Under the Influencers


I’ve never really been one for titles or labels.  Pejorative terms like geek or nerd never bothered me growing up.  I never really quibbled over being called a technician or an engineer (or rock star).  And when the time came to define what it was that I did in my spare time in front of a monitor and keyboard I just settled on blogger because that was the most specific term that described what I did.  All that changed this year.

When I went to VMware Partner Exchange, I spent a lot of time hanging out with Amy Lewis (@CommsNinja) from Cisco.  Part of this was due to my filming of an IPv6-focused episode of Engineers Unplugged.  Afterwards, I spent a lot of time as a fly on the wall listening to conversations among the assembled folks.  I saw how they interacted with each other.  I took copious notes and tried to stay out of the way as much as possible.  Not that Amy made that easy at all.  She went out of her way to pull me out of the shadows and introduce me to people that mattered and made decisions on a much grander scale than I was used to.  What struck me is not that she did that.  What made me think was how she introduced me.  Not as a nerd or an engineer or even as a blogger.  She used a very specific word.


It took some time before the enormity of what Amy was doing sank in.  Influencers are more than just a blog or a Facebook page or a Twitter handle.  They take all of those things and wrap them into a package that is greater than the sum of its parts.  They say things that other people listen to and consider.  The more I thought about it, the more it made sense.

I think of influencers as people like Stephen Foskett (@SFoskett), Greg Ferro (@etherealmind), or Ivan Pepelnjak (@IOSHints).  When those guys speak, people listen.  When the publish a podcast or write a product review that turns heads.  Every field has influencers.  Wizened people that have been there and done just about everything.  Those people then spend their time educating the greater whole to avoid making the same mistakes all over again or to help those with ability to find the vision needed to do great things.  They don’t hold that knowledge to themselves and use it as capital to fight political battles or profit from those that don’t know any better.  Being a blogger or technical person on the various social media outlets invovles a bit of give and take.  It requires a selfless type of attitude.  Too many analyst firms live by the maxim “Don’t give away the farm” when it comes to social media interaction.  Those firms don’t want their people giving away advice that could be locked into a report and assigned a price.  In my mind, true influencers are the exact opposite.

It struck me funny when Amy referred to me in the same way that thought of others in the industry.  What had I done to earn that moniker?  Who in their right mind would listen to me?  I’m some kid with a keyboard and a WordPress account.  However, the truth of things was a little beyond what I was initially thinking.  It didn’t really hit me until my trip to Cisco Live.

Everyone is an influencer.

Influencers aren’t just luminaries in the industry.  They aren’t the wise old owls that dispense advice like a fortune cookie.  Instead, influencers are people that offer knowledge without reservation for the sole purpose of making the world better off than it was.  You don’t have to have a blog or a Twitter handle to be an influencer.  Those things just make it easy to identify the chatty types.  To really be an influencer, you only need have the desire to speak up when someone asks a question that you have insight into.  If two people are having a conversation about the “best” way to configure something, an influencer will share their opinion freely without reservation.  It might not be much.  A simple caution about a technology or an opinion about where the industry is headed.  But the influence comes because those people take what you’ve said and incorporate it into their thinking.

I’ve been trying to champion people when it comes to writing and speaking out on social media.  I want more bloggers and Tweeters and Facebookers.  I’ve taken to collectively calling them influencers because of what that term really represents.  I want more influencers in the world.  I want intelligent people giving freely of themselves to advance the industry.  I want to recognize them and tell others to listen what these people are saying.  Sure, having a blog or a Twitter handle makes it easier to point them out.  But I’m not above telling someone “Go talk to Bob.  He knows a lot about what’s troubling you”.

Tom’s Take

It doesn’t take a lot to be an influencer.  Helping someone decide between detergent at the grocery store makes you an influencer.  What’s important is taking the next step to make it bigger and better.  Make your opinions and analysis heard.  Be public.  Sure, you’re going to be wrong sometimes.  But when you’re right people will start to listen.  Not just people wanting to know the difference between Tide and Gain.  People that have C-level titles.  Product managers.  People that want to know what the industry is thinking.  When you see that something you’ve said or done has a a real impact on a tangible thing, like a website or a product look, you can rest easy at night knowing that you have influence.

Nobody Cares

Writing a blog can be very fun and rewarding.  I’ve learned a lot from the things I’ve written.  I’ve had a blast with some of the more humorous posts that I’ve put up.  I’ve even managed to be anointed at the Hater of NAT.  After everything though, I’ve learned something very important about writing.  For the most part, nobody cares.

