Developer Evangelism – Bridging the Gap
Once in a while I bump into an old colleague I haven’t met since I switched over to the HANA Cloud Platform team and a common question I keep hearing is:
So, how’s life being a …’cloud evangelist‘?
The way they utter the last part of the question tells me all I need to know. In fact, I got used to facing such reactions whenever I state my current role. And while the definition of the role of an Technology Evangelist on Wikipedia is spot on, I have to admit that I’m not entirely happy about the term myself. Besides the Christian reference (which seems to irritate some) I find that the usual notion of the term evangelist seems to indicate that it is just about spreading the word on a particular topic. Now, that is certainly an important aspect of the job, yet it’s not only about telling the story, but helping to shape it! In fact, what fascinated me most about the job when I applied two years ago was the opportunity to influence the vision and roadmap of the product I was ‘evangelizing‘.
Despite what people may think, it’s not solely an outbound role, but just as much an inbound function – evangelism works both ways. A good evangelist needs to take back the feedback and ideas gained from engaging with the community to the product team and as such actively influences the positioning and roadmap of the product in question. At the same time, especially when the product is new and disruptive (such as a cloud platform) it may also be required to evangelize to the inside to push the topic forward within the company.
So, what could be a better, alternative name for the role? Another term frequently used in this context is advocate. Given that the term originates from the latin word advocatus, which is past participle I’m personally missing the active part of the job here – much of being a good evangelist boils down to being self-directed and actively pushing the agenda. There are no established best practices nor guidelines to follow yet… an evangelist is working on the forefront and as such better have a good understanding of what it takes to push the topic forward.
What about lobbyist? Speaking of behalf of the user is for sure a vital part of the job (more on that later on), yet in everyday use ‘lobbyism does indeed have a bit of a bad smell to it, or as stated on Wikipedia: “The ethics and morality of lobbying are dual-edged. Lobbying is often spoken of with contempt, when the implication is that people with inordinate socioeconomic power are corrupting the law (twisting it away from fairness) in order to serve their own conflict of interest.“
One of the most important characteristics of a good evangelist is being authentic, which is why I feel the term lobbyist does not quite cut it either.
Given the lack of more adequate alternatives I decided to stick to the established term – evangelist – and move on… after all, isn’t it more important to understand what an evangelist is doing, rather than debating about the fitness of the name?
What does an Evangelist do?
At this point of the conversation I usually state that the essence of what I do is quite simple and that technology evangelism is all about
- creating a critical mass of support for a given product/technology
- by spreading the word and
- hereby encouraging a new way of doing things.
How-to best do this greatly depends on the nature of the product/technology in focus of course. In my case, it’s cloud platforms (PaaS) or the HANA Cloud Platform to be more precise. Cloud platforms aim to make the development of new software solutions more agile and cost effective, reducing the time it takes to roll-out new applications to end-users. As such, one of the primary target audiences are developers, architects or technical staff in general. At this point in time PaaS is still a relatively new topic and vendors large and small are fighting over the same developer base. The underlying rational is plain simple:
The platform that accomplishes to attract the most developers will get the most apps. The platform with the most apps will be the most attractive platform for customers. The platform with the biggest customer base will be most attractive for developers and so on.
As such, I believe that the role of a developer evangelist comprises the following four facets:
- Change agent
These four roles all go hand in hand and the lines are blurry, consequently I’m more of using them to structure my thoughts.
The number one criteria every evangelist is measured by is in how far (s)he’s been able to ignite change and push the adoption of the product among the community.
In order to understand the role of a developer evangelist it’s important to understand how developers tick. When it comes to technical topics the only way to get developers to try out your product is to convince them. Developers are reluctant to marketing. That’s where the role of a developer evangelist comes into play: it needs a developer to convince a developer! As such it is vital that you do know your product inside-out and that you do have a background as a software developer. Otherwise… you won’t last long as you will never be able to connect to the people you want to reach.
In fact, credibility is everything when it comes to developer evangelism and it’s that strong tie between your personality and the product that makes you stand out from traditional marketing. That’s by design. As an evangelist you are giving your product a face. It’s that personal touch and the inherent level of integrity that helps you to convince others for your cause. Yet, keep in mind that you can only convince people if they do trust in you and as such be careful not to lose this credibility:
“It takes years to build up trust, and only seconds to destroy it!”
Given that it’s your job to create a critical mass it is obvious that you cannot do it all by yourself. In order to scale you need to team up with others, which brings us to the next role: networker.
