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.

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.

Nothing gold can stay

This month marks the end of two organizations that were really important to me, and I want to tell you about them.

Alterconf

Alterconf logo

Alterconf was a conference series that happened all over the world. The organizing spirit was Ashe Dryden. She took all her experience with the tech industry, gaming, and conferences, and used it to build something new and unique. For a tiny conference series (relatively), Alterconf pulled the Overton window a long way toward justice and equal access. Some of the features that were almost entirely unheard of when it started and are now increasingly common:

  • Sliding scale entry fees
  • Real-time transcription
  • Child care
  • Inclusive catering by local small businesses
  • Paying sketchnoters, live-tweeters, and other local correspondents
  • Paying all speakers, equally and publicly

They also made sure that all the talks were recorded. Everything Alterconf chose to do ties back to opening up access, removing barriers to participation. So many of the people I can think of now on the speaking circuits got their start at Alterconf.

My Alterconf talk was about the intersection of female socialized caretaking roles and digital security: https://alterconf.com/speakers/heidi-waterhouse

My kid’s first conference talk was also Alterconf: https://alterconf.com/speakers/sebastian-w
He talked about what it’s like to be a kid on the internet before you’re 13.

The topics were personal, varied, heartfelt, meaningful. The speakers were not the usual suspects. Look at all these beautiful people representing a huge diversity of experience.

https://alterconf.com/speakers/

Alterconf meant a lot to me personally and to the culture of technical talks. I am emboldened by what I learned there.

If Alterconf, with a sliding-scale admission, can afford to pay speakers, I will never accept that bigger, more expensive, better-sponsored conferences can’t. I am especially angry at conferences that don’t even give their speakers a free pass.

So thank you, Ashe, and all the people who made Alterconf happen. I’m sorry it couldn’t last longer, but I understand there’s only so much anyone can pour out.


Technically Speaking

Technically Speaking logo

The Technically Speaking newsletter also ended this month, and for much the same reason – there is only so much self we can pour into a project before it becomes a drain and not a gift. Chiu-Ki Chan and Cate Huston put together a useful, informative, and encouraging newsletter that was applicable to both new/aspiring speakers and experienced folks.

It was opinionated, which was a benefit. There are a lot of conferences out there, and if someone helped me curate for conferences that paid costs or were in my interest range, with write-ups about what to expect, that was so useful! They also curated links to relevant topics, everything from slide design to clothing choices to imposter syndrome. You could always count on some useful bit of data to make you a better speaker, or a better conference organizer. They didn’t shy away from talking about conference-based controversies – like what do you do with an invited speaker who turns out to be A Problem? How do you evaluate whether to pull out of a conference? What are red flags for speakers?

It was also a community, albeit in a weird new-media way. There were other people, other women who were experiencing some of the weird things I was, and I would not have seen them because I’m not in that corner of tech, but the experiences were easy to translate. We cheered each other on, watched for each other at conferences, remembered to act in solidarity when we could, because our sticker-based motto was I have something to say.

I have something to say. And Technically Speaking taught me how to say it.

Technically Speaking Archive: https://tinyletter.com/techspeak/archive


Resolutions

I hate that these things aren’t going to be happening in 2018, or maybe ever again, but no one owes them to me. I’m just going to remember that they were important to me when they happened, and the best way I can honor the work that went into them is teaching other people what I learned, as much as I can, the way I can without damaging myself.

To that end, I’m assembling a little webinar on how to write and submit CfPs. I started doing it as a work thing, to help LaunchDarkly help customers who want to give talks, but when I posted on Twitter that I was going to have a beta to test out my ideas before I used them on my customers, 30+ people told me they wanted my completely untried lesson. So… I’ll beta, and give it to my customers, and then get it recorded. And that will be a little thing I can give to the world that isn’t either Technically Speaking or Alterconf, but still built out of their lessons. I’ll make sure it’s captioned in the final version. I’ll remember that it’s weird and opaque the first few times you submit a conference talk. And I’ll hope I can break the trail a little more, for the people walking behind me, as the people walking in front broke it for me.

Spring photo of a tree budding from a river


Nothing Gold Can Stay

Robert Frost1874 – 1963

Nature’s first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf’s a flower; 
But only so an hour. 
Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day. 
Nothing gold can stay.

