Saying No, or If This Then Not That

I had to say no to a conference I would have loved to speak at today. I’ve had to say no to several conference speaking offers this year, because it turns out that time, space, and timezones can only be manipulated to a certain degree.

I thought about not blogging about this, because it’s a problem of privilege – “my diamond slippers don’t fit”. But it’s still a problem, and I’m not the only one who encounters it. I’ve talked to some conference organizers and other speakers, and I’ve tried to put together a set of guidelines for the least awkward way to handle this.

Here’s a quick flowchart of the process:

Breaking this down into guidelines, it goes like this:

  1. If you can’t stand the idea of telling an organizer you can’t give a talk, don’t apply to conferences that overlap or have very tight affordances.
  2. If you do apply for overlapping conferences, you may end up not having a problem because no one gets accepted to every conference. NO ONE. So the odds are pretty good that you’ll be fine.
  3. If you have a conflict, it is on you to sort it out and tell people what your response is as soon as humanly possible. Everyone has a different set of evaluation criteria, but they might include price to attend, value of exposure, who asked first, which you would rather attend, things like that. You can ask organizers questions that help clarify that, but it’s bad form to string them along or try to start some kind of weird bidding war. This is the speaker’s dilemma.
  4. You must be as prompt as possible in accepting or declining a conference speaking invitation. Organizers are juggling flaming chainsaws trying to put together a balanced schedule, and they just need to know.

Things it might help you to know:

  • Organizers always have a waitlist of speakers that just barely missed the cutoff.
  • It’s great if you can decline early, but sometimes shit happens and you, say, dislocate your shoulder or get stranded in a blizzard or something. Call the organizer ASAP and give them as much time as possible.
  • It’s far better if you can get this all settled before speakers are announced, but sometimes you can’t. Just as soon as possible.
  • Actually apologize to the organizer if you must decline. They are professionally disappointed, you can be professionally regretful.
  • If you, like me, are a person who always has a talk (or 8) “in their pocket” that you could give at a moment’s notice, it’s kind to tell organizers so. Don’t be a pest about it, but I’ve ended up filling in a couple times for last-minute problems.

This whole set of actions is predicated on you trusting the conference organizer and wanting to speak at the conference. There is a different, and more complicated set of problems if the conference itself is the problem, as outlined in Coraline’s post about OSCON. I’m still working on getting my head around that, and the stupid programming moves Worldcon 2018 attempted and then walked back.

Lady Conference Speaker: 14 Travel Tips

I was talking to a fellow ladyish conference speaker, and I reeled off a list of my travel tips as they pertain to people who are working for small/nimble enough companies that you don’t have to book through The Corporate Site.

An array of bags and the things they contained, including laptop, cords, stickers, portable keyboard, medicine, neck pillow.

Last year’s conference travel assortment. I’ve upgraded my bag since then.

  1. Remember that your time is usually more valuable than the amount you can save by optimizing flights. Before you spend 4 hours trying to save $100 and adding a 3 hour layover to your flight, consider your hourly rate.
  2. Pick an airline you can deal with, stop looking at others. I use Delta because I live in a Delta hub.
  3. Pick 2 hotels chains with a variety of price point options. I use Hilton and Marriott, but Quality or Best Western or anything similar will work.
  4. Be reasonable about your expenses, but not chintzy. This is not human travel, it is business travel. The value of business travel is that you arrive in a place capable of interacting with humans.
  5. Pack what you need for each day in a roll so you don’t have to spend any brain resources when you get there.
  6. Where you are going, they sell most things. You can solve a lot if you have underpants and a bra and a company t-shirt.
  7. You’re probably not going outside as much as you would as a human traveller. You don’t need an umbrella, or sunscreen. Travel the world, visit exotic conference centers.
  8. Bring a hoodie, because of the patriarchal thermostat hegemony.
  9. Upgrading to Comfort+ is pretty cheap for the amount of unfrazzling it earns you.
  10. You will always look sharper than the dudes, by virtue of your awesome haircut, ride on that.
  11. But if you don’t feel confident, mascara+lipstick is pretty much all people actually use to read “professional lady makeup”.
  12. Assemble a small travel kit of meds – most of us on the road a lot have a “sinuses are the devil” section and a “let’s not talk about my digestion” section.
  13. There are a lot of things you can solve by money that you couldn’t easily fix when you were traveling on your own, such as: Too Much Walking, Lost Luggage, Forgot Charger, Missed Flight, etc. Don’t be rude about using company resources to fix personal problems, but ask my boss how many cities he’s bought a Macbook charger in. It’s better to have it than to not be useful.
  14. Your average mid-range hotel and above (Not Super 8, yes Garden Court) has a wide variety of forgotten chargers you can borrow. Also they will bring you for a small fee or free a bunch of useful forgotten or unluggable items, like toothbrushes, razors, and full size humidifiers.

