What to look for when hiring an evangelist or advocate

Thinking about hiring a developer evangelist or advocate? or about to start the interview process? In this post I’ll share some of the traits essential to a successful evangelist.

As I review each skill I will focus on the specific reasons they are beneficial for an evangelist or advocate.

Passion to share

My manager and I were reviewing candidates for an intern technical evangelist position, when he said ‘Some people are just natural evangelists, they can’t stop themselves.’ I think he is 100% right. Your job candidate may not evangelize your product, but they should love to share what they discover with others.

Person telling another person all about a new restaurant they tried

Passion for sharing

I have a good friend, who had Elite status on Yelp. His restaurant reviews were well rated because he provided a helpful balanced perspective in his reviews. What did he get out of it? Well Yelp did host Elite dinner nights in certain cities, but that wasn’t his motivation. When he tried a restaurant, he honestly wanted to share what he learned about the restaurant with others, so if they did go, they knew exactly what to expect: 5 star dining? cheap bacon and eggs well prepared with slow service? You know these people. They are always recommending a book they’ve just read, a new recipe, a new gadget, or a new series on Netflix you HAVE to check out.

All evangelists/advocates should have that passion to share what they discover and learn. That same passion for a Netflix show, comes through when they discover a shortcut for increasing the font size of the code editor or how to import a csv file with a custom date parser using lambdas and Pandas in Python. If your own evangelist can’t get genuinely excited about your product, how will they get others excited?

Evaluating the ability to share passion in an interview might be as simple as asking for a recommendation on a good book or movie so you can see their passion in action.

Communication Skills

A developer evangelist communicates the value of your product to the community.  They might be experts on your product and know more about the features than your own engineering team. If they cannot communicate the value to others they will not be effective. Which communication skills are most important depends a bit on how you have defined the role but we can break it down to oral and written communication skills.

Oral communication skills

A good evangelist or advocate can communicate well in a

  • 1-1 conversation – A developer may ask you questions after a presentation.  In a 1-1 conversation, you have less control over the direction of the conversation. It’s essential that you have the ability to handle the twists and turns. In an interview you might ask questions to determine how would they handle being asked a question to which they do not know the answer or you might ask how would you handle someone telling you they think your company is violating people’s privacy?
  • 1-many conversation – When you are talking to a group, it’s not just about what you say. You need to project your voice, enunciation becomes more important, you have to make sure the entire group feels included by making eye contact with different people, you should be able to read body language to spot negative or positive reactions.
  • 1 – virtual audience conversation – doing webcasts, twitch streams and recording videos is it’s own skill. Not everyone can project energy without a physical audience in front of them. Without an audience to observe, it is more difficult to judge how long to pause, how fast to speak, you don’t have the usual visual cues to see if your audience is engaged. You have to imagine someone out there laughing at your jokes. For live online events, you need the ability to watch the time, handle questions and comments coming in continuously as you present. The easiest way to evaluate these skills is to have them submit a video sample. Focus on the communication skills rather than the lighting and sound quality. Lighting and sound issues can be addressed by providing the right equipment and learning a few basic tips and tricks for video recording, or by recording in a studio with a professional studio team.

Written communication skills

Your evangelist does not scale. It is expensive to fly them around to conferences and user groups to present. There are millions of developers in the world, you will never reach all of them with in person presentations. What do those developers do when they are trying to figure out how to do something new? or when they get an error message?

Person at a computer searching for help online

Coder searching for help online

  • They Google it – a well written blog post or online tutorial by your evangelist is your best friend. Especially if partnered with a SEO (Search Engine Optimization) savvy social media person to help those resources show up in search results. (An evangelist may have some knowledge of SEO, but I don’t consider that an essential skill for the person writing the post)
  • They go to Stack Overflow or Twitter– responding to questions on Stack Overflow and Twitter is a great way for an evangelist to win over a developer who is experiencing difficulties or looking for advice and help. It is also a great way to identify the challenges developers are facing with your product.

Presentation skills

We expect evangelists and advocates to present at user groups and conferences, so presentation skills are important. The best way to evaluate presentation skills is to have the candidate deliver a short presentation, the topic can be anything from how to tie your shoelaces to how to create a virtual machine. It’s not their expertise you want to evaluate, it’s their confidence, clarity, energy and presence on stage.

