. It's not beneath you. It's what you need to do to get people to know you, your skills, and the quality of your work. A lot of developers have a build-it-and-they-will-come mentality, and it does not serve them very well. Invest some time into developing your marketing and understanding how to market yourself. 

I have a blog called How to market yourself without being a celebrity. When people look at marketing, they see the celebrity path, the influencer path. But many people don't want to be an influencer, so they'll say: "No marketing for me!" Let's disconnect those two things. Also, there's a difference between marketing yourself internally within your company — which you should always do — and marketing yourself externally with other developers.

My second tip is to clone open-source apps. Clone something that already exists so that you stop making all these little product decisions. Maybe your implementation will be better, which is great; that's how the industry improves. And if it's worse, you start to understand the underlying trade-offs of your project. 

And a third one?

Many people have the cold start problem when it comes to networking and content creation. Yes, you will not get much response when you start. So the way to guarantee response is what I call a "pick up what they put down" approach. If you want feedback, start giving feedback, mainly whenever people put out something new.

When somebody you respect publishes a new demo, a new library, a new blog post, or a new workshop, summarize it, respond to it, react to it. Not with a YouTube reaction video, but actually respond to the meat of the content. Ask questions: Do you agree? Do you disagree? What else can you do with this implementation? Pick up on the things. Find bugs in the demos and the libraries, and you're guaranteed to get a response from that.

I think that's an excellent starting point because these people are already influential. Almost definition, they have more ideas, and they know what they do. You work with them, become a collaborator. Eventually, you start to disagree with them, and you feel forced off into your own path. That's, I think, a great way to get started.



You are now working on developer experience at Temporal.io. What does it entail?

Temporal is an open-source microservices orchestration system, which you could compare to Apache Airflow or AWS Step Functions. But we're better. There's a core server that is open source, and then there's all this stuff around it that needs to reach developers: documentation, developer relations, web UI, and SDKs. And I'm the head of developer experience helping each team in those areas. They are not essential to the server itself but important to how developers experience the product. 

I have overarching excitement in my career about helping technologies cross the chasm. I'm not sure who came up with the term, but the idea is that when you switch over from early adopters to a broad audience, there is a big gap in the middle where you have to fill in a lot of gaps with developer experience. That's what I focus on. 

Do you have some rituals or tools that keep you focused and goal-oriented?

I try to do time blocking. For example, interview calls are on Fridays, which gives me focus on work from Mondays to Thursdays. Within the day, you have different time blocks as well. And if you can block off time for yourself too, I think you can get a lot more done.

Apart from your daily job, you are a writer and speaker, and you recently published The Coding Career Handbook. What inspired you to write it?

Mostly the feedback from my essay on learning in public. It was the most impactful piece of writing I've ever done; it reached over a million people. I can write about technical stuff, and I think it would be easier to sell, but React will be over someday. The thing that will not be over is career stuff, the evergreen things. 

When I decided to write the book, I had some time between my Netlify job and my Amazon job. So I wrote a poll, and the one with the more enthusiastic response was the career stuff. For whatever reason, this is the most valuable topic to my readers. Also, I think there's a gap in the market for leveling juniors and seniors. You can find many materials on how to learn to code and crack the coding interview. And then there's a big gap. But many people are coming into tech as juniors, and there's a lot of companies wanting to hire seniors — and nobody focuses on developing juniors into seniors.

So I'm trying to contribute my thoughts as well as the thoughts of others. I collected 1,500 references to other people's ideas on becoming a senior engineer in the book. And I think if I keep at this — this is version one — I will build it up into the ultimate resource on how to become a senior engineer.



And if you were to highlight one idea from your book, which one would it be?

I'd say the most underappreciated part of my book is the strategy section — the importance of picking the right thing to work on rather than just being a clean coder or choosing the right tech stack. Understanding how money is made from your software is key to selecting the right company and positioning yourself correctly within the company. 

You are also very active in the community: you've contributed to several other books, have a 34k+ following on Twitter, helped to run the React subreddit... How has it impacted your career?

It helps you to know everybody. It allows you to understand what's going on. I'm typically the source of news to my team, and they appreciate that. Also, if you're friends with everybody, you don't have to know everything — it's all coming from that community. 

What open-source projects would you recommend keeping an eye on or contributing to?

I left the React community because I was getting more and more interested in Svelte. I do think it is an underrated framework for front-end developers. It's not for everybody, but I think it solves a good set of problems, including state management, styling, and animation. At React, we still don't have good answers for these things after all these years.

What pieces of your work are you most proud of?

Mostly the community behind the coding career handbook. I set up a semi-private Discord channel for people who opt into the community, and seeing people get jobs, double their pay when they go from junior to senior — that's really exciting. It's a great place for discussion where you can be totally honest. Realizing that that's something that I can do for ten years and not get bored of it, that's something I'm proud of.


