Being a Great Technical Evangelist Means Being in the Right Room

Question: Are you ‘in the right room’?

As a part-time practitioner and technical evangelist, one of the most important questions I can ask myself is just that: “Am I in the right room now?”

If our ‘room’ is a conversation with the right customer, then read on.

What is a Technical Evangelist?

Simply put, an effective technical evangelist is an advocate for customer success in ways that map to and multiply organizational values.

I recently had an opportunity to depart my full-time position as a developer evangelist at an enterprise-focused company. In search of a new fit, I find that one of the things I miss the most is ‘being in the room’ on major sales opportunities and product strategy sessions. Insider information about what’s going on at [name your target customer] is the life-blood of an organization. It grounds your understanding, your point of view, and your stories.

Evangelists that simply ‘blah blah’ are just like practitioner-turned-circuit-speaker. While they might have important insights collected along their journey, the time spent talking to crowds ultimately reduces time for other things like checking in code, being on customer calls, and advising product teams.

You can tell who the fakes are too, just provide your email to TechWell, BZMedia, or any major tour conference and you’ll see the same names pop up over and over again like clockwork. In search of people-as-content, these kinds of marketing-driven machines ultimately produce a Gaussian distribution of hit or miss value to actual practitioners, no matter how hard everyone tries.

A technical evangelist isn’t just a mouth, they are a statement of what your organization cares about. Revenue? Your latest product? Community? It can all be assessed by looking at how people, particularly your evangelists, advocate for your customers.

What Makes for a Great Technical Evangelist?

Really good technical evangelism is only 10% talking. You have to know what’s really going on with your customers, what they’re struggling with, be an exceptional and inquisitive listener, and constantly improve your relationships with folks in your organization. To do that, you need to be a great listener.

What’s the goal of a technical evangelist? Summed up it is:

‘Advocate customer success in such a way that it creates inbound to you and to your organization.’

Why? Without successful customers, chances are your product is vaporware. Slinging a crappy, useless product will always come back to bite you, personally and professionally; and without inbound (people wanting you), you yourself may as well be vaporware too.

What’s Involved in Really Great Technical Evangelism?

Some of the best technical evangelists I know exhibit the following behaviors:

  1. Align field activity (anything in your influence sphere) to the vision of a product that you believe truly helps people
  2. Ruthlessly listen to customers and relay important insights to product strategy owners
  3. Provide insight publicly by facilitating others’ (internal and external) voices
  4. Know where your competition fails to satisfy customer’s needs and make sure that your org doesn’t do the same thing
  5. Engage customers via established channels (sales, marketing) and find new, even more effective channels of engagement
  6. Collecting information about process, technologies, and problems that customers use to improve

Why Is ‘Being In the Room’ Important?

I’ve had the opportunity to work with companies that have varying degrees of repeatable success selling to everyone from enterprises to startups. What I’ve found is that people who are worth their weight in gold are regularly requested to be part of conversations on product strategy, organizational changes, customer success, and especially sales prospects.

I’ve been out of the full-time evangelism track for only two months (an eternity for me) and I’m jonesin’ for a good, old-fashioned customer visit. There’s only so much you can glean from 3 month old curated stories from Capital One on The New Stack, or from GotoConference on Youtube. I’ve seen speardsheets on how [dominant payroll ISV] organize their test strategies to pinpoint and eradicate poorly performing dev teams. I’ve build lead-gen tools based on elaborate maturity models from [enterprise ticket vendor] organizations. It’s like crack for growth nerds like me.

But you have to earn your right to be ‘in the room’. You have to provide value to multiple people. Sales needs you to advocate for their success on the deal. To do that, you need to translate product impact and vision to customers that they actually need. And you need to bring learning back to product strategy.

You also need to be involved in an important area of research beyond the needs of your current company…which is why I’m a contributing member of the IEEE 2675 working group on a formal standard for DevOps. I used to think that bodies like ISO and IEEE were bureaucratic bullshit; now I understand how important speaking the same language about healthy and necessary behaviors are, be it ISO/IEC/IEEE 29119, IEEE 1012, or in continuous revision of these resources as the industry evolves.

Case-in-Point: The Natural Evolution of an Evangelist to Product Owner

I think that a great technical evangelist has multiple career paths, provided they constantly improve and collect artifacts of their improvement over time. I’m currently working to be ISTQB certified, implementing the crap out of Docker in a mobile app delivery pipeline, working on retainer as a contract load tester, and studying to take my scrum certification. Personal vision dictates your cultivation of options, and focus is just a muscle to exercise with tactics.

My current career goal is to eventually own a significant revenue stream. Revenue is what organizations, growing or otherwise, understand as value. To accomplish this goal, I’ll eventually become a product owner. But on my way, I’ve been learning the various dynamics and tactics of how to scale a technology firm, namely how to interface with sales, marketing, and product strategy.

Product Managers and Owners who are actively engaged in sales and customer success engagements with customers have a line of sight to exactly what they need. Also, their job title (often earned) can often act as a carrot for sales to dangle when the opportunity is…more complicated…than the usual deal. The value they often bring is to quickly drill in to the most pressing issue that the customer faces and align the prospect to how the product enables them to overcome that challenge.

Sales Professionals (i.e. ‘account managers’, ‘customer representatives’) who are really good follow a simple mantra: ‘don’t waste anyone’s time’. In the past year, I’ve witnessed a global SVP of Sales perpetually inspire an organization to this end; countless sessions and references to learning materials like Grit, Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play‘, and other resources that ruthlessly focus on efficient, productive conversations.

Marketing…what can I say: in an world inundated by information-overload, finding the most effective path to (each of your) audiences is an important part of exercising your Product Owner muscles. Yes, I want to work more directly with development teams, but code is only one component of getting people to use and love your product. Orchestrating go-to-market strategy connects me to everyone: product owners, developers, documentarians, strategists, customers, sales, and leadership. It is a nexus I accept and apparently do well in.

Should You Hire (or Become) an Evangelist?

I’m biased, but definitely yes. If you want to close deals, look awesome, increase influence, drive revenue growth, understand your customer better, grow personally and professionally, and ultimately make people so happy that they write great things about you on their own time, then yes, find a good technical evangelist and embed them in the middle of your business.

If you’re looking for one, you can find me on all the usual channels.