Technical Evangelists: Forces of Nature or Products of Nurturing?

I’ve been having a fun on again, off again background discussion with a few super experienced Technical Evangelists (TE) about whether it’s possible to train someone to become a successful TE, or are they really born with the skills in the first place?  Truth be told, I think we all agree it’s a little of both, but, there’s not a simple “it’s nature” or “nurture” answer.

When I think back over my own experience, each Evangelism or Ecosystem org I’ve been in has required a different mix of skills based on the type and release stage of the product, maturity of the ecosystem and whether the team itself is new or existing.   Because of this, it’s hard to describe an exact profile of the TE you need to hire and what to look for in the wild, or even what skills to help them polish up.  I also realize, this is probably a multi-part post, today I’ll describe a general background profile that I commonly see in my most successful evangelists.

  • Development skills – this is a given, all my TE’s are first and foremost experienced developers, maybe not just of mobile apps or services, but are highly technical.
  • Connectors – ala Gladwell’s Tipping Point book, they participate in people oriented things, meetups, groups etc.  Usually they lead one or more of these group activities and are known in their locale for doing so.
  • Entrepreneurs – my most successful TE’s have either been a founder of or have run a startup, which makes them well suited to talk to other startup devs or startup wannabes.
  • Social media – they constantly use these tools for info sharing and ideas are the principal currency of exchange in their  interactions via social media.

You probably noticed I don’t look for individual skills like “public speaking”, “great PowerPoint” ability or “sales” skills, these are skills that can be polished.  Sure, the candidate needs to be able to do stand up talks, but, if they are “connectors” they’re already doing this, albeit maybe to smaller crowds than my team typically addresses.

So back to my conjecture, are they born this way or is this learned?  I think from the profile it’s clear that it is both, learned skills and experience and a predisposition to work well with others.

When you’re looking at the resumes in front of you, have a framework in mind to quickly assess whether this person is a great developer, a great networker and a business builder.   If you check off all three, my guess is you’ve found a great candidate for your next TE.

In the US & ROW, Software Engineers in high demand

Like many of you, we at BlackBerry are competing to hire great Software Engineers in our locations around the world.  So, it’s worth noting just how in demand they are, in this report from US Labor Department data makes it pretty clear:

Electrical engineering jobs declined by 40,000 in the first quarter, and the unemployment rate in the category rose to 6.5%, based on an analysis of U.S. Labor Data by the IEEE-USA.

At the same time, the data showed that jobs for software developers are on the rise. The unemployment rate for software engineers was 2.2% in the first quarter, down from 2.8% in 2012, IEEE-USA said. Some 1.1 million software developers were employed during the first quarter.

What’s surprising to me is the increase of the unemployment rate of EE’s, given the growth of embedded devices one would suppose there would be a corresponding growth in hardware design skilled engineering as well.

In an earlier post I discuss all the countries we’ve received BlackBerry 10 apps from, as well as meeting with University officials, Computer Science is a highly sought degree everywhere in the world, hope to see it gain in popularity among US students.

Our takeaway as evangelists is to make our programs accessible to students and work closely with University Computer Science departments.  One example, we’ve found that hackathons are very engaging for students, and that working with student or University organizations make hackathons way more attuned to the students than our stand alone events and have been great sources for recruiting as well seeing all the great innovative app ideas.  This is good news for the Ecosystem.

iPhone most vulnerable platform, for now

BGR reports that iPhone is more vulnerable than Android and Windows Phone and BlackBerry, snippet follows:

A new report suggests that Apple’s (AAPLiPhone is more “vulnerable” to attacks than Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry (BBRY) smartphones. According to a study from SourceFire, the vast majority of all mobile phone vulnerabilities that have been discovered so far have been found in Apple’s smartphones. The firm found 210 vulnerabilities in the iPhone, giving iOS an 81% share of known mobile phone vulnerabilities, while Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry devices combined to have a 19% market share.

Yves Younan, a senior research engineer at SourceFire’s Vulnerabilities Research Team and author of the report, revealed to ZDNet that the results were “surprising.” He added that it was also “interesting” because Apple has continued to implement additional security features in new versions of iOS.

I’m not sure why this should be surprising to anyone, any platform that hits a sufficiently large number of users will fall prey to attack.  The many lessons that we learned on the PC platform are happening, albeit at an accelerated pace, on the smartphone platforms.  This is something that we all have a stake in and every business and consumer smartphone customer will need to be responsible for “securing their end point device”, i.e. your phone,  just like you have secured your PC.  No platform is truly immune, active measures are called for.

At BlackBerry we’ve built in several features to help, BlackBerry 10 has built in support for our Fusion MDM product to remotely manage and more importantly to remotely wipe sensitive corporate data.  We’ve got Balance, essentially separate “personal” and “business” partitions built into the platform keeping work and personal data and apps separate and secured.  Our BlackBerry World store has “Enterprise Store” capability, allowing businesses to select, manage and distribute only the applications they’ve approved on the business partition.  Finally, we’ve also announced our relationship with Trend Micro to keep our BlackBerry World stores malware free.

I wish that it were the case that all the features and services we’ve built for BlackBerry 10 were enough, however, you’ll need to take additional steps to insure your apps, services and phones are secure for your customers and employees to the best of your abilities.  This includes preparation, education and implementing sound policies and procedures.   This is our shared responsibility in the smartphone ecosystem.

