Lift as you climb – training new evangelists as you grow


Cassidy Williams

Helping others to learn is not just a nice thing to do, it’s crucial to growing your business, says software engineer Cassidy Williams. Her practical tips on how to build a successful evangelist training programme are available in this talk from DevRelCon Tokyo 2017.



Hello. Can you all hear me? Great. Okay. So I’m going to be talking today about lifting as you climb. We’re going to be talking about training evangelists as your company grows. So, quick introduction, my name is Cassidy Williams. That’s my Twitter handle if you wanna say hi, @cassidoo. I am currently a software engineer at a small company called L4 Digital in Seattle. And I’m taking an “evangelism break” as I’ve been an evangelist for about two and a half years. I was at a small company called Clarifai which is an artificial intelligence startup based in New York City. And then before that, I was at Venmo which is a payments company that is owned by Paypal and Birdtree. And so that’s where I was before and now I’m an engineer. And so that’s my quick little book.

So diving right in, this quote “Lift as you climb,” this is a quote that my mentor told me once way back when I was a new grad starting out as an evangelist. And she said that great people who are great with their work always have a mentor and are always mentoring others. And it’s always you are getting help and open to receiving help, but you’re also giving help. And I think that’s important not only for individuals but for companies as well. So I think it’s very important for companies as well. Now this is a PDF version of my PowerPoint and so we don’t have Elsa building a building metaphorically.

How to grow your own evangelist

So there will be three GIFs in my presentation and I’m sorry if they don’t work. But what I wanted to say is as your company grows you need to figure out how to not only grow your own team but also grow the community around you to just have a great support system. And so if you’re building this great community and you wanna build your evangelism team, it might be hard to find evangelists because they’re very high demand and you need to figure out how to grow them. So if you can’t find them, you can make them yourself by making your users your evangelists, and making existing people in the field hirable evangelists.

And so this is another GIF of a dog saying, “But how?” And so but how? And another one that’s saying, “I’ll show you, Bert.” From Sesame Street and so I will show you how my company did this back when I was at Clarifai. So flashback to 2015, I joined this company called Clarifai as their 17th employee along with my sister actually. And so this is us, we were the first two evangelists at this company and they had an API for image recognition. And we had to start our evangelism efforts from the ground up. They wanted us to go to a ton of hackathons and conferences and meetups, and it was very fun. We were traveling all the time but it was exhausting.

The birth of Clarifai Champions

Because when you only have two people doing all of this traveling trying to build up monthly active users and other KPIs, it’s hard to scale that when there’s only two people. And so the Clarifai Champions were born, yay! Don’t worry, I’ll explain what they are. Flashback, when I was in school, Twilio started a program called Twilio Heroes. Ricky knows about that. It was a six month evangelism training program and there were 12 of us in the program and we had different lectures from different Twilio employees and they just helped us get better at writing and just learn about public speaking as an evangelist and it was great. And then it kind of tapered off at the end because it hit the end of the school year and people’s schedules just got busy.

And sadly, the program didn’t happen again but it was great. And so in 2015, I lovingly asked if I could rip them off and I said, “Please, can I take your program and kind of pay it forward and help other evangelists to learn?” And then I got yes, go get ’em, and so I did. And thus the Clarifai Champions were born. And so a quick overview of what The Champs program was. It was a little different from the Twilio programs so it’s less the commitment, it was three months long. And we broke it up into four separate segments to teach people about public speaking, technical writing, events and mentorship, and then technical demos and projects.

How we did it: video lectures

And we, I will actually get into more specifics but this is how we did it. And we had 27 people in our program and instead of doing it with just a lecture on occasion and then working on your homework, we really worked with them very consistently all over the world. And so I’ll get into that. So here’s a little bit more detail and I’ll go point by point to explain what we did. So, first of all, we had one video lecture every three weeks. And each of those video lectures covered one of those segments. And so the first one again was technical writing and we talked to them about writing blog posts, writing tutorials, writing documentation.

And we pulled not only from our own information and knowledge from doing this professionally but also we talked to a lot of evangelists in the field to figure out how we could effectively present this information to them. We did one on events and mentorship, we talked about how to throw a good event, how to attend a good event, how to mentor different developers in the field at events, and once the event is over. We talked about public speaking, we talked about speaking not only to junior developers but also to mid-level and more advanced, and how to kind of tailor your message to each individual audience. And then the last one was technical demos and projects, I forgot about that one for a second.

