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.

My first year, a personal review

I woke up to a cheery email today telling me that a quarter of my stock options had vested. That means I’ve been with LaunchDarkly a whole year! (there are worse anniversary notes to get).

And what a year it’s been. I thought about doing a photo essay of all the conferences I went to in the last year, but there have literally been 36 this year, and I had speaking slots at all but 5, and of those 5, I ran open spaces at 3. Too many pictures!

I went to 3 other countries – Australia, Santo Domingo, and Canada. I made platinum status on my airline, missed my kid’s 13th birthday and every single concert, and wore out a TravelPro suitcase. I made a bunch of new friends and acquaintances, and got to know others better, and worked my ass off to learn a new career.

When I started, I had exactly one day in the office to get my new laptop, meet my new co-workers, and have an enthusiastic and influential conversation about stickers. Then it was off to Kansas City Developer Conference, my first official conference as an official Developer Advocate.

Let’s just say I was glad for my thorough interview prep!

You can see that my sticker conversation ended well. This is Velocity New York, I think.

I made it back to Oakland for LISA and the office Halloween party

I celebrated company milestones, even if I wasn’t always in the office for the official parties. I ate this bread pudding in New Orleans at RubyConf. It was delicious.

I sewed a bag for the sticker collection I tote with me to conferences. The inside fabric was an in-office thank-you gift, and the fastener is one I got in the Garment District of New York

Toggle the Space Explorer in a bag of stickers

I met this sleepy lion when I was in Sydney to visit Atlassian. It was my first customer on-site and it was kind of mind-boggling. They had so many great ideas for new features and ways to work with our product.

Lion outside the Atlassian Sydney office

There was a caricaturist at Index San Francisco. I’m pleased that I happened to be wearing this jacket that I made.

Caricature drawing of a white woman with brown, pink-tipped hair and blue eyes

This was a sketchy diagram I took a picture of and sent to our awesome product/graphic person, Melissa. She’s the one who does all our striking stickers and visual look and feel. This ended up as a slide in my Waffle House talk.

Messy handwriting diagram of success/failure continuum.

Here is my glamorous life. I took a nap in the office before a redeye flight home. This is the old office, which we have now outgrown, but the view was amazing. I am wearing technology socks, but I can’t remember right now whose.

A person's socked feet, a view of the clocktower in Oakland

The key to never feeling bad about putting stickers on your work laptop is to first cover said laptop with a clear case. It gives you a little bit of ablative impact resistance, and when you change computers, you can keep the case for your wall!

I’m proud of the work I did, and in the next post, I’ll talk a little bit about what I think is happening.

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.

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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Packing, optimizing, and satisficing

I’m off on a two-week trip that happens to be broken by an 18 hour stop at home. (Nodevember, North Bay Python, SpringOne Platform, LaunchDarkly writing sprint). Every couple months, I try to clean out my bags entirely, get rid of the trash that accumulates, make sure that I have room for all the new fidget spinners, that sort of thing. This time I thought I’d share what it is I take along.

In summary, if you are at a conference with me and need Imitrex, Immodium, condoms, period supplies, emergency protein, or stickers, I’m your gal.

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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.

Think Globally, Sponsor Locally

Possibly the most exciting thing about my new job as Developer Advocate (there are so many!) is that I don’t have to scramble and ask conferences to fund me anymore. That means that speaker funds can go to the next generation of up-and-coming speakers, independents, and folks who don’t get paid to go to conferences.

It also means that the conferences I go to is not a set restricted by people who can afford speaker sponsorship. I have had to turn down acceptances I was excited about because the conference just couldn’t afford to make it happen, and we were all sad. They wanted to have a range of speakers, I wanted to talk to their audience, but the cash just wasn’t there.

What does it mean to sponsor a conference, as a company? Well, you get your name on slides and promotional materials. Sometimes you get a couple minutes to tell people at the conference what it is you do. You get intangible benefits in good will from conference organizers and attendees. That’s all pretty hard to quantify. But just because something is hard to quantify doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. The conferences you choose to sponsor say a lot about your values as a company. Sponsoring small, inclusive conferences is a relatively meaningful statement. You’re saying you care about the community, and about having a code of conduct, and about nurturing emerging or niche technologies.

