How to become a thought leader: Insight from a tech evangelist

Tamara Dull is a geek and she owns it.

While she may be full-time Director of Emerging Technology at the SAS Institute, where she can geek out all day long, Tamara has also built an engaged following for the writing she does on the side.

How has she found a way to blend her passion with her profession, you ask? Read on to find out.

Don’t forget to check out her page and attend her upcoming event with a click on her Spotlight.

Tell us a little about yourself. How would you introduce yourself to a stranger?

I think my Twitter bio captures it the best: “Just livin’ my best life in a geek’s paradise.” I’m proud to be a geek myself, but I abhor “geek speak.” One of my favorite Einstein quotes is: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” I’ve used this quote to drive my communication, both professionally and personally.

Interestingly enough, I receive regular feedback, mostly from strangers, thanking me for my non-geek speak style.

You work full time as the Director of Emerging Technologies for a thought leadership team. What were the major career benchmarks that led you to where you are now?

I love my job, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that my entire 30+ year high-tech trek has brought me to this point. My journey began with Digital Equipment Corporation (some of you will remember DEC), and ever since then, I’ve worked for software consultancies and vendors, as well as one non-profit in a technical lead role.

While my consultant years exposed me to a wide variety of customers, business problems, and solutions, it was my product management years that prepared me best for my current role. Being a product manager was challenging, political, and exciting, but more importantly, it stretched my thinking and my patience. This was the job that put hair on my chest.

Alongside your full-time career, you write and speak quite frequently on emerging tech. Would you say that this is an extension of what you do for work or a passion?

Yes. And yes. I feel doubly blessed that I get paid to speak and write what I’m wildly passionate about. One of my current hot topics is the Internet of Things (IoT).

Professionally, the challenge is to bring clarity and sanity to this large, wieldy discussion. Personally, I’m living IoT day in and day out as I convert my “dumb” home into a smart home — with the help of Alexa, of course.

As you can probably guess, my personal passion has fueled my professional discussion around IoT.

Think back to the first few pieces you published, or the first few times you spoke publicly on the topic of emerging tech. What was your mindset? How did that develop into becoming a thought leader?

Oh, my! I was extremely nervous when I first got started as a thought leader. I had written a lot before, and I had no problem speaking in front of an audience, but this was different.

The two challenges I faced were:

  1. Developing a voice and point of view
  2. Filtering out the hype that comes with emerging tech.

If I was going to be a “talking head,” I wanted my voice to be original, authentic, and thought-provoking, and when appropriate, somewhat controversial.

Also, the emerging tech field is always expanding and contracting with new ideas, products, and technologies. It’s easy to get caught up in the swirl of it all. My high-tech background has helped me stay focused on what’s important.

You’ve developed quite a following for your writing side-gig of over 3K people. How do you develop your content?

There are three questions/criteria I consider:

  1. What’s my level of interest or passion in this topic? If it’s low, I tend to pass because I don’t want to get into the business of faking passion in my writing.
  2. What kind of feedback or response have I received on this topic? I pay attention to how people respond to what I’ve written (or spoken). I want to understand what resonates with folks — positively or negatively — and then build on that momentum. If it’s a topic I’ve never discussed, I just consider it a test.
  3. What’s my motivation for writing about this topic? If it’s to help others in some way, I will proceed. If it’s self-serving or selfish, I save that discussion for friends and family.

When it comes to your personal brand, how would you like to be perceived? What specific steps are you taking to ensure that happens on and offline?

What I value most is honesty, humility, and gratitude. In fact, I have three daily tasks to keep these values front and center in all that I do online and off.

What are my specific tasks?

Each day, I have to identify one act of honesty, one act of humility, and one act of gratitude that I did that day. Some days I accomplish all three tasks, but there are days when I’m 0 for 3.

Professionally, I want to be perceived as a trusted advisor. To me, that means being an intellectual expert in my domain areas, but more importantly, it means being a respectful, decent human being when I share my expertise and experience.

We noticed you have an about.me page + domain. How does this support your personal branding goals?

This is my second round with about.me. I created my first page 4–5 years ago, and it served me well for a year.

Then I decided to make my personal blog the center of action for my personal brand. I did that for a few years, then decided at the end of 2016 to shut down my blog (again) and set up a shorter, new-&-improved about.me page.

I’ve had my tamaradull.com domain for over a decade and have always used it for my blogs, but I like that it’s now pointing to my about.me page. It gives visitors a quick snapshot of who the professional version of me is. It’s perfect.

As an evangelist with a strong personal brand, what’s your current highest priority goal when it comes to conversations around emerging tech?

Building on what I said earlier, my #1 priority has always been to make the complex simple. I apply the Grandmother Test to everything I do: If I can explain this rather complicated and sometimes boring concept to my grandmother — and she gets it — then I’ve succeeded. It’s okay if Grandma isn’t interested in the topic, but if she understands it and she didn’t become overwhelmed in the process, I’m a very happy granddaughter.

For others who are interested in technology, which trends would you recommend looking out for? Which ones are you tuned into?

It’s all about the Internet of Things (IoT), baby. Granted, you may not call it IoT. You may call it your smart home or your Fitbit or your connected car, but fundamentally, it’s about IoT.

But it’s not just about the technology. Two of my hot buttons when talking about IoT are privacy and security. I realize these are two yawner discussions, but with all these “Things” making our lives easier, we can’t ignore how invasive they are and will be as we speed ahead to a global, connected world. The Internet of Things is both cool and creepy.

Enjoy the cool, but please pay attention to the creepy.

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Melissa Brown is a Product Marketing Manager at about.me. She is currently traveling the world for a year while working out of quirky coffee shops and co-working spaces.