Top 5 Tips I Learned My First Year Speaking at Conferences

Introduction

This past year, 2022, was a breakout year for me to engage with opportunities in speaking and presenting to the external software development community through meetups, conferences, and podcasts. I relished every chance that I had to chat and discuss technology, patterns, architecture, the world, and things that matter with both like-minded and different-minded individuals. This led to my own growth and maturity as a person, a developer, an architect, and a speaker in so many new ways.

At first, it can be very daunting to express and share your opinions to essentially the world, in what may seem at first like an unfriendly or even hostile environment compared to what you normally might be used to in your local community or workplace. Typically we have established an environment of trust within our workplaces and gained confidence that we are worried doesn’t exist beyond those walls. The reality that I found over the last 18 months in engaging with some potentially controversial technical opinions has been quite the opposite. It has been a vibrant, engaging, and exciting community of software developers who are excited to hear your opinion and thoughts. In fact, I have been amazed at how eager individuals from completely different organizations, industries, and sizes have wanted to connect and collaborate. I’ve been equally surprised at the number of software technology and people problems that I assumed were specific needs within my organization that are actually more systemic and fundamental problems without a solution across the development community. The world somehow feels so much smaller and inviting as you begin to collaborate on similar problems with developers outside your workplace. You also begin to open your perspective to evaluate solutions in a much different way, providing essential intangible value to our own respective companies that we all bring these ideas back to.

Remote Experience

My journey toward more dedicated participation in the external tech community actually started closer to the beginning of 2020, at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. I submitted many talk proposals to many CFPs with many different variations. It may have been just south of 100. It was pretty scary. What if one of them got accepted? I’ve come to understand that many individuals struggle with this fear initially. If you are like me and many others, best to just keep submitting and not get too stressed out until you actually have a talk accepted… then freak out and work hard. Early on in the year, I had 3 accepted, 2 local in the Toronto area and one in Denver. I had really lucked out since, it was the same proposal selected, at varying lengths, for each conference. Later I came to understand that it wasn’t luck at all. The title and abstract for that particular talk seemed to have really resonated with the community. With an idea and a good abstract in hand, it takes me a solid 3-4 months to put together a talk I consider at the level of quality that I feel confident to present the first iteration.

Of course, all my talks were eventually canceled due to COVID lockdowns and the growing pandemic situation. While this was a difficult time for myself and many, it did leave me with A LOT of time at home to really make my first external conference talk very well polished, and still one of my favorites because of many of those aspects spent on content, timing, and flow. Some of the conferences were rescheduled, but would eventually be canceled as COVID seemed to continue indefinitely and well beyond 2020.

This brought forth an interesting opportunity though. Suddenly, tech meetups all over the world were fully remote. If you looked, you could find hundreds of meetups across the globe that you can now participate in virtually. I took advantage of that and submitted my talk to a bunch of local Toronto meetups and eventually to a few across the United States and Europe. It was a mixed experience for sure. For 5 or 6 months I was speaking and delivering my talk at 1 or 2 meetups a month. The opportunity to get experience, gain confidence and practice speaking in front of others was invaluable. But that’s just it… it wasn’t really in front of others, not in the same way as an in-person conference. Some of the meetups were very 1-directional with very little facilitation or encouraged engagement. Individuals at the time were also not confident in participating in discussions like they were in person.

While virtual tech conferences were not that rare before the Pandemic, in 2021 we saw a new volume of entirely remote conferences start to appear. Again, I used this opportunity to submit CFPs and found myself getting accepted at a few. They suffered the same lack of engagement as the meetups. Some of the conferences were very productionalized, which was neat to participate in, but literally was a one-way mirror in some cases leaving you feeling like you are presenting to a brick wall. I definitely feel the vibe from myself and many others leaving 2022 that remote work and conferences have a lot of advantages, but that real in-person gathering and socialization is a must-have that cannot be replicated virtually no matter how hard you try.

In-Person Experience

With my newfound confidence throughout 2021 in virtual and remote speaking, validation of my opinions, experience with some hecklers, and excitement knowing the value that industry engagement can bring, I kicked off the 2022 New Year submitting proposals. I began working on several new talk abstracts and submitting those across many different events as well. I had recorded many possible ideas from the years prior, and now begin cultivating some of them to see what might stick. I established regular cadences for working on new content, reviewing available CFPs, and submitting. It started to become much easier to obtain acceptance with prior conference references and links. I began keeping track of the timing of different conferences and building a personal database and ranking the events I knew I wanted to try and participate in. I got acceptance in some cases to multiple events the same week and had to turn down some opportunities.