Think about sponsoring at a huge conference, like AWS re:Invent. 30,000 people showed up in 2016. Logistically, and in every other way, that’s massive, and sponsorship is expensive, and the impact your company will have is dilute. You’re trying to get the attention of the people in your demographic, in the middle of a vast sponsor hall, in Vegas. You may get enough people to make it worthwhile, but it’ll be hella expensive.

Now think about sponsoring a DevOpsDays conference. Minneapolis is huge, at ~1300. There is a vendor room you can walk in half an hour and the people at the tables have time to talk to you, and are maybe giving a relevant talk. It’s a regional event, so if you’re an employer looking to hire, it’s great to find people, because you know they are already invested in the tech, and are in the area. It’s a way to connect with your community, and I don’t have the numbers to prove it, but I’m going to bet it costs companies a lot less than schlepping enough people to represent at the table to Las Vegas. Target was there, and Merrill, and Optuum. They’re signalling that if you work for them, they care about devops and you might get to go to local conferences, and they’re engaged. That matters a lot! Target is still doing rehabilitation on their local reputation after a set of bad decisions around IT, so it doesn’t hurt to have them showing up and working to be better citizens.

As a company, you should also think about sponsoring really small conferences – the 200-400 range, or even local user groups and meetups around your technology stack. Don’t do it because there’s an immediate payoff, or because you can chart a rate of return, but because it’s the right thing to do to nurture the community you draw from. The goodwill, expertise, community engagement, and candidate leads you get will be so much more valuable, dollar-for-dollar. It’s not always the decision-makers who go to these conferences, but they will be decision-makers eventually, because they are displaying exactly the go-getter values that you want by going to conferences. Think of this as contributing back open source code that you refined in house, only instead of features, it’s cash. Sponsoring these small conferences gives people who can’t travel a chance to meet and aspire and network and connect, and that’s immensely valuable to the circle of practitioners in an area and to the development of the technology as a whole. Working for a big company should not be the only way a brilliant Python developer can make connections with her peers.

I was inspired to write this because North Bay Python is looking for sponsors, and because Alterconf has been an astonishingly effective incubator for speakers, and is ending soon (but you can still say you helped!). I wrote it because I’m going to SeaGL, and they aren’t charging attendees at all. So many of my meaningful conference experiences have happened at conferences that are accessible to everyone, not just people with corporate budgets. Also, if you think about it, conference organizers are like the definition of social superconnectors, and they have Quite Strong positive associations with people who give them money to make the magic happen.

So what can you, a technical writer/developer/ordinary person do about this?

  • Talk to your marketing team about what matters to you. They are very smart, but not psychic, and they would love to hear about ways their sponsorship dollar could go further.
  • Volunteer for local conferences if you can. It takes a village to fold t-shirts.
  • Ask if you can spend recruiting money to sponsor conferences that specialize in the skills you’re looking to hire for. Looking for a functional programmer? Sponsor moonconf.

If you’re running a small-to-medium conference, reply here and I’ll try to put together a link roundup of conferences people could consider sponsoring. Don’t @ me if you don’t have a Code of Conduct, though. It’s 2017, people.

Also? Vote for your local school bonds and levies, while I’m advocating for spending money on systems thinking.

Also also? AWS Re:Invent? You’re charging $1600/ticket and you can’t provide childcare? Really? I mean, it’s not as bad as Grace Hopper. Don’t even get me started on Grace Hopper, but still.

Why on earth would developers WANT to write documentation?

This week I was at DevOpsDays Minneapolis, which was an amazing, warm, and inclusive event. There were at least three open spaces on documentation, communication, and related problems, and I didn’t propose any of them!

Minneapolis DevOpsDays 2017 logo

The question the devops world keeps asking, over and over again is,

How do I get developers to write anything?

There aren’t a lot of easy answers for this.

The first one is that if you care about developer-produced documentation, you should hire for it. But almost always, the people hiring are not the same as the people feeling the pain of missing documentation, so that may not happen.

The second is that you should hire someone other than the developers to write, if that’s important to you. I’m going to mention that all the times I’ve interviewed at Google, it was to be as an internal systems writer, documenting how things in the company work for other people in the company. Big, smart, companies hire writers for internal documents. But that is a tough budgetary sell.

The third, partial, answer, is that you make it significantly easier for developers to write. You give them forms and templates to fill in instead of expecting them to invent documentation theory. You specifically allocate writing time that can’t be budged for “one more tweak to the feature”.

