conferences

Mind of the Speaker - How Do You Feel About Your First Presentation?

The first time we do anything, we're terrified. Asking out that first date, submitting that first patch, reviewing someone else's code for the first time. Surprisingly, how we feel about it (e.g. "OH MY GOD I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M DOING") has very little to do with how well we actually do at it; sometimes we're right and we end up doing terribly, and other times we're wrong and it ends up going well. It's different for each person.

In October of this year (2016), I attended the DevIntersection/AngleBrackets conference in Las Vegas, as I did twice last year. Once again, as I am fascinated with the process involved in speaking for tech conferences, I tracked down as many speakers as would talk to me and asked them three simple questions:

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?
  2. What is the most important thing for a speaker to remember while they are on stage?
  3. What was your first conference-level presentation about, and how did it go?

NOTE: A couple speakers couldn't remember their first conference presentation, so instead I asked them about a particularly memorable one.

This blog post gathers the answers I got to the third question: What was your first conference-level presentation about, and how did it go? The answers I got varied mightily, both in how well they thought the presentation went, and how well they thought it was going to go.

Don't Bother Applying

Let's get the worst out of the way: sometimes you do so bad at your first conference presentation, the conference doesn't want to have you back. Ever.

Kathleen Dollard (.NET coach and Director of Engineering, ROI Code): "Oh, terrible. It was some terribly-named thing like 'Data in the Dog House' or something stupid like that. I absolutely bombed. I was so bad. I won't tell you what conference it was, but it was a conference that [told me], 'yeah, don't bother to apply again.' But [my colleagues] told me, 'you shouldn't quit,' and I said, 'oh, ok, I'll try again.' It was terrible, absolutely terrible."

Technical Issues

The bane of any tech speaker's existence is technical issues, especially ones they can't control and are powerless to change.

Dan Wahlin (consultant, author, founder of Wahlin Consulting): "I think one of the more memorable ones would have been a TechEd one I did. We had some serious technical issues. In that case, I'll have to admit, I don't think I was [prepared], because I just assumed that you show up and everything works; that you're just there to speak. So being prepared for the things that don't go so well, goes a long way."

John Papa (Pluralsight author, speaker): "One of [my presentations] that was not so great, because they're more fun to talk about, was when I was on stage and talking about a topic (I think it was ADO and RDS, one of my earliest talks), and we had some technical difficulties again. The slides didn't work at all. So I had to do an hour-long presentation without slides. Part of the [problem] was, within a minute, I realized it just wasn't going to work. Nothing was working. So I was like, "well, now I've got to teach for the next 59 minutes about this topic without any computer. [But I can say] that it was a good experience, in the sense that I realized that I didn't need the visuals to do it. It was also good to realize [what] Dan mentioned: have backups, be prepared. It was humbling, because I know it didn't go as well as it should have."

Sometimes, though, the technical issues are caused by your own worst enemy: yourself.

Javier Lozano (Owner of LozanoTek): "[It] was many, many years ago on WCF. It went surprisingly well, [and] the reason why I say [surprisingly] that is that I did something very stupid. WCF was in beta, and I upgraded to the latest beta bits. Just the bits, but not my code, and my code wouldn't work. So I'm freaking out thirty minutes before [my talk], trying to undo all that, and it was very, very painful. Out of all of the demos, I was able to get four of them working, rather than the eight that I had to show. It was one of those [things where] I apologised to everybody, because it was a stupid mistake [to] upgrade all of the stuff. That was a lesson that I never, ever repeated."

Wrong Format

Occasionally speakers, who at their core are really teachers, get up to present a session and realize that the format of that session is just completely wrong for their current environment:

Phil Japikse (Consultant, speaker, author, blogger (skimedic.com)): "My very first conference-level presentation was about the data access blocks in .NET, and it went terrible (sic). I do a lot of instruction [and] classroom-style teaching for customers, and I'd been doing that for years. A buddy of mine was running a show, and he knew I was teaching. He had an open slot, and he says 'will you come give a talk on the data access blocks?' I said, 'sure! I use them all the time.' So I built a classroom-style presentation for a code camp, and realized pretty quick that that's not the right format. I was trying to teach like [I would] in a classroom, as opposed to just step back and get people excited about it and move on. So I learned pretty quick to adjust my style."

Someone Else's Content

One speaker had what seemed to me to be a rather unique experience: she was presenting someone else's content!

Julie Lerman (Consultant, Vermonter, blogger at The Data Farm): "It might have been at a Microsoft community event in Boston, oh, a thousand years ago. Microsoft tech [had] developer evangelists at the time, although that's not what they were called. It was people from the community doing [the] speaking, and it was a really big deal, and they gave you the content to do, so it was really hard. My talk was [something] like 60 slides, and I had a half an hour to talk, or something like that. It wasn't my content; I had to do somebody else's talk! The first time I did [that talk], it went so badly. It was so bad; I couldn't even believe that I could be so bad. And then we did a new iteration; we did that whole thing again with the same people, [about] a week later, and I totally nailed it!"

