Authenticity, empathy, vulnerability, and…content? Something feels out of place. Not for multihyphenate Rob Sutter, who sees this trio of qualities as major differentiators in the content creation process. When audiences are already inundated with so much information on a daily basis, truly starting from a place of understanding can help content emerge from the masses.
“The key thing I want to hammer down is that (creating engaging content) is all about empathy for your audience and what you’re trying to help them with,” says Rob, whose day job is leading engineering teams at Cloudflare.
More from Rob on the value of bringing authenticity to content, where vulnerability comes into play, and some practical advice for anyone hoping to create content that stands out.
Authenticity as a content differentiator
In talking to Rob, it’s apparent that he’s achieved a level of authenticity that has taken years and life experiences to cultivate. That’s only served to benefit the content he’s created over time, and one of the main reasons he’s been able to break through the noise and connect with all types of audiences.
“In any sort of content creation, if you want to grow an audience it has to resonate. The other thing you’re developing is outbound communication skills,” he says. “This benefits presentations to executives to 1:1s or awkward conversations to broader things like demo days. The ability to say, ‘we did something cool and I want to talk about it’ is very career-enhancing.”
In any sort of content creation, if you want to grow an audience it has to resonate.
Building up these skills hasn’t been completely self-imposed. Rob was faced with a dilemma many of us experienced since 2020 and are still feeling the after effects of — moving away from the energy of meeting new people at conferences to the lack of human connection that comes with speaking to a camera and hoping it resonates with the people on the other side.
“I had a lot more trouble when everything went virtual,” he says. “It’s very difficult to talk to a blank screen. You’re giving a presentation into the void and you stop recording and it’s just silence, compared to seeing the audience and engaging with the audience. It’s not that you do it for the applause, but the feeling that you participated in something together.”
It’s what makes being a content creator so difficult for so many people, he’s found. But what Rob’s learned over time is that there’s value in knowing yourself to make sure that it doesn’t have to be that way. “You don’t need to be present in every medium. Each takes time, focus, and energy. Once you find where you’re outperforming, lean into your strengths rather than strengthen weaknesses. If you’re a writer, be a better writer. If you like talking to people, work on communication skills. You can’t be an audio producer, an author, and an actor all at once. These are all complex disciplines and trying to do it all at once, and is a recipe for burnout,” Rob says.
You don’t need to be present in every medium. Each takes time, focus, and energy. Once you find where you’re outperforming, lean into your strengths rather than strengthen weaknesses.
It all ties back to giving yourself the space to understand who you are and what brings you joy and energy.
“I don’t think I would’ve been this authentic 10 years ago,” Rob admits. “It took me time to be comfortable with who I am. I don’t know how to tell someone how to get there. For me it took so long. I do try to tailor my message towards audiences. I don’t try to be like my audience. I try to put myself in their shoes without pretending.”
“Maybe it’s just a point in my life where I don’t have the energy to be something I'm not anymore,” he adds. “One thing I’ve tried to live by is always telling the truth…don’t just tell the truth, be the truth and be who you are.”
The value of being vulnerable
In order to understand where Rob is today, it’s helpful to see where he came from.
“I’m the Forrest Gump of content creation,” Rob says, with a laugh. “I’ve been in and out of software development, I was in the U.S. Army for four years…it’s not the path you recommend to someone, but it makes it easier to relate to different audiences.”
Here’s the abridged version: After attending Carnegie Mellon for Computer Science, Rob left to join the U.S. Army, spending time all over the world, including the Middle East and North Africa. “I would say this is part of that empathy thread. I lived in a lot of places where I’m the outsider,” he says.
Professionally, he co-founded WorkFone, a SaaS startup, and in developer advocate roles with Amazon’s AWS Serverless team and Fauna. It was in his roles as a developer advocate that he realized the importance — and taxing nature — of content creation.
“There’s no substitute for doing the thing. And that can be challenging for someone like me. One thing content creators — and I — have been vocal about is mental health issues,” he says, noting that he’s stepped back from the relentless pace of content creation in recent months.
There’s a level of perspective that comes with building audiences, combined with living through these unique experiences, Rob says, which has helped in this stage of his career as a leader of teams.
When you see someone struggling, you can help.
“When you see someone struggling, you can help. I am vulnerable with my teams. I let them know, ‘if you need time, take it.’ We all need time. You don’t have to tell me why, because we’re all not at 100% all of the time.”
The elements of engaging content
We asked Rob for some practical advice for aspiring content creators who want to stand out in a crowded space. Here’s a few of his recommendations.
1. Opt for depth
“I wouldn’t suggest scannable content,” he says, pointing to a past series with AWS he led years ago and that still resonates with audiences.
“That was good because it meant I was attuned to our customers and the value,” he says.
When there’s a higher level of depth and a healthy dose of authenticity, you’re more likely to get eyes on the content, Rob says.
2. Avoid the toxicity, but seek out constructive feedback
It brings Rob little joy to state what is clear in a lot of tech circles: “Software engineering is renowned for having pools of toxicity in it.”
For Rob, that meant being more intentional about his messaging and audience inclusion, whether they’re new and little understanding of a concept or more experienced and just reticent to new ways of thinking. There was a lot of work behind the scenes to have peers review his content, with the understanding that constructive criticism would come back his way.
“You have to have a level of humility to absorb that feedback and act on it. In tech, people are using their content as a weapon to gain status and a dominant position. To me it’s archaic,” he says.
3. Put yourself out there
Whether you like to admit it or not, Rob says, everyone has a multifaceted story to tell. For his team, he’s encouraged them to tap into every part of themselves and find ways to put themselves out there, pointing to Polywork as one avenue he’s recommended.
“For most content today, the market is larger than you think because it’s global. How many people understand the phrase milkshake duck?” he says with a laugh. “There’s a place for your content.”
The catch, he says, is that if you're being authentic, you’re also probably exposing some level of vulnerability.
“You have to embrace (vulnerability) to be successful and the dark side is that vulnerability exposes you too,” he says, qualifying the statement by adding that he knows how difficult it is for marginalized groups to put themselves out there in ways he can.
Does putting yourself out there in some way help developers stand out? Absolutely, Rob says.
“I do think as a hiring manager, the faster and more effectively you can tell me there is a story there, the more likely I am to give you time to tell you the story, and the more likely I am to hire you through engaging with it,” he says.