This is not human travel, it is business travel. The value of business travel is that you arrive in a place capable of interacting with humans.

There are a lot of other tips I have, but those seem like the most salient. Just keep in mind that you are worth shipping across the country carefully because you are a precious and hard-to-replace part of the company, and they want you to arrive undamaged, functional, and able to do good work.

Bonus tip: Pick a type of tourist attraction you like to see and look for it in cities you go to, if you have time. I’m fond of botanical gardens.

Spiky green glass sculptures that echo the shapes of desert plants.

Glass and biology at the Phoenix Botanical Gardens

 

My first year, a professional review

A bit over a year ago, I applied to a startup. I’d never been a developer advocate before, and I wasn’t sure what the job actually entailed, but the person who recommended me (thanks, Rach!) and the hiring manager said that probably my experience doing talks about technical writing was enough to make me a plausible candidate.

I wasn’t sure then exactly what developer relations actually was, and now I’ve been doing this for a year and in an active community of other people doing it, and I think it is like the parable about the elephant – it looks different to everyone because we’ve all got different parts of the same beast.

For me, it looks like going to conferences – a lot of conferences! And being on twitter and writing blog posts and talking to people and being available to answer or route questions. It looks like offering a feature flags open space at every possible place I can. It looks like reading a dozen articles a day, looking for insight and parallax and industry position and good ideas, and funneling it back to the team. It looks like meeting teams who are actually developing with our tool and taking notes on all the things that are annoying them. It means really, truly, non-sarcastically caring about stickers and swag and conference sponsorship and organization and postcards and follow-up.

It’s not an entirely new skillset, but a lot of it is new, and I’ve never been this close the the sales and marketing parts of a company before, and I’m more convinced than ever that it is a really technical skillset that is tragically under-rated for difficulty.

If you’re observant, you’ll see what’s missing from my list: coding. It’s on my list for next year, because I have some neat ideas that I’ll need to use our tool to implement, but it’s not actually very relevant to what I’m trying to do right now.

My goals for this year

I didn’t really write down my goals when I started, because, like I said, I didn’t know what I was doing. But here are the things that I was working toward:

  • Give talks about feature flags/feature management at technical levels from “what is a feature flag” to “how does that work with containers”
  • Standardize the industry term on “feature flags”, so everyone was talking about the same thing. (Kelsey Hightower said feature flag, and you bet I screencapped that. I was delighted.)
  • Visit real live people using our product and funnel their needs back to the right people on our side.
  • Explain what a feature flag was often enough, in enough places, that people started to recognize the concept.
  • In September and October, I would go to conferences and say to someone, “Do you know what a feature flag or toggle is?”, and I would get a lot of blank looks. This July I went to a conference and someone who wasn’t me proposed an open space of feature flags. That’s anectdata, but I think the needle is moving, and I’m giddy. It’s not just me – there are dozens of people talking about this. Martin Fowler hosted a post from Pete Hodgeson on his blog in October of 2017. Willy-Peter Schaub writes about them from the Microsoft MVP perspective, and Raven Covington from MailChimp gave a talk on feature flags at Bath Ruby.
  • It’s partly me, though. I’ll take some credit. If we assume an average audience of 50 people, by 30 conferences, that’s 1500 people who have gotten to hear me enthuse about Testing in Production and Democratizing Release and Progressive Deployment and Continuous Deployment Means Shipping Broken Code and Kill-Switch/Circuit Breaker Patterns. (It’s not quite perfect math, because not all my talks are about feature flags, but not all my audiences are as small as 50.)

Retrospective

I’m not going to spread my whole retrospective out here, because there’s a lot of it that’s purely personal or company internal, but here’s a sampling.

What went well

  • Conference acceptances are encouraging
  • New talks making good impact
  • Feel like I can explain the product with a reasonable degree of technical accuracy and depth
  • Honestly like my company and my co-workers
  • I love learning things. Going to conferences is like all the good parts of college, with much less homework
  • Feel like I did ok mentoring other speakers

Could improve

  • Nearly burned myself out on travel
  • Planning to get speech coaching to hone my skills
  • Want to learn to do code-ier demos
  • Continue improvement in travel booking and organizational skills around writing blog posts and talks
  • Got tired of my conference dresses. Need to sew more batches when I’m home

Looking ahead

  • I’d like to set up some client meetings while I’m visiting places for conferences.
  • Need to not totally drop fitness goals while I’m on the road.
  • Be slightly more selective about conference submission and acceptance. Fine-tune for conferences that have the audiences we need.