Roller Coaster Ride

A couple speakers had a wild, up-and-down experience doing their first conference-level presentation. In one particular case, a speaker was thrown into the fire, so to speak, and ended up with people clamoring to get into his sessions:

Mark Miller (Chief scientist at DevExpress, expert in great design): "I think my first one was pretty crazy. I substituted for another speaker that couldn't make it because his wife was having a baby. I was kind of irreverent and nobody had ever seen anything like that before; they were used to a professional setting. I had three different talks at that conference, and by the last talk I had people following me and trying to get in to my sessions (because everybody was like 'who's this guy?'). I remember getting into my last session, and there was just a crowd of people trying to get into it. I was trying to get by them, and somebody was like 'who's this guy?' and some other guy [says] 'some hotshot speaker!'"

For at least one presenter, the presentation started out really well and ended, well, differently:

James Ashley (Freelance HoloLens developer at Imaginative Universal, Microsoft MVP - Emerging Experiences): "I can't remember my first [conference presentation], but I'll tell you about one that I remember really well. I'd picked a new technology topic and was feeling sick, so I showed up thinking I would get some small corner room somewhere (this was a conference in Tennessee). Instead I got a thousand people in the room. I totally bombed it. Lost my place, got overwhelmed, barely dragged my way to the end. Yeah, that was great experience."

My head is still spinning from that one.

Preparation

I firmly believe the best way to give a stellar presentation is to practice the hell out of it, and a few of the speakers agreed with me.

Robert Green (Developer Evangelist and speaker, Microsoft): "[Laughs] Oh boy. I might wind up dating myself. I believe my first [presentation] was on doing client-server development in FoxPro. It went fine, because I knew a lot more about it than the people in the room. I go to a talk to learn. I don't necessarily go to a talk to hear the world's foremost expert on something. If I can, that's great, but I go to a talk to learn. So I think people learned a lot in that talk, and so I think it went pretty well. If you want to be a speaker, of course you need to know your subjects, but you don't have to be the world's foremost expert to teach people thing."

Tim Huckaby (CEO of InterKnowlogy, software guy): "I worked on a server produce team at Microsoft in '98. I was just a lowly dev on an architecture team, but all the business people, all the [project managers], were busy. Back then Microsoft had this conference called TechEd. [It was] an enormous conference. And they said, 'well, Huckaby has a personality, let him do the presentation,' since none of them wanted to do it. So I did, and it went amazingly well. I prepared the hell out of it, I studied the hell out of it, I knew the product like the back of my hand, because I'd worked on the product. I just had all this insight that I'd gathered up from the team and my experience. It was the highest rated presentation in the conference. And it was the first time I'd ever done it! They're like 'oh my God, you were awesome,' and I'm like 'really? I though I was horrible.' Because we're all our own worst critics."

People Showed Up!

Because presenters do tend to be their own worst critics, sometimes speakers are just surprised anyone showed up at all.

Jes Borland (Senior SQL Server Engineer, Concurrency): "My was in 2011. I presented at a SQL Saturday, and my topic was completely not technical. It was 'Make Your Voice Heard,' and how to further your career through using forums and blogging and Twitter and LinkedIn. It was great! People had so many questions. They wanted to know how I had gotten started with those things. They wanted to know what my tips for success were. They genuinely looked up to me. Being able to do that was awesome."

Erin Stellato (Principal Consultant, SQLSkills): "My first conference-level presentation was in 2011, and it was specific to capturing baselines in SQL server. I was on the last day of the conference in the last timeslot, and was of course concerned that no one would show up. Lo and behold, people did show up, and I had questions and I had good feedback from that, and it ended up being a great experience."

Credit Where It's Due

One speaker credited his first talk going so well to a person who'd inspired him to do it in the first place.

Pete Brown (Music app and Internet of Things developer, Microsoft): "I was just thinking about this the other day, because I owe a lot of that to a guy who was a vice president at the last company I worked at; his name was Tom O'Connell. He got me in to speak at an event called Explorer 99, and I was talking about a Visual Basic library we wrote to make it really simple to build forms-over-data applications, where all the entities and everything inside the VB app and all the rules [and so forth] were generated from UML models. I thought it went pretty well."

Following the Big Name

One speaker was terribly nervous to even give his first presentation, due to the fact that he was following a big name in his field:

Burke Holland (Developer Advocate, Progress Software): "My first conference presentation was on HTML5 when [that] was a new concept. I was sent to TechDays in Canada, and I had the first session after the keynote in the keynote room. The keynote was by Scott Hanselman, who I did not know and had never seen a keynote from before. So as a speaker, I had to get up there on stage, after [Scott], and be like, 'well, I hope you enjoyed that, and now... this.' And it went great! It was a great experience, but it was absolutely terrifying."

How Was Your First?

As you can see, many speakers did well, and many did terribly. But, considering the fact that I got to interview them at all, their experiences with their first conference-level presentation didn't stop them from doing more.

Have you done presentations of any kind, not just at conferences? If so, do you remember your first one, and how did it go? Share in the comments!

Happy Coding Speaking!

Post image is Hayat Sindi, found on Flickr and used under license

Mind of the Speaker - The Most Important Thing To Remember On Stage

I've always been fascinated by the idea of getting up in front of hundreds of strangers and being expected to present your ideas to them. It's simultaneously enticing and terrifying, and that's probably what draws me to it.

