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Technology Evangelists Spread the Word on IT Innovations

The ability to communicate effectively about technology is a very valuable skill. With technological advances racing through just about every workplace, people who know what's going on, and can explain it, are at a premium.

David Zimmer is a board member of Philadelphia's Independent Computer Consultants Association. He says technology evangelists are specialists. They have knowledge in one area -- e-commerce, for example. But they don't usually promote a specific product in that area. Rather, they promote the area itself.

Zimmer says these evangelists usually deal with software. But they also need business knowledge. That's because different businesses need different software. According to Zimmer, evangelists "have to be knowledgeable from a business perspective [about] what kind of technology will aid that particular company."

Zimmer says evangelists typically work for a vendor who produces software. Therefore, they often have a strong bias toward a particular product or solution.

Surprisingly, the technology evangelist is not a new position. Zimmer says that in the past, similar jobs have been known by different names, like "technical sales associate," the person who supports the sales staff.

Zimmer first heard the title "evangelist" about 10 years ago. He says it's used to show "that the person is more technical than the salesperson."

So how do you prepare for a career as an evangelist?

Zimmer says that you need to study both business and computers. "Business marketing, business management, business strategy. Then you would also need a double major in computer science, or you would take a lot of the MIS [management information sciences] courses or IT [information technology] that [give] you the technical understanding as well as the business side."

R. Nigel Horspool is the chair of a university computer science department. He says that having a good handle on software would be very useful for an evangelist.

"All of computer science is getting very broad these days," he says, "so being an expert in any area is asking a lot." He thinks that e-commerce is a good area in which to specialize.

Horspool believes that this position was created to give companies a sense of security. The evangelist monitors trends and keeps the company on top of potential competition.

Horspool knows someone who works for Sun Microsystems whose job is to find out what technologies could cause problems for the company. His job is to tell people in the company about these potential problems and convince them to change their business plan.

"It's part of a provision for the future," Horspool says. "You have to guess which new products out in the world are going to cause trouble for your company and how you can incorporate [them] or tackle [them]."

Horspool offers an example of how a company that didn't keep up with advancements is now out of business. "The Polaroid Corporation is now bankrupt because they didn't notice digital cameras quickly enough. Polaroid should have had an evangelist go round and try to convince everybody that the digital camera was going to be the technology of the future, and they'd better do something about it quickly, just like Kodak did. Kodak is surviving, and Polaroid isn't."

But Horspool doesn't believe evangelists have much opportunity for long-term career possibilities. This is partly because a large company would only have a few evangelist positions, and smaller companies can't afford to put evangelists on their payroll.

There is also a blurring of lines between salespeople and evangelists, causing some confusion in job titles.

What's the difference? According to Horspool, salespeople sell their product to other companies. An evangelist is internal. This person takes ideas from outside the company and tries to sell new ideas within the company.

"You'd expect people in the company to know what's going on, but they tend to get very blinkered," Horspool says. "They don't realize what other competitors are doing or whether another company's got a really wonderful idea that would apply to themselves."

Horspool says that evangelists are needed because those already working in the field are too busy to do the job themselves. "My guess is that the typical executive is way too busy, and [he or she needs] to employ a special person whose job it is to monitor trends in other industries and related industries."

Zimmer is more optimistic than Horspool about the future of evangelists. He believes there is a demand for evangelists, though it may not be a growing one.

"There is a demand, I couldn't say it's a high's certainly expanding as we produce new products." However, he cautions, demand for evangelists depends on whether companies decide to hire them.

Although this specific position of evangelist may only exist for a few years, chances are good that once the demand dies down, evangelists will have the necessary skills to find new employment in the business side of the technology industry.

Salaries can vary widely. However, Zimmer says that salaries should be on par with other entry-level salaries in the computer business: around $40,000 to $50,000 per year.

Zimmer works independently. He says that's a realistic option for evangelists. "I am completely objective. I have no product that I sell," Zimmer says.

Instead, he promotes concepts. "I develop new concepts, do some research, then...see if there are some products out there that will meet those concepts." He points out both good and bad things about different products.

He explains that independent evangelists are often hired specifically for their objectivity.

"Sometimes a vendor will hire me to speak at their various road shows so I can give an objective point of view," Zimmer says. Then the vendor can say "here's an industry expert, and, by the way, our product meets what he's talking about."


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