Evangelist boy

To far too many people in the high tech world “Evangelism” is a dirty word. It smacks of marketing and sales and isn’t technical. Companies want technical engineers, they want marketing professionals. They want sales professionals. They overlook the importance of evangelism. 

This is going to be a bit long, and a bit of a personal history lesson in some ways, but stick with me and you’ll see why Technology Evangelism is so important. And then you’ll wonder why your company doesn’t have a “Chief Evangelist” yet. Because you should. 

Evangelizing Java

Look, I’ve been an Evangelist since before they were called evangelists. My second job at Sun Microsystems, way back in 1996, was titled “North American Field Operations Java Technologist” I have one of 6 of those fancy and highly coveted Java Jackets that says “NAFO Java Technologist”. There were 5 of us in all of Sun. The only other Java Evangelist at Sun was THE Java Evangelist, Miko Matsumura. Everyone wanted to be him. Turns out we covered more than North America.

I started playing with Java in 1995, before it was released to the world, because I worked at Sun and I could. I could get access to stuff that was still in Sun Labs. I thought it was pretty cool stuff so I wrote some web applets with it in my spare time. Next thing you know, Java was the hottest new technology on the planet, and everyone wanted to see it, hear about it, learn about it, be near it. So the 5 of us NAFO Java Technologists spent our time going all over the country talking to Sun Customers — from the C-suite to the developers and business line managers — helping start Java User Groups, speaking at those user groups, you name it. We lived and breathed Java and we made sure everyone we came in contact with knew just how amazing and cool Java was. Java just is now, I know. But back then it was new and different and shiny. We made it cool. And HOT! Every sales rep wanted one of us to go on sales calls with them because we opened doors, and checkbooks.

That’s the power of Evangelism. 

Evangelizing Desktop Computing

By 1998 Java was old news, so I started playing with some other new technology that was about to come out of the brain-trust at Sun Labs — The Sun Ray. A network terminal, of sorts, that allowed you to direct your desktop session to whatever terminal you stuck your smartcard into. No one had seen anything like it before, and I spent a couple of years flying all over the planet showing people the power of this new paradigm in desktop computing. I did analyst briefings with the VPs. I went to the big financial institutions and demoed the stuff. I built proof-of-concept implementations. I built the first Sun Ray Kiosk. I managed reviews with magazines and other publications.

Sadly, Sun Ray was crippled from within and never became the big deal it rightfully should have been. But without evangelism, no one would have ever known it even existed. 

Sun Labs

Sun Labs was the elite brain-trust of Sun Microsystems (see above for the origins of Java, and Sun Ray). They did the “Blue Sky” research. They looked out 5 or 10 years to where the computing industry would eventually be. It was the best of the best, the elite of Sun. 

In 2003, I was lucky enough to actually become part of Sun Labs. In 2004 I started working on a project called the Sun SPOT. We wanted to make “Wireless Sensor Networks” — that’s what the IoT was called back then — actually easy to program. Most IoT platforms were based on 8-bit or 16-bit PICs and you had to program them either in assembly or C. It wasn’t for the faint of hard, it was brittle and fraught with pitfalls and problems. 

We fixed that problem by developing the Sun SPOT Project. A full 32-bit (ARM9) processor that ran Java. Easy to program, easy to use, and accessible to anyone. We turned hardware projects into software projects. They were so easy even I could do them! And I began to evangelize them by writing about them on my (old) blog incessantly. It worked. We developed a community of over 3,000 developers and users in under 3 years. We sold almost 30,000 developer kits. Sun SPOTs were the cool thing to have! (As a side note, Sun SPOTs are still wildly popular even though they haven’t been made in years, and Oracle shut down the original Sun SPOT website. Years after I left Oracle the community started pestering me about that fact, so I currently host the mirror of the old “SunSPOTWorld.com” site for them.)

Post-Sun

Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and that included Sun Labs. Oracle took over Sun Microsystems and turned Sun Labs into something entirely unrecognizable. People fled. I was one of them. That’s all I’ll say about that chapter.

I went to Riverbed Technologies, as an Evangelist. 

Let’s Add Some Numbers

After fleeing Sun Oracle Labs and joining Riverbed Technologies, I began (at the behest of my boss, the Chief Evangelist) to apply some rigorous numbers to my evangelism efforts. We wanted to quantify the effects of evangelism for the company. I meticulously recorded the number of events I did, the number of participants at those events, the customers they represented, and to follow those customers through the sales pipeline for final outcomes. So in FY13 for Riverbed I conducted roughly 50 customer events — both in person and on-line — with over 1,300 attendees. I was able to document over $90M in sales closed as a result of these events. I’d say that’s a pretty healthy ROI, wouldn’t you?

Evangelism Pays

As I said, in a year, and about 50 events, I was able to document over $90M in sales. That’s over a 500% ROI for me — without giving away too much information. Yes, the Field Sales reps actually closed the business, but I can tell you that one Sales Rep called me after an event and said that the customer he brought was “on the fence” before the event, but immediately afterwards signed a $60M deal. Evangelism pays. 

As A Java Evangelist back in the 90’s I helped bring in far more business than that for Sun. 

Here’s why Evangelism is such a fantastic return on investment. Sales Reps are trying to sell every minute of every day, with every customer or prospect. Prospects and customers know this, and they defend against it. They have to. But at an ‘event’ with an evangelist, we aren’t trying to sell them on anything other than enthusiasm and ‘cool.’ Their defenses may be up against ‘sales’ but almost no one has defenses against cool. Nor should they. A skilled and enthusiastic — genuinely enthusiastic, not marketing-enthusiastic — evangelist can get them excited and interested and engaged. From there, the job of the sales rep — to close business — is infinitely easier. 

So Get an Evangelist!

I would hope that, after reading this tale of evangelism you’d see the value. But don’t just grab someone and call them an evangelist. Many highly technical people don’t have the desire, or the ability, to go out in front of audiences and really make technology interesting and cool. And do not under any circumstances, just send a moderately-technical marketing person out there to do it. Not if you’re dealing with highly technical people like developers. A marketing person trying to present technical stuff to developers is just chum in the water. The sharks will circle, tear them to shreds, and you will have done the opposite of what you intended: alienated your developers and lost your credibility. 

True evangelists are a breed all to themselves. They are highly technical people that could just as easily be one of your star developers. They also understand marketing and messaging and how to present technology in a way that supports the marketing message without actually being a marketing person. You may already have one in your organization and just not know it, in which case you should find that person and make them your Chief Evangelist immediately! Otherwise you should find someone to fill the role. You won’t regret it.

PS: If you’re looking for a Chief Evangelist, call me.