What a Software Evangelist Does - and Where the Job is Going (Dear SQL DBA Episode 67)

on January 29, 2019

I’ve been working as an Evangelist at Redgate for close to six months now, and one question keeps coming up: what exactly does an Evangelist do at a software company? In 21 minutes, I explain the core mission of Evangelists, and why I think being part of the sales process is an important part of the future of software evangelism.

A transcript is below the video if you’d rather read. You can also subscribe to the podcast to listen on the go.

Episode Transcript

Hello and welcome to Dear SQL DBA, a podcast, YouTube show, and now a twitch stream for database developers and database administrators.

I am Kendra little from Redgate software and from SQLWorkbooks. Today I want to chat about what it is it evangelists do. My job at Redgate— my job title is that I’m an Evangelist. I’ve gotten the question from multiple folks, including people at passport control, as to what exactly is it that you do as an evangelist? Because it really really isn’t always obvious, and I think it’s changing as well. I think the role of Evangelists who’ve been around in software companies for a while is evolving.

How I first encountered an ‘Evangelist’: a man yelling into a phone

I first heard of this job title way back when I first was working at Microsoft. I think I was still a contractor there. I got a job at Microsoft as a contractor, and I was very very excited to be working at Microsoft. It was an amazing job. I worked a lot and I learned a ton– of course I was an hourly employee so working a lot was actually to my benefit. I eventually did become a full-time employee at Microsoft and kept learning more and more there as well, and it was great. But at this time, I was still a contractor.

The first encounter I had with an evangelist was… we were in these buildings where everyone was in offices. They weren’t cube farms at all. Everybody was in offices. Lots of us did share offices with other people. My office mates were always good people to work with. It was nice, actually, to share an office, because you could learn a lot. The people you were sitting with were often on your team or on a related team, so you could figure out lots of stuff about what it was like to support different products. But our offices weren’t all together for the team, so you had neighbors who worked in completely different parts of the organization.

One of the neighbors had a little nameplate that mentioned this person was an Evangelist. I don’t even know what team this person was on. It was a man, and the only things I knew about this Evangelist were that their door to their office was usually shut, and they were often yelling angrily into a telephone.

I was just like: I don’t know exactly what this job is, I don’t know if that the job is for really angry people, or if this just happens to be a really angry person– but there seems to be a lot of yelling involved. To this day I’m surprised by that. Even now, I cannot reconcile what all of this anger and yelling had to do with this person’s job. In my job as an Evangelist there is not a lot of yelling, there is not a lot of anger, and I don’t even use the phone that much. So everything is really different from that first encounter with an Evangelist. But it did teach me that different Evangelists may have very very different jobs, because that is not at all the job that I’m in in now.

Rebranding: ‘Evangelist’ –> ‘Developer Advocate’

These days a lot of people who do the job of what was formerly known as Evangelists are changing their job title, because the the word ‘Evangelist’ has religious overtones. To the many people I think it brings up the Crusades, and it brings up violence. I don’t know if that’s related to the angry person in their office screaming into the phone or not. But at Microsoft, for example, I do know that many evangelists now have the job title Developer Advocate.

I appreciate why the name might change, but I don’t know if Developer Advocate is the perfect name, either. When I think of an advocate it brings up to me someone you might get if you were in a difficult legal proceeding or if you were in a tough healthcare situation and you needed someone to advocate for you. It represents being a little bit helpless.

Maybe that’s not the right understanding of Advocates. Maybe that’s a bias on my part. But naming things is about understanding cultural bias. Is Developer Advocate a better name than Evangelist? Maybe. But it isn’t a name I’m rushing out to adopt – not yet.

I feel like I kind of haven’t come up with the perfect job title yet.

So what does an Evangelist do?

Let’s talk about what Evangelists actually do. A lot of what I do has to do with communication between my company and our customers, and our potential customers out in the wild. This is communication that goes two ways.

One of my main tasks is figuring out: what are the difficult things that people are encountering, what are the problems that people really need to solve? How do our products or different techniques related to our products help with that? That is a big part of my job: Patterns and practices that can help people be more successful.

Now, the two-way communication involves both listening to people about what’s difficult and what’s hard (which our products could help with) AND finding where our products could improve. Identifying: what are those pain points that our existing products help with, AND what might we be able to do with them that could really help fill this need?

I’m tasked with channeling communication back to our development teams and saying, hey, here’s what I’m hearing from our customers. I get asked by our development teams a ton: what are you hearing from people in the marketplace? What are you hearing from consultants? What are you hearing from potential customers? What are you hearing from people at conferences? They really want to know, what are the opportunities we have, what’s working well with people, what could we do better?