    It’s been a good year, and I’m looking forward to next year and don’t feel like there’s any reason for me to worry about finding interesting things to do in the coming year.

    In the meantime, if you want to ask me a question about feature flags, or conference speaking, or the care and maintenance of bright pink hair, you can reach me at heidi@launchdarkly.com.

Dignity, Always Dignity

A fat tabby lies sprawled on its backOne of the interesting parts of being a semi-public figure by doing DevRel is that it makes you think a lot about how you look to other people, in a way I suspect is not a concern for the ordinary developer. It parallels the doubled perception that a lot of women already experience.

In 1972, art critic and philosopher John Berger wrote,

A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….

It’s reductive and essentialist and troubling, but I’m not sure it’s untrue – there is a level of mindfulness to being visibly female, and a similar level of mindfulness to being visible/active online, and to representing a company.Like all forms of identity, there are a lot of intersections and nuances and complications and historical considerations. I personally know at least two female-presenting people who left technology because the cost to continue was too high, and I can think of many more who have taken deliberately lower-profile, less-dangerous positions. But I also know people who choose to be aggressively public about their gender, their level of ability, their struggles. It’s not a contest, but it is a grind.

There’s a joke-not-joke about how so many women in technology and especially information security have chosen to have obviously artificial hair color. We tell people it’s so we can identify each other in a crowd, or it’s because poisonous animals have bright markings, or because we’ve gotten to the place where we can’t get fired anymore. Because it makes us look queer (a lot of us are, but not all). Because it makes us feel fierce.

Those are all true, and many more reasons besides, but at least for me, having bright pink hair is also a level of defiance. I am not here to look pretty for you. I am not junior enough to worry about my career (a lie, of course). I am aggressively, boldly, assertively female, and I am not ashamed of that. It’s really political, at least for me. If you won’t hire me because of my hair, I don’t want to work for you. And I can make that stick.I know sometimes that people see it as juvenile, or childish, or girly, and discount me because of it.

But here’s the thing – if I am on stage, recognized by a conference as an authority, and I’m girly, it breaks people’s mental model about either what it means to be on stage or to be girly. Every time I make someone reconcile those two things, I hope to make it slightly easier for a junior person who likes winged eyeliner to get credit for a technical idea.

Because here’s the key point –

Dignity has nothing to do with competence.

My friends, if I rock up on the stage and give a mind-blowing talk on the origins of full-disk encryption and AES while wearing a clown suit, I expect you to listen to me and also not dismiss the next person you see trying to explain something while wearing a red nose.

I think, historically, dignity has been coupled with respect and professionalism, but I don’t think that’s an unbreakable triad. I think it’s a habit of mind.

I started thinking about this when I saw something on Twitter about how respect actually has two meanings – the first, for people who are already in power, is actually more like deference from people with less power. Respect the office, the badge, the cloth. The second, the respect desired and demanded by the powerless, is to be treated like a full human. As people in tech, we probably seamlessly use both definitions without realizing we’re moving between them, and which one we mean depends on where we are in the power structure.

Professionalism is, at core, very utilitarian. It means operating with the group standards in a way that keeps the organization from experiencing friction and loss of efficiency. If something is professional, it keeps the gears of collegial relations turning. It is not professional to sexually harass people because it degrades their work efficiency drastically. (It’s also terrible on a number of other levels, but corporations can only be persuaded by the bottom line.) If I’m being treated professionally, it means I have the same opportunities and liabilities as other employees, and that I can count on the explicit and implicit contracts to be followed and enforced. I’ll get paid on time, I’ll be physically safe, my work won’t be arbitrarily discarded, things like that.

I can be professional with pink hair. I can be respectful with pink hair. Those are behaviors that I control. But whether you see me as dignified or not? That’s a tougher call. If I dyed my hair brown, would it be enough? What if I grew out the mohawk? Wore a skirt suit? Wore a pantsuit? Stopped using swearwords in my talks?

No, I think the commentariat has proven that no matter how much competence a woman has, no matter how much time and energy she wastes trying to conform to the standards, there are always some people who won’t see her as dignified. And that’s ok, for me. I can afford that, to a degree. But culturally, every time I see someone dismissive about something that is coded as youthful, joyful, or feminine, I worry that they care more about dignity than they do about competence. I’m not ok with that, and you shouldn’t be, either.

Note: Of course I screw this up. My own internalized misogyny and other shit automatically makes me roll my eyes at signals I consider frivolous or less-than, and I will spend the rest of my life trying to eradicate those habits. Someone once told me that the first reaction you have to something is what you were taught growing up, and the second reaction is the more mindful reaction. Fast and slow thought, if you will.

