Dev Evangelism

October 12, 2015 holman

I think the first question that should be asked after every developer evangelist finishes their talk is ”YO DO YOU ACTUALLY BELIEVE WHAT U JUST SAID THO”.

A sneaky world

Dev evangelism is this weird world where companies pay employees to go out to conferences and meetups — really whoever will have ‘em — and give talks. This is definitely not a new thing, although the last few years it’s been feeling more and more prevalent.


I mean, I get it. Evangelism gets your foot in the door in a lot of hard areas right now: hiring, getting the word out about your company, and showing people how to use your product. It’s not a horrible way to do it, either: I’d much rather see companies support conferences as a way of hiring rather than pay recruiters to spam every developer they can get their hands on.

I’m just worried about how some of these companies are taking a good thing and twisting it for their own purposes.

Supporting whatever

I gave a lot of talks while at GitHub, and I started hearing “oh yeah you’re that dev evangelist at GitHub!” from time to time. This always made me feel funny because I considered myself a developer first and foremost; I had the most commits in the company, dammit, why don’t people who don’t have access to the repo just inherently know that? Sheesh.

I think “evangelism” is done best when you pull from the people actually doing the work. GitHub used to support their employees and let them give talks at any conference they were invited to or were accepted to speak at. The reason I liked this policy was that the goal was to support employees, which in turn led to better talks. It was pretty genuine, and the whole community gained from it. We were completely hands-off when it came to what the talks were about… some were inevitably about experiences at GitHub, some were about programming, and some were about completely different topics altogether.

I think that’s a pretty important part right off the bat that a lot of companies tend to miss. The best talk is one where 1) the speaker really wants to give it, and 2) it’s something that’s drawn from experience rather than having the explicit goal to promote the company. Both of these are problematic if the speaker themselves aren’t deep in the trenches — gaining actual experience to share — rather than talking about theoretical things they gleaned from working in the industry ten years ago.

If a company’s spending money for the purposes of “evangelism”, they’re better off letting their employees talk about what’s most meaningful to share with other people rather than what directly benefits the company.

Sell without selling

I’ve gotten a number of offers lately from companies who don’t get this. They think I gave talks to sell the company, when really I gave talks because I thought they would be helpful to other people. My talks came from real pain: I had worked in bad environments before, and I could say hey, let me tell you a better way to work! It was lovely to share these things with people who might be in the same situation.

When these weirdo companies pinged me, they assumed I’m going to swing in there, drop a ton of talks about how their real-time app for middle managers is going to change the world, and they’ll make oodles of money. They assume companies can bend speakers to better amplify their own message.

That’s a fucked way of doing things. What’s more, the average person in the audience is going to see through this and tune out (or worse, make a mental note that they think your company’s fucked).

Interestingly enough, of course, making more genuine talks that resonate with people is a better way to market your company than trying to set out and market your company in the first place.

Don’t be afraid to invest in employees in areas that might not immediately contribute to your bottom line. Remember that talks are a great time to share what you’ve experienced with others, and you don’t have to monetize every single moment of that.