Jerry Nixon @Work: The three pillars of Technical Evangelism

Jerry Nixon on Windows

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The three pillars of Technical Evangelism

Terms like evangelism are funny. Etymogically, evangelism is about converting and teaching. Where most of us are used to hearing it in the context of theology, technical evangelism is about teaching and converting in the context of technology, most usually software development.

I am a Microsoft Evangelist. It’s my real title, and I sometimes must show people my card before they believe me. As a Microsoft Evangelist I am converting developers to Microsoft Technologies. I also teach, of course, but it is a fundamental part of evangelism that teaching, though important, is secondary.

Consider the haters. Every software developer has preferences, but some idealize their own preferences while vilifying every other. But that’s not the end of the story. That’s only the setup. You see, when it comes to people, Evangelism is a secret weapon.

What isn’t evangelism?

Evangelism isn’t when I go speak at conferences. I do go speak at conferences, though; it extends my reach into professionals. Evangelism isn’t when I go speak at schools. I do go speak at schools, though; it extends my reach into curriculum. Evangelism isn’t when I run a booth at a science fair. I do run booths at science fairs, though: it extends my reach into students.

Speaking is important, yes, but it isn’t Evangelism – at least not core evangelism.

There’s only one proven way to change the heart of a hater. There’s only one proven way to influence the technical choice of a professional. There’s only one proven way to change the major of a student. That is: meet them. That’s because there is some wonder-working power in personal interaction.

I get in my car and I go to where they are. They will never come to me. They will never read my documentation, my blog, or follow me on Twitter. They hate Microsoft, and, to them, I am Microsoft. Worst yet, each hater is an anti-evangelist, bloviating their opinion to whoever listens, personally.

They are not who you think.

Who are they? Well, haters surprise me. They are often the most generous and contributing members of the development community: meetup organizers, event speakers, even conference volunteers. The reason they feel the way they do, the depth they do is unique to each one. But it’s generally somewhere between some negative experience and a lack of direct exposure to the technology.

Before you start, set in your mind the truth: First, they aren’t bad, they just have an opinion. Second, they don’t hate you, they don’t even hate the company, they hate the idea of it. And, third, you might not change their mind. That last one is a rough one in our metrics-driven, corporate reality.

A quick intervention goes something like this: a hater might hate Microsoft, but do they hate Jerry (that’s me), right? Look, man, I’m just a guy. Like you. I’m trying to be a good husband; I’m trying to be a good dad; I want to do something right and get my mortgage paid each month. Honestly, that usually does it. Putting a face to the faceless profoundly changes perception. Usually, to the better.

Don’t make friends.

Quick aside: I do like making friends. ;-)
My goal is not to make friends. My goal is to lose enemies. Let’s say their mantra today is “Microsoft sucks”. After some mindful attention, if their mantra tomorrow is “Microsoft is okay for some people, but it’s wrong for me”, that’s not just winning a battle, that’s winning the whole freaking war.

It’s like stopping a leak. It impacts decisions. It impacts sentiment. It impacts perception. It impacts adoption. And, honestly, it impacts stock prices. When everyone around you is no longer trying to burn down that bridge, you might just start investigating how to cross over it.

Google has Developer Advocates. Microsoft now has Cloud Developer Advocates. These are good guys. But it’s worth teasing out the difference between Advocates and Evangelists. I sum it up like this. Advocates say: I’ll teach them to use it and hope to make a friend. Evangelists say: I’ll make a friend then teach them to use what I ask them to use. These two are so allied yet so different, it’s crazy.

Make it personal.

For me, it starts in my car. I must drive to get to people. And, if I were completely honest, I don’t always like it. Meetups meet at crazy times. I’m sick of eating so much pizza. Code camps are typically over weekends. I have my own family. But if you don’t go where they are, they will never come to you. Just remember that sometimes a single handshake is the butterfly wing that changes everything.

When it comes to evangelism, it’s easy to dance around burnout. Nobody is going to tell you to take time. Nobody is going to tell you to slow down. And, most of us work from home: nobody is going to tell you to stop working in the middle of the night. That said, time management and some aggressive self-advocacy on your corporate calendar can be what holds the breaking point at bay.

Evangelism is very rewarding, you see. The number of people you meet. The inherent authority you carry with you. Your ability to truly help people. It’s all the right side of how we all want to live. Speaking, mingling, networking – and the real secret is that most evangelists are introverts.

Only influence matters.

The fast-track to influence is inspiration. Sometimes I hear people insist evangelists must be excellent software developers. To be fair, I am a software developer. Sometimes, excellent. Their faulty reasoning usually reads like this: if you don’t have the technical chops then people will not listen to you.

But, have you ever listened to the most junior voice on your team? Even the one without the technical chops? Of course, you have. Can you only learn from a professor? Isn’t the nature of diversity a recognition that every voice has unexpected value? Why would we assume developer audiences are so shallow, are so myopic, and are so ridiculous that they can only hear the words of Nobel prize winners and scholars?

If you have ever been to a meetup, you know the opposite is true. They are the proving ground that lackluster speakers and mediocre developers miraculously impact the hearts and minds of their personal community in measurable ways. Please. I hope you don’t fall into the trap that an evangelist must only be the best of the best. Only influence matters. Influence is a byproduct of inspiration. And inspiration comes from people like us. People we relate to. People who are good. People who may not be great.

Build a team

If I were building a team of evangelists, I would start every interview with one (silent) question about a person: Do I hate them? I mean it. If you couldn’t even go camping with a guy without wanting to kill him, how can we expect him to meaningfully inspire someone into action? The best I could hope for is that nobody would ever get to know him. And, how stupid is that?

Instead, the type of person I am looking for is the magnet. You know the type. At dinner, everyone seems to be asking her all the questions. At the bar, everyone seems to be standing in a circle around him. At the meetup, she’s always got a line of people wanting to ask her a question. These are the magnets. The ones that don’t have to ask to influence others, they are being asked to do it.

Let’s step through a thought experiment: Who is the most likely person to influence you? The person you like the most or the show off who flies in to demo a product? Sometimes, it’s the latter. I know that. But, overall, its your buddy: the one you like, the one you hang out with. If the goal of an evangelist is to change the course of a decision, and it is, then you want an evangelist that can do that.

Here’s a conundrum. What if all the influential people are not engineers? I would never advocate someone who does not know software development to be a Developer Evangelist. That’s lunacy. But I would never set the bar of engineering higher than the bar of magnetism. And, since most software developers have zero or no magnetism (some repel, I think) a great engineer might even be a red flag.

But, what are the three pillars of evangelism?

Honestly, I forgot to get to those. Sort of chased a rabbit there. Next time, I guess. Sorry.