In October of this year (2016), I attended the DevIntersection/AngleBrackets conference in Las Vegas, as I did twice last year. Once again, as I am fascinated with the process involved in speaking for tech conferences, I tracked down as many speakers as would talk to me and asked them three simple questions:

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?
  2. What is the most important thing for a speaker to remember while they are on stage?
  3. What was your first conference-level presentation about, and how did it go?

The answers to the third question will be their own separate blog post, so for now I want to focus on the answers the speakers gave to the second question. What should a speaker remember while they are on stage? Let's find out!

The Basics

First off, let's review the basic things a speaker should remember while they are on stage:

John Papa: "Their name."

Dan Wahlin: "To turn the mic off before they go to the restroom."

Phil Japikse: "To zip their fly. [It's] really key."

Julie Lerman: "I forgot."

Remember these things, and you're already well on your way to delivering a spectacular presentation.

OK, let's be serious for a bit. In any presentation, there are two incontrovertible pieces: the speaker, and the audience. Each of the presenters I talked to mentioned one or other, in some form, as the most important thing to remember when on stage.

The Speaker

This is who everyone in the audience is here to see. Some people show up at a presentation for the content, and some show up because they know who's talking about it. A speaker's job is to convey his ideas and content thoughtfully and clearly. But what about the speaker's job is important, and how can they effectively communicate their point to tens or hundreds or even thousands of people at a time?

Body Language

A human's body language can tell you a great deal about them without the need for words. One presenter said he can improve the audience's ability to remember his key points by focusing on what his body language silently tells his audience:

Tim Huckaby (CEO of InterKnowlogy, software guy): "For me, it's body language, eye contact, and speaking TO the audience as opposed to AT them. That means moving around, wandering the stage, making sure you get eye contact as best you can. That keeps people engaged. The average human only digests about one-eighth of what you're talking about in an hour-long session. To improve that percentage, you move around, you're physical, and you're making eye contact [or] at least appearing to make eye contact with the audience.

Another mentioned his energy level will reflect his audience's:

James Ashley (HoloLens developer, Imaginative Universal): "For me personally, it's the energy level. As long as you have [a] good energy level, you can get through any talk. You can be totally senseless. But if you're engaged with the audience, they'll ride with you the full way."

Storytelling

For many presenters, the act of giving a presentation is analogous to telling a story.

Erin Stellato (Principal Consultant, SQLSkills): "You have a story to tell. Hopefully you've crafted that as part of your session. This is your experience that you're sharing, so it's going to be authentic, it's going to come from what you've learned and what you know. Trust in that [authenticity] as you're presenting that material."

Robert Green (Developer Evangelist, Microsoft): "You are up there telling a story. So before you give a talk, [ask] what is your story? What are you going to cover? What do you want people to learn at the end of it? Whether you're speaking for 20 minutes, 60 minutes, 75 minutes or a whole day, you're up there to tell the story. Understand your story, and how to tell your story, and then the rest is just slides and demos."

One speaker confessed that it is sometimes difficult to remember the story you've created:

Burke Holland (Developer Advocate, Progress Software): "For me, the most important thing to remember is what I am actually going to say when I get up there. That's probably the hardest part. As long as I've been doing this, it's so easy to get up there with your slides that you've rehearsed about twenty times, and go 'I have no idea what I was going to say on this slide, and I have no idea what I'm going to say on the next slide.' I've been speaking for about ten years, and I'm as nervous now as I was the very first time."

Content

People go to presentations for the content. So how can speakers make sure they have the most important and effective content they can present?

Billy Hollis (Consultant, user experience designer): "The biggest thing is that there ought to be a unifying theme to what they're trying to communicate to the audience. Every session should have one big idea, or at most two big ideas, [and] everybody ought to walk out with those ideas in mind. You construct your session around that [theme] and while you're walking around talking about it, you always should have [those] one or two themes forefront in your mind."

Ben Miller (SQL Server expert, dbaduck.com): "[Remember that] the attendees are looking to get something out of it. You need to make sure that you're knowledgeable; that you speak clearly; that you articulate the things that you want to [say]; [and] that you accept questions."

Behavior

A few speakers, rather than keeping their content or unconcious body language in the forefront, choose instead to zero-in on their on-stage behavior:

Dan Wahlin (consultant, author, founder of Wahlin Consulting): "Probably time. Otherwise what ends up happening is at the end, if you don't keep on top of [the time], then it looks like your whole thing was rushed even though you did a great job for three-quarters [of the presentation]. So I'd say time is one of them."

Joe Guadagno (Software Architect at QuickenLoans): "That you are going to get a question that you don't know the answer to, and that's okay, as long as you take the attendee's information down and tell them you'll reach back to him or her with an answer. It's totally fine to not know the answer."

Humility

Finally, one speaker felt it was important to remember that he wasn't the most intelligent person in the room:

Phil Japikse (Consultant, author, blogger at skimedic.com): "What I always try to remember is that I'm not the smartest person in the room; I'm the one who was brave enough to get up and talk about [the topic]. I try to learn from my attendees as much as I try to teach. In an hour, or an hour and fifteen minutes, I'm really not going to teach anybody anything; [rather], it's my opportunity to get someone to be enthusiastic about it. If I can get them excited and thinking about it and saying, 'hey, I should do more research into [this],' then as a speaker, I've won."

