JD Hancock: A UI Engineer with an Attention-Grabbing Hobby

JD Hancock describes himself as a family-friendly cyborg web-slinger who shoots photos of small plastic people in Austin, Texas. In addition to truly being all those awesome things (yes, he is actually a cyborg, thanks to a spinal cord stimulator implanted along his spine by a neurosurgeon in 2010), JD Hancock presents a digital and professional identity from which we can all learn.

Several things make JD Hancock particularly notable as an online role model:

  • His extensive and active online presence
  • His uniqueness and friendliness as a digital identity
  • His professionalism and politeness as a digital identity
  • His enjoyment of a hobby that contributes true value to the online world, helps others, and also happens to boost his reputation
  • The manner in which he uses his hobby to highlight his profession as a user experience engineer

After exploring these facets of JD Hancock's digital life below, we invite you to garner specific insights via our Q&A with the man himself.

The Power of an Active Online Presence

A visit to JD Hancock's index of social media profiles is enough to make one's head spin. One might not expect a user experience engineer with a flare for photography to have a social media presence that even puts most celebrities to shame, but JD Hancock's active presence across popular platforms has certainly contributed to his online success.

Elements that make JD Hancock's online presence so powerful include:

  • The regularity with which he posts
  • The fact that he posts original content
  • The cohesiveness of his digital identity across platforms (you know a JD Hancock post when you see one)
  • The fact that his content revolves around elements and subjects thousands of people love (bright colors, surprising juxtapositions, humorous situations, childhood action figures, beloved elements of popular culture, etc.)

Why it Pays to Be Unique and Friendly

JD Hancock stands out as a digital identity for a reason: he is original and human. As mentioned above, JD Hancock maintains a cohesive and strong digital identity and is very clear about who he is and what he does. He also comes across not only as a real person, but the kind of guy you would like to know. Very clearly in his bios, JD Hancock shares his family focus, playful nature, and unique personality- and it pays off.

The benefits of presenting such a well-composed, continuos, and friendly digital identity include:

  • A stronger connection with followers (people are more likely to follow and engage with real people- not half-baked identities and cold, faceless brands)
  • A better ability to catch others' attention (JD Hancock's unique posts are vivid and different, thus they stand out in cluttered, overwhelming feeds)
  • A more sustainable online career (one is far more likely to stay active online if one is having fun and being oneself)

Why it Also Pays to Be Professional

Though JD Hancock comes across as the kind of guy you would like to call a friend, he also presents an online personality with whom most people would be delighted to work. This is important to note as many people online play up their "fun" sides so much that they destroy any semblance of professionalism that may help them transform their talents into a serious career.

Through the following actions, JD Hancock avoids coming across in a manner that might turn away business partners, bosses, and potential employers while also coming across as a very desirable colleague:

  • Using English properly
  • Posting content with a polite, positive tone
  • Creating content that ads value to the online world
  • Making full use of all public profiles (none are half-finished, missing profile photos, etc.)
  • Behaving in a predictable manner (we know what to expect from JD Hancock's work; this helps us trust him)

JD Hancock's Photographic Legacy

Most people discover JD Hancock through his colorful photography of figurines, which he has been sharing online under a Creative Commons license for years.

Thanks to his willingness to share, JD Hancock's photography has, on multiple occasions been used by a wide variety of well-known publications, including Forbes, The New York Times, Fast Company, Wired, and The Guardian. His work has also shown up on countless smaller websites and posts across the web- all of which link back to his profiles and websites (per Creative Commons' stipulations regarding attribution). The more JD Hancock shares his work with the online community, the more the online community shares JD Hancock's work with the world at large.

Using a Hobby to Highlight a Profession

JD Hancock's profession as a user experience engineer, while fascinating (and in high demand), can be difficult to articulate in a manner that will grab an outsider's interest.

This is where his hobby as a photographer really shines on the professional front. The more one browses through his website and work, the more one comes to appreciate its layout, navigation, and presentation. One also ends up discovering JD Hancock's other projects and impressive online resume, upon which one realizes, very concretely, just how talented he is at his official profession.

