January 5, 2013

500 times on stage

A few weeks ago I passed an important mark: five hundred times on stage as a Technology Evangelist for Amazon Web Services. When I started in 2008 (thanks to a virtual church and a lot of work), I couldn’t have imagined that I would have covered conferences across all continents (except for Antartica, but I’m working on it!) for a total of FIVE HUNDRED times. Wow! I hardly believe it. In this post, I’d like to share some thoughts, learnings, considerations and the like. I hope you’ll enjoy it. Let’s start!

1) Did you watch the movie “Up in the air”? I’ve been asked this question at least fifty times, if not more. People who know me often compare me to George Clooney in that movie, but not because of my handsomeness - only just because I (used to) fly A LOT. Now that I’m based in San Francisco and that I focus on the Bay area I fly less than before, but up until recently, I used to fly over 100 times per year, and be “not at home” for 220+ days a year, on average. My wife and parents are the main beneficiaries of millions of airmiles with tens of different airlines. It’s tough, almost impossible to sustain this type of lifestyle, unless you find little tricks that can help you. In my case: 1.1) I’ve switched to a vegetarian diet, and I believe it helped me stay healthy despite a very stressful lifestyle. 1.2) I’ve learned how NOT to waste time at airports and during flights, either by working or by reading, and sometimes by watching nice movies on the plane. Being able to work effectively while on the move is a necessity when you are traveling for 23 of the year. 1.3) I’ve also learned to decompress whenever I could, and do some light exercise whenever I could. Walking is my favorite; unfortunately, I wasn’t able to maintain a proper fitness program, but I should have. Despite this, I went from 220 pounds down to roughly 205, which is now my stable weight, and a good indication that I’m not doing too bad. Decompressing also means to enjoy a city’s landscape, urban gems, architecture, and sometimes art. Despite being a hard worker, I’ve always tried to find some time to “learn” from the place I was visiting. Otherwise, it would have been such a wasted opportunity. 1.4) Avoid alcohol whenever possible, for two reasons: it makes you fat, and it kills your productivity. Also, it’s very tempting to drink when it’s free (airport lounges, flights, etc.). I’ve never been a heavy drinker, but once I started with this lifestyle, I decided to almost cut my alcohol consumption. I think it worked pretty well. 1.5) Last, but not least, I’ve learned a few tricks on how to fly more comfortably (in short: become Gold with two airlines and get free access to airport lounges; pick seats in the back, possibly isle seats; book in advance, so you can afford good airlines while complying with your company policy), despite the fact that we always fly economy (frugality is one of the key tenets of Amazon.com).

As a result, this is a map of the places I’ve been in the last few years. Pretty nice :) Most people never make it to Iceland, New Zealand, South Africa, Russia, India, Cuba, Japan, Korea, Nepal… Etcetera. I am glad I did.

This list shows the number of events per year, since 2008: 2008: 73 2009: 109 2010: 114 2011: 107 2012: 98 Total: 501

You might be thinking: how can someone possibly make so many trips and events in just one year (e.g. 114 in year 2010)? Well, you can by becoming a master of “multiple destination” trips. To keep costs low, you just need to start and end in the same place. Other than that, you can do Singapore - Mumbai - Bangalore - New Delhi - Hong Kong - Shanghai - Seoul - Taiwan - Singapore in just 9 days and a reasonable cost. Anyway, I guess the point is clear: I’ve travelled A LOT. It doesn’t necessarily make sense to travel like this, though. More on it below.

2) What is a Technology Evangelist, anyway? Besides my traveling errands, I have to admit that my role is not easy to “grok” for most people. Technology what? Evangelist what? I’ve tried to explain my job thousands of times. In short, a Technology Evangelist is someone who explains a certain technology (in my case, Cloud Computing and Amazon Web Services) to crowds of potential or existing customers. Most of these “talks” are at conferences, and most of them are quite technical. My main duty, then, is “public speaking”, and I also do a bunch of other things as part of my role.

You want to see some of my presentations online? You got it. You want to see me on video? Here you are, below. This one is about Parmigiano, a Monastery, Love and Faith. And, of course, about Backup and Disaster Recovery in the Cloud.

