How being a rabbi prepared me for dev rel


Ben Greenberg speaking at DevRelCon San Francisco 2019

Ben Greenberg

Ben Greenberg is a second career developer, having spent a decade involved in education and community work. In this talk from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019, Ben explains how life as a rabbi prepared him for the field of developer relations.


Ben: Hello, everyone. Hi.

Audience: Hi.

Ben: We can do a little better. It’s 4 o’clock on Friday. Hello.

Audience: Hello.

Ben: That’s awesome. So we’re going to spend a little time together talking about lessons learned along the way in my trajectory from the pulpit, from congregational clergy life to developer relations.

So before we begin, just a little bit about myself. Hello, again. My name is Ben. I’m the father of two amazing kids and as mentioned, I am a second career developer who previously spent about a decade as a rabbi and as a community organizer and educator throughout the United States.

And I’m currently a developer advocate at the amazing, fabulous, fantastic dev rel team of Nexmo. Yeah, Nexmo.

And I want to start by sharing a story, and this story is a story that so many of my former colleagues all have had this experience. We all go to seminary or to rabbinical school or what have you, and we think we’ve learned the skills for the job and we realize that we’re not meant to only be empathetic, compassionate, caring, we’re also meant to be superheroes, supernatural people.

Aren’t you telepathic?

And for me, that was whether I was meant to have the ability of telepathy. And the story is, I was in the first few months of my role at a congregation in Colorado and I get a call from a member of the board who was a bit upset because a member of the congregation called, who was a bit upset, and the reason why that person was upset was because their family member was in the hospital undergoing a routine procedure scheduled months before and I did not visit that person in the hospital.

I did not mention them in any newsletters, did not talk about that person and how could I let that slip. So, of course, I was upset at myself. Our job is to care for our community. How could I have let that go by? How could I have, let’s call them the Feldmans, let the Feldmans slip through my fingers?

So, of course, I looked into it and I realized quickly after starting to research this, that the Feldmans had not called the office to let us know that they were going to be in the hospital. They had not told anyone else in the congregation, they had not called the lay-led caring committee to share that this was happening, and they’re what we might call a once or twice a year members. I don’t know if that resonates.

So in other words, there was no possible way for me to know that this is what they were going through, but they were upset because their rabbi did not intuit with spider-sense, the ability that they were in the hospital.

Matterness and shared space

So in every other respect, these people are perfectly reasonable people, so their grievance had to be something a bit deeper. And I actually think what their grievance is about is a question of matterness. Do I ultimately matter to the people around me? Do people know when I’m present, do they know when I’m not present? Am I a valued member of the community?

If you strip away all the layers of organizational and communal life, you take away the mission statements, and the vision statements, and the events, and the marketing, and the personas, and everything else, and you just look at it at its most fundamental level, a community is a group of people who have chosen to come together to impact their lives.

That’s what a community is. For common purpose, a shared purpose, and to know and to be known, in and with each other. And so these people were expressing that sense that they didn’t feel like they mattered.

People will never forget the way you made them feel

And so, of course, from Dr. Maya Angelou, and this, by the way, is so, so true. You can give the most important didactic tutorial workshop you ever given your entire life. You feel like you’re on fire and then there’s a person from the audience who wants to talk to you about what you talked about and you don’t know they want to talk to you, but they’ve been waiting and you just walk right past them.

Maybe you’re done with your presentation, you might have to use the facilities. Maybe you want to take a little break. Maybe you’re missing a few phone calls and you just walk right past that person.

Well, I promise you that person’s not going to remember what you talked about. They’re not going to remember your APIs. They’re not going to remember anything you mentioned, but they’re going to remember exactly what you didn’t care about them, that you walked right past them and that’s going to be the end of that relationship.

That’s a weighty thing to carry on one’s shoulders. That sense of responsibility, that sense that we are invested with the ability and the opportunity to weave networks of meaning, networks of community. But there’s a lot of power in that.

So having said that, what I want to talk about are really two areas that have been really important in my life and I think have great value in our life as dev rel. Servant leadership and adaptive problem-solving. What they are, and how do we incorporate them.

Servant leadership

So first of all, servant leadership. Ken Blanchard who wrote one of the books on servant leadership simply describes it as the idea that you work for them and they don’t work for you.