No Fluff Just Stuff was at the top of my ranked list, as I’m a big fan of their smaller conference style, long sessions, and jampacked content from industry experts. It was one of my goals to speak at ArchConf, knowing the level of quality presenters and attendees. I had the opportunity to do this at the end of 2022.

Opportunities to present in Las Vegas as well as in the Canadian Prairies (staying true to some good Canadian conferences and content) helped round out the year and experience the tech community in various forms. Overall I participated in 3 podcasts, 3 Virtual Conferences, and 5 In-Person Conferences in 2022. It was a busy but rewarding year.

Tips

With 2022 behind me now, I’m cultivating a new set of ideas, and abstracts and starting to get them out there. But at the same time, I reflect heavily on the most important aspects that I want to carry forward in 2023 and beyond. Maybe you will also find them interesting or helpful.

1. Why?

I could not express this simple question early on as I began putting together some of my early talks. I found myself dancing around these intangible criteria that they had to be something of value to the attendees that they could not get anywhere else. In a brief discussion I had with SPS Commerce’s CTO Jamie Thinglestad, he offered me advice on public speaking that summarized these criteria that I couldn’t express. Jamie often has some fantastic one-liners and tends to summarize the spirit of a concept in an unbelievable way. In this case, he simply said the number one question to ask yourself about any presentation is “Why”? Why are you giving this talk and not someone else? Why is this content relevant? Why do I need to hear the content from you and what prevents me from just going to look this information up on the internet myself?

As I look at any talk, potential abstract, or even some of the technologies I’m working with day-to-day as a developer, I use these questions to gauge the potential for the material of a future presentation. In many cases, this is why you might find that many of my presentations are not simply a “getting started” guide to technology. Sure, they may start with that, but ultimately the journey toward the end of the talk is intended to leave you answering some of the more difficult questions about technologies or patterns that I personally struggled with over a period of time. Whether it is Feature Flags and weighing associated risk vs value in a more tangible way, or discussing how to effectively evaluate code for reusability in the organization with distributed services, I try to hone in on more of the hard questions that you cannot find well-discussed with a simple Google search.

2. Collaborate Early

Some of the titles and abstracts I come up with are the absolute worst. Sometimes I know that and sometimes I think they are amazing when really they are awful. Having some close trusted colleagues and mentors to collaborate with is essential for spitballing ideas.

I collaborate regularly with individuals I respect greatly within the organization. I look for like-minded people that have entirely different styles than myself to pull out different perspectives. One individual I regularly fire ideas to severely dislikes my often boring and pathetic titles and is great at providing suggestions on how to amp them up and really hook readers with buzzwords. While I’m not a fan of buzz-wordy things, if not abused, they can be a huge asset in getting a CFP accepted. Another common characteristic I have in my abstracts is intensely long and run-on sentences that can be broken apart and made much simpler. In many cases, no feedback from a single person makes the end result. Rather aggregating the feedback and ripping the titles and abstracts apart result in substantially different and much better results. If you are one of those people I consistently bother for feedback: Thank you for your time – I really do appreciate it more than you know!

I’ve also had some great community collaborations with different industry experts I’ve met over the past years. Being able to pressure test ideas and summaries through individuals that have a great deal of experience and also a much different perspective entirely outside your day-to-day organization is incredibly valuable for both confidence but also directionally. Sometimes there are culturally born pieces of terminology or even concepts that really are not interesting outside of that particular organization. Pulling those things out and focusing on the more industry-relevant bits can be easier said than done.

3. Keeping Your Style

While I love pulling in other perspectives and collaborating early with feedback and ideas from peers it is critical not to lose focus of your style. Often I’ve got a title or abstract intentionally put together a certain way that I think has an interesting flare that I don’t want to lose. Feedback at times suggests it may not be that interesting or make sense. Like the world of software development and DevOps, experimentation is often necessary to make any exponential leaps. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your talks if you need to. If you are passionate about something then try it. If it turns out not to be too great you will at least have learned from that experiment that will continue to evolve and mature your experience and talks.

I’ve had some feedback about my presentation deck style, it can be highly overcrowded at times. This feedback is often the result of someone quickly glancing through the final state of the slides who has not attended one of my talks. My slides often start with very little on them and slowly build up in a very strategic way, piece by piece as we discuss and understand it together. This has been very central to my style of how I tell a story that I feel appeals to the level of engagement I have to offer for visual learners. I like the journey of the talk to be manifested through the slides. While there is concern that the slides take away focus from the presenter (me), I cannot help but feel if delivered correctly there is an experiential aspect of it that blends the presenter and slides all together to form the unique adventure we all just went on. The result of that experiment is difficult to determine. For now, I’ve had great success and great feedback from attendees that this works well typically.