Check your fast thought against your slow thought and try to make decisions based on what you believe, instead of what you ‘know’.

Construct, Capable, Confident

I can’t make it parallel. I tried. We just have to live with an imperfect world of non-parallel headline items.

I was talking to another speaker the other day, and she asked me how I knew I was ready to give a talk. As with so many other things in my life, I have a checklist.

As I’m prepping a talk, it falls into three stages – construction, feeling capable, and feeling confident.

Construct

Writing a talk is ~40-80 hours of work for me. Usually it’s spread over several months. Here are the things I try to do as part of writing a talk:

🔲 Research and keep notes of where I find information.
🔲 Write a high-level outline.
🔲 Decide on a theme.
🔲 Rough in the slides.
🔲 Find/create/source graphics for slides
🔲 Practice talking through the slides out loud.
🔲 Check for timing.
🔲 Check the talk against the code of conduct.
🔲 Finalize slides.

Capable

Here are the things I need to do to feel like I could give a talk without embarrassing anyone:

🔲 Practice to myself.
🔲 Practice in front of another human.
🔲 Incorporate suggestions and changes.
🔲 Be able to talk about each slide a little bit without notes.
🔲 Hit timing within 15% of goal.

Confident

I could probably give this talk even if my A/V failed completely. I have given it to an audience before, I have refined it. Here are the things I need to feel confident about a talk:

🔲 Have a good recording to listen to before the next iteration.
🔲 Gave the talk at least once in public to get the suck out.
🔲 Changed information on the fly.
🔲 Can roam away from speaker notes without noticing.

Conclusion

I think every speaker has their own process, and you’ll discover yours. For me, I know some essential things about my process that I try to work in. For instance, the first time I give a talk, it sucks. There is a finite amount of suck in any talk, and I need to extract it before I get in front of the crucial audience. Also, I tend to go over time when I have an audience to play to, so I deliberately write my talks 5-10 minutes shorter than the time slot.

You’ll figure out your own process as you go along, but remember that the easiest way to feel confident and prepared when you get onstage is to be prepared to your own standards.

I believe in you! You can do the thing!

Live-Tweeting for Fame and Fortune

That’s a joke. I have made $65 off 4 years of live-tweeting, and it’s more than I ever expected. As far as fame, the point is not for me to get famous, but to promote some amazing speakers as they do their thing.

I don’t know about you, but I have about 20 tabs open in my browser with technical talks that I’m excited about seeing and will get around to anytime now. As soon as I have 45 minutes that I’m not doing something else. Don’t @ me.

It is hard to make space in our lives to consume technical talks. It is much easier to consume a tweetstream that summarizes the key points of the talk.

So what is it that makes live-tweeting successful, and what are some things to avoid?

Tools

Hardware

I use an iPad as my main conference-going computer. It’s powerful enough to write on, remarkably unfussy about connecting to a conference wifi, and small and cheap enough that losing it will not be catastrophic. I also present from my iPad, but that’s a different story.

I’ve paired that with a bluetooth keyboard that I bought with some of my donations. I like the combination because I can set it in my lap or use in in a number of weird orientations. I’m a pretty fast touch-typist, so I can take notes quickly enough that I can capture most main points.

I have a wifi hotspot that I keep in my go bag. I’ve had very few problems at conferences in the last year or two, but before that, there was a pretty good chance that a technology conference would overwhelm whatever wifi infrastructure the venue had set up.

My final hardware investment is an iPad case that allows me to prop it in several different configurations, including horizontal and vertical. I always choose the ones in screaming pink/fuschia/etc, because I’m pretty sure that “girly” looking technology is less likely to be “accidentally” picked up by someone else. Also, it’s very on-brand!

That’s me, in the pink hair, live-tweeting from The Lead Developer New York 2017. You can see the keyboard and iPad balanced in my lap. (It’s a great conference!)

Software

I am an enormous fan of NoterLive by Kevin Marks. I met him at Nodevember in 2016, I think, and he has created an amazing tool for live-tweeting.

  • Prepends the conference hashtag(s) and speaker name for every tweet, so you don’t have to retype them every time (although if you get it wrong, it will be a lot wrong)
  • Automatically threads until you tell it to stop
  • Local caching and logging

Pretty much all I have to do is set the conference hashtag by the day, start a new thread, set the speaker, and then I can type without worrying about it and the tweet is sent every time I hit enter.

It’s aware of character limits and will give you notice when you’re approaching it. The only thing that’s a tiny bit hinky, and I still don’t know if it’s happening, is that it will sometimes attempt to make a link if I have some combination of a period and spaces. It doesn’t send the link, but it throws the character count off.