The Audience

The other, and arguably more critical, part of any presentation is the audience. The audience is more important than the speaker in several ways. First, it is remarkably easy to have a speaker with no audience; just go to any downtown area and look for loud, brightly-dressed people yelling and swinging books around. Second, the entire purpose of a presentation is to educate the audience about something; if no education happens, was it a presentation, or just a speech?

The audience is critical to any presentation. But how do we cater our presentations to the audience that shows up?

Who Are They?

Let's start at the beginning: who is your audience anyway? A couple of speakers made a very basic point: your audience is made up of people.

Pete Brown (Music app and Internet of Things developer, Microsoft): "The other [thing to remember] would be the audience that you are speaking to: knowing what they already know, knowing what they don't know, understanding where their kind of humor lies, where their interest lies. "

Aaron Bertrand (Product Evangelist at SentryOne): "Everybody in the audience are people just like them (the speaker). I think a lot of people get nervous because they think that there's a lot of judgment going on, or if they make a mistake that's the end of the world, and that's just not the way it is. The people in the audience identify with you. [They know] that you're just a normal person, just like they are."

Not only is the audience made up of people, those people have perspectives that are just as valid as yours:

Kathleen Dollard (.NET coach and Director of Engineering, ROI Code): "That the people in the audience are what it's about. It's really easy to get caught up in the technology, because we get so passionate about [that], but it's really all about the people who are out there, how much they can handle, what they care about, what's important in their world. It's really important to look at it from their perspective and not just your perspective."

On Your Side

Here's the thing about audiences: if they showed up at all, they did not show up to see you fail:

Scott Hanselman (Blogger and Principal Community Architect for ASP.NET, Microsoft): "Remember that the audience is very likely on your side. In this particular instance, where [I] just got off stage at DevIntersections, my computer crashed, which was embarrassing. But the question is: does the audience care about that? [Do] they want me to fail? Or do they want me to succeed? So if I know that they want me to succeed, then I have less to worry about and I [don't] feel so bad. I'm still embarrassed that it crashed, but I was able to recover, and the audience cheered along [because] they were on my side."

Another speaker presented (see what I did there?) this same idea very plainly:

Jes Borland (Senior SQL Server Engineer, Concurrency): "Everyone in the audience is there because they want you to succeed. No one is there to say, 'oh, this person doesn't know their stuff.' They're there to learn from you! When they sit in your session, they want to hear from you. People are there to see you succeed."

Engagement

Once you get past the irrational fears of judgment, the tricky part becomes trying to engage your audience in a meaningful way. That engagement starts by making everyone feel included:

Julie Lerman (Consultant, Vermonter and blogger at The Data Farm): "I try to make an effort to look across the whole audience instead of focusing on certain people, so everybody feels like I'm talking to them. If people ask questions, remembering to repeat the questions. It's sometimes difficult, but [I also try] to stay cool, calm, and collected."

Eye contact seems to be particularly salient to being an effective speaker:

Mark Miller (Chief scientist at DevExpress, creator of The Science of Great UI): "The most important thing is that you are there for the audience. You are there to communicate with them. So it's important to look everybody in the eye, to get a sense of where everybody is, and to react and respond to where they are."

Let's face it: to most people, tech-inclined or otherwise, the vast majority of technology presentations are boring. One speaker is keenly aware of this problem:

John Papa (Blogger, Pluralsight author and trainer): "For me, it's about engaging with the audience. Whatever you're talking about, especially in the technology world, it's usually not interesting to most people. We can be very boring people! You only have certain weapons with you: you've got your slides, you've got your demos, you've got your voice, and you've got your body language. You should use all those. You want to be interesting, you want to be engaging, and you want to keep people moving."

Relatability

If you can believe that the audience is on your side, and you engage with them meaningfully, the result is the holy grail that most speakers strive for: relatability.

Javier Lozano (Owner of LozanoTek): "To me, the most important thing is... trying to connect with the audience. I could be behind a podium pontificating, and I'm going to lose people. So, I try to figure out how I'm going to share the content that I have as a story, so people can understand that 'hey, this is important.' But it's important in a 'here's how [this] relates to you' [kind of way]. That's the thing that I see as most important, because if people are going to be tuned out, then they can find a [better] use of their time than just listening to me talk."

One presenter effectively combined many of the previously-espoused ideas about the audience and decided that the ultimate goal is to help people:

Jeff Fritz (Program Manager for ASP.NET, Microsoft): "When I think about [being] a speaker on stage, I think about [how] I want to be relatable to my audience. The folks that are there learn from me, they're developers just like I was, sitting in that room 2-3 years ago. I want to be as relatable as possible and as accessible as possible, because people are going to walk away from that talk, and they are going to have things that they are going to remember about me. When they come back and have follow-up questions, if I'm accessible and relatable, they'll reach out to me on Twitter, they'll put a comment on my blog, and they'll ask those follow-up questions.

"Now, I've got a relationship with them, that make me more than just a speaker. It makes me a resource that people can work with."

Summary

It's difficult to pin down exactly what the most important thing to remember while on stage actually is. Some believe it's your body language; some, that the audience is not out to get you; some, that there should be an overarching theme; and some, that you'd better be sure of when your mic is off (or worse, on).

