Monday, August 12, 2013

Why Do I Speak at Conferences?

When I worked at Google as a Developer Advocate, it was actually part of my job description to speak at conferences, since our goal was to increase the number of developers using the Google APIs and speaking at conferences was one way to achieve that goal. Since speaking was just an assumed part of the job, I never thought very deeply about *why* I spoke. I just thought about which conferences would have the greatest reach and sent out my trip reports after.

Now that I'm no longer in developer relations, it's not an official part of my job description to speak. Despite that, I still get invited to speak and I ended up speaking at 14 conferences and meetups over the last year. I'm lucky to work for companies that support and even encourage me to accept speaking opportunities, and they trust my judgement in deciding how often to speak and which conferences to speak at. Since I am now basically speaking of my own accord, I find myself thinking more deeply about why it is exactly that I speak. I don’t want to speak just because that’s what I’ve always done. I want to understand what it is that I get out of speaking and what I enjoy about conferences, so that I say "yes" to conferences with some degree of confidence in the future. Here goes!

What I Get of Speaking

It gives me a moment to step back and reflect. In my year at Coursera, I worked on many projects, and I would often work on multiple at once or jump directly from one to the other. When I had to put together a talk for a conference, it would force me to take a moment to stop working and just think, asking myself questions like “What is it that I’ve learnt that I think is worth sharing? What have I liked or disliked about the technology we picked?”

I think it’s really important to give a balanced perspective on a topic, and it’s easy for you to convince yourself that you’re doing everything the right way when you’re in moment, so I *need* that forcing function to make sure that I am actually considering all the angles. This is true as much about our approaches to frontend development (which I reflected on in the “Frontend Architectures” talk) and our approaches to social learning (which I reflected on in the “Social learning” talk at I/O).

It gives me a new way to share knowledge I’ve accumulated. When I learn things, I have this burning desire to share what I’ve learnt. I hate thinking that there might be someone out there who might benefit from what I’ve learnt, and me knowing that I’m hoarding that information. If my goal is to reach all those possible people that might benefit, then blogging has the most potential, but speaking has its own benefits. You can share that knowledge in a more interactive way, immediately see how attendees respond, and have fun telling a bit of a story along the way. If the talk is videotaped, then that can reach more people after the event’s over (I rarely ever watch videos of talks myself, but hey, some people prefer that format!).

It’s also not much work to turn a talk into a blog post or a series of posts, and you can focus the posts based on what the audience reacted most to. For example, my localStorage talk became a 2-part article series on Dr. Dobbs, and my “Frontend” talk, that was originally given to an audience of 30 or so, became a blog post with 30,000+ views.

I have to strike a balance between learning new knowledge and sharing what I’ve learnt, of course, and that’s been a struggle for me in an engineering role, but I think I found a good mix of coding, blogging, and speaking this year.

It gives me a way to learn new knowledge from many developers at once. After I give a talk on a particular technology, that gives developers in the audience an opportunity to come up and tell me about their experience with that technology, and often share different solutions from what I shared. I often find out about new tools and techniques this way, and I’ll share the ideas with my colleagues after. We don’t always have the time or resources to try them out, but I always appreciate knowing about new possibilities.

Like all the other attendees, I also get to learn from the presentations of the other speakers. I’ll often write down what my favorite talks were, and send out an email afterwards to colleagues or write up a blog post with a list of my favorites and links to slides.

It gives me an opportunity to meet the amazing developers of the tools I use. We used many open-source frameworks and libraries at Coursera, and conferences love to have the authors of those tools as speakers. Those developers are like our celebrities in the tech world, and hey, even if they’re not the best speakers, it’s like “whoah, the creator of X is speaking!” They often have unique insights because they know what the tool started as when they invented it in their mind, they’ve seen it grown, and they know where they want it to go. They’re also experts on the tool, and the person most likely to be able to answer your burning questions about how to use it.

Now, I could meet those developers as a mere attendee of the conference too, but I find it much easier to meet them as a speaker. Speakers have more inter-networking opportunities, like the speakers dinners, the flights, the walks back to the speakers hotel, the hand-offs between talks. At Webstock, I even found myself accidentally in the same post-conference vacation spot as the keynote speaker Ze Frank, and we wandered around the New Zealand bush together for a few days. Thanks to speaking at conferences, there are so many amazing developers that I’ve had the honor of having long conversations with, and those experiences are invaluable.