3) What did I learn? Now you might want to ask: after 500 talks, presentations, keynotes and the like, what did I learn? Many things, among which: 3.1) Somebody in the audience is smarter than you: no matter how smart, focused, sharp you are, you’ll always find someone who is smarter, more prepared, more skilled. Which means: be humble, and if you don’t know something, just say so. People don’t pretend that you know everything; they just want you to be honest. 3.2) Slides are only a small part of a presentation: you present to inspire, and possibly to provide knowledge and details. Slides are not the main part… The most important part is telling a story, involving people, showing passion, making things memorable. 3.3) Always be listening. I mean it. Even when you’re on stage, speaking. Don’t just listen to WORDS. Listen to feelings as well. I’ll tell you a little story to explain this point. Late 2009. I was in France, and I was the last speaker before lunch. I was supposed to speak at 12:30, for about 30 minutes. However, previous speakers took more time than expected, and one of the big sponsors pretended to have their CEO speak before me, unplanned, for more than 20 minutes, reading some text the entire time. READING. No slides, no interpretation. Why didn’t he simply email all of us, instead? His message was very boring, very corporate, full of vaporware. His last words were about how customer-obsessed his company was. He was using people’s time as he pleased, without even thinking about their needs. When it was my turn, it was already 13:00, and people really wanted to go to lunch. I was angry. I was in a difficult situation. I introduced myself, and then told the audience: “My talk was planned to be 30 minutes long.  However, we are late, and you are hungry. I’ll cut my talk down to 15 minutes, and then we all go to lunch at 13:15. This is what I call customer obsession.” Big round of applauses. The crowd was mine. So, the lesson is: if you want to deliver a message, the length of the message doesn’t count. Other things count. Or, if you want to be a Technology Evangelist, don’t FORCE the message to your crowd. Use empathy. 3.4) Get inspired. I have amazing colleagues that inspire me every day. Our CTO, Werner Vogels, is one of the best public speaker I’ve ever seen, perhaps second only to my all-time favorite, Matt Wood (a rare combination of intelligence, humility, knowledge and a collection of PhDs), who recently moved to a new role, Chief Data Scientist. Our most senior Evangelist, Jeff Barr, is a walking encyclopaedia on all things AWS. Jinesh Varia is a talented, super-smart producer of high quality content, and a good presenter too. And there are other colleagues (like Simon Elisha) which, despite not strictly being Technology Evangelists, are amazing speakers nevertheless. There are also a lot of amazing Technology Evangelists out there, not just within the Amazon Web Services team. I loved reading Kenneth Reitz’s blog post about his experience at Heroku. So the lesson here is: get inspired, as much as possible. Never stop learning and improving. 3.5) I’ve mentioned above that “It doesn’t necessarily make sense to travel like this, though”. In fact, after 500 talks, I think that I should focus on quality, rather than quantity. Let me be more clear. At the beginning, you should do as many talks as possible, simply because you learn a lot, and you mostly learn by doing. After a while (500 is enough, but also 200 would be enough), you will notice that you’re not improving so much anymore. It’s time for you to start focusing on quality. Quality, in this case, means committing your time and energy to events that matter. It could be a small user group, or a huge conference, but as long as it matters, it’s ok. It will actually be easier for me now, since I am focused on the Bay area, and therefore travelling time is not as much as it used to be… Which means I can afford to do more events, while keeping the “quality” high. 3.6) You’re a public figure representing your company, learn how to deal with it. This was a tough one to learn, and I admit it wasn’t easy for me, but eventually I’ve learned it the hard way. Different companies might have different policies, but in most cases you are not “just one employee”, whatever you do online or in public matters a lot. Ah, and by the way: Opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent those of current or past employers. Just in case.

4) What’s next? I love this job, and I think I’ll keep doing it for at least some time, perhaps a couple more years before thinking of a different role. It’s fun to search for my name online and come up with pictures of me speaking at conferences… It seems that I’m much more important or famous than I really am :)

Seriously, I think that this role is a quite unique combination of customer facing activity, technical activity, and interaction with several members of the company you work for. For now, it’s the best job I can think of. If you want to join our team, start from here.

I hope you have enjoyed my little story. Let me know what you think :)