Jerry Nixon @Work: Three Reasons for Developer Evangelists to Engage

Jerry Nixon on Windows

Monday, March 4, 2019

Three Reasons for Developer Evangelists to Engage

I would like to talk about the reasons for a Developer Evangelist to engage an audience. We already understand the three ways we can engage: online, personal and onstage.

As a reminder, online engagement has the greatest reach but the least impact, personal engagement has the greatest impact but the least reach, and onstage engagement is a combination of the two with varying results depending on skill, style, and approach.

But when as you prepare your talk, ask yourself why: why are you engaging in the first place. As you are driving to a conference or meetup ask yourself why: why are you engaging in the first place? I would assert there are three reasons for Developer Evangelism engagement.

When it comes to persuasion or public speaking there is only one reason for engagement. Developer Evangelism is a specialized engagement strategy using persuasion or public speaking as a vehicle. Where public speaking sees changed behavior as its goal, Developer Evangelism is more nuanced.

Here's the list

It is fine to over-simplify at this point. Developer Evangelism engage audiences to either 1) introduce, 2) educate, or 3) inspire. It is not practical to approach any engagement with the goal of accomplishing all three objectives. It is, however, reasonable to span more than one with some planning.

Introduce. One of the most common deliverables of Developer Evangelism is to get the word out. Companies with new products rely on these boots-on-the-ground to bring awareness of those products to the correct communities. This is where breath matters, and depth doesn’t.

In this phase the assumption is that most of your audience has no idea of what you are about to say. The topics are targeted, simple, with outcomes that are measured by interest, awareness, and possibly registration. This can mean hard work, a lot of travel, and a massive investment online.

On the whole, this is a banal use case for a Developer Evangelism team. This approach often indicates short-sighted leadership chasing metrics that, generally, are changing or artificial or unimportant. It’s an okay place to start, but no team should consider this their destination, just warming the engines.  

Educate. Another common deliverable of Developer Evangelism is spreading understanding. The effort applied in this pillar is a direct reflection to the quality of available documentation. In leu of excellent examples, tutorials and docs, Developer Evangelism fills the gaps with education-oriented content.

The biggest problem with this aspect of Developer Evangelism is that education is time-consuming, mundane, and distracting from bigger, better strategies. It usually indicates the types of articles and sessions requiring considerable preparation yet viewed by a limited few.

Developer Evangelists are overqualified to impact the effectiveness of documentation. To that end, their involvement is very important. They are not always the best technical writers or tutorial authors, but they can be great. Still, the goal is to escape this strategy quickly. Get it over with.  

Inspire. The highest form of Developer Evangelism is to present developers with a prototype of what they could be like later in their career, or what they could be later in a project’s cycle. Inspiration says, “I understand where you are” and challenges developers with “can you imagine where you could be”?

These engagements span technologies, products, and communities. They are relevant because they speak to the “why?” of a concept before speaking to the “how?” of the same. It elevates a developer from technical leadership to thought leadership, landing the Evangelist’s message as a secondary win.

What do I mean? This is amazingly simple, yet illusive. Developer Evangelism is often explained as recognizing where a developer is in their personal journey, meeting them there and helping them succeed. Anyone can see this is noble, but this is also a very small, shallow vision to cast.

As a Developer Evangelist, should you limit yourself to attaching to a developer, you greatly confound your opportunity to succeed. We want to understand where developers are only so we can go talk with them, but why we talk to them is totally different. We talk to them to change their journey.

Inspiration is the power to cast a vision into someone else’s life. Yes, life. My goal is to change your college major. My goal is to change your career goals. My goal is to change your behavior and habits. That is, unless you and I are already aligned – then my goal is to simply encourage you where you are.

Novice Developer Evangelists chase “awareness.” Great Developer Evangelists are hamstrung by insufficient documentation. But when we stop with “Hello world”, when we stop teaching class, we can start challenging developers to be more. No Developer Evangelist fights for attention in that world.

How do you get there? It’s easy. Stop and ask yourself why you are about to engage. Is it because you are chasing awareness? Because awareness isn’t important to the developer. Is it because you are trying to teach an approach? Developers have libraries of blogs for that. You need to refine your intent.

You must find goals that matter to developers without making yourself subject to their tactical needs.

Engage to change. Engage to improve. Engage to inspire; and, inspiration starts with vision-casting. The ability to paint a picture of something that isn’t, but something that could be, and to challenge someone in a realistic way to push toward that vision, that shared vision you created.

Let developers reframe your vision as theirs. Then show them your tools that help them achieve that.

Intentional engagement is powerful and, in the end, everyone wins. Give them a fish, teach them to fish, or show them a picture of a fishing boat and inspire them to learn sailing and seafaring – don’t stop with today when you should be showing them tomorrow.

Best of luck.