But there's no denying that each of the ideas espoused by these speakers is important to some degree. Using each of these ideas, as well as incorporating your own style and mannerisms, is key to delivering an effective, useful, powerful presentation that the audience will remember and refer back to.

Oh, and don't forget to zip your fly. That's really key.

Happy Coding Speaking!

How To Become A Tech Conference Speaker

I attended the AngleBrackets/DevIntersection tech conference in Las Vegas this past October (as I also did in May), and while I was there I tracked down as many speakers as I could grab and asked them three questions about presenting at conferences:

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?
  2. Why do you personally present at conferences such as this one?
  3. How can someone like me, a regular developer, work toward becoming a presenter at conferences?

I only informed the person I was interviewing of the first question, and they did not hear the other two questions until we were recording, so all the answers you will hear below are off-the-cuff. I recorded all of their responses, which are listed below, and excerpts from those responses are also posted. You can listen to all of the interviews over on SoundCloud.

I've already written about their answers to the second question in Inside the Mind of the Tech Conference Speaker, and now I want to focus on what kinds of answers I got for the third question. So, let's ask the question: how can a developer like me work toward becoming a speaker at a tech conference?

A speaker stands in front of a podium Conference Speaker by Michael Coghlan, used under license

Is This What You Want?

One speaker started at the very beginning: be sure that this is actually what you want to do.

Kathleen Dollard (.NET Coach and Director of Engineering for Real): "The first thing you want to do is decide whether it is something you want to do. I strongly feel [that] everybody doesn't need to be able to present at conferences. Now, I think it's nice if everybody can present to their bullpen or something at lunch, but I don't think it's goal that everybody needs to have."

Passion is Paramount

If you do want to be a presenter, then what qualities should you have? Many of the respondents wanted to point out some traits that skilled technical speakers often possess. Some believe that passion for the topic is most important:

Juval Lowy (software architect, author, founder of IDesign): "First of all, it's not looking at what topics have demand. So you [might say], "Javascript has lots of demand, so I'll present on Javascript". No. The only thing that matters is what you are passionate about. If you are passionate about something, and you have enough [knowledge] from doing it, and you have metrics to suggest it, demonstrate it, and all of that, that's what people that do these conferences want to see.

"In general, what conferences are about nowadays [is] not information, it's about knowledge. There's oodles and oodles of information [out there]. There is a deluge of information. What people desperately need is knowledge and guidance. As much information as we have, the knowledge has completely shrunk to zero. If there is something that you can help people with, and you show that unique insight, and that you are passionate about, that's all that matters."

Anthony van der Hoorn (co-founder of Glimpse): "Finding something that you are passionate about is key number one. For me, it was debugging and diagnostics. Once you're passionate about something, you can get yourself to the point where you feel, 'hey, yeah, I can speak about this.'"

Others believe that a good speaker is also a good storyteller:

Robert Green (Technical Evangelist at Microsoft): "When you talk, you're telling a story. So, you've got half an hour, forty-five minutes, twenty minutes, whatever, to tell a story. What is your story? What is it that you're going to tell people? You've got to understand what your story is. A good speaker is someone that tells a good story."

Master the Basics

One presenter told me that it was important to start preparing well in advance of any conference you want to present at:

Troy Hunt (security writer, creator of HaveIBeenPwned): "Submit a paper. Rather, submit a good paper. The first talks that I did, I just came up with ideas that I thought were good, and I would submit to events. There's [only] one event ever that I can think of that I didn't get to talk at, [and that's] because I've had good proposals."

Another presenter expanded on that idea: the best talk proposals are the ones that provide some uniqueness.

Jay Schmelzer (Director of Program Management for .NET at Microsoft): "Bring uniqueness to your session proposal. If you can come and talk about a technology from the perspective of a problem you had to solve, and how technology helped you do it, that someone else can take and learn from and go implement themselves, [that's important]. While I can tell you what we intended [certain code] to be used for, I didn't actually use it. I didn't write that code and put it production. I didn't live with it for ten years. You have. You can bring that experience into these kinds of things, and make it more real-world."

Remember Your Audience

Many of the presenters admitted to being nervous when speaking, and told me that this was expected:

Shayne Boyer (software architect and blogger, Tattoo Coder): "Every time I get up to talk in front of people, I'm nervous. I could [be] in front of five people or two hundred people, it's the same feeling. [But] I just love to get up here and talk, so it's exciting."

Another reminded me that there are two important components in any presentations: the content and the audience.

Kathleen Dollard: "It's not easy for anyone, and it takes some experience, and it takes some working on who you want to be on stage. If I go on stage and try to be Scott Hanselman, I will not succeed. It will not work. If I go on stage and try to be somebody other than who I am, it's not going to work out very well. That includes figuring out what you care about and how you are going to balance things.

"Every speaker is engaged with two things: one is the content, and one is the audience. One of the things I did when I was first starting out was that I was engaged deeply in the content, but I didn't think as much about what the audience needed and how I needed to connect with [them]. I still work on that, all the time."

