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

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?

Sooner or later? Expertise and the new

I will learn how to sell, sooner or later. The question is: sooner, or later?

Years of experience can help a lot when you’re selling. You know your stuff. You have war stories. You might even have a great reputation. So there’s a good argument for getting into sales later, when I’ve got years of consulting experience to back me up.

On the other hand, for the areas I’ve excelled in, I’ve done so without decades of experience. (I’m 26. I can’t have decades of experience.) In my current role, I’ve made a big difference in the way we find experts and hold innovation conversations. In my previous project, I picked up a new platform. Less than a year after I started, I spoke at the developer conference. Same for my past interests: computer science education, wearable computing, and so on. A little passion and effort, compounded, can result in a lot.

I like working on the edge, where things aren’t clearly defined. That’s where I can get the most scale by sharing what I’m learning, and where there are the most opportunities for the newcomers.

One of my mentors advised me before to keep looking for the new areas. After all, when a field matures to the point of having IT architects and specialists with decades of experience, a relatively recent hire like me is at a disadvantage. But when everything’s new, I’ve got a fair shot at helping make a difference.

I remember feeling that ol’ imposter syndrome when I was one chapter ahead of the students in the course I was teaching. I hated not being able to bring lots of depth to the class. But work doesn’t have to be like that. Not only can I reach out and find experts and mentors, I can also learn on the job.

I think we can make this work. Not only that, I think it will be awesome. =)

Career growth in a large company

I’m not counting my chickens before they hatch.

But there is something really cool about exploring career growth in a large company. For one thing, I can talk about it. I can simultaneously love my current work and be curious about the possibilities. I can get advice from mentors and votes of confidence from colleagues.

It’s also pretty awesome that I can read through lots of intranet resources. When I was a graduate student applying to IBM, I used the intranet to read about behavioural interviews and other techniques. Now, in my current position, I can look for deeper information about Global Business Services and about Lotus.

The blogosphere is great, but lately it seems like there’s a consensus that working for a company is bad. Perhaps it’s just a change from grad school, but working for the right company is awesome. There’s access to resources and expertise that I wouldn’t have otherwise. There’s diversity of opinion that’s really helpful. There’s constraints that require creativity to work around – yesterday that led me to more deeply consider my solution.

- Working for the Man, Cate Huston

Big companies can be awesome.

Book: Making Peace with Your Office Life

This is the first time I’ve read a comprehensive guide for debugging your work environment. “Making Peace with Your Office Life” by Linda Glovinsky (ISBN 978-0-312-57602-8) has a great way to track and analyze your work envirnoment. It’s packed with concrete advice for each situation. Not only is a book to keep, it, it’s a book to give to friends who need the help.

The table of contents is too high-level, so I’ve written down the situations described in pages 175 to 304 to help you decide.

Peace with the Place

  • I feel like I’m in jail: Confinement
  • All I do is sit: Inactivity
  • I’m sick of beige, white, and gray: Sensory Deprivation
  • I’m working in Grand Central Station: Sensory Overload
  • My ____ hurts: Ergonomic Issues
  • The &^%@#! _______ is broken again!: Equipment Issues

Peace with the Chaos

  • I can’t find that report: Paper Management
  • I have 400 unread e-mails: E-mail Overload
  • Oops! I lost that file: Hard Drive File Problems
  • I don’t have the information I need to do my job: Information Access Issues

Peace with the Overwhelm

  • I never get caught up: Unrealistic Workload
  • I’m not allowed to make a mistake: Unrealistic Quality Standards
  • I’m getting it from all directions: Conflicting Demands
  • I’m constantly hitting roadblocks: Obstacles
  • People keep barging in on me: Interruptions

Peace with the Tasks

  • I hardly ever do the same thing twice: Excessive Task Variety
  • I’m afraid I’ll get fired if I don’t look busy: Task Insufficiency
  • I do the same things day after day: Repetitiveness
  • I’m working on an assembly line: Task Fragmentation
  • Why did I go to college?: Intellectual Deprivation
  • I just can’t do this: Daunting Tasks
  • I have no control over how I do my job: Autonomy Issues
  • I can’t tell if I’m doing a good job: Lack of Measurable Outcomes

