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Employee Evangelism: Make Your Team Badass

Melinda Seckington speaking at Front-End London in October, 2016
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About this talk

This talk will examine why you should evangelise your team from an individual, team and community perspective, and give concrete examples of how to encourage your team to do so. Hiring good people can be hard. Keeping good people can be hard. It’s made easier though if you can set your company apart as a place that people want to work at. But how do you make the community aware that that’s the case? Developer evangelists typically evangelise products to developers, but what if the thing you’re trying to sell is the team itself? How can you get your entire team sharing with the community what you’ve built and how you work?


Hi, everyone. I want you to imagine the following scenario. You're in a grocery store. You're doing shopping, and you need to get strawberries. Now, you basically have two options, because this is a bit of a weird store. [00:30] The first option is this sturdy cardboard box with a single word printed on top of it. "Strawberries." There's no other info. You can't really look into the box, and you have no idea if these are the type of strawberries that you're actually looking for. [00:47] Now, the second option is a transparent plastic box with a lot of handy labels on it, so you know immediately what the nutritional value of the strawberries are where they were grown. You even get a cute little recipe on how to make strawberry pie. You can exactly see how the strawberries look like. You know exactly what you're buying. [01:13] Which of these two options would you choose? Now, of course, choosing what strawberries to buy isn't exactly the same thing as choosing what company to work at. In the same way, we need to think about how we expose and promote our teams as places that people want to work at, as places that people want to choose. [01:36] Not doing anything at all and remaining that cardboard box that no one can look into, it doesn't really help at all. How can we be those strawberries that everybody wants to choose? [01:48] I work for a company called FutureLearn, and we're basically a social learning platform. We partner with universities and cultural institutions all over the world to provide free online courses. Our mission is basically to pioneer the best social learning experiences for everyone, anywhere. [02:10] Unsurprisingly, this means that a lot of our team is passionate and an advocate for learning more and in better ways. As a company, we want to share what we know with the rest of the world and tell the stories of our teams. Quick question to you all. [02:29] Can you raise your hands if you've heard of FutureLearn before? Now, keep them raised if it's because you saw a blog post of us or a talk of someone? A couple. That's a good amount. [02:41] For the past two years, I've basically taken a lead within FutureLearn to do exactly this type of stuff. I've been responsible for trying to raise awareness about our company within the tech and the design community. In the past I've always struggled a bit with trying to explain what it exactly is that I do. [03:05] It's been really tricky to find that one phrase or word that encompasses it all. I think that closest existing roles are these. Developer evangelism, developer relations, developer advocacy, developer outreach. They're all these terms that I used for these very outward facing roles. [03:27] Initially I thought maybe this is what I do, but examining it more closely I realized while there is some overlap in there, the goal and the intent behind it is quite different. For starters, the stuff that I do isn't only focused on developers. It's focused on products and design, and it's not just developers. [03:55] The way I see it, this area typically in the traditional developer evangelism is more product evangelism. It's all about creating a relationship between your company and potential customers. You have a product via the platform, APIs, or tooling. It's basically something that you want developers to use. It's a product that you're evangelizing to developers. [04:20] It's about shaping that space so that you can have conversations with those people outside of the company. It's not quite what we were trying to do here at FutureLearn. The phrase I've started using recently is employee evangelism. [04:36] In the same way that developer evangelism or product evangelism is about creating that conversation between your company and potential users, employee evangelism is much more about creating that conversation between potential employees and your team. It's about raising awareness about the company, and is coming from your team directly. [05:02] With team, again, I don't just mean developers, I mean our entire product teams. Developers, designers, UX researchers, product managers, trying to get everyone involved. Rather than having one single person be the employee evangelist, you want that entire team to contribute to the evangelism. [05:24] You basically want to make sure that this loop is constantly happening. Now, we have other people on the team that are involved in the hiring process, and I think everyone on our team does awesome stuff. [05:38] My focus really tends to be on getting people to share that awesomeness with the rest of the world. I've always seen this as a team role. I'm not the only person going out to events, talking about stuff. I'm not the only person writing all the blog posts. [05:57] It's much more about supporting our entire team to do all these things, and help them learn the skills that they need to do it, and help create the type of environment that supports this. [06:11] Now that I've defined what I do, I want to look at the different things that you can do to encourage your team to practice this type of evangelism. [06:20] Couple a months back, I read this book from Kathy Sierra. I think it's great book. In it she explains how the best way to get your products being used by people is understanding there's not necessarily about your product, it's about making your users feel awesome. [06:44] If they feel they are being badass when using your product, they'll be much, much more likely to be passionate and be motivated to share what they do with your product. [06:55] She goes on to create a framework of sorts to help your users become badass. I realized that a lot of it can be applied and adapted to how we encourage our teams. How can we make our teams badass? I've adapted it specifically for getting teams to share more, but I think there's a lot of different areas where you can apply it to. [07:22] I want to focus on these four different areas, and I think all of these combined can help you encourage your teams. Most of what I'm talking about is phrased as encouraging your teams, but I think everything can be applied to each person individually, as well. [07:41] If you don't work in a team yet, or aren't in a position to change things yet, or anything like that, try to think