Great Vision, Great Execution

I may be BlackBerry’s Evangelism Team’s Sensei, but I’m not the Sensei of all things smartphone or even mobile devices.  Lucky for me, I get to work every day with colleagues who literally invented the smartphone category.  For example, I just had dinner with colleagues from the Enterprise Products team at BlackBerry and gained insights about how the requirements of operating mobile devices connected to the Enterprise lead to what we think of as core BlackBerry strengths re: security and manageability.

What I’m struck by as I’ve learned more about the evolution of BlackBerry’s Enterprise products is how the team’s very forward looking initial product vision continues to make product feature decisions easy to make even in today’s BYOD world.   In fact, it appears to me this makes BlackBerry the most “BYOD Ready” platform on the market today, yet “BYOD” wasn’t on the radar when the team crafted their product vision many product cycles ago.

What can we learn from this as Evangelists?  As a team, a strong shared vision and mission provides clarity for the team every day, but especially in moments of crisis or indecision.  At BlackBerry our team’s mission is to “Make BlackBerry the best business partner for App Developers.”  Period.  To begin with, this means many different things to us, like are we making things easier, faster and more profitable for our developers?  Are we helping them see additional opportunities worldwide with their apps?  You get the idea.

Up front clarity of vision and mission enables you see more clearly your desired end point, hence, helps you reach your destination faster and with fewer detours and false starts.

What’s your team’s vision and mission?

Focus, Focus, Focus on core value

In my Evangelism role I speak with developers and start ups all day, but when the start up is being run by an old friend, I listen carefully.  I’ve had the unique opportunity to observe my friends thoughts over a few years about developing a product or service based on his unique expertise and background over lunch or coffee.  During this time his thoughts evolved from a series of observations, to an idea, and now into a product that’s currently in development with a bunch of eager customers he and the team have already lined up.  What I’ve learned from him is another lesson of the power of focus.

Starting originally with observations of  classic  IT operational problems in big data centers,  my friend and his partners iterated through a bunch of product ideas, beginning with using streaming media and voice communications to monitor IT operations staff.  While doing this they came to a realization that they’d identified a powerful insight that’s driving their product’s core value: most problems they’d encountered are time based with location information and “who did what” being key data items.   Exactly the kind of information that a mobile phone can provide.

Turning a classic IT problem inside out, rather than using traditional data gathering  methods, they use the smartphone as the device that captures and encodes this information for their customers, turning what was a previously error prone and “after the fact” data collection problem into a real-time event creation captured using “point phone at thing (location, document, etc.), push button on UI, done”.  It’s a brilliant application of using the smartphone in a novel way.  By generalizing their observations after talking with a myriad of potential customers, they’ve actually moved to a different initial target market than IT operations.

He’s also applied some Evangelism principals we’ve discussed: like talking to customers early (evangelize early), he’s iterated rapidly on the core ideas (agile), he’s built a lean team (hire to your profile) and now he’s broadening the feedback loop (lunches with dudes like me…).

Looks like a success in progress, because the team is building an innovative product with a laser focus on maximizing via their core value.

Hardware Evangelism, yeah, you read that right

Something that I started at Microsoft was Hardware Ecosystem Managment, well, I always called it Hardware Evangelism.  Immediately following Windows 3.11 shipping, Microsoft recognized that PC’s at the time were too hard to configure.  A lot of people reading this post won’t have the faintest clue of what I’m talking about when I say you used to have to know about IRQ’s, DMA addresses and jumpers.  For the folks from the UK I’m not talking about sweaters.  I’m talking about all these things you needed to configure to add a new card to your PC, or connect a printer or attempt to add a new hard disk to  your system.  All these things were monstrously hard to do before Windows 95, USB and Bluetooth weren’t even things I could even have fantasized about.

So, what about applying Evangelism to….  hardware?  Well, many of the same principles applied.  Remember, there are things called device drivers that have to be written.  Firmware in ROMs need to be written to support new chipset features.  Protocols need to be understood by each subsystem of the operating system to discover, enable and configure new hardware devices.  So what did we do at Microsoft?  Well of course we created a conference, I of course creatively named it the “Windows Hardware Engineering Confernence” or as it became known in the industry, WinHEC.  We distributed Device Driver Development Kits, or DDKs.  We worked with standards bodies, industry groups, chip makers like Intel, companies who made motherboards,BIOS makers, third party chip set makers, display card vendors, harddrive vendors, the list goes on….

So all this information was published in a book called the “Hardware Design Guide for Windows ’95”, a description of all the new protocols, subsystems, interfaces and signaling that the Windows 95 kernel made available to implement the first implementation of Plug and Play on the PC.  This is what you know today, in most cases you just plug something into the PC and it just works, er, most of the time.  This book described the operating systems requirements to the PC hardware ecosystem to allow their devices to fully participate in Plug and Play.

To test these new Plug and Play devices with Windows our team hosted innumerable “Plug a thons” and for some devices “Connect a thons”, to be honest, after all these years I can’t remember what was different about the two events.   We created a new Logo Program and the “Windows Hardware Quality Lab” that managed the logo program and outside testing firms to certify both the new device drivers and the new hardware so consumers could easily identify Plug and Play enabled devices and PCs.

We even worked with the standalone chip foundries to insure runs of specialized chips were in the supply chain.

So why am I bringing this up?  Today many new startups are building devices that either interface to mobile devices via Bluetooth or WiFi, and solutions we pioneered with Plug and Play will be required to insure interoperability with each mobile platform as well insuring that your device plays well with other devices using the wireless connectivity.   In essence, some things never change, scenarios we worked through in the early ’90s for Windows are with us today, just in a different packaging and now wireless.  Which means right now there’s probably a Connect a thon running somewhere in the world….