How I Decide Where to Speak

Since I’m in the fortunate position of being invited to speak more than I think I probably should, then I must look at each speaking opportunity and decide for myself whether to say yes. It’s incredibly flattering to be invited to speak - the little girl inside me squeals, “you like me! you reallly like me!” when I get those emails - so I really have to force myself to not reply with my gut reaction of “yes, of course!”.

Here are some of the questions I ask myself about the conference:

  • Location: Have I ever been to the location? Will it be good weather at the location? If it’s a foreign city, is it safe for me to wander around? If it’s not safe, will there be locals willing and eager to escort me, or will I be hiding out in my hotel? Do I know anyone else in that location that I want an excuse to visit, anyway? I love traveling and seeing the innards of different cultures, so if I am picking a conference because of it’s location, I want to know that I will actually get to experience that location fully.
  • Distance: How long of a flight is it? Will it be non-stop or be a horribly annoying 3-stop ordeal which could possibly get delayed? How jetlagged will I be? I’ve been invited to conferences in incredibly exotic locales, but then I stick “SFO -> XXX” in, see the kind of itinerary I’d have to take to get there, and decide it’s just not worth it. If I was going to turn the conference into a longer vacation with a friend, then sure, it might be worth it to spend so much time traveling, but not if its just me.
  • Timing: Is it during the week or weekend? If its during the week, will I miss our weekly team meetings, show & tells, all hands, or any interesting tech talks? Will it be in the middle of any big launches? If you can’t guess, I prefer weekend conferences, where I don’t feel like I have to sacrifice missing out on things at work.
  • Topics: Does the conference cover a lot of topics that I’m interested in? I’m often invited to more general software conferences, and though I appreciate getting to see topics from way outside my niche, I come away with much less immediately applicable knowledge. On the other hand, sometimes I take advantage of not caring as much about other topics, because it means that I know I can create my slides at the conference itself and not worry about missing anything.
  • My Topic: Will I get to talk about a topic that I’m truly interested in now? Will it be a new presentation or will I recycle an old presentation? I’ve been asked to speak about mobile a few times this year, which I can understand because it’s a hot topic, but I haven’t done PhoneGap in more than a year, so I could not deliver a talk on mobile with confidence. The technology scene changes rapidly in our industry, so if I’m talking about a technology, I better have used that damn recently. As for new versus recycled presentations, I sometimes feel like I don’t have the time to put together a new talk, or that I don’t have any new topic that I’m burning to talk about it, so I’ll only agree to speak if I can recycle a previous talk. I try to be transparent about that, so that the organizers know that it’s not entirely new content.
  • Organizers: Is it organized by a corporation or is it community run? I’ve found that I’ve most enjoyed the conferences that are put together by communities. They tend to care the most about really making it a great experience for both attendees and speakers, and they’ll often go to care to give you a more local experience. The conferences also have a different feel to them - there’s this vibe of “we’re all in this together” that pervades everything, and that’s a great environment for a speaker.
  • Sponsorship: Will the conference pay my way? Most conferences require some sort of travel, and if they do, I will only speak if they’re able to pay for the hotel and flight. Sure, Coursera probably would have been happy to pay for 1 or 2 conferences last year, but they’re a startup, and I don’t think its reasonable to expect them to afford more than that for a single engineer, and conference organizers work hard to get sponsors so that they *can* pay for speakers that need it. And I will ask for it. :-)

I don’t have a scientific way to ask all those questions about a particular conference. As much as I wish I could just stick it all into a formula and get a discrete answer out, I don’t think it’s possible or reasonable. Conferences are experiences, and anything can happen at them, and it’s hard to predict the things you’ll learn or the people you’ll meet that will have the greatest effect on you later. I can ask these questions to try to approximate an answer, and try and reassure myself that I’ve made the right decision, but in the end, it is only an approximation.

What about you?

If you're someone who speaks at conferences, I'd love to hear about what you get out of it and how you decide which conferences to go to. If you're not someone who speaks at conferences yet, then I encourage you to try it out. Start small if you'd like, like with internal demos, lightning talks, local meetups, and work your way up. Find a topic you're passionate about and share your knowledge. I guarantee there's something that you know that other people want to know too.Maybe you'll find you love speaking — I literally feel a surge of adrenalin kick in 5 minutes into every talk the lasts for hours after — or maybe you'll decide it's not your thing. But, hey, it's worth finding out. Report back once you find out!

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