And in essence, that is a paradigmatic shift in the operating principles of organizational life because it’s usually the people with the titles, it’s usually the people with the seniority, the people who have the knowledge, whatever that knowledge is, who get to make the decisions in a top-down, bureaucratic, hierarchical, all those fancy words which we don’t like kind of fashion.

And servant leadership is essentially saying the job of that person, the person who has the mic, their job is to actually understand what the needs are of the people they serve and reflect back those needs to them.

Or in other words, as one of our colleagues who’s already mentioned once, this was not planned. Emily Freeman tweeted, “DevRel is servant leadership more than anything else. It’s taking the hits and speaking on behalf of a greater community.”

It’s reflecting back the voices, the needs, the wants. It’s reflecting back the community back to them. It’s using yourself, in a sense, as an amplifier for that community.

Engaging in the needs of the community

And another perspective a little bit older than Emily or from Ken Blanchard. About 800 years ago, a teacher in the Jewish tradition named Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher, a physician, a scientist, he wrote very simply that, “All who engage in the needs of the community, it is like they are engaged in the words of the Torah.” Sorry, I’m a rabbi. I still have to do it by, I get paid for it every word.

But it’s, those who engage in the needs of the community, it is as if they’re engaged in the words of the Torah. Within the construct of Jewish theology, to say you’re engaged in the words of the Torah is essentially to say, which is the foundational text of Jewish civilization, is essentially to say you’re doing something awesome. Keep on doing it. It is amazing. Do it, do it, do it. That was written about 800 years ago or so.

So we know it’s really important. We know it’s really good to do, but can we get a little specificity here? So let’s try and do that.

Knowing the difference between teaching and preaching

So the first thing which is really important is teaching does not equal preaching. Sharing does not equal selling. And educating is not the same thing as persuading. That ultimately what it comes down to is you’re trying to share the tools, the resources, the frameworks that you have that can make their lives, their work more productive.

But when you start crossing over that border, and sometimes that border can be a bit porous, right? Because we’re invested in our work, hopefully, and we care about what we’re doing, hopefully, and we want to share it. We want to share the good word and sometimes that good word can be a little preachy. I’m sorry if I’m being a little preachy, but that’s what I do.

What do the people in my community need to know?

But knowing the difference between teaching and preaching. And so how do you know that difference? Well, one of my teachers back in and rabbinical school always told us to keep the following question in your mind when you’re constructing lessons or sermons, which is, what do the people in my community need to know?

Not what do I want to share. Not what are the insights I get from that latest “New York Times” article I read, but that’s not what I’m getting paid for. What I’m getting paid for is to find out what are the gaps in the community and how can I in my domain knowledge, my expertise, help fill in those gaps. That’s my role.

To understand what’s missing and to be a voice in what’s missing, but not only what I’m interested in. And when you do that, if this works, when you do that, you start thinking more like a moon and less like the sun.

Because ultimately, this is a Dr. Mary Lou Jepsen. She’s a professor. She has a lot of work on light, on the moon, really interesting stuff. And so she said that reflecting sunlight on the earth to the moon, gives enough lights that all of humanity can see.

The brilliance of the moon is dictated by how much light it reflects back to others. The more brilliant the moon, it means the more brilliant is the light around it.

Lifting up the voices in your community

And when you lift up the voices in your community, you’re not diminishing your voice, you’re not diminishing your persona. You’re actually raising your voice also. It’s not just like I’m lifting up the community and I’m here. It’s that we’re all being lifted up together in the pursuit of our community work.

And when you think of it in the construct of that moon, it really is about that sense of shared voice, of bringing up and lifting up the voices of those who are around you in your community, and you reflect the light of your community.

And when you do that, you understand that your success in your role, your metrics, however you want to define it, is bound up in the success of your community.

And also, furthermore, some more Jewish teachings. Sorry, this is the last one. Another idea from the concept of the moon. There’s really two aspects. One is you’re lifting up the light of your community, you’re reflecting back.

There’s another really brilliant insight, and this comes from a rabbi about 900 years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, who lived in Provence, France, beautiful part of the world by the way. You should go visit.

And he’s talking about the fact that the Jewish calendar if you don’t know is a lunar calendar with solar modifications. And the lunar calendar is interesting because when’s the start of the moon? When’s the start of the month according to the moon? Does anyone know?