When listening to a customer, the job of an Evangelist is not only to understand, okay there’s a product that could help you out. The job of an Evangelist is also to understand patterns about how people work. If we are going to apply a technology or a product or a process, what are the things that will actually make a team successful at that? What are the ways that people interact that need to change? What are the dependencies on really making this work well?

The idea isn’t just to sell the products. In my talks, I’m going to talk about things where, yeah, our products could make it easier. But there’s always a bunch of different ways to do things. When I design talks, I’m interested in thinking about: what are the ways to make people successful? Yes, if our products fit into this, that’s amazing. And I do have a bias, because I do have an employer, right? I want to be clear about that all the time. Evangelists aren’t unbiased and neutral. But part part of the job is also to be quite open, and to not only think about the products, but to also think about how people work and how people can be successful – even if parts of that are outside of the products. Or even if our products aren’t required to make you successful.

Because the truth about the modern world and technology is you can absolutely write a bunch of code yourself to do a lot of things. Is it gonna take you a long time? Yes. But there’s always more than one way to do something. Buying products from different vendors can make your life easier, though.

So, to me, the point of being an Evangelist is really about helping people get set up to succeed. The parts I’m gonna be the best at, the parts I’m gonna look at the most are in the areas around where my company’s focus is. Because in fact, I am really passionate about that.

I took an Evangelist job at a place where I was passionate about what we are doing. I wouldn’t have taken an Evangelist job if I didn’t think these were important problems to solve, if I didn’t think they were good tools to solve the problems.

It’s really hard to say this in a nutshell, but I think an Evangelist is someone who helps people be successful with the technology from that company– and further helps set people up for making an informed decision about how they can be successful. What this ends up meaning is Evangelist may be useful to you even if you’re not a customer of that company’s products. Because when it comes to a good Evangelist, they’re giving you information that – yeah, it’s gonna really help you if you use that company’s products, but they’re also giving you really valuable information that’s going to have implications agnostic of what products you’re using.

For me, I want to deliver value and insights about DevOps however you’re doing DevOps. I want it to be valuable to you. I would love it if you would use our products, but even if you aren’t, in everything I do I want there to be takeaways that are valuable. Even if you’re not doing DevOps right now, the information can be useful if you’re keeping it in the possible things you might do. If you are doing DevOps now, I want to include concepts and patterns you can work in regardless of the products that you’re using.

My job at Redgate combines Evangelism with involvement in the sales process

An interesting thing about my job is – my job personally is not a “pure Evangelist job”. (I don’t know if there is such a thing as a pure Evangelist job.) But my job at Redgate is a mix. The job advertisement for my position said: up to 40% of your time is going to be spent working with the sales folks, as part of the sales process. But not as a salesperson, as an Evangelist.

This might sound kind of weird, because I have said hey, part of Evangelism is including things that are meaningful even if you aren’t using the products. That’s still true.

The interesting thing I think about sales – and I think this is an evolution of the sales process– is more and more companies need to tap into insights about the customer and really understand the customer’s problems. Companies are turning to different models of purchase, different subscription models. Organizations don’t want to sell you something you buy one time. They want to sell something that you renew.

Renewal is incredibly important to software companies. The points in sales is not just to sell a product once, you need your customers to use your products and to become successful with them, because you want them to continue happily using (and renewing) your product in the future. That is a huge important thing. So really understanding where the customer is coming from, what their problems are, and how to solve those problems is a very important part of the sales process.

Working with customers is the best part of my job

My absolute favorite part of my job is interacting with new and renewing customers as part of the sales process. Because when you interact with potential customers and existing customers, you learn about all these different real world scenarios. I think the value that I provide to Redgate as an Evangelist is that I’ve been a database person for twenty years. For a long time, I’ve been working with how to write code, how to optimize SQL Servers, how to optimize processes. I’m always learning more. So in terms of my experience, it helps me really understand where customers are coming from when they’re struggling with: how do we safely deliver database changes at a high rate? How do we do this without overworking our people so that they’re dragging in the next morning and aren’t even awake enough to do code review? How do we optimize this process and make happy teams that work well, that have stable systems, and we have everything humming perfectly– so we can really churn changes through?

That’s not easy, but my job as an Evangelist is to have insights into: how do we safely make these changes? Working with different customers, it resonates with so many different experiences I’ve had.

