A year ago, I was doing freelance work and looking for a job. The company I worked for previously took a turn for the worse when the president and driving force behind the company was fired without warning, and that pretty much poisoned the well of culture. I had been living off of savings and small contracts for about 5 months, and with the bitter taste of an unfulfilling job lingering, I was taking my time trying to find an opportunity where I could use the technologies I wanted to use rather than the ones on my resume. I wanted to work with a company where culture and work/life balance were considered key ingredients. It’s a tough mix to find, and I was getting discouraged to the point that I was considering switching fields and paying my bills with contract work in the meantime.
My good friend Dan Lynn was going through the TechStars program with FullContact, and he sent me a link to a Developer Evangelist job posting for SendGrid. I had never heard of developer evangelist as a job title, but after reading the job description it sounded like something worth checking out. I had been a full-time developer since college and I was used to long hours writing code, but I had also spent a bit of time traveling; several months in South Africa, a month in Hawaii, and a few weeks in Toronto. I was realizing how awesome it is to be paid to travel and experience things I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Combining that with a lifelong passion for technology seemed like a win. The more I heard about the SendGrid culture and the more I thought about the job description, the more I decided it was the job for me, so I applied. After a few rounds of interviews and several weeks of anxious waiting, I got an offer letter, and had my first day on the job exactly a year ago.
In the past year, I’ve travelled to 22 events in 18 cities, not counting any events local to Colorado. I’ve been to tons of places that I had never been before, and the places I’m attending later this year seem handpicked from my list of places I’ve always wanted to visit. I’ve attended amazing events on a regular basis, and I feel as though I’m working my way through a curriculum designed to produce startup founders and entrepreneurs. As Tim Falls told me during my first interview, being a developer evangelist is a runway to whatever comes next, and it’s absolutely true. If you want to build a network of amazing developers, designers, and business people every day, then become a developer evangelist. If you want to hear first-hand stories of failure and success from amazing people, then become a developer evangelist. If you want to see new technologies being used in the field and talk to the people that are using them, then become a developer evangelist. If you’re afraid of flying, don’t become a developer evangelist.
I’ve often heard that the ideal role for a technology generalist is startup founder. I would say that another option is developer evangelist. Being an evangelist requires roughly the same set of skills that make for a good entrepreneur; externally, you need a good technological foundation to build on, good communication and social skills, the ability to market a product, and you need to be able to convert customers into people that will be advocates for your service and credibility. Internally, you need to be able to work with pretty much every department in the company. Tech support might need your help if a client is having trouble with code. Sales might need help if a potential customer has technical questions. Operations might need help reproducing a problem. Product management needs to hear the feedback that is coming from developers and clients. Marketing might be producing technical content that needs to be proofread and verified. Documentation may be incorrect, incomplete, or in need of an update. A good developer evangelist needs to be qualified and willing to help out in all of these areas. A good evangelist is equal parts hacker and hustler and able to switch between those roles with ease. When you’re not on the road, your day-to-day duties can vary drastically.
Being on the road and working weekends for months in a row is a grind, and it can wear a person down. It can become hard to schedule time with family and friends. You’ll find yourself awake in your hotel bed at two in the morning wishing that you were back home. A scheduling conflict will come up and you’ll have to head to the airport without much warning. Your flight will be delayed or cancelled and you’ll spend a whole Saturday hanging out in an airport lounge, but hey, at least they have beer. That said, I find myself thinking “I can’t believe I’m being paid to attend this event” far more often than I think “I’m feeling burnt out,” and a big part of that is the amazing team that I work with and the fantastic company that we represent. If you’re looking to become an evangelist (or looking for any job, really), find a company whose culture will build you up rather than break you down.
In a literal sense, the next chapter for me involves a lot more international travel as we continue to take SendGrid around the world. I’m not really sure what the next step will be. I could easily see myself doing the evangelist thing for a couple more years: it’s still exciting, I’m still having an awesome time traveling and meeting new people, and I’m still learning new skills and sharpening existing ones.
Beyond that, I want to be a founder. My dad has given me a lot of inspiration and advice during my life; I’ve watched him bootstrap a geotechnical engineering firm from a couple pieces of equipment in our garage to a successful business with a whole fleet of trucks and a big laboratory. Some of his advice that will always stick with me is this: “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” I love that advice because it’s true, but it also makes a point with a touch of humor, as I’ve come to expect from my dad. The advice itself is probably a bit of an oversimplification – I’m enjoying my role, I’m learning a lot on the way, and lots of good things come from being a part of a team and not necessarily being in the lead. It takes a lot of talent and skill to be the lead dog, and the last time I tried I learned I had quite bit of learning left. But I still have the desire. In the meantime, I’m extremely thankful that I’ve got a great job that is also helping me learn how to be a lead dog. Here’s to another year!