Make a Name For Yourself

A couple of the presenters mentioned that it is important to be visible, to have a name that people recognize:

Jay Schmelzer: "[Another way] is making a name for yourself. Someone that doesn't have the benefit of working for Microsoft and being on the product team, having a following on a blog or Twitter or some other [place] where people recognize you and you would be a draw for the conference [is important]. One of the things you see with some of the presenters that are not Microsoft employees is that they are names that are recognized in the Microsoft development community, and people want to go hear them talk."

Start Small

For many of the presenters I talked to, the best path to speaking at a conference was through smaller groups:

Brent Ozar (SQL expert and owner of Brent Ozar Unlimited): "Start by doing lunch-and-learns. Go on YouTube, pick a 15-minute [or] 30-minute covering a topic that you think your coworkers should know. Get everybody together in a conference room (you should have watched the video already). Watch the video with the group, and then you take questions afterwards. Some of the questions you'll be able to answer, some of them you will not. Write those down and say "OK, I'm going to put together a little presentation to cover the questions that you had."

"This way, you don't have to build a [slide] deck, you're just watching along with somebody else, you're seeing how [the presenter] delivers the material, and you're seeing the kinds of questions that people ask that are relevant in your own environment. [Plus,] they're people that you already know and feel comfortable with, so it's just a little bit easier to jump up and say, "alright, now I'm going to tell this story my own way," in front of local user groups or strangers.

Javier Lozano (Owner of LozanoTek): "I would start small. Present at your local user group, present at code camps, present at regional conferences. Get the experience [needed] to deliver content the audiences, so that when you get into a large room and you have 150 people staring at you, you don't have the "deer in the headlights" effect. I'm not saying that you can't immediately [present at big conferences], but practice makes perfect."

Julie Lerman (Consultant and blogger, The Data Farm): "There is a path that, I think, isn't very challenging: local community events. I know people that started [by] giving little mini presentations at work.

"In our community, we have a number of user groups of various technologies, we have a code camp, and we encourage local people [to come and speak]. When we have too many presenters who are submitting, and we have more than we can handle, we do give preference to local speakers, even if they're not the big, national, [well-known] speakers. It doesn't matter. [We're looking for] someone who really has something to share. It doesn't matter how experienced they are. Those are great, safe places to get used to [speaking] and trying things out."

Ward Bell (VP of Technology, IdeaBlade): "I'm sure there are many roads to doing it. For me, and for many people, it starts with user groups. Start giving presentations to smaller groups, code camps, and things like that, and finding your groove and catching fire there. Of course, you have to feel passionate about what you are talking about, and that helps a great deal. You have to find that ability to stand in front of people and really enjoy engaging them."

For a few others, the idea of "lightning talks" lasting only a few minutes provided a great introduction to the world of tech presenting:

Tim Radney (Principal Consultant for SQLSkills.com): "The easiest thing to do is to work with local user groups, and find something that you are passionate about. Get up and show others what you found, how you fixed [some problem you encountered], whether it's a demo in a virtual machine or just slides talking about it with some screenshots. [Start] with a little "lightning talk" of ten to fifteen minutes. Don't feel like you have to do a full hour session your first time."

Steve Smith (Consultant and trainer): "Usually, user groups are a great place to start. If there's not a user group around, you can start one. It doesn't take much to start a user group, you just need to find a place to meet and tell people that you're having it, and whoever shows up, great.

"We have a user group in Hudson that just does lightning talks as presentations, and otherwise we spend the time coding and doing code katas. If you're not comfortable doing a one-hour talk on the topic, you could do a five-minute lightning talk on the thing that you are interested in, and that's pretty easy as far as a low barrier to entry."

Practice, Practice, Practice

Even after you've started presenting to other people, don't forget that no one gets truly proficient at anything without practice:

Dan Wahlin (consultant, author, founder of Wahlin Consulting): "John Papa and I chair the ASP.NET tracks at this conference, so we're the ones that pick the speakers. I can tell you that the number one thing is to get that practice in. If you apply and we've never seen a video of you, we've never even heard of you, at a conference this large we can't just bring anyone in. We've got to have that confidence that they are a top-level speaker.

"[Presenting] is not about getting up and speaking, it's about getting up and teaching. You have an hour, and [you have to] try to cram as much information in without overwhelming [the attendees], and get that proper pace, and it's hard to get right. You've gotta practice. Put yourself out there! Start requesting to speak at code camps, user groups, all that fun. You've got to build up your name enough such that, when you submit, [conference organizers] have heard of you or can at least go to your blog.

"Give me thirty seconds of your video, and I can tell you if we want to have you or not."

Moving On Up

After getting over your nervousness, mastering the basics, and doing all that practice, there's only one thing left to do: move on up the chain. Once you get more comfortable with the smaller groups, you can move up to local user groups, code camps, and regional conferences.

Scott Hanselman (Community Manager for ASP.NET and Azure Web Tools at Microsoft): "The way I did it was [to] start with Toastmasters (a non-profit organization that helps people improve their public speaking skills). [Then] you start doing basic presentations. Do a brown-bag at work in front of five of your friends, turn that into a user group talk, and then a user group talk can become a local code camp, a local code camp becomes a local conference, a local conference becomes a regional conference, and you get the idea."