What we can learn from JD Hancock on the professional front is that a hobby can be used to highlight one's profession in a manner that makes it both interesting and accessible. Let that be a lesson to us all!

Q&A with JD Hancock

You have an extensive social media presence. Why have you chosen to be active across so many channels, and how do you manage to keep everything up to date?

I love meeting people on the Internet, especially when I would never know them otherwise.

I've been online for about as long as there has been an Internet, and in the days before the web I was connecting with people on newsgroups and email lists and multi-user text adventure games. Social media as we know it today is just the latest version of all that, and of course as new ways to connect with people come along, I do my best to embrace them.

As a photographer, I'm active mostly on Flickr and Instagram. I also try to keep a presence on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and WordPress as well. Recent frustrating technical issues have turned me off of Google+, but I haven't ruled out returning some day. Other services that I've dabbled in include Pinterest and App.net. I'm also working on a website that is exclusively focused on photography and serves as a compilation of all of my public photos.

I keep everything up-to-date partially through passion and determination and partially through automated or semi-automated processes. For example, I take advantage of Tumblr's ability to tweet about my photos on Twitter. I use a service called IFTTT for some automated posting, like pushing my Flickr photos automatically to my Facebook Page, and some semi-automated posting, like writing a draft version of a WordPress blog post each time I add a photo to Instagram. But on App.net, for example, I always craft messages by hand as I've found that community appreciates the effort.

 Are there any particular social media management methods or tools that you have found to be helpful?

Aside from those I've already mentioned, I have found many useful tools for posting photos and other information to various social networks, though I don't necessarily use them all. For example, WordPress can tweet about your blog posts automatically. IFTTT has hooks into many other services beyond those I use. And Buffer can time-shift your Twitter and Facebook posts for you, allowing you to schedule things for a future date. Again, I don't take advantage of these tools today, but they are available.

You have mastered the difficult balance between nerdiness/playfulness and professionalism whereas most people tend to instead slide to one end of the spectrum- either coming across as boring, cold, and overly serious, or esoteric, self-indulgent, and immature.

What advice can you give to those who would like to let their unique passions shine while also maintaining a polished, professional sheen?

I know who I want my audience to be, and I try to share with them images and ideas that will make them feel good. As I'm creating a photo or a blog post or a tweet, I think about the person who will be looking at it when I'm done.

They might be older than me, like my parents. They might be younger than me, like my kids. They might be looking at it on their tablet at home, or their phone on the subway, or their laptop at work. I ask myself, "What would be appropriate for them?"

Hopefully something positive, and maybe something that gives them a giggle. I don't want to make anyone angry or sad or embarrassed. As a result, my content tends to be family-friendly and safe-for-work, with a minimum of whining or snark or venom.

When did you first start sharing your photos online? Is there a story behind your colorful, playful style and focus on figurines?

I started sharing photos online somewhat consistently in 2008, but I didn't really get into the kind of tabletop toy photography I'm known for until 2009.

The story behind my photos is pretty simple. At that time I wanted to get back into photography, but my work schedule made it a challenge. On Flickr I saw people doing wonderful things with portrait photography, natural landscapes, awesome street photography, etc., and I knew there was just no way I was going to have the time to do anything like that. I would have to do something different.

Most of my free time came after my children went to bed, so I decided I'd photograph things then, probably starting with the stuff around my home. My kitchen had the best lighting, so I worked on how to transform it into a temporary photography studio every night. My early photo subjects were meaningful items from my past. Once I started digging around in my old toys, I realized I could use the action figures as stand-ins for real people, and that's when the creative juices started flowing.

Why did you decide to give your photos a Creative Commons license? Had you thought of it as a way to become better known online, or was that result a pleasant surprise?