Why I Speak at Developer Conferences

I don’t write code for a living, and I never have. Developer has never been part of my job titles, and my Github history won’t impress anyone. I think that’s why people are surprised that I speak at developer conferences — next month I’m going to RubyConf, PyconCA, and Nodevember.

When I started speaking at conferences, I thought I was only “allowed” or “entitled” to speak at technical writing and generalist conferences. As I got more confident in my messages, I realized that there is a lot of value in cross-pollination of ideas. As I talked to more developers, I realized that the talks they found the stickiest were not about how to do something, but rather, what it was possible to do.

Think about talks that you remember after the conference. Are they the bravura live-coding examples of how to execute something tricky or new? Or are they the talks about what you could do, how you could think about things in a different way, what might be possible in the future? The demonstration of current things is important, but so is the discussion of where and who we want to be in the. future.

Most conference committees seek to balance talks and speakers based on experience, representation, intended audience level, technical depth, and appeal to attendees, sponsors, and employers. We need to have deeply technical talks, and we need to have talks about mental health and accessibility and usability. it’s not either-or, it’s also-and.

So I speak at developer conferences to bring balance to the force. I also do it because I want to show up and be technical and expert and pink-haired in the world. I want to share my decades of experience with people who have poured their energy into learning different things. I think I bring value, and evidently conference organizers agree.

Have you thought about what you can add to a conference by being different? If you feel like you can’t compete because you don’t have anything new to say about the topics that are usually covered, consider covering a topic that you haven’t seen at the conference. If there are a lot of code demonstrations, consider doing a feature overview. If you have expertise in something that you can relate to the conference topic, sometimes it helps people grasp what you’re talking about in a different way. I have a talk about how knitting and documentation and how we teach code are all linked together.

If you’re a “non-technical” technical person, don’t let that stop you from proposing to conferences – you still have valuable and meaningful experience to share. If you’d like to brainstorm about it, go ahead and leave me a message.

Lady Conference Speaker Talk Wrap-Up

I was talking to Bridget Kromhout about her wrap-up process, and she inspired me to a) do a better job publishing my talk information right after I give it, b) talk about my end-of-talk process.

So, you have pitched a talk, gotten it accepted, written it, gotten on stage and given it, and answered any questions. You are about to come down off the adrenaline high and start second-guessing what it is you said. It is totally normal not to be able to remember exactly what came out of your mouth. Depending on how nervous a speaker you are, you may not have formed any particular memories, because we are terrible at forming coherent memories when we’re scared.

The slot after your talk, or the evening after, or the flight home, you want to publish your talk wrap-up. I think the ideal wrap-up consists of the following elements:

  • Your slides
  • Twitter reactions
  • Follow-up answers
  • Research sources/bibliography/image sources
  • Video

I do almost all my slides in Google Slides, with Slides Carnival. I do a new set for each talk, since I’ll end up adjusting length and emphasis for each conference. Immediately after I give the talk, I tweet out the public link to them. My slides also have extensive speaker notes.

The next few steps are much easier if you use Storify, an app that plugs into your browser. When I am researching a talk and have a reasonable belief that I’ll be using a page as reference, I click the Storify button to add it to my potential elements. I can also use it to capture tweets that will be relevant. After my talk, I’ll open Storify and look for tweets about the talk, whether with my Twitter handle, the conference hashtag, or the talk hashtag. I drag all the relevant tweets into the story about this talk at this conference, organize them, and then add the link to the slides at the top and the reference elements at the bottom. Then I click publish. I can always go back and edit that Storify to add the video when and if it’s ready.

In WordPress, Medium, LinkedIn, and several other platforms, you can embed Storify stories as part of the post, to raise the visibility and make sure it’s part of your platform as well as Storify’s.

Keep an eye out on your email. Conference organizers are quite likely to ask for your slides so they can sync them to video or publish them on the conference site.


There are a couple places that I want to improve my process — I have seen webpages that have two columns – one for the text of the talk and one for the slide. I feel like that would improve my web presentation and make it more accessible, but I have yet to find the WordPress/CSS magic to make it happen. Everyone I know who does it has hacked their own, and I want a turnkey solution.

I also want to start dedicating some money to getting talks professionally transcribed. What I write out and what I actually deliver are similar, but not identical, and again, I want to improve access for people who can’t or don’t want to watch video.


