Born in 1960 and growing up in the space era, Jeff Barr (M.C., 2013) said it was only natural that computers and technology captured his attention. He remembers doing projects with his grandfather when he was really young, and his dad bringing home chip manuals and microprocessors from his electronics distribution jobs. Little did he know that a part-time, high school gig at a local computer store would evolve into him becoming a present day Chief Evangelist for Amazon Web Services (AWS).
“As part of the marketing team, I basically translate all the tech speak into presentations, blog posts, and podcasts,” Barr said. “Our team is constantly coming up with new services and they are great at describing them in technical terms, but as an evangelist I take the dry, technical language and translate it into something that is a little more interesting, exciting, captivating, and relevant for a broader audience.”
Barr’s main work product is the AWS blog, which he started in 2004 and has now written more than 2,000 posts. While acting as somewhat of a spokesperson for the company, he also strives for the human element and creating content that shows personality.
“To me the challenge is always coming up with a fresh approach for how to describe a service or product,” Barr said. “Do I stick with the text? Do I put a story in there? Do I connect it with some real world experience? So I look far and wide for some kind of inspiration.”
Barr said his storytelling improved after earning his Master of Communication in Digital Media degree from the Communication Leadership program in 2013. Originally involved as a member of the advisory board, he sat in on a few classes as part of his board duties and realized he could benefit from becoming a student of the program.
“Until I was asked to join the advisory board, I knew nothing about the program and really not much about the UW, but it looked interesting,” Barr said. “I’ve found throughout my life that it’s really good to be open and receptive to new ideas and opportunities.”
In addition to the thought of learning interesting and useful course material, Barr had a second motivation that was more indirect: his five children.
“My wife and I have always been really focused on encouraging education and making sure everybody earned their degrees so they can have great careers,” he said. “So I went into the MCDM program for my own benefit, but I also realized after a while that I hoped all my children would look back when they are approaching 50 and think, ‘Well my dad was 50 and he wasn’t too old and crusty to start learning something new’ and maybe it can be an inspiration for them as well.”
Not able to pick a favorite class, Barr said that even classes he thought would be fairly tedious ended up being useful and fun.
“Before starting the digital media law class, I thought it would be a bunch of legal stuff with a big textbook and a boring subject, but it was one of the most awesome classes taught by an amazing instructor who was a partner at a local law firm,” Barr said. “He would bring in the presentation every week and it wasn’t just relevant to what was happening in general, but it would reflect things that had happened earlier that day in the digital media business – it was beyond state of the art.”
Barr said he was impressed that all the instructors, professors, and lecturers were living what they were teaching with direct experiences to share, adding to the credibility and relatability. With one class to go in the spring, Barr decided to do an independent study project where he drove 5,550 miles around the country to present AWS to small user groups in 14 different cities. The journey provided him with a unique opportunity to establish strong connections with current and potential customers in a way that large-scale technology conferences don’t allow.
“I think there’s this misconception in the tech industry that Silicon Valley is the only place that any interesting tech happens,” Barr said, “but what I found from going to a whole bunch of different cities is that people in Boston, Philadelphia, Austin, Phoenix, and a number of other cities are just as passionate about technology and doing just as many cool things.”
With waking up at 5 a.m., driving 300 to 400 miles a day, continuing to blog as promised to his manager back in Seattle, and doing daily presentations, the days were long. But Barr said he was pleasantly surprised at the generosity of people who would offer to help by making sure he was taking the best route, suggesting good restaurants, and arranging the presentation times and places. He described the trip as a “peak experience” in his life.
“The MCDM program was incredibly helpful for my career in a lot of ways that are hard to list explicitly,” he said. “Going from the technology side to becoming a part of the marketing team, the program validated some of the things I had already figured out, gave me formal vocabulary and better ways to think about it, and instilled structure and formality in my real world experiences.”
Comforted by the fact that he was among many students that were of a similar age, who were also juggling full-time jobs and families, Barr expressed a deep gratitude for the ‘we are all in it together’ attitude among his peers.
“For two or three years we said we’re all going to hold our breath, work as hard as we need, and count on the support of our families, our work colleagues, and our school colleagues to make this happen,” he said. “It was neat to be in the company of all those folks and they’re the type of people that you just know as you watch their careers that you’re going to see a lot of awesomeness come.”
In addition to his career and schooling, Barr has become an advisor and financial benefactor to Seattle-based Redlight Traffic, which publicizes and fights human trafficking by using a mobile app to identify victims. He said the passion of his two good friends Amin Haq and Jessica Smith was infectious.
“When you hear about human trafficking, it’s one of those things where you think it’s only in the movies or in other parts of the world or maybe that one or two experiences are magnified, but in speaking with Amin and Jessica you suddenly realize that it’s a gigantic issue that is not just happening somewhere else, to somebody else – it’s happening literally on our own street corner,” Barr said. “Certainly technology plays a role, but it’s also about having people’s eyes and ears tuned to watching for signs and raising awareness of certain kinds of suspicious looking actions, behaviors, and patterns.”
Barr said the organization has been a driving force behind quite a few rescue missions in the area as they ‘envision a world without slavery.’
“One of the ugliest parts of human trafficking is that young people, both male and female, will be trafficked and are essentially seen as the criminals, when they’re actually the victims,” he said. “They are forced into these situations against their will and have no way to escape because their family, in far too many cases, decides that the person wanted to do that. It can take years to put their life back together.”
The cause hits close to home as Barr is a big family man, raising five children (now between the ages of 19 and 29), and taking on the title of grandfather of two little ones. Born on the East Coast, he and his wife moved to Seattle in 1997 while he worked at Microsoft – and they haven’t looked back.
“I generally just like to do my job and don’t really take the time to give myself a pat on the back,” Barr said. “I just say I’m doing alright and I try to be better in the future, so it’s really cool to be chosen for the Alumni Hall of Fame and I’m really humbled and excited to be a part of it.”
And as a true MCDM grad and lover of social media, the Barr family wood-fired pizza oven has its own Facebook page. Barr has added growing pizza toppings in his garden to his list of favorite outdoor activities.
Jeff Barr is a 2014 inductee to the UW Communication Alumni Hall of Fame. For more information about the event, click here.