Billy Hollis (UX and front-end consultant, author): "I get asked that a lot. Usually, the path is through some kind of track record that you form with local user groups or some of the regional conferences. There are a number of regional conferences; in Tennessee for example, we have one called DevLink, [and there's] about a thousand people that come to that per year. Because it is regional and because it is pretty big, people who have never spoken before have a chance to speak there.

"Being able to speak at some of those regional conferences, and then honing your material and getting some evidence that your evaluations are pretty good, are things that can get you considered to speak at one of these more [national] conferences."

Summary

Many speakers had the same overriding ideas: you gotta practice, start small, not worry about being nervous, then move up slowly, all the while building your name recognition and draw power. It's not easy, but from the passion that I heard in each of these people's voices when they talked to me about their drive, their need to teach and present, it is clear that, to them, the experience is truly rewarding.

Thanks again to all the speakers that generously donated their time to this project. I am so grateful to each and every one of you.

Please let me know what you think about this project in the comments, and if I should do it again at the next conference.

Happy Speaking!

Inside the Mind of the Tech Conference Speaker

I attended the AngleBrackets/DevIntersection tech conference in Las Vegas this week (as I did earlier this year). It was a fantastic experience as always, and I highly recommend that developers of all skills and ages attend conferences, even if they aren't the big national ones.

More than once, I was enthralled by the ease with which the speakers at this conference would stand on stage in front of packed halls and not run screaming from the terrifying unknown masses. This is something I've wanted to do for quite a while, speak in front of people, and I suddenly decided that I needed to know why they did it. I had my own ideas, of course, but to me it was more fulfilling to hear what they thought of speaking and why they kept doing it. So, for four days, I tracked down as many speakers as I could find and asked them three simple questions about being a presenter at tech conferences. Their answers were surprisingly diverse, but each had threads of commonality. Let's see if we can peer into the mind of the tech conference speaker and find out what drives them.

The Three Questions

For each person I interviewed at DevIntersections, I asked them three questions:

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?
  2. Why do you personally present at conferences such as this one?
  3. How can someone like me, a regular developer, work toward becoming a presenter at conferences?

I only informed the person I was interviewing of the first question, and they did not hear the other two questions until we were recording, so all the answers you will hear below are off-the-cuff. I recorded all of their responses, each of which is listed below, and excerpts from those responses are also posted. You can listen to all of the interviews over on SoundCloud.

The answers to the third question are a whole different conversation, and I'll explore them in a later post. For now I want to focus on the responses to the second question. Let's see if we can discover what compels speakers to spend time and energy presenting at conferences.

Interacting with the Community

A good conference is not about the sessions; it's about the people, about connecting with people who think similarly to (though not the same as) you. Some of the speakers that I interviewed told me that they presented at conferences because it enables them to interact with the greater tech community:

Dan Wahlin (consultant, author, founder of Wahlin Consulting): "It's really fun to hear about what everybody else is doing. I'd love to say that you can sit behind your walled garden and understand the pulse of the tech community, but if you don't get out and talk to people, you don't hear about some of these things. At conferences, you meet so many people and hear about so many issues. You learn more."

Anthony van der Hoorn (co-founder of Glimpse): "I think it's a good way of sharing knowledge and connecting with the community, and figuring out where the community is at, and what they are interested in, and trying to share cool and interesting things that are happening. It's a really good way of being engaged."

For some people, the atmosphere was the best part about being a speaker:

Ward Bell (VP of Technology, IdeaBlade): "I love the vibe. I love being with people that are trying to learn things. I like learning things, and I see many of my friends here who are swapping information as well as jokes and good times. It's a great time to get together and ask real questions and get real answers from people face-to-face."

Exposure

Of course, one of the benefits of being a conference speaker is that it gets your name out there. Many of the presenters told me that the exposure generated from speaking at conferences is a big reason for speaking at them.

Steve Smith (Consultant, CTO for Falafel Software): "One [reason] is that it helps get my name out there and helps get business for me or my employer. I currently work for Falafel Software, so me being here helps [them]. When they are trying to win clients, they can say 'our employees are speakers at industry events.' The biggest [reason] is the visibility that it offers."

Troy Hunt (security writer, creator of HaveIBeenPwned): "I started presenting four or five years ago, and for me I found that it was a really good way to get exposure to people, to learn a lot more about what I'm talking about. You're forced to know what you are talking about once you've actually got to stand in front of people. If you get it wrong, you feel silly. It's like a forced education. You learn stuff so much better when you've got to explain it to people.

"Now that I'm an independent, the exposure helps me get people to watch my Pluralsight courses and [attend my] workshops."

Some speakers stated that while doing presentations is good for exposure, that's not the only reason they speak:

Billy Hollis (UX and front-end consultant, author): "Because I love it. Certainly it's effective as a form of marketing. If someone sees you as the expert in something, and you make a good case that you understand a particular technology or area of the industry, it's pretty easy to convince them to use your services. But, honestly, I would [speak at conferences] without that. I've been speaking since I was very young, and getting up on that stage gives me a charge."

Juval Lowy (software architect, author, founder of IDesign): "Because I want to make a difference. I don't do it for the recognition; I already have enough of that. I don't do it for the money; I can make much more money working with customers than spending my time doing this. I've done very well for myself over the years, so I don't need to travel anymore. I only do it because I want to make a difference.

