On the Origin of the Speciated Conference

I go to so many conferences! It’s an awesome and amazing part of my job. I speak at them, but I also attend them. I sit in the front row and live-tweet. I attend talks. I participate in unconference sessions. I talk to people in lines, and at lunch, and at the afterparty. I give out stickers and I say hi to the vendors. Conferences are something I’m an expert at. And when I’m not doing technology stuff, I am support crew for science-fiction conference runners.

Given that, I’m surprised that I haven’t seen a taxonomy of technical conferences, something that would help you understand which flavor of conference you’re about to go to. As near as I can tell, about 10 years ago, there was a great flowering of conference types.

Originally, we had The Technology Conference. People paid a lot of money, they sat in large conference rooms (over 100 people, say), and they listened to industry experts. Some/many of the industry experts were also vendors giving pitches.

Then, a decade ago, many people decided that this method was not meeting their needs, and they wanted more interaction, more peer contact, more connections. We ended up with some new species of conference:

  • The regional variant of a language conference. No longer just PyCon, but PyConAU, and EU, and the same for JSConf and Ruby. It was cheaper to get people to someplace close to them, the conferences were smaller, the odds of meetings speakers and experts was higher.
  • Single-track conferences with registration caps. Write the Docs, The Lead Developer, and (I think) Monitorama use this method. Everyone attends the same talks, but the registration cap means that it’s still possible to identify and talk to a speaker. A well-run single-track conference allows a lot of time between talks so people can mingle and talk.
  • DevOpsDays. The DoD format is flexible, but tends toward the single-track morning, unconference afternoon. They also work really hard to fit into budgets that allow people to attend on their own, with lowish registration fees and locations all over.
  • No Fluff, Just Stuff. The first unsponsored conference I’ve spoken at. No vendors, and a high rate of repetition for speakers and a lot of tracks, so odds are good that you will be in a small group.
  • Birds of a Feather. Not unique to any one conference organizing system, but a way for people interested in a similar problem to find each other and do collaborative learning. Mostly these happen during non-programming time.

All of these conference styles prize collaborative learning over authoritarian instruction. If you’re a speaker coming from a more authoritarian background, I have to imagine the change is a bit of a shock. I know I have felt weird when presented with a large audience that I can’t see. I don’t want you to think that one way or the other is better – depends on what you need. 50k people wouldn’t go to AWS Reinvent if there wasn’t a value to be found in it. And Reinvent has small, unrecorded sessions as well as the massive keynote sessions.

Hotel ballroom filled with a few hundred people, all facing toward a podium and the camera.

DevOpsDays Toronto

So who are the stakeholders for running a conference?

  • Attendees
  • Sponsors
  • Speakers
  • Organizers

When you maximize the happiness or utility for one group, the utility for other groups goes down, or may go down. There are some overlaps. Attendees want content that answers their questions. Speakers want to provide content that is new and promotes their personal brand. Organizers want to select speakers who bring good value and are reliable. Sponsors want their speakers selected because talking about a product drives sales. Attendees, on the whole, don’t want sales-pitch talks. You see the problem!

As a speaker, I prefer single-track conferences. That way, I never miss other people’s talks! The talks are also usually very highly curated, since a day-long conference might only have 7 speakers, so it’s pretty darn flattering to get picked. As an attendee, I like conferences that are sized so each speaker ends up talking to about 50 people. It’s small enough that I feel engaged, and big enough that the speaker doesn’t feel like they have to stop to take questions. As a sponsor, I want multiple tracks with large spaces where people have to walk past my booth to get caffeine. As an organizer, well, I’m still working on that.

I’m thinking about this because LaunchDarkly is assembling our first conference this year (2019), in the spirit of Gremlin’s Chaos Conference and Honeycomb’s o11ycon. What do we want to give people, how many people do we think we’ll have, and how do we make the experience useful?

In the spirit of testing in production, we’re going to try a combination of things – keynotes will be one-track, so everyone has a common thing to talk about, and then we’ll split into other configurations in the afternoon.