Here’s an example of one of my talk writeups: http://www.heidiwaterhouse.com/2017/05/26/the-death-of-data-signal-2017-edition/

New job title: Developer Advocate

I've had a lot of job titles in my career:

  • Technical Writing Intern
  • Queen of Documentation (It was 2000, OK?)
  • Technical Writer I, II, III
  • Technical Communicator
  • Senior Technical Writer
  • Technical Writing Consultant
  • Documentation Architect
  • Documentation Mercenary

You might notice a theme there. I've been a technical writer for a lot of different companies, because that's been my career, my expertise, and my passion. I want to take everything that's great about technology and make it easier to use, more transparent, more thoughtful, more humane.

Lately, I've been having trouble describing what I am doing in terms of writing alone. Two job interviews in a row, my interviewer stopped asking me questions about my qualifications so they could take notes on my ideas for their product. My conference talks are sort of nominally about writing, but actually about patterns I'm noticing in the world and in technology. I love writing, and I'm never going to give it up, but it's also…not quite a good fit anymore.

Through the power of All-Women-In-Tech-Are-Connected, I got an interview for a Developer Advocate position. I would never have applied for this position on my own – it's so far beyond what I think of as my skill set. But in the discussions and interviews, I really came to believe it was not just a company I could work for happily, and a product that I think is useful and not toxic, but a position that lets me get out there and do the kind of thinking and helping and problem-solving that I love.

Photo credit: Women of Color in Tech Chat

Developer Advocate is a super broad range of positions, actually, but our interpretation of it is basically me continuing to do all the things I'm doing now: conference speaking, blogging, listening, and noticing. It's just that now I'll be doing all that and getting paid for it, instead of using it as a loss leader for my consulting. I get to go out in the world, find out where developers and users need help, and figure out how to make it happen for them. We're seriously at "pinch me, I must be dreaming" levels of exciting here. I even get to keep writing a little, although I may have reached my personal career goal: not writing the release notes.

Yes, I'm being deliberately coy about my new employer. That deserves its own post. I'll just say that I think we're going to get along well, they say I get to continue to be a pink-haired weirdo, and I will feel proud of the product.

I honestly feel like changing my job title is like the day you get new shoes and you realize you'd outgrown the old ones without noticing.

Oh! This is so comfy.

Lady Speaker CFP Submissions

The way one becomes a Lady Speaker is by speaking. That’s pretty obvious. But how to do you get someone to give you a stage and a microphone and an audience? That’s what this post will partially cover. Specifically, how do you submit a talk proposal?

Find decent conferences

There are lots of places you can find conferences. My three main sources are the @callbackwomen twitter account, the Technically Speaking newsletter, and Papercall.io. I also hear about conferences just generally on twitter.

Conference proposals are some amount of time before the conference, it depends on a bunch of variables. For example, the CfP (Call for Proposals) for LISA 17 just went out (mid-January), and the conference is the start of November. 3-6 months is a more typical window.

In addition to finding out what conferences are soliciting speakers, you need to find out if it’s a conference you want to speak at. My criteria are:

  • Has a good Code of Conduct
  • Has not mishandled a Code of Conduct violation in the last 3 years, that I know of
  • Understands I am providing value and deserve value in return
  • Is not promoting scary values

Let’s unpack those.

Good Code of Conduct

There have been a lot of things written on Codes of Conduct, and I don’t want to rehash years of debate. I heavily favor codes of conduct that are derived from the Geek Feminism model, but almost anything will work as long as it bans specific bad behavior, does not require (but allows) legal intervention, does not make victims do confrontation, and has actionable and specific enforcement clauses. Basically, my ideal code of conduct allows someone to make a private complaint to the conference and the conference will listen to the victim about how they want it handled, but also have a plan for dealing with a known set of bad behaviors.

Did you heckle a speaker? The conference will give you a warning once, then kick you out. That sort of thing. Having a set of unacceptable actions means that you don’t get people saying “I just said she would be even hotter wearing only a lanyard! It was a compliment! How is that not “being excellent to each other?”. Almost everyone has had corporate harassment training at some point, so people do actually know what they are and aren’t allowed to do in professional settings.

