I recently ran across this light-hearted post on StackOverflow. If you’re not familiar with StackOverflow, it’s a question/answer site for programmers. Users gain reputation points for answering questions from other users, and it can be addictive to grow your reputation over time. I’m in the top 3% of StackOverflow users, myself.
Based on the principal that 10% of the world’s population owns 90% of the wealth, one user wanted to see how much of the total reputation points were “owned” by the top 10% of users. His initial calculations showed that 95% of all reputation points belonged to this group! It wasn’t long before people started cracking jokes about our economy:
Of course, the national/global economy and the StackOverflow economy are two very different things, and I’m not trying to trivialize some very tough problems the U.S. faces. But there’s still a nugget of wisdom here. While reputation points do offer some benefits on the site, they are not “spent”, per se. So your reputation is really a measure of the value you’ve generated.
If you apply this principle to your business endeavors, you might be amazed at how well it works. As a contract Ruby developer over the last seven years, I’ve learned that my success is closely tied to the value I generate for others. I’m not just talking about doing a good job for my clients, though that comes first. I do a lot of things I don’t get paid for, directly:
- I speak at local Ruby events.
- I’ve co-organized both the Kansas City and Lincoln, NE ruby meetups.
- I answer a lot of Ruby questions on Stack Overflow.
- I’ve contributed to open source projects, including Ruby on Rails itself.
- When I don’t have the availability to take on new clients, I refer them to other good developers I know.
These things have been very rewarding on their own, but have they “paid off” in real dollars? Absolutely. Fellow Rubyists refer work to me, because I have a good reputation. One client skipped the first half of their interview process entirely, based on my contributions to Rails. And yes, being a “3-percenter” on StackOverflow has given clients the confidence to trust my expertise.
My advice to any up-and-coming developers is always the same: look for ways to generate value, whether they pay directly or not. If you’re a contractor, you’ll benefit in many of the same ways I do. If you’re a recent college grad, your open source contributions and public speaking will say more about your ambition and talent than your GPA.
In fact, generating value should be the top priority of every business. That’s why the best mission statements tell people what value you provide, not what things you sell. We all like dollars. What sets you apart in business is how valuable you are to the world.