💖

I use TweetBot on my iPad to watch the conference hashtag and retweet things that are cool and relevant that I didn’t get noted or didn’t see. The new TweetBot for Mac just came out, and they finally have a dark theme and a much better way of handling and viewing lists.

I used Storify to compile all the tweets about my talks and weave a loose story about the experience, but it’s gone and I am very sad and I’ve not yet found a replacement.

Techniques

For Speakers

  • Put your handle on every. single. slide. No, I am not kidding. I want to be able to attribute your stuff properly, and if I slide in 2 minutes late and miss your first slide, then I have to spend 3 minutes hacking around the conference site to find it.
  • Put the conference you’re at in your Twitter display name. That allows people to mute if they want, and it makes you easier to find and correctly identify.
  • If you don’t use Twitter, give us some other way to attribute you, because attribution matters.
  • Follow the code of conduct. A live-tweeter in your talk is a great force for good, until you piss them off, and then they’re going to take pictures of your offensive slides and drag you.
  • Turn off all notifications before you get on stage. It’s super distracting to have your phone freaking out at you while you’re trying to speak and even worse if it’s your laptop.

For Tweeters

This is actually just the set of rules I try to follow for myself. There isn’t really a journalistic code of ethics for tweeting.

  • Attribute ideas properly. If a speaker is quoting someone else, do your best to make that clear.
  • If you are making an aside, try to set it off in some way. I use (parentheses), and @lizthegrey uses [ed: ], but as long as it’s clear you’re commenting on the content and not reporting, anything works.
  • You do not have to exactly quote what someone says. Paraphrasing is the norm. If there’s some especially unique phrase and you have space to get it in, you can put quotes around it, otherwise you can just do your best to approximate the concepts.
  • If you’re taking a picture to go with a tweet, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but do avoid making the speaker look unreasonably dippy. It turns out it’s hard to speak without sometimes making extremely weird faces.
  • Use hashtags and threads to make it possible for your regular followers to block the tweetstorm out. Not everyone is here to read 200 conference tweets.
  • Put the conference you’re at in your Twitter display name. That allows people to mute if they want, and it makes you easier to find and correctly identify.

Let’s Not

There are some anti-patterns that I’d like you to try to avoid:

  • Just transcribing the slides for a talk
  • Commenting on anything about the speaker’s appearance
  • Negativity in general, really. I mean, why waste your precious conference time and dollars hate-watching a talk and tweeting about it? Get up and go do something else. You’re allowed.
  • Violating a speaker’s publicity preferences. If they have a “No Photos” lanyard, don’t take photos.

Add To Your Lists

@lizhenry – the OG livetweeter, the one I learned so much from. Good for Mozilla information, politics, and feminist poetry.

@cczona – the mind behind Consequences of an Insightful Algorithm AND @Callbackwomen. Excellent at pointing out connections between different threads of technical talks and the implications of them.

@lizthegrey – Google SRE, badass speaker in her own right, and excellent at documenting and commenting on lots of topics, especially resiliency.

@EmilyGorcenski – livetweeting not just technical conferences, but resistance politics.

@CateHstn – Thoughtful blogger and live-tweeter operating at the intersection of dev and management.

@bridgetkromhout – indefatigable DevOps organizer and excellent live-tweeter. She actually manages to take pictures and livetweets from her phone. I’m in awe, honestly.

@whereistanya – a systems thinker who managers to pull tweets and blog posts together and make you see a side of the talk that you might not have recognized.

@GeekManager – conference organizer and integrative thinking on the bleeding edge of the humane treatment of developers who end up managing.

@QuinnyPig – Not always a perfectly accurate rendition, but always funny (and clear) about the divergence

@MattStratton – brings an insider perspective to talks, which allows him to point out connections you may not have thought of.

@skimbrel – technical expertise from an unapologetically queer viewpoint. It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you.

Using Airtable to Manage Conference Submissions

I know, it’s not a very catchy title, but it is descriptive.

A large part of my current job is speaking at conferences and talking about feature flags, systems resiliency, and whatever else I can talk people into. And part of speaking at conferences is applying to lots and lots of conferences. But how do you keep track of it all?

At first I tried to use Google Calendar, but that did’t work. I tried Trello, but there weren’t enough dimensions. I wanted to track these elements:

  • Name
  • Location
  • Start date
  • End date
  • Talks submitted
  • Submitted/accepted/rejected/conflict
  • Speaker tasks
  • Tasks remaining

That’s a lot! I complained about the problem, and Thursday Bram suggested Airtable, as a beautiful mashup of a taskboard and a spreadsheet. Since then, I’ve suggested it to several other developer relations people and I know some of them are using it. I’m now paying for the full version, which gives me the calendar view, and that’s been my killer feature. It really helps me to be realistic about how conferences stack and overlap with each other.

