2019 Goal: Speaking at a Conference

I had always dreamed of talking at a tech conference, but I never felt like I was quite ready for it. Until I went to React Day Berlin 2018. A colleague had talked me into signing up as a volunteer and because I hadn't gone to any conferences that year, my company was willing to pay for the hotel and flights.

For me, the best thing about being a volunteer was not about getting to see the conference for free, my company would probably have paid for that. What they couldn't have paid for was access to the speaker lounge and attending the speaker dinner. Talking to the speakers one thing became apparent to me: they were just humans. And rather than sitting on a high horse and talking down to a conference volunteer, they saw me as an equal! When I started joking about maybe talking at a conference too, they didn't laugh, instead they started encouraging me to try.

Inspired and full of grand ideas, I came home a day later with a plan: I wanted to talk at a conference wth a few hundred attendees in 2019.

Baby Steps

Around the same time, I had my bi-annual development talk at work. As one of my development goals for the next 6 months I wrote:

Goal: get better at public speaking and teaching: Talk at a conference

  • Prepare a talk for a "bigger" meetup
  • Decide what to talk about and apply for talks
  • Attend at least 1 internal presentation workshop

I also added another note: Within 1 year: Talk at an external conference.

There it was, my plan: start at meetups, think about potential topics, and learn more about the theory behind presenting, to then apply for external conferences and hopefully talk at one.

April

As this was part of my development plan, my manager made sure to direct any internal public speaking opportunities my way: In April, I got the chance to give a lightning talk about experimentation at an internal conference for senior engineers and engineering managers. Although I was terrified to speak in front of this audience and had no clue what to talk about, I accepted the challenge. What really helped me was sitting down with one of the organisers who was familiar with the work my team was doing. He had a couple of great ideas for topics and together we defined the goals of the talk and with that the outline followed naturally.

It took me a good 20-30h to put together this 7-minute talk (my first draft was more than twice as long). I was also extremely nervous before presenting it, although that nervousness, for some reason, just melted away as soon as I entered the stage. I had planned a dramatic and rememberable last sentence, but I somehow managed to leave out an important word in it. Either way, I felt proud and accomplished, and I can still watch the recording without cringing (until I say that sentence). A first success.

May

Already in February, I had reached out to a local meetup with potential topics I would like to talk about. They offered me to a slot in the beginning of April. After I had to cancel last-minute because my friend's cat, that I was looking after, got sick and had to be brought to the cat hospital, I finally gave my talk about including engineers earlier on in the product development process in May. The feedback I received afterwards included:

I liked your presentation and you have a good presence at stage.

and

Overall I was really impressed with your presentation. If I were to comment anything it would be the graphics. There was really nothing wrong with them, they are just the single thing I can think of with room for improvement.

I had used my company's presentation template, but changed a couple of things around (I don't do this anymore!), so the borders were too thin and instead of using actual bullet points, I used the letter "o", which in retrospective looked really weird. But hey, all in all, another success.

September

By June I had written talk descriptions and abstracts for three different talks and applied to present them at a variety of different conferences all over Europe (papercall.io and confs.tech are great websites for finding them). On the 2nd July the impossible happened:

Hi Iris, [...] it is my pleasure to inform you that your talk "Fantastic Bugs And Where To Find Them" has been selected for Armada JS conference! :) [...]

I was invited to talk at Armada JS, a JavaScript conference in Serbia in September! After jumping around the office for a bit (I do this when I get happy or excited), I started the process of seeking approval from my manager and my department's internal comms representative. A day or two later, it was officially confirmed that I was going to speak at the conference. A colleague asked me if I would be able to give the talk internally and luckily the spot they offered me was two weeks before the conference, which meant I had to have the presentation prepared and ready by then, and couldn't push it out to the last minute, like I would usually do. I gave the presentation and although the slides were still a bit rough around the edges and one of the videos didn't load, I gave the talk and received some really good feedback. After updating the last bits, I was ready for the big day. I arrived in Belgrade in the afternoon, where a driver was waiting for me and two other speakers. An hour later we arrived in Novi Sad, where the conference was going to take place over the next two days. During the speaker dinner that same night, I found out that I wasn't the only one talking for the first time! Extremely exhausted and suffering from a bad cold, I went to bed early that night, rehearsing the talk one last time before falling into a deep cough-syrup induced slumber.

The next day I woke up, excited, terrified, and with a fever. Well, at least my voice was still working. Although I had planned on listening to the other speakers, I was too nervous to leave the speaker lounge. It was incredible to see how supportive all the other speakers were. They were exchanging tips, talking one another through their slides and discussing the latest tech -- we're software engineers after all. I opened up and told them how much I felt like an imposter and that I was worried my topic wasn't technical enough. Nothing could have helped more than their kind words of encouragement to get me ready to step up on that stage.

Despite the fever (and thanks to painkillers) I got through my talk without any problems. Once I stood there and started talking, everything just felt natural. Some of the other speakers were sitting in the first row and nodding along, which gave me confidence and helped me through the talk. Although I ran through the talk way quicker than I had planned (I had cut a part out to make sure to stay under 40 minutes), there were a lot of great questions from the audience, which made up for the extra 10 minutes. I also felt a bit of a lack of engagement with the audience and some of my jokes didn't quite land, but I still felt extremely accomplished and proud. It made all the time (probably between 40-80h) I had put into this worth it.

Take-aways

  1. If I can do it, you can too.
  2. You don't need to be know everything to speak about a topic you care about. You don't even need to know everything about the topic you want to talk about! Research it well, get first-hand experience, and write that talk!
  3. Apply to a lot of conferences and don't give up! It's not easy to get a foot in the door, especially if you don't have a video of yourself giving a talk available yet. Look out for conferences open for first-time speakers or start out with lightning talks!
  4. Gather other people's feedback! Ask friends, colleagues or give your talk at a smaller event or internally at work. Specifically ask for feedback afterwards, it can be intimidating at first but the insights are well worth it.
  5. If you're nervous, ask someone to sit in the first row and nod for you. You wouldn't believe how much it helps!
  6. Use the knowledge you have gained preparing the talk. We've improved our test coverage and started using new, better suited tools after my talk. I got the team on board by planning a session to define our front end testing strategy.

And, maybe the most important take-away for me: Whatever you want to achieve in life, you can get there. Make a plan, divide it into small, actionable, managable steps, and work on them one by one. You'll reach your goals in no time.

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