Is it that when the moon is at it’s biggest, what? When it’s at its smallest, visibly, right? When it’s the sliver of the light, that’s the beginning of the new month. Not when it’s at its most brilliant, but when it’s at its smallest.

And so Rashi writes. When the moon is renewing itself. And I love Hebrew because the Hebrew is like inflexive. It’s like when the moon is doing it to itself, when it’s renewing itself, that for you becomes the new month. That’s calendrically, the new month for you.

Find time for regular renewal

And so the idea that the moon has a time for renewal I think teaches us also, we need to find time for regular renewal. That doing this kind of work, reflecting the light of others, being that voice that reflects with that amplifier, can be exhausting.

It’s tiring in the clergy, that’s why I switched jobs maybe, and it’s also tiring in dev rel. That it really requires a sense of finding that time for yourself to rejuvenate and be encouraged in that by your supervisors, by your team, that that’s perfectly healthy and normal.

Adaptive problem solving

Lesson number two, idea number two, adaptive problem-solving. We can’t get into the fullness of adaptive problem solving, but a couple character traits that I think are essential, that I learned in my life, that contribute to healthy thinking around and being adaptive around problems is this marshmallow test. Who’s heard of the marshmallow test?

So, if you are a parent of young children, you don’t need the research to tell you the results of this. The marshmallow test is essentially you take a child, excuse me, you take a child, put them in a room, right? Put a couple marshmallows in front of them and you say, “Don’t touch those marshmallows. It’s okay. It’s going to be fine. I’ll be back in like few minutes, 5, 10 minutes, and I’m going to give you more marshmallows.”

If you are a parent of young children, what’s going to happen to those two marshmallows sitting on the plate in front of them? Will they still be there? No. If you were me, they might not still be there, let alone as parent of a small child.

And because the marshmallow in front of you speaks a lot louder to you than the marshmallows that are beneath the marshmallow in front of you. That’s really deep. We’re getting deep with marshmallows. And because you’re looking at that marshmallow and what you’re not doing is you’re not taking that deep breath.

You’re not inhaling. You’re not exhaling. You’re not pausing. You’re just thinking about that marshmallow and answering the call of that marshmallow immediately.

And all too often I find that I have the temptation to do the same thing when a challenge comes on our Slack community channel and somebody says, “your API docs are,” if you’re British, “are shite” because we have a lot of British people and or “it just is horrible and I can’t find anything.” Or somebody says, “This doesn’t work for me,” or you get accosted in the hallway after a talk.

The question that is presented is not always the question that’s being asked

You want to respond right away, you want to jump on it. But if you take that deep breath, if you just think for a minute you can realize that often the question that is presented is not always the question that’s being asked. Does that make sense?

That was a deep lesson for me as a rabbi that the question that was being presented is not always the question that is actually being asked and really a question just leads to another question.

Oftentimes when I get asked a question, I usually answer the question with a question because I want to really fully understand what is animating that question.

And I think, by the way, this is all the more true in technical communities because in technical communities, technical problems are what we often deal with. We often deal with technical problems and we can answer and address only that technical problem, but under that technical problem who’s presenting it?

A human being. Is a human being only a technical thing? No, no. Human beings are irrational, human beings are emotional, human beings are human.

And if we sometimes understand that underneath the technical question is a human that might be looking for a sense of matterness, might be looking for a sense of connection, might want to know that their voice, that their presence is felt, well, then answering the technical problem immediately and right away it doesn’t actually address that problem.

So to wrap it up, servant leadership and adaptive problem solving, they’re essentially you work for the community. Teaching is always greater than preaching.

Reflect the light of others

And try and be like the moon. Reflect the light of others. Renew yourself regularly, to breathe before responding. I have a hard time doing that, as a former New Yorker, like, I want to respond right away, but you got to breathe.

And then answer a question with a question. There’s always another question. It’s not, did you have a good answer today? it’s, did you have a good question today? It’s about the questions, not about the answers. That’s my biggest insight I think if I can share it.

And explore the underlying problem, that what presents itself is often that, which is not the actual full presentation. There’s usually something deeper, something is driving that question.

If you can get to that, you can really form meaningful connections. Thank you very much.

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