Spreadsheet

Airtable main view

This is the main view. I have it sorted so that conferences that are over or that have not accepted any talks from me are not showing, because I really only need to know about what is coming or may be coming. I’ve grouped it by the Talk Accepted dimension and then the date. At a glance, I can tell what I have coming, and what talk I’m giving (if I remembered to enter it, because I’m sometimes not great at that, as you can see.

Cards

I can drill down into any talk title for a card that has a bunch of information on the talk. Frequently I include the proposal I submitted here, along with information about how far along in the process of creation the talk is, all configured by me. Have I drafted it? Made slides? Practiced it on my own or in front of other people?

Cards Pt. 2

Further down on the talk card, I can see all the conferences I submitted the talk to and whether it was accepted or not. That gives me a good overview of whether a talk is “wearing out” or less likely to be accepted than another kind of talk. It’s useful information.

All of those features are available at the free level, and it’s powerful enough for most people, but did I mention I apply to a lot of conferences? More than there are weeks. You probably don’t need the full version.

Calendar View

Airtable calendar view

This view right here is worth everything I spend on Airtable, and I’m certainly not a power user. But it tells me about conflicts in a way that has been very hard for me to predict from just looking at dates. (If we were all good at predicting conflicts from dates and times, we would not have Outlook Meetings Calendar, is what I’m saying) Now I can tell ahead of time that I can only accept one of those three conferences starting on the 24th, and that allows me to be a more polite speaker. Sometimes it’s possible to look at this and make better arrangements. For example, DevOpsDays Chicago is a great event, but it’s literally the day before I need to be in Dusseldorf. Rather than discombobulating myself or the conferences, I can ask now, months ahead of time, to speak on the first day of DevOpsDays Chicago and toward the end of SRECon. That gives me an error budget for weather/flights/etc. Most conference organizers are lovely about helping me out with these things.

Conclusion

Airtable is a super useful tool for being able to organize data when some parts of it are fixed and some parts change and you need to be able to keep the associations together. There are bigger, more heavyweight databases that can do that, of course, but this is a pretty, friendly, usable implementation of the theory.

If you’re interested in trying it yourself, here is a link to the original workspace I set up: Heidi’s Conferences. Feel free to give it a spin or fork it for your own needs.

The sticker bag

I talked about this a little bit in Lady Speaker Small Talk , but let me expand.

I have a bag of stickers that I take to every conference I go to. This week, I leveled up my game from “gallon ziploc bag of significant antiquity” to “bespoke bag”. It only took me a little while to sew, but I’m super pleased with it, and it uses a fastener I got on my last trip to New York City’s garment district.

A black fabric envelope about the same size as a gallon ziploc bag of obvious age. Black envelope style bag with silver bias edging and a fancy silver buckle fastener.

I made the effort because the sticker bag is important to me — part personal brand, part conversation starter.

Array of various technology stickers More technology stickers spread on a table

I go to over 20 conferences a year, and at each one, I collect vendor and conference stickers, and I talk to the people who give them to me, and then I spread them out on a table at lunch or at the evening party and invite people to come poke through them and take away whatever they want.

This is the most genius spontaneous idea I’ve ever had, because what it gets me is:

  • Low-key, low-pressure opportunities to talk to even shy people
  • A way to talk about different technologies and what people are interested in and looking for
  • A way to gauge what a community of conference attendees is excited about
  • Memorability
  • An extremely keen understanding of the market demands and constraints around stickers

What stickers mean

I am the age to have been a Lisa Frank person growing up. I distinctly remember spending science fair reward money on freakin’ holographic unicorns. It turns out a lot of us have never entirely lost the joy of neat stickers. We put them on our computers, water bottles, notebooks, suitcases, beer fridges, whatever we can get to hold still.

We use them as affiliation identifiers. It may be an obscure sticker to everyone else, but if you care about Debian, you know when you see the Debian sticker on someone else’s gear. You know that they will probably talk to you about Debian. Now imagine leaving that kind of conversational hook twenty times over.

We use them as political statements. An EFF sticker means something, as does a sticker that says “Support your sisters, not just your cis-ters”. Rainbow/pride stickers fly out of my collection, because it’s so important to say “not everyone here is straight”.

Some people have rules about what kind of stickers they’ll use. “I only put stickers on for projects I pay money to.” or “I only use stickers from projects I use.” or “Only funny stickers” or “My laptop has a color theme.”

That all makes sense to me. In many ways, our laptops are a proxy for our faces, especially at conferences. We are hiding behind them physically or metaphorically. When we give a presentation, they peek up over the podium. When we are working in hallways, they identify our status.

