Evangelism, Advocacy, and Activism in The Technology Industry

Usually I just head to my local office in downtown Ballard, a neighborhood in Seattle that was and still is largely its own city. Today however I’ve boarded the 17x Express Bus into the downtown Seattle. While in transit, as I always do, I just sat back introspecting on the day to be and the days of past, while reading Jeff’s post “From Evangelist to Developer Advocates” on our occupation title changes. As of recently we went from the somewhat inappropriately named Developer Evangelist to the more accurate title of Developer Advocate.

People have written about these titles in DevRel (Developer Relations) in the past, as have I. I wanted to add a few thoughts about these titles in this particular situation, and draw out some recent events where others seem to incorrectly, albeit with reason, conflate actual evangelism with advocacy. I’ll wrap up with another specific word that is important, activism, and how that comes to play in the tech industry also.

Spread the Word of God! Eh… ?!

Alright let’s get down to the real meat of the definition of the word evangelism.

Evangelism – 1 “the winning or revival of personal commitments to Christ” and 2 “militant or crusading zeal” so yeah,  wow. Not the actual intention.

evangelism

Most uses of the word all center around spreading the gospel, specifically the gospel of the Christian God in the bible often through militant fasion and prospectively genocidal eradication of peoples. Somewhere in the late 80’s, 90’s or something some tech company (I think Microsoft if memory serves) in partial tongue in cheek jest dubbed an occupation position evangelists that would go out and spread the good word of the technology. I only know parts of the myth and origin story, but suffice it to say, it was kind of a joke that stuck and at this point has just been a title for well over a decade or two now. One that sincerely should probably not be used anymore, as I hope nobody is militantly pushing technology on others.

Another note, many of us referred to officially or unofficially have gotten hit with this association in often negative ways. For example. Follow that thread for the trash fire it becomes and the horror of the iWill Estate troll account. But I do digress.

This is one of the dangers of tech appropriating titles and such (as it all to often does) it tends to create societal blow back that is more than unwelcome. But on toward a better future and a better title right?

Advocacy – “the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal” or “the act or process of advocating”. Alright, now we’re on to something!

advocacy

But seriously, evangelists in technology aren’t preachers, and according to statistics are dramatically more likely to just be atheist, so being an advocate is exponentially better in so many ways. It really is, in so many ways, an occupation that is involved with the act of advancing, working with, and showing others certain tools, languages, or related technologies within the technology industry. In this way, using the word advocate in the title is just simply a more accurate and effective choice in so many ways. It isn’t a word derived from jest, it’s definition itself aligns with the occupation, and in my not so humble opinion it sounds a lot better. I am, and always will be an advocate for many different things.

Delving Further into Advocacy

Over the years I’ve done far more than merely advocacy work. I’ve worked in everything from labor, cooking, software developer for startups to enterprises, security, teaching, enterprise desk jockey (I mean software engineer, but the difference is sometimes minimal), and a host of other work. Each had various ranges of activities that needed done that went far beyond the actual occupation title. The title is merely a poorly designed window that one can look into to see what an occupation entails. The real details need written down, and really thought about in detail outside of the title itself. The following is a list of the top key things I do as a developer advocate.