And that was about open source, contributing to open source software, working on side projects not only to build your own technical skills but also to demonstrate how to use an API. And so with technical demos, that one we said we want you to use the Clarifai API and build a technical demo for that. And so as we were teaching them these individual skills we said, “Write a blog post about Clarifai.” And so as they were learning these individual skills they were using Clarifai and learning more about our information, our APIs, our data so that way they could communicate it to the world. And so it’s good for us and also for them.

How we did it: office hours

In addition to the video lectures every three weeks, we had office hours. And so every week just on Wednesday afternoons we would open up a Google Hangout and say, “Okay, if you have any questions you can jump on the Hangout and ask us those questions.” And sometimes it would be about jobs, sometimes it would be about their projects that they were working on, sometimes it would be about school. We had all kinds of different questions and sometimes they just came to hang out and say hello, and to just be friendly. So in addition to these interactions where we controlled them, we had the homework, assignments for every segment and they got to choose whatever they wanted to work on.

Sometimes they didn’t use anything Clarifai-related, they used their own open source software, their own libraries. But because they were supported by us they were still building that relationship with us. And so they really worked hard on these homework assignments and it wasn’t anything too high commitment. It would say, “Okay, write two blog posts. Or contribute at least five lines to an open source software.” Something like that. And so it wasn’t too big of an effort for those who had school or who had work to go back to. We also gave them very detailed feedback for every assignment that they turned in which is very time consuming but they learned a lot from it.

And so when someone wrote a blog post and English wasn’t their first language, we were able to walk them through certain phrases that they didn’t necessarily know in English or how they could better make their phrases more concise or their tutorials a little clearer to understand. And sometimes we would just watch their talks. We would get in the room and watch everyone’s talks and see how we could improve the way they spoke, if they’re speaking too fast or too slowly, that sort of thing. And so we gave them detailed feedback for every assignment that they could then use to improve themselves.

How we did it: Slack, Facebook and Twitter

We had ongoing Slack discussions throughout the program. To this day, I’m very active in that Slack group and we talk all the time. I actually found out about DevRelCon from a Clarifai Champion who is from Japan and he had heard about this conference. And so we talk about conferences, we talk about blog posts, we ask for advice, it’s a great community. So our first cohort was 27 Champions and about, we had about 120 people apply and then we went down to 27 who were ultimately accepted. The next cohort had 45 of them, we had about 260 apply. And to actually outreach to find people to apply to the program, we just posted it on Facebook.

We posted it in a few different Facebook groups, we tweeted it out from the company’s accounts and from our personal ones on Facebook. And because people were so interested and we were posting in just very coding and hackathon heavy groups, the applications just came. We didn’t have to spend any marketing money, any budget on the applications. And then the best part of the program I thought at the very end was we flew the top three Champs to our New York City office because they’re from around the world. We flew them to our office and just had a day with Clarifai where we took them to a fun escape the room event, we gave them lunch. We let them present their projects to the company and it was just an overall very involved, relationship-heavy program.

So what worked?

The things that were very easy and fun, the lectures, those were great. We got to just spend about 45 minutes talking about a very specific topic and they just soaked it in. And we just did that again all via Google Hangouts, because these people were from around the world and the lectures we’re able to write it. It was easy, it was fun, no problem. The office hours were so fun too because it was just about an hour or two out of the week, we were able to interact with them on a more personal level unless like a, “Teacher, I am mentoring you and I’m above you,” type of way. We were able to just get friendly with them and build that personal relationship with them.

And also the Slack chatter. Again, it was a very involved group and sometimes that Slack group was almost distracting because it was so active. But at the same time, you could see that they were building friendships and to this day whenever they are in the same city, they take pictures together and say, “Hey, Clarifai Champs.” And they really just got to know each other both professionally and personally. This is one of my favorite pictures from one of the events we threw. So every single champion they had a budget of $50 that they could use towards an event for Clarifai and that was a part of their homework, assignment. And these three champions, they actually lived fairly near each other in California and got together.

And they got Clarifai cupcakes and they just gave a whole workshop on learning how to code. And it was just this cute thing that they got together and they ended up becoming really good friends and they had never met before the program. And there were all kinds of different events like this where they would just help sponsor an event or help throw an event. Or they would use our little budget to just get stickers for their different meetups that they were trying to throw. And so it really not only improved our brand as a company because they were going out on Clarifai’s dime but they were also supportive of their communities and they’re building their personal brands, and they were really just growing themselves.