Secret Sticker Rules

I think there are some generalizable rules about technology stickers. I feel so strongly about this that when I showed up for my one day in the LaunchDarkly office before I went out into the world, I spent 2 hours talking about stickers, and what I wanted to hand out.

My ideal stickers

  • Small – 2 inches is ideal. Unless you work for a company, you do not want to give them 1/6th of your available laptop space.
  • Tileable – circle stickers are selfish, because you can’t stack them or budge them against any other stickers. I prefer the hex shape, which is relatively standard, especially in open source projects, thanks to RedHat. PS – Heroku, right shape, slightly too big, and it breaks the tiling. I’m judging.
  • Funny – the Chef “sprinkle on some DevOps” stickers are hilarious, cute, and not insulting to anyone. They’re probably optimal. I also really like the Logstash stickers that were a log. With a mustache. And I begged a whole package of the “I ❤️ Pager 💩”. Because people find that hilarious. You don’t have to be funny. Other options are cute, completely straight, or your-logo-but-with-colors.
  • Have your name on them. I cannot tell you how sad it was for Influx Data when they had adorable animals with gems in them, but their name wasn’t anywhere on the stickers, and so I was like, uh, it’s a kiwi bird? From someone? Isn’t it cute? Put your name on the sticker unless you’re, like, Target or Apple.
  • Are not sexist, racist, or otherwise jerkish. I pulled out a bunch of stickers that said “UX-Men”, because while the pun was cute, the exclusion was not. I won’t put out Sumo Logic stickers, because I feel like it’s an ugly caricature. Basho was also right on that line.

I really loved the stickers the LaunchDarkly designer, Melissa came up with. Most of them are hexes, a couple are very small oblongs that fit almost anywhere, and the surprise best-moving sticker is unusually big, a representation of our astronaut, Toggle.

Parents love Toggle, love that Toggle is not gendered, and they take home a sticker for each of their kids.

Other handouts

As I’ve been going to conferences representing a company that isn’t just me, I have figured out some other things that work for me. Feature Management is a new enough market space that people don’t always know what I mean, or want something to take back to their team to explain it. Melissa and I worked together to create a small postcard that has some brand identity on the front and a couple paragraphs on the back explaining our business case. It’s small enough to shove in a pocket or conference bag, and when you get back to your desk, you may read it again to remember why you picked it up.

I also carry business cards, so that people have a way to contact me particularly. I serve as an information conduit between people thinking about how we could solve their problems, and the folks on my team who can definitively answer their questions. So if you say to me “Heidi, I’d love to do feature management, but does it respect semver?” I give you my card and you write me and then I find out yes, we have that coming in this quarter. Yay!

And, of course, I keep a few sets of LaunchDarkly stickers that are not mixed in with the general chaos of The Sticker Bag, so that I can hand them out to people as we are talking about LaunchDarkly in particular. For reasons that mystify me, while Moo has excellent card holders for their tiny cards and business cards, they don’t make ones for the postcards in either size, and looking on Amazon and Etsy was just a journey into despair and disambiguation.

So I expensed some materials and made my own, and as soon as I sort out my authentication with Instructables, I’ll post the process, but look, I made a card holder for all my cards!

Navy leather card holder in clutch size Card wallet interior, with postcards, stickers, and business cards.

The postcard side is gusseted so I can stack a few postcards in it, and the business card holder side can also hold stickers. And the whole thing is sized to fit in my hoodie pocket, because that’s what I’m wearing 95% of the time I’m on a conference floor.

What I Don’t Hand Out

T-shirts. Such a nightmare, because they’re bulky and sizing is variable, and I’m traveling light. If you want a t-shirt, write us and we will ship it to you. 😉

Socks. Because we don’t have any yet, but I continue to hope that we will get socks before the technology sock craze (Started by StitchFix, those cunning geniuses) dies out. I love tech socks. At last count, I have 22 pairs of tech socks, and my current favorite pair is from Sentry.io because they come in a version that has SCREAMING CORAL as the cuff color.

To Sum Up

When interacting with people, it’s nice to give them something tangible, but not burdensome, so they remember you fondly. Also, I’m glad I bought a sewing machine, even though it’s one of the three weeks a year a fat bike would be useful.

Well, that didn’t go like I imagined

The Toggle Talk

As a speaker, there are three things I count on to give a talk:

  • Slides
  • Narrative flow
  • Speaker notes

My dependence on these elements decreases as I give a talk multiple times, but I use the slides to help me remember where I am in the narrative even if I don’t refer to the speaker notes often.