Every software development group is unique. Everyone has their own problems, and everybody has a certain amount of anti patterns that work for us. The job isn’t just, hey, there’s these best practices. It’s much more about figuring out: how do we come up with unique ways to solve these problems and get to the result we want. We’re gonna follow a lot of best practices, but probably we can’t just implement all these best practices. Because there’s always unique requirements and unique factors that mean not every best practice fits.

So a lot of what I do is listen for: what are the really important requirements, and how do we map best practices to this? How do we creatively come up with solutions to the places where the best practices don’t match? That helps us picture the future state. Then there’s the further problem of: how do we get from here to the desired future state? Often we can’t do it all in one go. Often we may have to take smaller steps to get there.

Working with customers in the sales process – I have found that it’s the secret to making Evangelism exciting for me. Because I get to hear from customers about real problems, and I get to help brainstorm creatively to come up with solutions for those– and help unstick people from getting blocked. To me that is just a ton of fun.

The culture of your sales team matters

I do think that the culture of the sales team you’re working with matters. I’ve worked with different sales teams throughout my career, and I’m not gonna name any names here — I’m not talking about now at Redgate– I have worked with sales teams who tended to over-promise. They promised vaporware. They were selling things that don’t quite exist.

Being an Evangelist in that context would be deeply uncomfortable, and probably wouldn’t work. Because a big part of being an Evangelist is being straightforward with people. Being honest and and having credibility.

I can’t sell vaporware. I’m not going to sell vaporware. We’re working in a culture where that would be a hard fit. I do think I think more and more with software, because of the importance of renewals, because of the importance of customer happiness, I don’t think those practices are gonna survive and thrive.

I think more and more sales processes are going to need to become more transparent to be successful. Otherwise, later on, people are going to be looking at those deals and they’re gonna say: why why didn’t this customer renew? Well, if we sell them something that doesn’t exist, if we sell them something that doesn’t work for them, that customer is not going to end up being super satisfied.

So I have been thriving as being part of the sales process, but if you’re if you’re looking at different Evangelists in other companies, their ability to be part of sales will depend on on the sales culture.

The future for Evangelists / Developer Advocates

I think Evangelist jobs are great. It’s definitely a specific personality type: you have to like to talk, you have to like to listen, you have to like to interact with people, as well as create presentations and things like that. But if you are a person who is interested in teaching and in learning, it can be a fantastic fit.

My job does technically sit within a marketing department. I think that’s great. In the past, I thought of marketing as being just a department that put out a good image. “We need to make things look good.” More and more, that is changing.

With the business changes that are happening inside companies – with the “digital transformations” that get talked about at the executive level – the role of marketing is about helping the company have insight into the customer.

What is the customer saying? What is the customer doing? What resonates with the customer? What excites the customer? What frustrates the customer? These insights are incredibly critical to helping a company survive both in terms of the messages you’re giving to people – because you want to help people understand when you can solve their biggest pains. But also in terms of shaping the product design. Customers can easily compare and easily switch service providers more quickly than ever using phones and computers. People have choice.

We have more and more interesting ways of delivering messages to people, too - and I think Evangelists are a really important part of that. That has to do both with reaching people through things like podcasts, through things like Twitch, through trying out new communication methods.

But also in terms of listening to the customers, I get insights from customers in Slack channels, for example the SQL Server community Slack channel. Sometimes I get them by email, I get them by messages on my website. I also get them through that contact with customers. The great thing about that [contact with customers] is that I can learn in-depth about: what are the problems that you’re facing? What are the real pains you have? What’s really important to you, and what is the best plan to get there?

Do our company’s products fit in that plan? Sometimes they will. Sometimes they won’t. The success of marketing and the success of sales is finding places where it really works, because those are going to be the customers that not only buy, but the customers that renew. The customers that tell other customers: hey we found a great way to solve these problems using those solutions.

So, have I found a short answer to what an evangelist that I could say at passport control? Well, to be honest, at passport control, I think it’s just easier to say that I am a software developer or sales engineer. We can all describe our jobs in different ways, right? My job is not a sales engineer, but a related job title is a little bit easier to explain to someone who doesn’t work in software. For better or for worse, the term ‘Evangelist’ is just very heavily loaded.

If you have ideas about the best possible job title for an Evangelist, I would love to hear it – because I still haven’t come up with that perfect term yet. I like the term Developer Advocate, but I’m still not 100% sold that it’s the best way to describe the job.

So, anyhow, this episode is for all of those have you been asking, “hey Kendra, what is it that you’ve been doing these days?” I’ve got some more episodes in the queue coming up, I’ve got some more questions to answer. Looking forward to talking to you folks again soon, and making Dear SQL DBA more regularly again. Thanks, folks!