Personally I’ve never been a big fan of fan of trendy concepts such “as being t-shaped“, but for the sake of the argument let’s use it to make a point. As mentioned above, the most critical skill needed is technical depth, yet in order to be more effective you need to have a broad set of soft-skills as well. Being a good communicator is one, yet being a good networker is even more important!
Truth is, as an evangelist you’re an exotic and you depend on a broad network to get the job done. First and foremost, it’s essential to have a great working relationship with the product and the development team. After all, you’re representing their product, their hard work and ultimately them. As such, you better always be at the pulse of the team and representing them in the best possible way.
My advice is to involve the team members as much as possible in your outbound activities and you should encourage (and support!) those interested to write or speak in public to do so. Acting as a sounding board – amplifying your team mates’ outreach – is a great way to make them understand and acknowledge your work … and it also helps to reduces your own workload.
Besides the product and the development team there are plenty of other groups that you better connect with. On top of the list are of course all organizations involved in external communication such as Marketing, Global Communications, Social Media teams and Developer Relations. Traditionally it’s been these groups that were solely in charge of speaking publicly about a company’s products.
These groups have already established relationships to media, analysts and other influencers and once you gained their trust they may be willing to connect you with them and involve you in engagements with these groups. This is where your technical expertise can make you shine and where you can show that you add value for them. However, be sure to not give impressions you want to take over their job… let them keep the driver seat or it may result in a short ride without another ticket. Convince them that you are helping to bridge the gap and to drive the message home and they eventually will reach out to you again in similar situations.
From my experience I can say that there’s plenty to learn from these teams. You may be much closer to the technology, yet their trade is communication and they have plenty of experience when it comes to engaging with influencers and C-level executives. Ultimately, if you team up and work together there’s a good chance it’ll turn out into a win-win strategy.
If you’re doing a good job your reputation will grow – as will your daily inbox! You eventually will become the first point of contact for the (outside) world for your product. This is when your network kicks in… you better be able to dispatch requests to the most suitable party and connect the right people. The best way to describe this is to act as a multiplier.
Let me get this straight: when I said you should dispatch requests and connect people I did not intend to say you should act as a flow-type heater! The opposite… just delegating the work is hardly adding value. No, what I really meant was acting as a (knowledge) hub.
Being the first contact person also implies to act as the first line of defense. If you do have the knowledge to answer questions brought to you, you better do so yourself. That’s a smart way to reduce the workload of your team mates and they will appreciate you for doing so. Yet, as a developer evangelist you have to accept that you trade in depth for breadth. You won’t be able to be the subject matter expert in all things – but you better know who is. Only then you know whom to turn to if you need expertise in a special domain.
By acting as a hub you get to understand the most common questions and request and over time you’ll also learn how-to handle and address them. Over time, you’ll get a much better understanding of the broader picture and it will enable you to address gaps or common questions related to your product. This loops back to what I said earlier about influencing the positioning and roadmap of your product. This really is the most rewarding part of the job…
This aspect of the role is the hardest to grasp … and also the hardest to master! Developers (and most technical experts for that matter) are typically not known to be the most outspoken personalities. Speaking or writing in public is not something many developers are keen to do and I guess that’s one reason why developer evangelists are still rare.
While it is still surprising to hear for most people I was quite the introvert myself in the early days of my professional life. Over the years (with growing self confidence) I started to publicly share my thoughts on technical topics. All I can say is that, as everything else in life, writing and speaking in public is something that only gets better once you start practicing it!
The good news is: when it comes to speaking/writing about technical topics it’s not required to be the most eloquent personality. After all, it’s about explaining technical topics and not about winning a poetry contest, right? Consequently, it’s more important to be able to relate to your audience and address their needs. Simple language helps to make your content easier to understand. Besides, keep in mind that a lot of the people you want to reach are not native English-speakers, so for them it may even be beneficial if the language is kept plain and simple.
In short, having been a developer yourself gives you right state of mind to relate to the people you want to convince and if you keep it authentic and act as a spokesperson for both your team and your community you should do more than just fine. All the other facets of the role I outlined before will help you to become a better storyteller. From my personal experience I can say that eventually you’ll find your own voice and your own style. So, just go out there and have fun… the rest will come over time.
So, this is how I tackled the challenge and for the most part it has been an exciting and rewarding experience to be a cloud evangelist. I definitely learned a lot in the past two years and I would not want to have missed out on this opportunity. For personal reasons, I won’t be able to continue working on the forefront of developer evangelism anymore, yet having spent so much time and energy engaging with the community it wouldn’t feel right to step down without a note.
So, before I pursue a different – more internal – role I’d like to share some stories from the trenches and dig deeper on some of the topics I talked about in this post. So, if you’re interested, keep an eye out for part 2.
Till then, have fun coding …