Don’t Be Afraid To Make Yourself Stand Out

A purple "code pony" with a C# cutie mark.  Drawing the code ponies has made me really stand out in the job search long-term.

Want to really stand out to employers? Do something weird.

I remember the moment that code ponies first came into the world.  It was late 2015, and I was a programming bootcamp student.  The bootcamp was run out of a co-working space that had round collaboration tables with whiteboard tops, so you could draw on them and wipe them off.  My friend and I were sitting at our usual table, and someone had left a hot pink marker on it.  I was a bit bored, so I’d picked up the marker and was doodling on the table.  For no particular reason, I drew a generic-looking My Little Pony, and then, to make it relevant, wrote “C#” on its rump. 

The idea took off, for some reason–my classmates liked the ponies.  They were cute, they were fun, they were even somewhat nostalgic, if you were a woman of a certain age.  I started bringing my graphics tablet to class and made better drawings of them when I needed a break from writing code.  By the time our final projects rolled around, I had a small collection of programming-pony digital art, which I used to make a secret Easter-egg CSS theme for my final project, as a joke.

I can’t stress this enough: the code ponies started as a joke. 

They were never meant to be taken seriously.  Actually, I don’t think it’s possible to take them seriously–they’re programming-themed knockoff My Little Ponies.  The entire concept is ridiculous.

Their ridiculousness did not stop me from showing the secret stylesheet to potential employers.  Every recruiter at my bootcamp’s graduation day had probably seen hundreds of student projects before, and most of them had probably been pretty good, but only one–mine–was pony-themed and covered in rainbows. Did it stand out? Yes.

I was insanely memorable, and being memorable got me phone calls.

In 2016, I went to a small women-in-tech conference in Philadelphia, and my company didn’t provide business cards for developers.  Instead, I uploaded a few of the code ponies to a print-on-demand service and bought a handful of stickers to pass out… and, for some reason, people really began to associate me with ponies.  As part of a workplace Secret Santa, a coworker clandestinely delivered a My Little Pony playing card or two to my desk every day without being seen.  Another coworker gave me a giant Rainbow Dash stuffed animal for my birthday.  I had enough Twilight Sparkle figurines on display that my desk began to look like a Hasbro toy outlet.

Eventually, people associated me with My Little Ponies, but they had lost sight of the original joke and didn’t know why.  Feeling an obligation to the small, colorful horses, I dutifully brought at least one Twilight Sparkle toy into every office I worked at.  Sometimes I would explain about the code ponies, but most folks simply accepted that I was an otherwise capable and well-adjusted adult who just happened to have a strange affinity for a children’s television show.

Then I started working at a coding bootcamp, and students would continually ask me for tips on getting their first software development job.  They’d ask, and I would stare blankly and make 24k-dialup noises while my brain tried to turn “I drew fake My Little Ponies and showed them to people until someone gave me a job” into helpful advice.  

The ponies did me a huge favor–they made me memorable, I stood out.  Standing out, however, is not the same as being a good programmer.  If I had only had the flash of the ponies, but no programming chops to back them up, I wouldn’t have been hired.  The trick, code babies, is to be a good programmer first, then add your silly sprinkles on top.

I had a student who was very, very into role-playing games, and he made a side project that generated random characters from one of his favorite games and let a user play magic battles against the computer.  My student learned a lot about object-oriented programming building the app, and his humor and positivity really shone when he was talking about the project, which impressed potential employers.  Another former student of mine is both a Deadhead and a National Park enthusiast; she created an app that matches up National Parks with Grateful Dead songs she feels fit their vibe.  You can click through her app to listen to the songs on Spotify for a real interactive experience.  

Both of those projects are very representative of my students’ personalities, and they’re more fun and memorable than the to-do checklist or tic-tac-toe game that seems to be the go-to suggestion for side projects.  Not that there’s anything wrong with those projects, of course… unless you don’t do anything to make them stand out.  My final project for bootcamp was a run-of-the-mill portfolio website; it only became interesting once I hit the tiny button that flipped the theme over to the secret stylesheet.  There’s nothing wrong with a ‘standard’ project that has a little pizzazz–although if you must follow a tutorial, be sure you place your own twist on it somehow.

Think of the things you like to do outside of programming… maybe you like to play certain games, or listen to certain types of music.  Perhaps, like me, you’re good at drawing small pastel horses.  Whatever it is, can you find a way to incorporate it into a programming project, and make yourself memorable? 

Add a Comment