The challenges we faced

Now, things that were a challenge. Creating assignments for everyone was very time consuming because it was just, again, my sister and I who were running this program then we ended up bringing on an intern to help us, giving everybody very detailed feedback took a long time. It was probably about 10 minutes per person per assignment that we wanted to give them really thorough feedback and so that ended up just taking too much time. We ended up bringing in for the second cohort some of the Champions from the first one to our alumni. They ended up helping us create assignments so that way we can make sure everybody was getting very detailed feedback that could help them in their career.

Going through the applicants was also very challenging. A lot of the people who are in these developer programming spheres and communities are very passionate about what they do. And so it’s very hard to just go through the list and say, “Yes, you’re good enough for this program. Maybe not this time and that sort of thing.” And going through applications is very difficult and it’s hard to not get very personal about it. And there were some people that we would see them apply the second time around when we did the Champions program again and so we said, “Oh, well, they really wanted to get in the second time so let’s accept them.”

And so going through applicants, it was more challenging and hard because it was very personal, and again time consuming because there were so many. And also the Slack chatter, that’s both a good and a bad thing. It ended up being kind of distracting for work and so we kind of had to know when we should jump into the conversations, and when we should step away and let them build this community of their own themselves.

The benefits we experienced

Now, benefits for the company. Our monthly active users jumped up tremendously because the Champions were not only building programs together but they were showing other people how they could build different projects and hackathons. We just had tons of usage. Plus our API usage hit new areas of the world.

We had applicants from every single continent in the world for the Clarifai Champions program. That made the time zones kind of difficult at times but we had people from Pakistan, we had some, a couple of people from Japan, we had people from Australia, we had people all over the United States and from London all who wanted to be a part of this program and who were in this program. And so it was very exciting to be able to see how the company’s reach got all over the world. And also for the reusability that a lot of the talks have spoken about, the blog posts and API projects could be used for marketing. And so the marketing team, they saw that they were getting all of these really great projects that we had given feedback on.

And they were able to make tweets about it, write blog posts about them, interview the Champions. The Champions would write blog posts for our company blog. It was great for marketing and for building just very evergreen content that would last a long time. And also, last but not the least, the company reputation in the hackathon community was much more established and much better because we had so many people as sort of plants inside all of these different hackathons. They were using our APIs and hackathon set. My sister and I would not be able to attend because they were all over the world or at different times when we were at different events. And so we were able to just have a much broader reach.

And because they were so passionate about our APIs, the hackathon community started to embrace them more. And benefits for the Champs, these were the top three Champs that ended up getting to fly into New York City and it was very fun. It was a very tight knit community of evangelists. If you were to jump into our Slack today you would see them all still writing each other, still talking with each other. A lot of them hang out with each other, it was great. We also gave them very practical experience for necessarily skills to be evangelists. And these skills were very important because not only do we have these users who are evangelists now in the field but we also ended up using some of them to hire.

The future’s bright

Like this guy right here, Prince, he actually works for Clarifai now and is in charge of the Champions program at Clarifai right now. Adding on to that, the connections to people in the industry. We wrote job recommendations for people whenever they asked. Several people in the Champions program are now evangelists now at large companies like Uber and Verizon, and Amazon, all of these large companies who needed evangelists found them in the Clarifai Champions program. And, of course, we paid them in swag. We gave them some fun hats, some fanny packs, and all kinds of fun stickers that they could not only keep for themselves but they could pass out stickers to their friends.

And so they ended up just getting not only a ton of practical professional experience but also fun and personal experience and connections as well. And so you can do this, too. If you want to build some kind of training program, I’ve given you pretty much all the details here. It’s not too difficult to find people who would be perfect for an evangelism role. The passion is there. People love coding. There are boot camp graduates, computer science graduates, there’s people who are just open source contributors or in these hackathon groups on Facebook or on Twitter. They’re out there, they just need the skills. And so they just don’t know that evangelism is a role for them.

And so you just need to train them to communicate those skills. And so we trained them, again, in public speaking, in writing, in running events, all of these sorts of things are things that everyone is very capable of and, again, they have the passion for because they’re already developers. Developers love what they do. It’s just a matter of training them to explain how much they love it and how much they would love a product that helps other people do it.

Photo Credit : Kansuke Nakai

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