July 22, 2010

Technology evangelists: What we do, how to find and hire one, how to become one

July 22, 2010 - Categories: career, work

I had a great chat with Simon Law yesterday about technology evangelism. A startup approached him looking for a tech evangelist, and I gave him tips on how to find and develop one. I’ve learned a lot about technology evangelism through IBM, where I get to work with and learn from amazing people.

What do technology evangelists do? We help people understand and make the most of new technologies. It’s not as straightforward as showing someone a new tool and expecting them to hit the ground running. We look for success stories and share those. We look for people who have the potential to create success stories and we support them. We look for patterns of use that are working well, and we experiment to make them even better. We write, make presentations, and even develop tools. We cheer people up when they hit the troughs of disillusionment in their personal Gartner hype cycle. We help keep things going. We coach people. We also help people navigate the organization, connecting people with developers, sales teams, experts, or other people as needed.

Technology evangelism goes beyond technical support. It’s more about proactively engaging people, working with the social factors, and collecting and sharing both data and stories. Sometimes you’ll see this formalized in a role. Other times, people volunteer.

How do you find technology evangelists? You can start by looking for vocal supporters of your product or service. There’s a difference between being an enthusiastic early adopter and being able to share that enthusiasm with other people. Look for people whom people already ask for technology or productivity tips. Productivity? Yes. Because mainstream adopters who want to find better ways of doing things don’t ask, “Are there any new tools that can help me do this?” They might look for people they look up to as really productive. Sometimes they ask for advice about methods. Other times, they pick up new tools and methods by osmosis – looking over someone’s shoulder. Early adopters might think about tools, but the rest of the world cares about what you can do with the tools. Find someone who’s good at talking about what people can do instead of just what the tool can do.

Interviewing technology evangelists: You’re looking for passion, great communication skills, empathy with challenges, insights into processes and social factors, and patience without condescension. Pick a target user persona and ask your prospective evangelists to convince that person to use your product or service. Look for the people who talk about benefits and tell stories instead of listing features. Ask them to tell a story about how they helped address someone’s challenges. Ask them to tell a story about finding a usage pattern that works for one group and translating it to fit another group. Ask them to tell a story about how they helped someone enthusiastic about a tool, someone so-so about a tool, and someone actively resisting a tool.

A note about passion: People don’t need to talk like caffeinated bunnies in order to show passion and enthusiasm about something. In fact, someone who can explain things clearly and calmly may be a better fit for your target audience. It’s easier to spread a technology or idea when people can identify with the evangelist.

There’s probably a fundamental optimism in technology evangelism. You’ve gotta believe that change can make things better. The most effective technology evangelists can be simultaneously optimistic (encouraging, enthusiastic) and pessimistic (anticipating and dealing with potential challenges).

How to become a technology evangelist: You don’t need a formal job title to be a technology evangelist. You do need to be passionate about helping other people work more effectively. It’s like sales. It’s not about selling, it’s about helping people buy. There are a lot of different ways to get started. You can coach people around you (potentially frustrating if a tool isn’t a good fit). You can find and coach people who want to learn. You can write blog posts and tutorials, describe patterns, and record success stories. You can make presentations, podcasts, and videos. You can answer questions in discussion forums.

How to get hired as a technology evangelist: Find a company that makes something you’re passionate about. Evangelize it. When you get good at it and develop a following, talk to the company about formalizing your role. Benefits of being in-house: better access to developers and other people who can help clients rock, better feedback loops, wider reach.

Other thoughts on technology evangelism?