Here’s the key problem though:

No developer has ever been fired for lack of documentation.

No developer I know of has gotten a bonus for documentation.

There is no stick. There is no carrot. There are a lot of competing demands on a developer’s time. Why on earth would they go do something that is not in their core competency just because you want it?

My instinctive response, whenever my kids want something, is to say, “It’s good to want things.” I think that is the instinctive response of most developers who are asked to do extra work. It’s not malicious, it’s just true. There is no reason they should do it – they won’t lose their jobs, the way they might if they prioritized writing over code. They won’t derive any benefit except the long-term and intangible one of being asked fewer questions. If they like being the source of knowledge, they’d be giving that away. If they like coding, you’re asking them to do something other than what they want. There is no upside.

So knowing that, how can we encourage developers to write documentation that we need?

First, reward it. Give people prizes for writing docs, or for throwing away or revising old docs. This needs to be something outside their usual compensation structure. Gift cards, time off, merit badges, whatever would be meaningful to that person. Ask them. They know what rewards them, because they use it to reward themselves.

A variety of rewards

Second, require it. I don’t mean “You have to write some docs or I will, uh, be disappointed in you.” I mean “The presence of documentation is a quality gate and you cannot release without it.” I mean “QA is using your docs as the test story.”.

Companies are never altruistic, humans are never purely motivated. We need to accept this and stop expecting people to do extra work because it’s the right thing to do, and start making the work not-extra, and the reward tangible.

Lady Speaker Small Talk

Sometimes, I think the hardest part of going to conferences is the unstructured time – lunches and happy hours and sponsored parties. That’s the time I remember I’m surrounded by 2,445 total strangers. And I’m supposed to be networking with them. If I think too much about this, I end up at “what do I even do with my face?”

The goal is not really “networking” in whatever negative way you’re thinking of. The goal is finding interesting people and showing them that they have neat things going on.

It turns out that conferences are full of people who are alone or nearly alone. If you came as part of a team, or you are working the conference, the social stuff is different, but if you are alone, here are some things I do.

Look odd

I have fuschia hair that I wear in a variety of short, eye-catching ways. Since I’m almost six feet tall, I’m really easy to find in a crowd. You don’t have to make quite so striking a personal style statement, but it’s useful to have people able to find you because you’re wearing a tophat, or orange sneakers, or all safety orange, or whatever it is you decide on. Your conference friends, the people you have met at other conferences, will recognize it. Strangers will see you on stage and note the thing about you so they can find you to ask questions later. And if you make it something less permanent than hair color, you can not wear it and totally blend into the crowd.

Make a friend in the registration line

Odds are, you’ll be standing here a few minutes. This is a great time to turn to the person next to you and ask them their name, and what they’re here to see, and what they’re looking forward to going to. Not, like, all at once. Then you sound like a teacher asking about a book report, but as conversational starters. Is this your first year here? If you’ve been before, is there some local food I can’t miss? For the rest of the conference, you’ll probably be able to spot that one person you met early on and give them a friendly nod. And if you’re very lucky, the name on their badge will be readable.

Sidenote: The minute I get any standard-length lanyard, I tie a knot in the back of it so that it hangs higher on my body. Now people looking for my name don’t have to track their eyes past my cleavage. This is a habit I picked up several years ago, and I think that having your name as close as is comfortable and feasible to your face is a win.

Go to other people’s talks

It’s super tempting to hide in your hotel room frantically preparing for your talk. I’ve been there. But I also know that a large part of the value exchange in this conference is that it consts money to attend and I’m not paying anything. So I try to go to a talk in as many slots as possible. I might take the slot before my talk off, and sometimes, depending on how drained I am, the slot after. But mostly I really want to go to people’s talks. It may seem odd, since I don’t have power over any servers, I code in no languages, and I only nominally work in teams, but I still get a lot of value out of conference talks. The technical ones help me keep a finger on the technology zeitgeist. The people-oriented ones always teach me something, because being a consultant is both managing up and sideways.

I always livetweet the talks I go to, but that’s for a different post. Mostly what I want out of going to other people’s talks is an understanding of a technology or application of technology, and to have attended the same conference as other people. At a multi-track conference, it’s easy to go to different conferences in the same venue, depending on your interests, but if you go to talks, you’ll always be able to ask what other people went to, what they thought, and then respond with what you learned or wanted to argue about from the talk you watched. “What talk did you get the most out of today” is a lovely, neutral question and sparks a lot of conversation.

