Moving from Expert to Evangelist and Back


Clarence the AngelIt has been an interesting few years. As I approach the 7th anniversary of this blog, I was prodded to look at my journey by Gina Minks. She wrote a post about how to take advantage of experts and evangelists without them turning into obnoxious tools. (Her words were not as kind) She was asking as much as sharing.

This is a tough one. As you become recognized as an expert, it is a little intoxicating. You want to keep the recognition while still maintaining the credibility that got you there. Opportunities come along and you have to decide which ones will let you keep your soul and which ones will require you to cross that line that Gina was warning about.

Let’s start with my journey as a point of reference.

From Nothing to Everything

Both terms are an exaggeration, but they reflect the scale of the change. Before I started the Word of Pie, I was known in the Washington, DC area as a Documentum expert. I was one of several including Johnny Gee and Scott Roth. I never rated myself as knowledgeable in Documentum as those two, but I could hold my own in discussions.

Then came 2007. Inspired by Johnny and motivated by a poor EMC World, I start the Word. I quickly branched out from purely Documentum topics to the broader world of Enterprise Content Management (ECM).

The next I decided that instead of simply taking notes at EMC World 2008, I would start posting those notes to my blog. After a conference or two, my reputation grew immensely as those notes drew in more readers. I went from an expert to a internationally recognized expert in Documentum.

George celebrates lifeI never had to worry about finding people to talk to at any EMC World again. It would have gone to my head more except I knew that there were experts out there that likely knew more but lacked the exposure that I had.

I kept branching out to the wider industry, supported AIIM, and talked about other technologies like SharePoint and Nuxeo. I started to take my expertise and crafting it into messaging about ECM, Information Management, and technology as a whole.

One thing led to another and I was eventually hired as the evangelist at Alfresco. I chose the less obnoxious title of Content Management Strategist, but the role was the same.

Then things got interesting.

Human Evangelist

At Alfresco, I learned many things. These things impacted my blogging a fair amount.

George sizing his suitcaseThe first was to never compromise. You cannot have that role if you don’t fully believe in the product and the mission. I did, so there was no problem. The minute you have to compromise your principles to stay on message is the minute you lose everything.

The second is to keep your voice. I put things in my own words. I used key messages, but I communicated them in my way. I spoke about the broader industry as a participant, independent of what Alfresco was doing.

The third is to remember that your credibility is now shot. I have a lot of experience with many products. The minute I became an Alfresco employee, people would only completely believe what I said about other products if I complemented them. I didn’t want to do that so I greatly reduced my commentary on other products in the space.

The final is to play nice. This is a rule I learned by watching others. Never kick a competitor when they are down. Sure, you can reference something in a one-on-one conversation with a prospect or client, but do not dwell on it. Show some class. I had to talk about the positives of Alfresco that were the opposite of the negative that had just occurred.

Winning on merit, what an option.

And the Lessons?

Gina asked a few questions at the end of her post. I’ll try and answer them as best I can based upon my experience.

What can we do to keep our experts balanced, so they aren’t seduced to just be a mouthpiece for our bidding, so they can benefit from the attention?  How do we empower them to speak up when the message is off, not just to broadcast the same old tired stuff?

Challenge them. You have to talk to them and ask for their opinion in private. They need to be able to explain the message in their own words. If they can’t, then maybe they don’t believe in the message. Encourage them to publically share thoughts that don’t contradict the goals of the organization. If their views become contrary to the mission, then maybe it is time to separate.

My question to experts: How do you stay balanced?

I talk concepts out with people I trust. I test things out all the time. I never take anything at face value. It is also important to dive into adjacent domains in order to gain a sense of perspective. I was bred to be a skeptic so I may not be the best person to answer.

Are you an expert/evangelist/influencer? How do you stay balanced?

For everyone else, what drives you nuts about experts and evangelists?

6 thoughts on “Moving from Expert to Evangelist and Back

  1. Very valid points. Staying “balanced” (assuming any of us are, to begin with…), while working for a single vendor, is a schizophrenic existence at best. A paranoid one, at worst. While I was an ECM consultant at Capgemini, I had no shortage of opportunities to speak at conferences, write byline articles, comment in the press, etc. I was branded with an “Independent” label, even if 90% of my time was spent on Documentum projects as a Documentum “expert”. After moving to FileNet (and subsequently IBM) I was branded a “Vendor mouthpiece”, even if 90% of my work had do to with Compliance, Information Management practices, process re-engineering, Go-to-market strategy and only 10% was product related. The net result was two-fold: (a) significantly reduced my public communications and opinions (b) an almost paranoid scrutiny of anything I publish to ensure it is perceived as adding value rather than promoting the product marketing blurb. If my opinions happen to agree with the company’s, so much the better. I guess the answer to “how do you stay balanced?” is down to your personal ethic code, and the loyalty to your own personal brand above that of your employer’s.

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  2. It’s fascinating to me just how much one’s credibility gets shot when moving from a non-vendor role to a vendor role. In my case, I established my online brand and identity when I was working for a value-added reseller (VAR) on the east coast of the US. As soon as I moved from that VAR to EMC—even if the content, the voice, and the focus didn’t change—my credibility when speaking on anything storage related was immediately suspect. Now that I’ve moved on to the NSX team at VMware, the same goes for anything that I have to say about software-defined networking, network functions virtualization, and similar topics. Focusing on the technology seems to help that perception a little bit, but it doesn’t remove it entirely.

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  3. Thought-provoking stuff Pie, although my perspective is slightly different as I’ve never worked for a vendor: a couple of start-ups but no one established.
    Having just recently joined the ranks of the employed as a “customer” rather than a consultant, I think this is a lot about confidence. When you’re an expert, you’re engaged (or have your blog read) because you can radically challenge existing assumptions.
    But if you come up with a strategy as a consultant and it fails, it’s because the customer wasn’t ready to implement it. If you’re a vendor whose idea fails, it’s because the product wasn’t good enough. If you’re the customer and it fails, your neck’s on the block. The closer you are to the day-to-day, the more risk-averse you become, the less confident you are and the more your expertise can be challenged.
    I don’t yet know what the answer is — ask me in a year or so — but it could be that we were over-confident in our expertise (we knew what the solution should be but we were chickens rather than pigs as the old saying goes) and now we’re too scared, too committed (and too old?) to retain that confidence.

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    • Thanks Proops (and previous commenters). It is different with a business organization. When I was at AIIM, I found it was harder to really engage with others to test my ideas on being a CIO at AIIM. I was more housebound and I couldn’t very well share every detail with other associations as some were competitors.

      I do recommend not mixing risk-adverse and confidence. When your neck is on the line, you need to keep your confidence. Sure, something may be risky, but if you aren’t confident, then things are doomed as team members will pick up on that. Acknowledge the risk but share why it is a risk worth taking. Share the risk equation on your blog, with some abstraction, and get feedback.

      It is always tricky. The thing is that in your current situation, you have the most authority to speak to the wider audience. You have broad experience and you are living in the trenches every day. Kudos and good luck.

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