In the beginning my photos were all under copyright, mostly because I hadn't given it much thought. Once my stormtrooper photos started getting positive comments on Flickr and elsewhere, I realized how much fun I could have with this hobby, and Creative Commons suddenly made a lot of sense. As an amateur photographer, I'm much more interested in sharing my photos with other people than trying to control how they are distributed.

The response I get from people who discover my photos continues to be a pleasant surprise to me. The Internet is bursting with so many amazingly creative people, and I feel fortunate that my photography gets any attention at all. There is still a part of me that can't believe that anyone notices or cares about my silly corner of the Internet.

Your photos are used all over the place (once one discovers becomes familiar with your style, one sees them everywhere). Where is the most interesting or unexpected context in which someone has used your work?

Someone in Poland asked if he could use one of my stormtrooper photos ("Heart Of The Storm") as the image on his credit card. I thought that was a pretty cool idea!

The manner in which you present your hobby online does wonders to highlight your profession as a user experience engineer (as well as your professional experience as a web developer and designer). Was this intentional? Do you have any advice for those who are interested in using their hobbies as a means of highlighting their professional skills?

It was not intentional in the least, but it has certainly helped my career. They've proven an effective ice-breaker in professional and social settings.

My advice for people whose hobbies might help shape their career is to consider your audience as you do it. Think about the type of people you want to connect with in your career, and then share things that those people would find entertaining or engaging. Do not share things that they would find boring or distasteful. You might see that as a limitation on your creativity, or you might see it as a challenge to overcome. If you find yourself struggling with this notion, then it might be that your particular hobby isn't an effective tool for your career, and that's okay. Hobbies should always be enjoyable.

JD Hancock

Generally speaking, are there any specific online tools or resources that you have found to be particularly helpful over the years (either as an amateur photographer or a professional web developer and designer and UI engineer)?

I have found that becoming part of a community of people who are doing what I want to do is an effective step for me in achieving my goals.

In the photography world, I think well-run Flickr groups are particularly inspiring and educational. Groups such as Macro Mondays, 7 Days of Shooting, and Color My World Daily have challenged me to photograph things that fit a scheduled theme, providing inspiration and incentive to create in a timely fashion. Through these kinds of challenges I have watched what others do, connected with them, and learned something. I would encourage anyone starting out in photography to seek out an active Flickr group and become part of that community.

In the web development world, I am inspired and educated by blogs, podcasts, and my coworkers. I'm fortunate to be part of an organization that is populated by people who are driven to succeed, embrace best practices, and let the most worthy ideas win. My co-workers (and former co-workers) are the biggest part of my personal development community.

Thousands of people enjoy following you online. Who do you enjoy following, or find to be a particularly admirable digital personality? 

As far as photographers go, it's easy to see who I follow. Go to my Flickr page and look at the photos that I've picked as my favorites. Those photographers have my attention. I have a similar list of Instagram photographers, but finding my Instagram favorites, while possible, is somewhat more challenging.

My friend Ed Steele is in the process of turning his passion for photographing live events into a career and has made a name for himself in the north Texas area. He has built a beautiful photography website and has an active following on Facebook. Ed is an amazing photographer who understands how to effectively brand himself online by sharing his best work, genuinely engaging with people on social networks, and helping performers polish their image too.

Outside of photography, I enjoy listening to podcasts on the 5by5 network. The people I hear on those shows very often have a thoughtful and compelling digital presence. And one great thing about audio podcasts is that you can enjoy them while you're doing your photography.

Winston Churchill is known for having said "success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." What keeps you from losing your enthusiasm?

I believe when you lose your enthusiasm for something, it means there's a better something for you down the road.

The truth is I take photographs of small plastic people because I want to. I really, really want to. It's so much fun. I can't not take photographs of small plastic people. Will it stay that way forever? Maybe. If it does, then great. If not, then the challenge will be to find the next thing that I will love doing.

I know it's cheesy to say "follow your heart," but that is exactly what I do, every single day.


Featured Image: Four Storms and a Twister by JD Hancock, CC-BY-2.0