about my tips as things that you should be applying to yourself. [07:54] First, give your team a compelling context. This is about creating that right type of environment that people feel like they can share. [08:03] Start with a company culture first. Let's go back to our strawberry example. Remember the packaging on the transparent books. The retailer could have put anything they wanted there, nutritional benefits, the claim that they're best strawberries in the world, recipes, stuff like that. [08:23] In the end, though, the thing that really, really matters is if they are good strawberries. If they're the type of strawberries that people will come back to again, again, and again. The first thing about getting your team writing or talking about your company is having something that's worth sharing, something that's worth getting excited about. [08:46] If you want potential employees to see what a great company it is, then it kind of does need to be a great company or at least have specific elements of greatness within it. You can't create a reputation for something that you don't have. [09:04] If there isn't a single thing that you can think of that is great, that is worth sharing with the rest of the world, maybe you should be focusing on fixing that first, rather than blogging about it. [09:18] The second thing is to be authentic. The stories that your team will tell need to come from them. You can't just give them a script or a brief, and then tell them to go and evangelize. It needs to have that human voice. I love this quote from Kathy Sierra, "On the death bed nobody will say 'If only I'd engaged more with brands.'" [09:40] Remember, this is about starting conversations with potential employees. This is not the brand having those conversations, it's actual humans. [09:53] The third is, be open. Be willing to share information, and stories, and data about your company. [10:00] Now, not every company will be able to share everything but you need to get a good understanding of what are the things that your team can talk about, what are the things that your team can share. Make sure that your team is aware that they can. [10:20] Second area we need to look at is giving each person a compelling reason. With this I mean what are the personal motivations for each team member, what will drive each of them to share what they do with other people. I've got a couple of examples of what I think are the most common motivations. [10:44] A really interesting book about this is "Drive" from Daniel H. Pink. In it, he examines the different motivations that people have. A lot of it is about the intrinsic rewards that people seek, rather than the extrinsic rewards like money, or owning stuff. I'll be highlighting a couple of examples that I think are the most common motivations when it comes to employee evangelism. [11:11] What are the underlying motivations of what your team would want to do? First is helping others. These are the people that share what they know because they know it will directly help someone else. They might not necessarily want to be the ones standing in the spotlight, but they know that if they do, they might make someone's life easier. [11:34] For them, you really need to frame it as, "If you do this thing, you will help someone." This is one of my own key motivations. If giving a talk or writing a blog post can help one single person out there, then for me it's worth doing. I might not be the absolute expert in it, but if I can help someone else, if I can help save someone else's time, then why not? [11:57] Another motivation is building confidence in communication. Most of our day-to-day work, we rely on communication to others. Doing a blog post or giving a talk, they're basically just extreme examples on that spectrum. Becoming a better speaker or a better writer, that will help people get better at their jobs. [12:22] For some people that's the main reason why they might want to become better at it. For them you really need to frame it as, "Look, if you do this thing, you'll be much awesome in your job." [12:33] The third motivation is building personal reputation. These are the people that want to stand in the spotlight and shine. They want to have the focus on them. The variance of this is the people that want to be experts in a specific thing. For them it's really showing that they've mastered a specific topic and that they're the number one person in their field to do this thing. [13:00] These aren't the only motivations that people have, but especially when it comes to sharing and talking about what you do, I think they're the most popular three. [13:09] For most people it might be a combination of all or some of these, but understanding which of these apply to each person, it helps you understand how to build the skills that they need and understand what types of stories they might want to share. [13:33] Now that we know what the goal is, how do you encourage them to keep working on this? I think there are two sides to this. First, what makes them stop? You need to understand what each person's fears and blockers are. I often hear things like, "I'm not an expert, can't write, nothing I do is worth sharing." [13:55] They're all valid fears and reasons for why someone will stop or never get started. Once you know what those fears are, you can help them come up with a plan to overcome it. The flip side of this is what pulls them forward. Make them set a goal, like speak at a conference in year's time, or write a blog post once a month. [14:19] Help them break this big goal into much more manageable chunks. I haven't quite done this with my team yet, but I still need to create progression paths for writing, speaking and doing workshops so that people can pick and choose between what they want to do when they're setting their personal goals. [14:37] Finally a part of this is, also lead by example. Make sure your team is not only aware of the things that you do, but also how you got there. For instance, when I started this two years ago, I have never spoken at a conference or a meet-up really, before. Even now, I still get nervous when speaking in front of this amount of people. [15:01] Constantly telling my team what my own fears are and what my own journey has been, it basically shows them that what they might want to do one day isn't unattainable. It shows them that if I can do it, then they can do it as well. [15:21] The last area to look at is how to help your team actually get better. How do you help them improve their skills? The first part of this is perpetual exposure. This is the idea that to become better at something, to become an expert at something you need to be exposed to high quality examples of the things that you're trying to get better at. [15:48] In this case of getting people to share things, you need to make sure your team is exposed to good examples of other people sharing things. [15:57] Here are couple of examples of what we do. To start, have a library. This doesn't have to be just books, but it also means having blog posts, articles, screencasts, videos, basically any