Mishandling CoC violations

Before you apply to a conference, google them. See if there is any recent uproar about them having a known-predatory speaker and not doing anything, or if they made a panel on women in technology out of all men, or if people of color are warning each other away from the conference. Sometimes you will find out that a conference screwed up and then fixed it, like Nodevember did this year by disinviting a speaker. But if they screwed up and didn’t fix it or didn’t apologize, it’s probably not a safe conference, no matter what the CoC says.

Value exchange

The first year I did conference speaking, I did it on my own dime. The second year, I got paid a couple times, but nothing like what I needed to cover expenses. The third year (this year), I only applied to conferences that said they covered speaker expenses. I had sufficient videos and experience that I was not an unknown quantity, and also, I could not afford to speak the way I wanted on my own money.

I wrote about this more in Don’t ask me to work for free, a reprise. But basically, a conference’s value derives from speakers. A speaker invests extremely heavily in researching, writing, and rehearsing a talk, and then in lost work time to give it and attend the conference. Conferences shouldn’t charge a speaker to attend. If it’s at all feasible, conferences should at least cover travel and lodging. I apply to a few conferences that charge speakers, but they also heavily subsidize anyone who doesn’t have an employer. The only thing more insulting than a conference charging me for giving away my intellectual property is a conference offering me a DISCOUNT on the registration fees. That tells me they know I’m providing value, but it’s not worth THAT MUCH.

Value match

I don’t attend conferences that I think are problematic because of their values. I don’t go to Grace Hopper because they make a lot of money off women but don’t really do a lot to nurture women’s work, especially women of color. I don’t attend conferences that are about exploiting labor. I wouldn’t, for instance, attend a conference focused on defeating ad-blockers. Your values are your own, but I’ll tell you from experience that if you show up at a conference where you are already angry at the premise, the experience you have will be stressful.

Promise them something useful

I’ve been on talk selection committees, so I have a fair idea of how it goes. The first thing that happens is there is an elimination of the obviously not-useful talks. These are usually vendor-tools talks, talks that are not the right technology, or talks that are described by a single sentence and a speaker bio that says, “You know I’m awesome!”.

What I want to see is a novel idea (it doesn’t have to be brand new), that will serve my conference attendees, and let them walk away thinking something new or interesting or making a connection they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Your CfP needs to have a value-proposition. A lot of the submission forms now explicitly ask for that, which makes it easier.

I also want to know that you understand who the target audience of my conference is. If you’re submitting to a security conference, a Password-Keeper 101 talk is not going to be relevant. If you’re submitting something that seems odd in the context of the audience, you’ll need to justify it. For example, I’m a technical writer who speaks at a lot of developer/coder/devops conferences. What do I know about that? I have to explain that to even make it past the first level.

Once all the easy choices are made, the selection committee will get down to the rest of the talks — they would like to accept almost all of these, but time and space are remarkably fixed, so instead they talk about whether you have experience, whether this group of proposals covers the same idea, and if so which is the best one. They weigh the advantanges of fresh voices agains known winners, and the disadvantages of anxious speakers against same-old-same-old. And yeah, they talk about money, and whether they should select someone local or someone who has to be paid to come in. People advocate for speakers they know, or recuse themselves from deciding on speakers they know. Hopefully, someone looks at the overall balance of the speakers and tries to make sure it isn’t like this.

This list of speakers is a little worrisome

I’m not trying to shame this one conference, but hopefully conference runners are trying to find a speaker lineup that looks more like this:

© Katura Jensen 2016

Assembled @theleaddev speakers.
Photo: © Katura Jensen 2016

If you want to be a speaker at a conference, it’s going to take hard work from you to pitch, write, and deliver a talk. And it’s going to take good luck, because there are a lot more talks than slots. And it’s going to help quite a lot if the talk selection committee isn’t using some pre-established vision of what a conference speaker looks like.

Make hard choices

If you get accepted to a conference, that is SO GREAT.

When I get an acceptance email, before I write back and confirm, I double-check (or ask the first time) about what the plan is for speaker expenses and fees. Like I said, I don’t have an enterprise behind me, so I try not to donate my time for free very often.

If they can’t pay you, and you can’t afford it, you have to decline.

If you have already accepted something else in that slot, you have to decline.

If it’s across your kid’s birthday party, you better negotiate to bring home a really amazing souvenier.

