Jerry Nixon on Windows: What is a developer evangelist?

Jerry Nixon on Windows

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

What is a developer evangelist?

Much like asking what is the right way to develop software there are as many answers to that questions as there are people. But, developer evangelism or product evangelism has become a staple of companies wanting to reach a specific demographic in a particularly noisy marketplace. They speak, they listen, they code, they help, they advocate: but, what are they, really?

Microsoft Developer Evanglist, Jerry Nixon

Imagine walking through a food court, looking for lunch. The choices seem endless and the cacophony of smells confounds your palette. Then, you find yourself next to a smiling high school girl holding a sample plate of bourbon chicken. You taste something you might have otherwise missed. You appreciate its texture, its flavor, and you decide it will be your lunch.

That girl is an evangelist.

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Imagine strolling through an art museum. Your gaze is captured by the spectacle of a masterpiece. You lean in to appreciate the detail. You lean out to take in the scope. Then, the curator notices your interest. She approaches, explaining its history, the artist, his technique, and why the work is here; you see it for the first time. You even notice something else after she leaves.

That girl is an evangelist.

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Imagine hiking through the woods. This trail is not new to you, but you hate this next part: it’s perilously steep and slippery. You take a deep breath, but before you descend a ranger calls out from behind you. She explains a local boy scout troop recently constructed some stairs around back. It’s a better way to do the same thing and her suggestion has changed how you will hike this trail.

That girl is an evangelist.

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Imagine watching your friends bike in the park. You hold your new bike with misgivings – you don’t know how to ride. Your neighbor observes the scene and approaches with her own bike. She explains the parts of her bike and compares it to yours. She demonstrates how to balance, peddle, and brake. She challenges you to try it and waits while you do. Eventually, you get it.

That girl is an evangelist.

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Imagine you’ve decided to build a treehouse. You’re ready to start but aren’t sure how to properly support the flooring. Your friend down the street built her treehouse with her dad last summer. You explain your troubles to her on the bus. With her help and guidance, you know the flooring would be safe. She spends next weekend working with you. Your treehouse is awesome.

That girl is an evangelist.

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Imagine fastening your ski boots. You’re about ready when a ski pro descends from on high, revealing the newly arrived demo skis. These aren’t cheap, but they offer more control and speed than any other. She explains and demonstrates their special bindings and unique parabola. You try them; you love them. Without her you would never have known they even existed.

That girl is an evangelist.

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So. What is an evangelist? That’s tricky; an evangelist is not just one thing. An evangelist reminds you of the bourbon chicken, expands your appreciation of a masterpiece, reveals the new way down a familiar trail. She gives you the training and confidence to ride your bike, the knowledge to build your treehouse, and the insight into new discoveries – like skis. What single definition captures all of that and allows for the rest?

And, did you notice who is the beneficiary of an evangelist?

The beneficiary was actually you in every scenario. So, what is the motivation of a developer evangelist? Is she just a good Samaritan roaming the hills in search of someone in distress? Of course, not. What isn’t obvious in the work of an evangelist is the intentionality of her engagement and the newfound influence earned from that encounter. There’s a deeper intent, but remember a secret agenda doesn’t mean it’s nefarious. A win-win scenario doesn’t mean someone cheated: it means someone worked harder.

Consider this.

If the food court girl said, “If you like this be sure and taste the Orange Chicken, too.” Would you try it, even if it meant you had to walk out of your way? Probably. If the museum curator said, “If you like this work, be sure to see his magnum opus in the other room.” Would you see it, even if you weren’t planning to visit that room? Probably. If the ranger said, “Keep your eyes open for trash on the trail, there was a wind storm last night.” Would you help the cleanup work? Probably, so.

If your neighbor said, “Before you start to ride, be sure you get a helmet.” Would you wear a helmet, even if you had to run home to get it? Probably. If your friend said, “I want to use screws instead of nails on your treehouse.” Would you use screws instead of nails? Probably. And, if the ski pro said, “I’ve found these skis perform best with this kind of wax.” Would you use the suggested wax? Probably.

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Look closely and think. In each of those examples, the evangelist is influencing your behavior – not by threatening you, not by scaring you, not by trumping you, but instead by earning the right to ask. But it’s funny, what they want, you inexplicably also want. Your gratitude quells your hesitation; you are inexplicably compliant. You like the evangelist at this point. You are grateful, dialed-in, and willing. And, more importantly, you win. Right?

But, who’s the real beneficiary of an evangelist? Is it you or the fast food restaurant? Is it you or the museum? Is it you or the ranger’s agenda to pick up trash? Is it you or your neighbor’s goal of bicycle safety? And, so on. The answer to the question (who is the beneficiary?) is about as tricky as: What is an evangelist? Why? Because we are looking for a single, simple answer when it is complex and nuanced. Still, complex problems can be solved, and sophisticated terms can be defined. Let’s circle back to where we started.

What is an evangelist?

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Maybe an evangelist is someone who changes your behavior after they have earned the right to ask. Someone who inspires you to try harder and do better by demonstrating how. Someone who teaches what they know, while learning constantly so she has something to share. Someone with her ear to the ground and eye to the sky, keeping you informed and up-to-date to changes in the wind. Someone you enjoy having around, someone you listen to, someone you ask for help, someone you trust, and like. Someone who puts in the real effort, and is clearly on your side, wanting you to be better in ways that matter.

Or, maybe it’s something else.