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Tech Evangelist: Nightmare to Hire but Great to Have

May 9, 2021 - Developer Relations - , ,
By: Chris Riley

On a recent trip to meet my co-workers in Israel, a software developer I had known for six months hit me with a funny surprise. Right after we met in person and said our first “hellos”, he said to me, “You’re an ‘evangelist,’ so you preach on the weekends?” Not only am I not a weekend preacher, but I’m not even religious. I am, however, a tech evangelist.

I started laughing for several minutes until I realized that I probably needed to explain tech evangelism. Perhaps not only for him, but for the broader audience as well. This individual, after all, was in high-tech – the very place where tech evangelists live. Although it is a role that is necessary for all ISVs in the tech space, it is a difficult position to hire for and explain. 

Tech Evangelist Meaning

That awkward moment in Israel is not unique. However, most of the time I’m explaining my role to non-techies. I actually find that based on the title alone, “tech evangelist” has a bit of a negative twist, like someone who will chase you down and shove product down your throat. The intention of the role is to be less high-pressure marketing and sales and more educating and friendly.

For those of you who are hearing of the role for the first time, let me give you the “elevator pitch.” Developers and IT professionals are very good at researching and validating product on their own. They sometimes pride themselves in undermining marketing messages and putting sales in its place. Thus in high-tech, credibility and goodwill with a market are as important as sales and marketing activities. But, in order to do this, you can’t be a marketer or salesperson; you need to be both and ultimately a peer. Someone who has lived the life of an IT professional or developer and can speak the same language is an evangelist.

But the details of the role get complex fast.

From what I can tell, it was actually Microsoft that was responsible for its introduction about eight years ago. There was a huge up-tick in the title with startups and mid-sized ISVs who sell Business to Developer (B2D).

They Are Not All the Same

Microsoft’s utilization of the tech evangelist role is dramatically different from its evolution in other organizations. Such evolution has yielded essentially four types of tech evangelists:

The Sales Engineer Called Tech Evangelist

This is basically what Microsoft did. They transitioned their field of enterprise sales to technical sales force. They were titled technical sales specialists (TSP) and were a combination of technical people, like a sales engineer, with good sales and business acumen. In the last six years, there has been a slow transition from TSP to evangelist. The outcome is individuals who do SE and technical sales work but are called an evangelist.

The Movie Star

This is less of a technical person and more of a promoter. They know the entire lingo, but probably have not been IT specialists or coders themselves. To the extreme, several of the evangelists I know are actually former event promoters who had an interest in tech, and they found this role. These individuals can spend a quarter of a million a year in traveling and spend all of their time blogging and speaking at events. They can obtain an amazing following, but their lack of hands-on experience eventually becomes obvious and sometimes a problem. I think this flavor is on the decline.

The Extremely Social Product Marketing Manager

Essentially, this type of evangelist does product marketing tasks but is very active on social media and does occasional speaking.

The Paid-to-Represent Practitioner

This is a person that is not a full-time evangelist even if their title says otherwise. They usually are part-time system integrators or hands down IT specialists or coders who get paid by an ISV to represent them the other 50% of their time. They are the most true and credible but sometimes not the best at conveying messages. Organizations who deploy this strategy usually have many evangelists instead of one or two.

To complicate things, someone could be a combination of these four. I would consider myself somewhere between 3 and 4 with bouts of 1.

Building Goodwill and Being Earnest

The essence of all tech evangelists is the same. We are all about being honest about the technologies we represent, helping end-users solve real-world problems, and making sure the world at large knows what’s possible.

This is where the “evangelist” title is not always the best, because it seems more sales-driven than it actually is. There are some organizations that use “voice of customer” or “developer advocate” instead, but this is less common. It is absolutely critical that evangelists build credibility and speak honestly about the good and the bad around a particular technology. They should also be an unbiased thought leader in some specific movement. For example, I have attached myself to DevOps, SharePoint, and ECM over my tenure as an evangelist.

Note: This post was originally published 3/17/19 and updated in 2021. The author was interviewed in this April 2020 DevRelx podcast, explaining the transition from “evangelist” to “advocate.”