"Imagine I knew all the things that I know, and I wouldn't tell anybody. I'd go nuts. [You can] think of it as my form of therapy."

NOTE: This is the only recording where I forgot to have the interviewee introduce himself.

Sometimes, conducting a presentation actually provides useful feedback to a development team:

Jay Schmelzer (Director of Program Management for .NET at Microsoft): "There are a couple aspects to it. Part of my job is to go out and evangelize and talk about the products we're working on.

"The other part of it is, I get a lot of enjoyment out of it. I enjoy the opportunity to interact. Even when the room is quiet, or people aren't asking specific questions, I can read the room and get a feel for [if] the way we're talking about it is making sense to them, resonating. Are they excited about it because they are sitting up in their chair? I can bring those kinds of things back to the team, to the design process, to help us build a better product."

Teaching Others

One of the most common responses I got from these speakers was that they just love to teach. Some of them wanted to share ideas, to put minds together and work out the tough problems:

Kathleen Dollard (.NET Coach and Director of Engineering for Real): "Because I love it is the short answer. It gives me an opportunity to connect with people.

"I love to teach, I love to put ideas together (sometimes successfully, sometimes less successfully). It's a challenge, and it gets information out there that I'm passionate about getting out there."

Javier Lozano (Owner of LozanoTek): "I like to share knowledge, and I love to see people learn. Coming to these conferences allows me to tap into different audiences and [be] able to share my experiences with them and learn from their experiences, and see how we can come together [to] solve intricate problems."

Some simply wanted to spare others the frustration that they themselves encountered:

Robert Green (Technical Evangelist at Microsoft): "The thing that I've always loved more than anything else was learning things and then sharing that knowledge with others. When I learn something, I think, 'you know, there must be people like me who are in the same boat.' So if I can come to a conference, and I can do a talk, and in 75 minutes teach you what I've already learned, then I can save you that time and get you to the point where you say 'oh, is that all that is? I can do that.'"

The "A-Ha!" Moment

Some presenters, in addition to wanting to spare others from frustration, live to see the moment when people "get it":

Scott Hanselman (Community Manager for ASP.NET and Azure Web Tools at Microsoft): "I was an adjunct professor at a state college for a while, so I think that I'm a teacher above all. It would be hard [for me] to decide if I am a teacher or a programmer. I've been teaching for 25 years, and I enjoy it.

"Presentations at conferences, the way that I do them, are just teaching on a large scale. I like it when a person lights up, and I figure out that that young man or that young woman just got what I was saying. They got it."

Brent Ozar (SQL expert and owner of Brent Ozar Unlimited): "To see the "a-ha!" look when people get a concept. I want to take the hardest concepts I can find and boil them down into the simplest possible ways. Anybody can teach simple concepts, but [I want to] teach something that is very hard to grasp in a short period of time. It's so awesome to see the pens come up, to see people start to take notes, or to see the mouths go open [like] 'Ohhhhh, NOW it's clear.' That's totally worth it."

Giving Back

Several of the speakers I interviewed felt that by teaching and presenting, they were giving back the kindness that had been showed to them, and thereby setting an example for others to follow.

Tim Radney (Principal Consultant for SQLSkills.com): "[I present at conferences] to teach, to share with others my experiences and how to fix things, how to enable them to grow in their career. This is my way of giving back and helping others."

Elijah Manor (Senior Front-End Web Developer at Ramsey Solutions): "[I also] really like to help people learn, to not make the same mistakes that I've made. Hopefully, as a developer, you're growing as you get further along in your career. I like to give back to people, help them along no matter where they are at."

One presenter even stated that it is important to her for underrepresented groups in tech to feel included:

Julie Lerman (Consultant and blogger, The Data Farm): "I love to learn about new things, and [that] is often a painful process. So what I like to do is alleviate that pain for other people and just share what I've learned. Often, I'm just excited about what I've learned or something that I think is important or that I think people need to know. That's one of my motivations."

"The other [motivation] is that I think it is very important for women to be seen speaking. Not only for guys to see that, but for other women [as well] so they don't feel like aliens. I want to be seen as 'oh, that's normal.'"

Learning New Things

This is the funny thing about speaking in front of people, not just at conferences: often you learn as much as you teach.

Shayne Boyer (software architect and blogger, Tattoo Coder): "I like to teach, and I like to talk to other people who do what I do. I think that sparks me on a regular basis. I only get to talk to the people that I work with on a regular basis, and I know what we're doing, but I like to understand what a lot of other people are doing.

"When I'm out here with other developers, getting an idea of what they're working on and what their challenges are, [even] just hearing 'hey, we're doing X, Y, or Z,' and how they're attacking a problem, [that] might give me an idea on how I can fix what I am doing."

So What Does Drive Speakers?

Though their responses were varied, many of the same ideas drive these people to get up in front of strangers: learning new things, exposure to new people and innovative ideas, even setting an example for others to follow. Most of all, though, these are people who are teachers first and foremost, driven by a deep love of helping others learn.

Thank you to all the speakers who graciously sacrificed their time to answer my questions; I am eternally grateful to all of you! Each of the names above link to that person's Twitter account or blog (or other page if the first two are unavailable). Please let me know what you think of this project in the comments!

Happy Coding Speaking!