Peace with the Disconnect

  • I miss the people I love: Separation Issues
  • I don’t really know the people I work with: Isolation
  • I’m nobody, who are you?: Status and Identity Issues
  • I just had a huge fight with so-and-so: Conflict
  • So-and-so and I got our wires crossed: Communication Problems
  • I hate serving on committees: Meeting Issues

Peace with the Boss

  • My boss expects me to be a mind reader: Unclear Instructions
  • My boss watches every move I make: Micromanagement
  • My boss is an idiot: Incompetence
  • My boss doesn’t know what I look like: Avoidance
  • My boss is a crook: Ethical Issues
  • My boss is a wuss: Lack of Authority
  • My boss is the boss from hell: Bullying

Peace with the Coworkers

  • If my coworker does that one more time…: Annoying Little Habits
  • I can’t get my coworker to do anything until the last minute!: Procrastination
  • My coworker always has to win: Competitiveness
  • My coworker always does things by the book: Rigidity
  • My coworker doesn’t toe the line: Laziness
  • My coworker is an idiot: Incompetence
  • My coworker is a slob: Messiness
  • My coworker is a whiner: Griping

Peace with the Culture

  • I have to wear a mask: Anonymity
  • Why do even the smart people talk like idiots?: Office-speak
  • I hate having to wear a tie: Clothing Issues
  • I don’t know what the rules are: Romance and Sex
  • It’s just because I’m…: Discrimination

Peace with the Game

  • They don’t pay me enough for what I do: Financial Issues
  • I only hear about it when I’ve screwed up: Lack of Encouragement
  • The performance appraisals aren’t fair: Unjust Evaluations
  • I’m just a secretary: Low Prestige and Rankism
  • I don’t believe in what this organization is doing: Meaninglessness

“Making Peace with Your Office Life”, Linda Glovinsky (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2010; ISBN 978-0-312-57602-8)

Say the steps out loud

A couple of years ago, I learned something from J-’s hip hop class:saying the steps out loud helps not only you, but also people around you.

Here are my steps.

I’m on the threshold of a career transition. It’s the right time. I don’t know where this will lead yet – a formalization of my work, areturn to Drupal and open source, a new business unit, or even my own business – but it will be a great experiment, I’m sure.

One: set up transition plan. Two: coordinate with managers and coworkers. Three: apply for position, perhaps, or move to another project? Four: Rock on, no matter where I am. =)

Travel kaizen and the meaning of life

What do I want to do with my life? Is it worth the trade-offs? How can I make it more worthwhile?

If I’m clear about the meaning of my life and I know that it’s worth the challenges (like travel!) along the way, then relentless optimism will kick in and show me the silver lining to whatever happens. =)

So, what do I want to do with my life?

I want to share what I’m learning. This matters because it means other people can build on what I’ve figured out, and maybe they’ll be inspired to share what they’re learning, too. I don’t need travel in order to share, but travel helps me learn from other people.

I want to help figure out how people can connect and work together all around the world. This matters because I want people to be able to do their best wherever they are, not limited by the geographic lottery. Someday I’ll be able to do this without travel. Right now, sometimes I need to be there in person.

I want to live an awesome life. This matters because I can train people to do most of what I do at work, but I can’t delegate love or experiences. I worry that travel might get in the way of this, but if I learn how to do things better, maybe I can use travel to enrich life.

What can I do to make travel better for work, relationships and life?

  • I can lighten W-’s load. This could include arranging for cat sitting or dropping the cats off at a cat hotel, doing extra chores before/after the trip to share the workload, taking transit or a cab, and so on.
  • I can meet up with more people and sit in more meetings, like the wonderful times I had in Cambridge and in London.
  • I can try different kinds of food each time, and make more of an effort to get to restaurants with great reviews.
  • I can take my gym clothes along and use the exercise facilities at the hotel. This might mean checking in, as my carry-on is often tightly packed with electronics and travel-ready business clothes. Who knows, maybe it would be great to bring along a folding bicycle. Mel Chua does that. =)
  • I can skip watching television or old movies. If I didn’t think it was worth finding and watching, then it’s probably not worth watching just because it’s there. I can spend the time writing or reading instead.
  • I can fill my iPod with interesting e-books and audiobooks. Time to go through the classics I haven’t read yet…
  • I can wake up earlier, since I don’t need to worry about disturbing anyone.
  • I can set up a calling card, or pay for the Net connection.

Hmm… I just need to figure out how to look at this, and then everything will move more smoothly.