As the Chief Evangelist at AWS, Jeff Barr has been building community around software development for the past 20 years. He's known for crafting accessible educational content for the AWS News Blog, and for his passion for teaching newcomers and experts alike. Inspired by Isaac Asimov's ability to explain complex questions in a way that regular people can understand, Jeff talked with Uncommon about his process for producing relatable content, what he looks for when hiring, and what's most important for building community.
TL;DR—Consider your audience first, communicate with intention, know that good writing takes time, welcome newcomers, and above all, show up for your community.
We're excited to share some key excerpts from our Uncommon Conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity. For the full interview, watch (or listen!) here or on YouTube.
Uncommon: What did having evangelism in your title mean to you back [in 2002], and what does it mean to you today?
Jeff: To me, it was really just raising awareness among developers—developers were really my first audience. Having spent a lot of my career building things with code and then explaining them, just kind of naturally, it was always like, "If I understand this really, really well, then I can explain it to myself, and that'll then give me the credibility to tell other people about it," and then if they say, "Well, sounds interesting on the surface, but can you go a little bit deeper and a little bit deeper," I always wanted to make sure that I had a sufficient reservoir of technical depth, that whatever level that the other side would like to go to, that I could just go there with them and that I could really maintain my credibility. I still pride myself on, whatever I write about, I've personally used it. I've gotten that hands-on experience and I'm not just talking about what it would be like to use it. I'm saying, "I actually used this and this is how it worked for me.”
Having had the honor of working with you personally at AWS, I remember a few key times where we'd be working on a blog post and you'd say, "If I can't get access to this, I can't write about it." Something that strikes me about your work is its consistency and its dedication to reproducibility by someone else. Can tell us a bit about your process?
Within our development process at Amazon, we have this really, I think, fairly well known phrase at this point of start from the customer and work backward. One of the tangible artifacts from that process is a document that we call the PRFAQ, the press release plus frequently asked questions. One of the first steps when a team approaches me or one of the other bloggers and they would like to have a blog post written, they supply us with that PRFAQ and the idea is we can read the press release aspect of it, usually in a couple minutes, and get a reasonable understanding of what the new service or the new feature is all about, and then we can deep dive into the FAQ, which can often range up to 50 printed pages, deep dive in there and get an even better idea. I'll generally set up my screen so that I've got the PRFAQ on one half, and I use a mind mapping tool on the other half.
A lot of what I'm doing as I'm getting ready to write is simply organizing the information, and then at the point when I say, "Okay, I've got it all organized," I'm ready to actually start writing. One thing about writing that is always worth sharing is, it might look really easy at the end because you've got this really nice, smooth, document. Writing is actually really difficult, and coming up with an incredibly good title and a really good introductory paragraph, even after having done thousands of those for the AWS blog, is still something [I] always try to get better at.
Would you recommend the PRFAQ process to almost any company?
I've certainly seen it to be very, very effective. When we actually used to go to the office, you would run into colleagues and they would say, "Hey, Jeff, good to see you. We're building this really, really cool thing," and you don't even have to ask...the next sentence was always, "We will send you the PR FAQ." It was this very standardized way to summarize and then detail plans and because it was standardized, you'd know what to expect. You'd know that you could scan that press release very, very quickly, and it wasn't simply the document, but also knowing the process that we went through. Getting to the point of a polished, accurate, descriptive, helpful press release, it might go through 20, 30 iterations before you're truly happy with it and you've said, "This is what we understand of our customer base and this is what we want to build." That polished press release is worth its weight in gold as far as being able to describe what's going on. It's a very powerful communication tool.
When you started 20 years ago, there were a few outlets and a few feeds for content publishers. Today, there's a proliferation of those front doors to interaction...what are some of the [best] channels to leverage when it comes to building community?
I don't think there's any one best channel, because everybody has to find the one that works for them that has their chosen peer group within it. I love the AWS subreddit because the people in there, they're positive about AWS for the most part. They know their stuff. They're very, very welcoming to newcomers. One of the things that I find fascinating is that there are some communities that are effectively all experts and they're somewhat closed communities and it's almost impossible for someone new to break the barrier and to become an insider. Those kind of communities, ultimately, they don't thrive—ultimately it's easier for them to lose members than to gain members.
One of the [other] things that is awesome about the AWS subreddit—these are the people that are actually working with [AWS] and using it every day, and their career success depends on their actual ability to use it properly. There's so much interesting, gritty, real world experience...It's priceless knowledge given freely which I think might be a really interesting aspect of a community, just how much you get, effectively, at no cost other than your attention.
Thinking about all the pieces of content [you've produced], [are] there are a few that remain your favorite?
On the technical side, probably, when we launched EC2.
I looked back and I said, "You know what? I set a really nice model back then of, this is what it is. Here's as many technical details as I can share for you. Here's how to use it. Here's what it costs. Here's how to learn some more," and then that model, I've certainly polished it a bit over the years, but it's pretty much stayed the same.
Something else, too, I think, is that you have screenshots of code, which is also super orienting and helps someone understand.
It really is, and one of the things I think about every time I write a post is, no matter how much of a reputation that I've built up over the years, no matter how much credibility I might have earned with my audience, it can all go away with just one less than awesome post...I try really hard to make sure that every last detail is absolutely perfect, and that the screenshots always reflect what actually happened in the product.
As you're building out your team and as you're looking for new evangelists, new community builders, new writers...what do you look for?
I like to just look for people that really enjoy communicating. To me, communicating is all about having a great understanding of what you'd like to say, having an identification and an understanding with your audience and saying, "Okay, well, I've met some representative sample of this audience in person," and almost to be able to, as you're writing, kind of think, "I'm writing for these very specific people that I've met in the past." I will be writing for those specific people the next time I write a blog post. My job as an evangelist—it's not to make me look good. It's to help out the audience.
Where do you think the idea of community is going today or should go in the future?
I think we should have a really good mix of online and in person, when it's safe to meet again in person. In 2012, I put a little note out on the blog that said, "I'm going to fly to the East Coast and drive across the country, and I want to speak at a user group every night for three weeks." It was really, really neat to see how much personal energy people would put into showing up for a user group. If you're in Silicon Valley or if you're in certain parts of the East Coast, there's a lot of population density, there's a lot of tech, but you get to the rest of the country, people will drive two or three hours to go to a user group meeting. These people didn't go because their manager told them, "Yes, you must attend a user group to further your career." It was their personal interest that they went there to further, and I really admire that, from all kinds of user groups.
When I think about building communities, it really has to be a community that is welcoming to new folks. It has to be welcoming to people that are maybe a little bit shy and that are not certain of themselves or their technical knowledge, and maybe the primary language of the community isn't their primary language. Having a community where you step into it and you ask an innocent question and you get a really nice reply of, like, "Okay, we recognize that you're new and we'd love to help you. We're so happy that you're a part of it." It's so important to be able to do that, and then that person, like, "Oh, okay, I feel like I actually belong here," versus communities that have put these barriers around [knowledge].
We're super excited to continue the Uncommon Support fund, because for us it's important to embody what we believe—which is that a community is strongest when it uplifts one another. So every time we interview a community expert, we ask them to choose a nonprofit whose cause they want to highlight, and then Uncommon donates in their honor. Can you tell us about the organization you chose to dedicate your Uncommon Support to?
There's a local presentation that my wife and I attend that's called Science in the City at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Science in the City invites scientists from all over the world to come and present to adult audiences. You can think of it as continuing education. That's an organization that we've attended and supported and I'm sure they'd love the additional support from Common Room.