Remember the theory of paradoxical popularity, or charismatic loneliness

I’m sure there is an actual psychological term for this, but lazy googling did not find it. Did you know that the prettiest girl in a high school gets asked on fewer dates than an average-looking girl? Did you know a lot of people that you think of as important, or influential, or famous, eat conference dinners alone? 

That may be by choice — there’s a lot of people energy involved in giving a talk and then doing the networking afterwards, so if a person wants to eat alone, let them. But I’ve noticed that people I think of as amazing sparkling wonderful stars in this context are eating alone. I think we are all valuing their time as too precious for us, and not even asking, a kind of low-level excessive politeness. I’m not saying you should ask more than once, but it’s probably ok to say, “Hey, I really admire what you’re doing, I’d like to talk about it more, do you have someone sitting with you at lunch?”

Talk to the sponsors

These people are sitting at the vendor booths, handing out swag and trying to get a badge scan off you beacuse someone is juding them on this back home. If you do want something on their table, walk up, make eye contact, and ask for it, don’t just grab. If they’re busy talking to someone, spend a minute or two listening to the pitch. You may not be a person in the market to buy things now, but it never hurts to treat the people who make conferences happen well.

The same goes for organizers. They seldom get to see the conference, because they’re making it happen. The have worked months on this, and whether they’re paid or unpaid, they are on constant alert for Something Going Wrong. It’s really stressful! So if your organizer stops and asks you how it’s going, or if you have what you need, remember to say thank you before you start in with a complaint.

Pacman

I got this one from Eric Holscher at Write the Docs. We tend to naturally form a circle when we’re standing around talking about a topic.  It takes a special kind of courage to approach a ring of backs. Instead, as you’re standing in the ring, open up space between you and a neighbor to leave room for a new person to slip in and add to the conversation. You’ll be surprised by how much difference this little bit of body language makes in making your informal conversations more interesting and varied.

Volunteer

The best way to love a conference is to be part of it. Not every conference offers this opportunity, but if you can volunteer, you should consider it. Having a set role makes it easy to interact with people. “Here’s your badge and your t-shirt. Have a great conference!”. You’ll also get to know other volunteers and organizers, as there’s almost always a backstage that attendees don’t see. This is where I have had some pretty amazing conversations over the years.

Stickers

I have a gallon bag of stickers that I carry from conference to conference. People take some, I collect some from tables and people and vendors. The stickers come with stories and then I can re-tell the stories at the next conference. Much like doing a jigsaw puzzle, sorting through a pile of stickers encourages people to stand around and have an idle conversation without feeling tense or anxious. I’m sure if everyone did it, it wouldn’t be novel, but even if you have one type of sticker, from your employer or personal brand, it’s still something to talk about and enjoy together.

On the topic of business cards

Spend money on business cards. I know it seems like an antiquity in the age of tap-contact-swaps, but there’s something about the tactile delight of a good business card that makes people comment on them and remember you. Mine are especially bright, with a plasticky finish. The back of the cards more-or-less matches the color of my hair, which serves as a good mnemonic. I get mine from Moo, which means I can have the fronts different designs — I’ve used this to put 5 or 6 witty tech writer slogans on the front, and I happen to know that people will pin them to cube walls because they’re funny, bright decoration. There is no higher state of winning than having your business hard pinned to a cube wall. In contrast, printing yourself or using a cheap printing service means you’re handing out something that feels disposable, so people do dispose of it.

If you have to hand out your company cards, that’s what you’ve got, but consider if there’s some other personal branding that would feel natural and satisfying to you. At my last conference, I gave away tiny (1/4 inch) hedgehog stickers for people to put on their badges as an indicator that they’d met me. Spontaneous fan club! Or something.

Done talking now

One of the hardest things I had to learn was how to end a conversation gracefully. I almost always start by thanking someone for their time/insight/advice. Then I say something like:

  • I’m off to the next talk! Catch you later.
  • I need to make a call.
  • I’m meeting someone in a few.
  • I’ve gotta go do a thing.

I know – a thing? But it works. 

    In summary

    If you think of conference conversations as purely utilitarian, they will be difficult and dry. Instead, think of them as a way to learn a new and interesting thing from everyone. Good luck out there!

    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!