  1. I write code for reference AND production. I write lot’s of code in a number of languages (very polyglot, much wow, very confusion). I work through the problems and plights of different technology stacks. I work with systems, operations, and all the intertwining characteristics in between. Sometimes only at a very high level architecturally and other times at the deeper level of shifting bits and fighting pointer errors in C. The idea however, is the technology situation isn’t just the mythical nonsensical full stack as the code schools say, but the real life from hardware to software, top to bottom full stack of intricate and often frustrating detail! In summary, it’s a blast if you’re a curious type that likes to bounce around in the various domain problem spaces.
  2. I extensively get to and know how to travel, well. This one gets a little personal. I don’t just book flights and stay in hotels. Often I wouldn’t even need to do this but I like to make a point that I will handle my own travel, and expense it as needed. The stress of traveling inefficiently can end up being the death knell of being an advocate. It can lead to burn out, sickness (yes, actually being sick), and other health related issues. Matter of fact this topic will be another entire blog entry, or entries, that I’ll write on the matter. But let’s just say I travel on a semi-frequent basis at this point. A nice cool 1-2 weeks out of every 2-3 months. Which in many ways is minimal for a lot of advocacy and related positions. More on this topic in a future post.
  3. SSO and Cartesian password nightmare management. I’ve never in my life had to manage as many usernames and passwords as when working as a developer advocate. The reasoning is simple, as with consulting I often end up helping out with a lot of different systems. But  also in doing development for reference applications I end up having access to so many macahines that need recreated, keys that need rolled, and related things that it is almost overwhelming. Password keepers are a life saver. Automation keeps me sane.
  4. I don’t not code asshole. As an advocate I routinely have to deal with that one asshole at a conference or a talk who wants to try to “call me out” or complain that I don’t really “have responsibilities” or related rude, crass, asshole behavior. At this point in my life, I simply disregard such comments but I still need to manage these comments and the individuals making them so they don’t detract from what I’m trying to provide and help people with. I will also admit, [TRIGGER WARNING-start] as an advocate that is a cis-gendered white male I get the privilege of not having to also defend myself for my gender identity, sex, or related identity, but even then it’s still a pain and can only imagine what others that aren’t cis gendered white males deal with. [TRIGGER WARNING-end] The tech industry has a lot of assholes, and as an advocate I get to learn how to manage them on an almost daily basis. I’d rather not having to do it, but I’m out here to learn as much as I am out here to teach others about application development, databases, and related technology. To all the other 98% of people that are friendly to me, thanks, I appreciate it, keep up the good work! Beers (or your beverage of choice) on me next round!
  5. I advocate for the developer. This can mean a number of things; from organizing developer focused conferences to getting bugs reported to meeting with and discussing future product paths with developers and product teams. In many ways I am a matchmaker of minds, connecting those that can take action to those that seek action, that look to better the tools we use. One could say, in this effort I’m the bridge point. I actually have a pretty obscenely huge contact list because of this. I’m always thinking, “who could I connect this person with that also wants X to get built”? This is honestly one of the most mentally exhausting parts of my job, but also one that has huge rewards. What I can learn from those I connect often exceeds any wild expectation.

One More Word: Activism or Activist

I added this word as often, when one advocates, one also gets to work with people who are and will be activists. Before I continue, the definition.

Activism – “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue”.

activism

There’s a specific reason I bring up activism. It isn’t specifically because of the current political climate in the world, but I’d lie if I didn’t mention it’s part of it. Activism is something that is also interwoven into the software industry. From open source software itself to the free software movement. Activism is a very important and distinctive activity in the software industry. I bring this up because of the important parallels and some of the call outs I wanted to make. Get involved – anybody can – here’s the details.

Beyond this, I’ve been involved in a number of activist work that is often convergent with advocacy, albeit it often involves parking, bicycle advocacy, safe streets, urban city design, and related transportation and urban planning work.

References: AKA More reading on the topic!

An interesting post that simply asks the question and looks at some recent conversations on the topic.

This is a comment thread on Hacker News that is pretty insightful of the various perspectives of the various titles. But also with some interesting anecdotal information about what people have seen among Apple, Google, and other companies and how they orient these positions to work with the community.

This is a post that popped out at me. What does this actually even mean? Based on the words this actually sounds super creepy.

Another post I dug up on the topic reminds me of why we have so many hard issues with words meaning their written definition and then what we infer from their general meaning in actual daily use. For example this post seems to just skip over defining the words from the dictionary as a point of reference and just run with the assumed, or the writer’s assumed definition of what they’ve observed of the occupations using the word.

Here are a few posts from some other developer advocates, on the topic of what developer advocacy is.

A few of my past posts.

Finally my posts about watching the awesome team being built at Microsoft here and my fortune in finding and joining the awesome team at DataStax here.

Summary

It’s complicated, there’s no TLDR so just read and keep learning.

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