This fall, I designed a new talk and built it in Twine, a game engine for choose-your-own-adventure games. Each slide was actually an HTML page rendered by the game engine, and the narrative was supplied by the audience choosing from several options. This was a radical departure from my usual method, but I’d practiced it, and tuned it, and wrestled with the CSS and I felt pretty confident I could make it work, even though I wouldn’t have speaker notes or a unified narrative through-line.

Because I hadn’t solved the hosting problem yet, I needed to “play” it from my laptop, but that was no problem – I had a USB-C to HDMI adapter. The talk before mine ran long, but I only have technical problems a tiny handful of times in my talks, so I didn’t think I’d need much time to get set up.

I had reckoned without the USB-C/USB-3/HDMI problem, because it had never happened before. I always present from my ipad, and it’s usually a rock-solid toolchain. So I get up there, I’m rushed for time because of the talk before, I’m nervous because it’s the first time I’m giving this talk, and because it’s so “weird”, and…. it failed. The combination of cable/laptop/projector failed so hard that my computer rebooted and came back looking weird, and I had to accept that I might have just bricked my brand-new work laptop, in front of an audience, in a talk that had already technically started.

I had no slides.

I had no notes.

I had no narrative.

I had practiced, but I had not practiced the complete failure scenario, because it had never occurred to me that it could fail this hard.

I still managed to pull a coherent technical talk out and I only ran 10 minutes short, and honestly, it’s one of the accomplishments I’m proudest of in the last year. Literally everything went wrong and I still delivered value.

Afterwards, when I was trying to quietly dump adrenaline, I could only think about how I had failed to achieve any part of my goals. My hands were shaking, my throat was tight, and I felt a little like crying.

That wasn’t how it was supposed to go!

Later, I got to talk to people who had been in the audience, and they asked questions that they could have had if they’d gotten the real talk. That was cheering. I joked that this was the worst this talk could possibly go, because there wasn’t anything left to fail!

Then I got the speaker evaluation cards, and people were universally complimentary about my poise under tough circumstances. It hadn’t felt like poise, it felt like literal flop-sweat, like a drip from my shoulderblades to my waist. But they couldn’t feel my sweat, they could only experience my description of a brand-new talk focused on something that they had to imagine.

The webinar

One of LaunchDarkly’s goals for the year is to nurture and encourage customers to feel comfortable telling their stories, whether on stage or in a blog post. To that end, we are offering some people speaker training. Remembering my fall experiences, I solicited nice people on Twitter to come to a beta of my talk. That would give me a chance to try out the tool, the content, the process, before we offered it as a finished product.

I learned so much! Almost all of it was a little painful.

  • I need to log in early because I’m a panelist, not a host, so we need to coordinate that so I can show my slides to the webinar.
  • I did test my A/V setup!
  • I didn’t realize how unnerving it would be for me to talk to dead air. For all of my teaching/preaching/tech talks, I’ve had an audience. I can make eye contact with them, hear them start to fidget if they are checking out, notice their grins and twinkles and coughs to stay connected to them. But obviously, none of that happens when I’m talking into a headset with the audience on mute.
  • I need to do some work on the content. Not too bad, but I always have to give a talk at least once to live humans to get the suck out.
  • The lack of response makes me so nervous I talk even faster than usual. SLOW DOWN, ME.
  • I have to figure out a better way to wrap up/end the webinar. I didn’t think about how to tie it up neatly, because talks work differently.

So this is all great. When I do the webinar “for reals”, those are all mistakes that I’m not going to need to make because I know where they are.

The meta-lessons

  • It is hard to predict how you’re going to fail, but it is possible to build in a reasonable degree of redundancy.
  • Tests in isolation are not going to catch systemic problems.
  • It is better to degrade what you provide rather than failing entirely.
  • Test with a subset of users so you can predict how your solution will scale.
  • Don’t get so distracted by your failures that you fail to notice surprising data or silver linings.*

* One of the most beautiful night skies I’ve ever seen was on a winter night in the middle of a widespread blackout. I was stomping across the yard to get firewood, and I happened to look up and see the stars without light pollution. A lot of things had gone wrong, but if they hadn’t, I would not have had that moment of starlight bright enough to reflect off the snow, and the milky way like a second snowy stripe in the sky.

2017 Speaking Recap

This was the year that I got more organized as a speaker. I took up Airtable as a way to track all of my conference proposals, and so I actually have a record of everything I submitted.

Summary

  • Attended 27 conferences, spoke at 24
  • Spoke at 3 user groups, 2 podcasts, 1 video interview, 1 twitch stream
  • 14 unique talks, in a variety of configurations
  • Learned to use Twine as a presentation tool, how to give demos on an ipad over lunch, how to change from saying “I’m a technical writer” to “I’m a developer advocate”

Portrait of a white woman with pink hair, wearing a black and white dress and grinning at the camera

Longer version

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