content that you think is worth sharing with your team. [16:16] What are good examples of content that other people have created? Besides that, we also got lists of things like getting started with public speaking, getting started with writing, how to create outlines. Helping people understand how to do the things that they want to do. [16:35] Another things we organize is talks through love. In this we basically watch recorded video of a talk together that one person on the team really enjoyed or found useful. We most of time follow this by discussion of things that we might want to do ourselves. It's again about exposing content that we think it's good. Expose good examples of sharing. [17:03] The second thing here is highlight existing good content that your team has created. Our teams are already creating content every single day. Just think about good commit messages, good poll requests, emails or slack messages explaining different things. [17:22] Most of the time it just requires one person pointing out to them, "Did you consider turning that thing into a blog post, or maybe doing a talk about it, or a workshop?" Be that voice that champions the work that people already are doing. It doesn't necessarily have to be an internal thing only, especially when it comes to bugs and stuff like that. [17:45] Why not talk about it and help other people in the process? The second part of helping your team get better is giving them the time and space to practice. Rather than throwing them just into the deep end, you need to allow them to build these skills gradually. [18:09] I'll give three examples of what we do to practice speaking, and then three examples of what we do to practice writing. They're not the only things that we do. It's just to give you a sense of what types of activities and support you need to be thinking of. [18:26] The first speaking one is lightning talks. These happen every four to six weeks. Basically, anyone in the company can give a quick five-minute talk about anything that they want. It's a great way to get people to recognize that they have something worth talking about, but it also gives them the experience and confidence to do more talks. [18:50] Throughout the years, we've basically had more...I'm not sure where I was going with that. We've had lightning talks, and they're really cool. [19:01] The second thing we organize are learning hours. In these, one person on the team teaches something that they think other people might find useful. These tend to be more hands-on and workshop-like. They, again can be about anything. Past learning hours have been things about command line tools, how to run retrospectives, understanding database indexes better. [19:29] Today, we actually had one about how our tech stack works, but it was explained for the non-developers on our team. Rather than learning to speak in front of a large audience, it basically allows people to practice these skills in front of much smaller groups that they're already working with. It's removing that barrier of speaking in front of large audiences. [19:58] The third thing we have is Conference Club. This is an internal meet-up for everyone that wants to speak at conferences or just wants to get better at public speaking. We help each other with creating everything that goes into creating a conference talk. [20:17] Coming up with talk ideas, giving feedback on practice runs, helping each other write bios. It's basically making sure that people aren't doing this stuff all by themselves. [20:29] Then, for practicing writing, first we organize our collaboration blog posts. We pick a specific topic, like women that inspire us or foreign words that we like, and we ask for paragraph submissions. Rather than having to commit to a full-length blog post, which one person just needs to write on their own, we get people started with small snippets that are much more easier to get into. [20:59] Then, another thing we have is our internal blog. Most of the time, these are for sharing stories or problems with the wider team. [21:08] Again, rather than having to publish something immediately for the entire world, we basically provide a stepping stone in between. For instance, this post started as a blog post on our internal blog, which we eventually moved to the main blog, as well. [21:26] Finally, we pair on blog posts. Lots of people pair on code, so why wouldn't we do a similar thing for writing, as well? Why don't we learn from each other how we write? [21:40] Give your team the time and space to practice new skills. They won't grow overnight, and you need to create a supportive environment if you really want to get everyone involved. If you want to get your team sharing more, I think these are the four different areas that you need to look at. [22:03] What was the effects of this on our team? Now, when I started the role, we barely had anyone writing blog posts or speaking at events. Here are some stats as to where we got to now. Not including the people that joined our team recently, about 35 percent of our team have now done an external talk. [22:26] That percentage rises to about 60 percent when we include the lightning talks, and to 78 when we include all the learning hours. Then, when it comes to writing, we've got 75 percent on the team that has written or contributed to full-length blog posts, and then 89 percent when we include the collaboration blog posts. [22:49] The cool thing is if we combine this all, it basically means that every single person in our team has been sharing their knowledge in some way or form. Not everyone is going to do everything, but everyone wants to get involved in some way or another. [23:08] Next to that, coming full circle with getting people to hear about us from a hiring perspective, from the last round of hiring, we had 50 percent of the interviewees explicitly mention that they had seen a talk or read a blog post. [23:33] Now, this stat is actually from people that just brought it up themselves in conversation. It's not us actively asking about it. The actual number might actually be higher. [23:46] Make your team badass. If there's one thing that you can take away from this talk, let it be this. Every team can do something like this, but more importantly, I think every team should do something like this. While I think employee evangelism is great for your company, in the end, it's about making our community great. [24:10] Embedding these type of practices within every company, it means that we get more people sharing what they do and sharing what they love, what they're passionate about. If you want to see more diverse speakers at events, we need to be supporting teams in learning these skills. We're all in positions to change this. [24:39] I want you to think about this. The next time you come across something that someone in your team has done that could help someone else, help them share it with the rest of the world. [24:52] Then, maybe next year, thanks to you, someone will be somewhere on a stage sharing that story and trying to make the community just slightly better. Thanks for listening.