Sometimes, even when everything seems like it will be great, you get hurt and have to write the conference organizer at the last minute and say you can’t come (Sorry, @seagl!)

The key is to tell the conference what is going on as soon as humanly possible. Because the thing they’re going to do is pull up the next speaker who was regretfully turned down and ask them if they can fill in. The longer you delay because you feel bad about saying no, the less time you’re giving the next person to be able to say yes.

There’s also some stuff in here about making sure you have some time to work and see your family and eat food that you make yourself, but that’s Lady Conference Speaker 301, and I’m still at 201 myself.

Deliver

I could write pages and pages on how to write and deliver a talk, but the important things are these:

  • Show up prepared and practiced
  • Respect the work of the audience and organizers
  • Stick to your time limit
  • Work the hallway track

Prepared and practiced

This is not a term paper. You can’t write it the night before. You need to have said this thing out loud in front of an audience at least twice. Once so you can figure out what you’re trying to actually say, and once for timing. I usually practice my talks 5 times for a new talk, and 1-2 times if it’s a talk I’ve given before and revised. You are commanding the attention of, say, 50 people. For a technical audience, let’s say that they are worth $50/hr. You need to respect that for this moment, this half hour, you are worth AT LEAST $1250 in attention. How much work would you have to do to feel prepared to earn $2500/hr? Do that much prep work.

Respect the work of audience and organizers

It’s hard to sit in a conference chair all day and learn things. It’s physically and mentally exhausting. Even on days I’m not speaking, when I’m through with conference sessions, my brain is full, my legs ache, and I just want to take a nap. The audience is paying attention to you, even if they are also thinking about how what you’re saying relates to their job, and worrying about their accumulating email. The audience deserves your respect.

The organizers, whew. If you’ve never organized an event with hundreds of people, I’m telling you, it’s eye-opening. There’s all this trivia to deal with, everything from making sure the t-shirts arrive, to making sure people don’t get in without badges, to taking care of speakers who are having technical problems. Someone has to make sure the catering sets up right, while simultaneously reminding everyone of the code of conduct and answering the hotel’s question about when the tables can be set up. Odds are, the organizers won’t get to hear your talk, because they won’t get to hear anyone’s talk. They’re too busy making it happen for us. Do what you can to make their lives easier by communicating with them clearly and succinctly.

Stick to your time limit

It is a jerk move to exceed your time limit. The audience needs those 5-15 minutes to get to the next talk, possibly with a bio-break on the way. The next speaker wants to get in and set up and make sure the mic is ok. The organizers are praying the schedule doesn’t go awry in one of their rooms.

I know myself well enough to know that my talks inflate when I get in front of an audience. There’s just something that happens when I have people reacting that makes me go longer. So I always time my talks to run 5 minutes short of the limit, and I assign someone to wave frantically at me at 10 and 5 minutes before the limit. Some people talk faster in front of an audience, but an audience will always forgive you for going 5 minutes short, but not 5 minutes long.

Work the hallway track

After you give a talk, a funny thing will happen. For the rest of the conference, people will recognize you. They’ll stop you in the hall and say they liked your talk. Don’t argue with them, although that is the natural instinct of many of us who were raised to be “modest” and “not brag”. Just say, “thank you” if you’re on your way to something else.

If you have time, you will make this person’s day by stopping to talk with them about your content.

  • How will it apply to your work?
  • Was there anything especially meaningful?
  • Do you wish I had included something further? I did lots of research that didn’t make it into the talk.
  • What would you want added if you could hear this again?

These questions are a combination of engaging them in talking about their reaction, and figuring out how you can do it even better the next time.

Also, when people give me compliments on my talk, I tally them up at the end of the day and email the tally to myself, because sometimes I need to open that kind of email. “22 people stopped me to compliment my talk today” has a way of kicking Imposter Syndrome in the ass.

NOTE: At no point are you required to talk to someone who is being insulting, argumentative, or creepy. Giving a talk is not the same as giving up your right to ignore people.

In conclusion

I believe in you. You are going to go out there and make us proud! And you’re going to do it by talking about things that you want to understand, or want other people to understand. I hope you can find a good mentor in your community, but if you can’t, reach out and find one online. Some conferences even offer explicit new-speaker mentoring, which is great!