I am also pretty keen on including quotes and references of the content directly in the presentation as we walk through patterns and ideas. In some cases, I’m known for including perhaps too many quotes. Often the talk is an expression of a journey, and in those cases, the background and quotes from predominant leaders and experts were helpful in developing my own opinion. While true for me, not true for all! Keeping references of course is essential, but to summarize content well, it is often necessary to leave out some of the supporting material and keep the focus on where you are heading. This is a balance and can also be audience specific. Something I’ll continue to analyze and figure out the sweet spot for in my talks.

4. What is the Value of External Speaking

As I have engaged with others interested in external speaking I regularly get asked about what the value is for both myself and my organization. After all, SPS Commerce doesn’t sell developer-based tooling, so what is there to gain? The main assumption generally from folks is that you get paid extra for speaking externally. Of course that could not be farther from the truth. Some conferences will cover the core costs of speaking around travel and accommodations. Others do not even cover that knowing that the opportunity to participate in the community and be on stage is an experience worth paying for, usually through a sponsor. In my case, as a Principal Engineer at SPS Commerce, I seek to get as much covered by the conference as possible with SPS Commerce very generously picking up any extra costs as needed. But that being said, the amount of time and investment in a single presentation is a massive time commitment. The actual delivery of it is the smaller portion of the investment. As indicated earlier, it takes me a good 3-4 months at least to put together a good initial draft of a talk, much of that time outside of the 9-5 work hours as well. So why do it?

The core reason to engage in consistent public speaking in technology has to be first and foremost driven because you enjoy it and are passionate about it. If it is not something that drives you or fuels you then it will not be worth the effort you spend. Assuming you have that box checked, then there are quite a few valuable reasons to engage in public speaking:

  • Organizational Recognition & Sponsorship – Driving awareness of your organization’s technical brand, regardless if they are building tools for developers, can be a highly effective way to build talent, draw in talent and retain it.
  • Personal Recognition & Experience – Building your own personal brand and garnering experience in public speaking, working alongside other vocal industry experts will do nothing but boost your own expertise, opinions, and directional awareness.
  • Community and Network Building – Building a network of connected and like-minded individuals is a valuable resource both personally and professionally. Some of the individuals you meet will be life-long relationships and mentors.
  • Open Source Collaboration – Building, working on, and contributing to open source can be a thankless job. Connecting with the community using it and others with insight around you on other projects is essential to be effective in both your own projects and others.
  • Driving Internal Initiatives – Most of the talks and presentations I have developed so far are based on my own personal experience and journey’s I have literally undertaken as internal initiatives. Preparing an external talk requires you to organize the information and ask even further and deeper questions about the results than you would if it stayed internal. As you develop experience and have conversations about the topic externally, this bolsters your internal implementation as a subject matter expert in natural ways.
  • Industry Awareness – Each conference is such a large catalyst for a developer’s knowledge in expanding their awareness and perspective. If you attended more conferences and speakers dinners, talking with the industry experts all the time, your general industry awareness and take on what’s trending becomes like an incredible sixth sense. This is highly valuable inside an organization for insight into future roadmaps.
  • Give Back – Sometimes you should give back because it’s simply the right thing to do, and you have the knowledge to share.

I think you’ll agree that there is a great deal of personal and organizational value in engaging externally. The difficulty is that most of these valuable results are inherently difficult to measure and are pretty intangible if you were looking to quantify them. You might just need to take a leap and try it out before saying no.

5. It Really Is Who You Know!

Zooming in a bit on one of the valuable reasons to dive into public speaking, I wanted to highlight Community and Network Building. It relates to the old quote:

It is not what you know, but who you know.

Unknown

While the variety of interpretations of this quote is very wild and less than helpful there is an aspect of truth to this. The truth part is the fact that the larger your network is and the more personal connections you have established will inevitably result in more opportunities. Additionally, the more opportunities you have are also typically of a higher caliber or quality. Why? Simple…. because you are personally connected with individuals that share some of the same qualities, in similar industries, and are likely facing similar problems as you (given the likelihood that they attended your talk). I’ve had more than several opportunities come up this year alone that resulted in incredible speaking opportunities, podcasts, or even open-source engagements that were entirely the result of connections made with people earlier in the year.

Now to address the first part of the quote. You obviously had the opportunity to make more connections because of what you knew. In reality, you’ll require both knowledge and connections to be highly successful. But the moral of the story is if you don’t prioritize the social or personal connection aspects of external speaking and conferences, then you should. I think you might just be surprised by what you’ll find.

What’s Ahead

I look forward to continuing to engage in the external community, learn new things, be proven wrong on certain opinions and build life-long connections. Driving new technology initiatives and patterns is a passion of mine that I look forward to continuing to push value for in my organization.

Leave a Reply