A Reading from the Gospel of Molly E. Holzschlag

Bow your heads and pretend to be serious.

This past weekend, I attended a gathering of several hundred computer-oriented college-age young men (and a few women) wearing novelty sweatpants, otherwise known as a “hackathon.”

There were a number of post-college persons in attendance, mainly representatives from the sponsoring companies who were there to mentor the young Jonathan Jameses and let them know that their yen for appearing in public in Batman pajamas and winter hats with knitted animal ears need not be an impediment to gainful employment.

Many of these post-college persons introduced themselves as “Developer Evangelists.” As far as I can tell, a Developer Evangelist spends a lot of time with other current and wannabe developers, learning about their work, figuring out how others’ projects can inform their own, and looking for partnership opportunities.

I’m perplexed by the Developer Evangelists, and my immediate reaction to them is: “you’re doing it wrong.”* I mean, if you’re doing a good job of hiring, then you have a bunch of gung-ho employees who are excited to talk about their work, grow their skills, and look for ways to make that happen, no? It seems like the wiser course of action is to cultivate a workplace where everyone is a Whatever-Their-Role-Is Evangelist. It’s good for company PR. It’s good for hiring. It’s good for individual professional development. It brings more cool ideas back to the company.

More Evangelists = Bigger Funner for New Ideas and Hires = Better Company and Better Work. I mean, historically, More Evangelists = More Martyrdom, but I think modern tech startups have moved past that.

Granted, not everyone wants to be an evangelist; some of us just want to do our work (although if you’re excited about what you do, you’re kind of an evangelist anyway — sorry). But it feels like creating a space where anyone can and is encouraged to be one is better in the long run than creating a few specialized postions.

I’ve worked in the tech industry for nearly eight months and am not a developer, so I’m pretty sure I know what I’m talking about.

*I’m also perplexed by the choice of the word “evangelist,” but that’s a whole ‘nother post.

5 Comments

  1. I’m not thrilled with the term “evangelist” either. I prefer “Developer Advocate.” But either way, I rather like it when a company decides to fund full-time ambassadors to my community of interest rather than “crowdsourcing” informal participation from their dev team. And if they actually fund their devs to participate, for them to be good ambassadors requires a fair amount of travel, all of which time is not spent coding cool new stuff.

    By all means, do fund the devs and get them out into the community. Hire enthusiastic people and keep them happy. But also make sure there’s someone who’s accountable to the developer community on a full-time basis, is out there with them at seminars, meetups and conferences, and who isn’t afraid to take an unpopular stand internally when advocating on their behalf.

    I’ve been participating in the online WebSphere MQ community for almost 20 years. IBM put me in WebSphere MQ Product Management to represent that community. When I speak at conferences I tell my audiences “I made it to the inside! I am your mole in WebSphere Messaging management. What is it you most want our executives to know?” And when the answer is the complete opposite of some initiative we are already working on, I’m not afraid to take that to management and say “we have a problem.” I’m not afraid that my advocacy jeopardizes my manager’s bonus by delaying or cancelling a project. In fact, the more vigorously I represent my developer and administrator constituents, the more my management values me.

    We’ve got developers who participate in the community and what I do doesn’t take anything away from them. In fact, I’m often able to help them get travel approvals and recognition for their efforts. But likewise, what they do doesn’t make my role redundant. We operate in different parts of the organization and collaborate to accomplish things that would be impossible working independently.

    Now that I’ve explained it, ye shall repent! Write “Hello World” in 50 different programming languages, register all your unlicensed software and the lord, our Grid, shall raise your process priority.

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  2. I appreciate the response! This stuck out for me:

    “And when the answer is the complete opposite of some initiative we are already working on, I’m not afraid to take that to management and say “we have a problem.”

    It seems to me that if an non-evangelist internal dev/staffer can’t raise an issue without fear of repercussion, the company has some bigger problems.

    Granted, I’m lucky to work for a pretty open, flat, and unique employer, and I *can* see how this kind of role is useful in a bigger, more traditionally structured company… but in the end, it still seems a bit like a stopgap solution that helps cover up problems in hiring and management.

    So sayeth my 7.5 months of experience 🙂

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  3. I consider myself very lucky to have found and work with a company who has mostly figured out the “More Evangelists = Bigger Funner for New Ideas and Hires = Better Company and Better Work” equation. Their hiring process is no joke and is quite intense and lengthy, but it works to their and our advantage. We have a bunch of really smart, really motivated, really odd and silly people working and innovating every day. Most of us come in early because we really do want to come in.

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