Now, before you run to your keyboard and respond that you do indeed care, allow me to expound on that idea just a bit.  I’ve written lots of different kinds of posts.  I’ve talked about educational stuff, funny lists, and even activist posts trying to get unpopular policies changed.  What I’ve found is that I can never count on something being popular.  There are days when I sit down in front of my computer and start furiously typing away as if I’m going to change the world with the words that I’m putting out.  When I hit the publish button, it’s as if I’m launching those paragraphs into a black hole.  I’m faced with a reality that maybe things weren’t as important as I thought.

A prime example is the original intent for my blog.  I wanted to write a book about teaching people structured troubleshooting.  I figured if I could get a few of those chapters down as blog posts, it would go a long way to helping me get everything sorted out in my mind.  Now, almost three years later, the two least read posts on my site are those two troubleshooting posts.  There are images on my site that have more hits than those two posts combined.  If I were strictly worried about page views, I’d probably have given up by now.

In contrast, some of the most popular posts are the ones I never put a second thought into.  How about my most popular article about the differences between HP and Cisco trunking?  I just fired that off as a way to keep it straight in my head.  Or how about my post about a throwaway line in a Star Trek movie that exploded on Reddit?  I never dreamed that those articles would be as big as they have ended up being.  I’m continually surprised by the things that end up being popular.

What does this mean for your blogging career?  It means that writing is the most important thing you can do.  You should invest time in creating good quality content.  But don’t get disappointed when people don’t find your post as fascinating as you.  Just get right back on your blogging horse and keep turning out the content.  Eventually, you’re going to find an unintentional gem that people are going to go wild about.

Despite the old adage, lightning does indeed strike twice.  The Empire State Building is hit about 100 times per year.  However, you never know when those strikes are going to hit.  Unless you are living in Hill Valley, California you can never know exactly when that bolt from the blue is going to come crashing down.  In much the same way, you shouldn’t second guess yourself when it comes to posting.  Just keep firing them out there until one hits it big.  Whether it be from endless retweets or a chance encounter with the front page of a news aggregator you just need to put virtual pen to virtual paper and hope for the best.

The Arse First Method of Technical Blogging – Review

When you tell people that you are a blogger, you tend to get a couple of generic responses.  The first is laughter or dismissal.  Some people just don’t understand how you can write all the time.  The second response if curiosity.  Usually, this is expressed as a torrent of questions about how to blog.  What do I write about?  How much should I write? How often should I post? And on and on.  For those of us that have been blogging long enough, it’s almost a wrote recitation of our standards and practices for blogging.  Some people have even been smart enough to turn that standard reply into a blog post.  For Greg Ferro, it was time to turn that blog post into an e-book:


Cheeky, isn’t it? Weighing in at a svelte 37 pages, this little how-to guide details many of Greg’s secrets for writing blog posts over his career.  He talks about tools for screen captures and knowledge archiving.  He also discusses hosting options and content creation.  To the novice blogger, it’s a step-by-step guide in how to get started in blogging.  I would highly recommend picking it up if you aren’t sure how to get started in technical blogging, which is remarkably different than blogging about food or pictures or any other non-technical thing.

The Catch

The funny thing about this book is that, while reading more and more of it, I realized that I violate almost every one of Greg’s recommendations for writing a technical blog.  My opening paragraphs are more like story hooks.  I don’t use a lot of bullet points.  I like putting pictures in my posts.  There are many others that I ignore on a pretty regular basis as well.  But don’t think that means that I don’t appreciate what Greg is trying to do with his book.

Greg writes like he speaks in real life.  He doesn’t mince words.  He’s not in love with the sound of his voice.  He’s going to give it to you straight when you ask him a question.  His blogging style is totally reflective of his speaking style.  On the other hand, my blogging style is indicative of my speaking style as well.  I like telling stories and relating things back to universal images through metaphors.  I tend to expound on subjects and give more details to support my arguments rather than restricting that to a simple bulleted statement. People that read Greg’s blog posts and my blog posts would likely be able to pick out which of us authored a particular post.  That’s because we have our own voices.

Greg’s book is a great way to get started with technical blogging.  After you get your first couple of posts down, it’s important to think about finding your voice.  You may like using lots of pictures or video.  You may prefer to keep it short and sweet with the occasional code example.  The key is find a style that works for you and stick with it.  Once you find a comfortable writing style you’ll find yourself writing more often and about more complex subjects.  When you aren’t worried about getting the words down on paper you’re free to dive right into things that are going to take a lot of thought.

The recommended price of this book is $4.99.  If that scares you off, you can pick it up for just $2.99.  For the price of a candy bar and a 20oz soda, you can learn a little more about blogging and using tools to amplify your writing ability.  If nothing else, you can read through it so you know how Greg thinks when he’s writing down information about things.  You can purchase The Arse First Method of Technical Blogging at https://leanpub.com/Technical-Blogging-Writing-Arse-First.  I promise you won’t be disappointed.