Independence

  • Learning independently – Technology and the technology market are constantly changing. Even if a candidate has a good understanding of the product you want to evangelize when they are hired, they will need to learn new features, and new products as they are developed. You may be able to provide the occasional formal training, but a lot of learning will need to be done on their own.
  • Working independently – Because you need people to present in different countries and regions, many evangelists and advocates work remotely.  They will not have much direct supervision, so it’s important they know how to prioritize their work and be productive on their own, even when travelling.

The belief that your product will help developers

An evangelist or advocate is only effective if they speak with an authentic voice. You don’t want to hire someone who doesn’t truly believe your product offering will help developers.

You might find someone who has a great reputation in the data science space, huge social media following, established presenter at conferences. How does that help you if they are completely committed to another platform or programming language and do not believe that your offering has equal or better value.

As much as we companies talk about evangelists and advocates being there to ‘help developers’ , the reason you have headcount to hire someone is because you need them to do a job. Your evangelists and advocates should have goals that help your company. They are hired to promote your company products and services. That same fantastic ability and confidence that makes them great presenters often comes with an ego, or they may be concerned that if they start speaking too much about one product they will be seen as selling out and will lose their reputation in the community.  If you are hiring someone with an established reputation, it’s a good idea to ask them during the interview process what value they see in your products and how they would share that information with the community and whether they are comfortable being viewed as a representative of your company.

Technical skills

If you are hiring someone to be a technical evangelist or advocate, they do need to know their way around the technology space. They don’t need to be experts on your specific products and services, that can be learned, but they should know the subject domain. For example, if you are hiring someone to promote a machine learning service they should have experience with machine learning. Otherwise it’s hard for them to understand to  explain to others in machine learning how your services help developers solve their day to day challenges.

Don’t be afraid of hiring someone who has experience with a competitor’s products. Their insights into the strengths and weaknesses of different products can be valuable. However, do make sure they believe your product adds value and they can authentically show its value to the developer community.

Social media skills

Social media is a powerful tool for sharing information with developers and engaging with developers. You may have identified candidates you would like to hire because they already have a strong social media presence.

Basic social media skills are not essential for a new hire, you can learn best practices for engaging on Twitter, Twitch, Instagram, etc… But, you probably don’t want someone who refuses to use social media.

If they already have an existing following that is a definite plus, as long as their existing social media persona does not conflict with the company evangelist persona you will be asking them to play.  As I mentioned earlier, some people feel their reputation exists because they are seen as vendor neutral, or Open Source, and may resist sharing company branded messages on Social Media because they don’t want to be seen as selling out. If you are courting someone with a big existing following, make sure you ask how they see the new role of company advocate meshing with their existing online profile.

Effective Listening skills

Evangelists and Advocates love to talk! But they also need to know how to listen, especially advocates.  They have the wonderful opportunity of meeting in person with developers who are working with or considering working with your technology. This is a fantastic opportunity to collect feedback for product teams and get a sense of how your product is viewed in the community.

They need to make sure they know when it’s time to talk, and when it’s time to listen. An advocate should know how to ask probing questions to determine the root cause of concerns and questions.  “I don’t trust your product” might turn out to mean “All AI services make me nervous because I don’t know how the training data I upload is used by the company” or it might mean “When I use a free trial and it requires a credit card I am afraid it will start charging me automatically when the free trial runs out”.

If you are out talking to developers, you will eventually meet someone who hates your company or hates your product. Often they just want someone to listen and hear what they have to say.  We have all had a negative experience with customer support, or sales that soured our opinion of a company. Your evangelist/advocate has the opportunity to win back those lost customers by being calm, and rational. Let’s be clear, not everyone can be won back. Some people will never be happy and just want to complain. It’s important to know when you have a lost cause, and just say “Thank you for sharing your feedback, I can understand why you feel that way”, and move on!

You can evaluate listening skills by role playing during the interview. Have the interviewer pretend to be a developer who has heard something negative about the product and see how they handle it.

Summary

As you can see a lot of the skills required from an evangelist or advocate are soft skills. Soft skills cannot be fully evaluated from a resume.  Once you ahve narrowed down your top list of candidates, so an online search.  How do they currently interact with your target audience on social media? Are they active bloggers? Are there videos posted online you can watch to observe their presentation skills?

In addition to the standard questions in the interviews, consider using role playing or having them deliver a sample presentation to evaluate their skills. This person will be representing your company in the public eye, you want to be sure they will be able to understand your value proposition and effectively deliver your value proposition both in person and online.

If you found this post helpful, check out the rest of my developer relations related posts. If you are looking for help with your developer relations work or are interested in having me speak at your event, reach out on Twitter or LinkedIn

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