Helping the Organization Understand What They Are

The 2nd and 3rd flavors of evangelists have one other important role. They assume the role of internally educating the company they represent. Oftentimes, even in technical companies, the marketing team is far removed from engineering. The tech evangelist plays an important technical marketing role that can help marketing adequately and accurately represent technical messages without bugging their engineering team. Or, even when there is a need to communicate with engineers, tech evangelists are able to represent marketing in a better way.

As you can see, it’s somewhat of a cross-functional role. I’ve been in organizations where I reported to product and other times to marketing. In either case, it did not significantly change what I did. Even as a member of marketing, it is the evangelist who should know the market better than anyone in the organization and be able to share those details with the marketing, product, and engineering teams.

How to Hire a Tech Evangelist

Because of subjectivity, hiring an evangelist proves difficult. Their performance is equally hard to measure. Even when I coach organizations on building an evangelism strategy, we spend more time talking about compensation and measurement than strategy.

A product manager is measured by releases and product success, a demand-generation person is measured by leads at the top of the funnel, a product marketer is measured by assets, and a sales engineer by demos. All of these measurements would also work for a tech evangelist but often contradict their real objectives of awareness and thought leadership. It’s a challenging task, and one that no organization should take lightly. I’ve seen evangelists quickly turn into product marketers and deviate from the goal for which they were hired. Here are some tips in measuring evangelist performance:

  • Metrics are good but hard to apply to evangelism. For example, a speaking event will probably increase hits to the site, but what portion of the hits are a result of that event? The metrics I would consider are:
    • Social follows
    • Metrics from modern tools like Folloze or HubSpot
    • Measure of “share of voice” on a particular topic area. Watch this measure over monthly intervals to see percentage increase.
    • Traffic to evangelist-authored blog posts
    • Create a unique URL for all of the evangelist social shares. For example, a tweet about a landing page should have a unique URL just for the evangelist.
  • MBOs are okay but can be dangerous. The tendency, especially for small companies, is to get all front-of-the-house staff efforts on deal closing at the end of the quarter. When you do this, the evangelist inevitably gets rolled in and it is very disruptive. When their MBO is tied to this number, they are motivated not to evangelize but to put out fires.

Structuring the Tech Evangelist Role

  • Give them autonomy. Without autonomy, an evangelist can’t do one of their most important tasks: to follow ever-changing trends and jump on them fast. When they get a whiff of something interesting, they need to respond and be part of it. Red tape makes this impossible, and for the evangelist at heart, it is a sure path to a quick burnout. If they are not able to work without structure and self-manage, they are not a good hire.
  • An evangelist is part personality type, except for the 4th class of evangelist. This type of individual fits into a particular “Myers-Briggs” type. They are extroverted and tend to be a bit entrepreneurial. Many organizations are frightened of this; that is fair, but at the same time it is what makes them great at what they do.
  • The other thing an evangelist MUST HAVE is love for the product or category of products they represent. How can you honestly represent a class of technology if you don’t find it useful? The best evangelist is a current or previous user. A unique idea is to find system integrators that are current customers, if you have them, and use that as your recruiting pool.
  • They represent two brands. An evangelist must have a personal brand along with any brand they represent. They need to be allowed to nurture their personal brand, which I promise will help the commercial one. An evangelist with a strong following can do nothing but be out there and generate a lot of interest.

They Are Not Just Figureheads

Ultimately, everyone in an organization should be a promoter. It is limiting to isolate it to one person. Sometimes it’s the evangelist’s job to orchestrate this activity – not only to create awareness, but also to amplify the success and interest you already have.

This means that the evangelist should not be too prideful about their role in the public, be willing to help everyone communicate, and get excited about the message and value proposition.

It’s not easy to hire a good evangelist. However, every ISV selling to developers or IT can benefit immensely from it. There are unique ways to find this individual, and it certainly is not by posting a rec and building a job description. Some speculate that a great evangelist will find you.

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This post was originally published in March 2019 and updated in May 2021.


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Chris Riley (@HoardingInfo) is a technologist who has spent 12 years helping organizations transition from traditional development practices to a modern set of culture, processes and tooling. In addition to being a research analyst, he is an O’Reilly author, regular speaker, and subject matter expert in the areas of DevOps strategy and culture. Chris believes the biggest challenges faced in the tech market are not tools, but rather people and planning.

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