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15 Sep, 2021

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What led you to software engineering? 
I was raised in the ecosphere of tech because my dad is a software engineer at IBM, and my mom was a designer there, too. My dad always encouraged me to join STEM and take a look at computer science — however, I was convinced I wanted to be a medical doctor. In my first year of college, I declared a biology major and quickly realized I was not too fond of it. In my second semester, I switched to an actuarial science major where I took Introduction to Computer Science, and the rest is history. In my second year of college, I declared a computer science major and began my journey from there.
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What would be your three tips for engineers to level up their career? 
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Second, don't be afraid to ask questions. If you try your best to solve a problem or answer a question you have, but you can't figure it out after a reasonable amount of time, ask a team member or mentor for help.
And lastly, invest in the right resources for learning. When I started my journey, I didn't know which platforms worked for me to learn. Now, I have a few trusted platforms such as Frontend Masters, Free Code Camp, or Level Up Tutorials that I go to when I need to learn a new skill.
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My team always has Fika, a traditional Swedish coffee break, scheduled every afternoon. Every couple of Fridays, we have team games planned to release some stress. 
Also, I tend to have a lot of free time to focus, which is nice but makes for a boring answer to this question!
Do you have some rituals or tools that keep you focused and goal-oriented?
I'll admit that I've been struggling with staying motivated in the time of remote work. I've been remote with Spotify since onboarding a year ago, but my team is wonderful, and they help me when I'm down.
Apart from that, I use Todoist to keep track of my tasks, and, naturally, I listen to Spotify while working. But other than that, not really. Maybe I should adopt some new tools to keep me on track!
My current favorite Spotify playlist is Brand New Chill: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/37i9dQZF1DX6uQnoHESB3u?si=380263b3c853442e
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If you could stress one piece of advice on surviving a technical interview, which would it be?
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What's the single best practice everyone who writes code should follow?
Remember that while you are technically writing code for computers, you're also writing it for humans. Your code should be readable and have as little complexity as possible without sacrificing accessibility or performance.
In addition to the book, you co-host the Ladybug Podcast. What inspired you to enter this field, and what are the podcast's main topics?
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***
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What are you working on right now? 
The big thing I'm working on right now is a rewrite of my website. It'll be much more than just a developer portfolio — I'll have user accounts, and there'll be fun things that you can do with it. And because it's more than just a website, I'm using Remix, a new cool framework in the React ecosystem. I'm also working on updating my material on TestingJavaScript.com and a TypeScript course as well. 
So, whatever I'm working on, it ends up resulting in lots of opportunities for content.


Do you have some rituals that keep you focused and goal-oriented? 
I have a notepad where I keep all of my notes of what I'm going to do for the day so that when I'm checking things off, I'm not distracted notifications. I've tried apps for that, and that does not work well for me. 
I also am a firm believer in inbox zero. I have my work inbox and my personal inbox, and I keep them both at zero. And I kind of use that as a to-do list. 
And if I'm not feeling excited about working for some reason, I will often hop on my Onewheel, which is an electric skateboard that only has one giant wheel in the middle. It's just a total blast, and I'll hop on that with my backpack and a charger, and I'll go to a Starbucks or a park just to declutter my mind.
What things in the React universe are you excited about right now?
React version 18 is coming out soon. The experimental version is out there, and it's fun to play with. I'm just really thrilled that it's no longer a concurrent mode but concurrent features that you can opt into. Cool things like that will enable React server components in the future. 
But the biggest thing I'm excited about is Remix. That's huge. It eliminates a lot of problems that are solved well other tools, but when I'm using Remix, I don't have those problems, so I don't need those clusters.
You already said that teaching is an integral part of the learning process, and you stand your word since you're also a full-time educator. What inspired you to enter this field?
I have been a teacher for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a church where you talk in front of your peers from a very young age, and my mom was an elementary school teacher, so teaching has just always been a part of me. 
I really just enjoy sharing what I'm learning with others. As far as teaching technical topics, I gave my first workshop when I was still a student at Brigham Young University. With my fellow, we taught how to use AngularJS, and I got Firebase to sponsor pizza so they would show up, and that was pretty fun.
Then I started teaching on the side at egghead.io right after I'd graduated. That was when I first got a paycheck for teaching. And I realized that teaching could be quite lucrative and support my family and me as a full-time endeavor. So I did it — I quit my job. I'm a very risk-averse person, so I'd done teaching as a side hustle for four years just to verify that I could make this work.
When TestingJavaScript was released, and I got that paycheck, I realized that I didn't need my PayPal salary anymore. I could just focus my daytime on teaching and give my evenings back to my family, which was a nice trait.


Apart from that, how has teaching impacted your career? 
Earlier I mentioned that pretty much all of my jobs came because I was perceived as an expert. After the first job, where I was an intern and then converted into full-time, I never applied to another. I worked for four different companies, and they wouldn't have recruited me if they didn't know who I was and what I was doing. My content is how they knew who I was — I just made it easy for them to find me. Teaching made that impact. It made my career. 
We talked about React and Remix. Are there any other open-source projects that you'd recommend keeping an eye on or contributing to?
I have some myself. React Testing Library is probably the biggest one that people are familiar with. And if React isn't your jam, then other framework versions of the testing library. 
React Query is also really popular. If you're using Remix, you don't need it, but if you're not, I strongly advise using React Query cause it's a stellar, fantastic library, and Tanner Linsley, the creator, is a stellar and fantastic person. 
What pieces of your work are you most proud of? 
Probably the biggest thing I've ever done is EpicReact.Dev. It has helped tens of thousands of people get really good at React, improve their careers and make the world a better place with the skills that they develop. My whole mission is to make the world a better place through quality software, and I feel like I've done that best with Epic React. 
There are things that I've built at other companies that are still in use, and I'm proud of those cause they've stood the test of time, at least these last few years. But of everything, I think Epic React has made the biggest impact.
***
Follow Kent on Twitter and listen to his favorite Spotify playlist
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