We’re looking for people who want to join us on April 9 at Trajectory to talk about feature flagging, trunk-based development, devops tools, testing in production, blue-green deployments, and other ways to speed up your development and delivery…safely.

https://www.papercall.io/trajectory

If you want help with your pitch, or want to noodle around an idea, let me know. I’ll be back at work on the 7th and ready to think it through with you! (Yes, we’ll do bigger announcements later!)

Speaker’s Hierarchy of Needs

I’ve been thinking about what I need to be a happy speaker, and what I expect, and what I hope for, and it seems to me like it’s a a hierarchy of needs, like Maslow.

This is absolutely not intended to “call out” any organizer or make anyone feel bad. The vast majority of my experiences as a conference speaker are positive.

Needs

Here are the things that I really need from organizers to make this collaboration work.

Before

  • Code of Conduct. I need you to tell me what it is, and what your enforcement method is. If I tell you I’m worried about something particular, I need you to take me seriously, because as a speaker, I have a different kind of risk profile than an attendee.
  • Conference date on every possible page, email, and communication you send me. No, more. Your conference is a pivot point of your year, for you. For me, it is a thing I am excited to be at, but I need to be sure I got my schedule right.
  • Which airport I should be planning on coming in to. This is especially vital if you are in an area that has more than one. DFW or Dallas-Love? BWI or Reagan? Midway or O Hare? LHR or ANY OTHER OPTION?
  • If there are before-or-after the conference date activities, let me now about them as soon as I accept, before I book my tickets. I hate it when I miss out on the beach day/speaker dinner/rainforest walk/tour because you told me about it after I made my plans.
  • What format do you want my slides in, what is your video input, and what kind of audio are we going to be working with?
  • How long is the actual talk slot, especially if there are breaks that could throw off the calculation?

During

    Everyone will be happier if I get a chance to test my A/V some time other than at the start of my talk.
    If there are more than 10 people in the room, I want amplification.
    If there are any changes to schedules, I’d appreciate it if you made sure I got that message.

After

  • Honestly, there’s not a lot of follow-up that counts as essential. Unless something goes wrong in a Code of Conduct sense.

Wants

Some stuff that makes me more effective or happy:

Before

  • I love those emails that tell me about things that you know about your area or venue. Yes, please tell me about the usual weather, which door of the conference center, and how close I am to local areas of interest. Write the Docs was the first place I saw this, and it’s just great.
  • I’m also excited about reminders that list my schedule, especially extras like interviews or speaker table time. I star those. Extra special bonus points to conferences that send me calendar invites! Sometimes timezones are hard, ok?
  • Give me a speaker liaison and a meeting time. I don’t need this, but it’s lovely to get a tour of the venue, the speaker’s lounge, the backstage, and to have someone I can go to if I need help with something.
  • If you know anything about the audience at your conference, sharing it with me will let me tune my talk more accurately. It doesn’t have to be full demographics, but “78% of last year’s attendees listed Java as their primary language” means that I won’t talk about Python garbage collection jokes.

During

  • A speaker’s lounge is not required, but it is lovely to have. I use it to drop my bag, hang out with other speakers, practice, swap A/V adapters, and grab food because I didn’t get lunch because I was answering questions for attendees. DevOpsDays PDX had a livestream of the mainstage talk in a corner of the speaker lounge, and I loved it.
  • Real-time transcription. It’s useful for me because I know that more people can catch all the things I’m saying, it’s useful for attendees who have language, comprehension, or attention difficulties, and it’s sometimes possible to use it as the transcription on the video. Everyone wins. I’m a huge fan of White Coat Captioning, because they appear to have a cadre of transcriptionists who have pre-loaded technology vocab packs and so are very accurate.
  • Please put water on the podium. I’m sure there are people in the world who remember to keep their personal bottle filled at all times and to take it on stage, but I’m not one of them.
  • I like a room captain or MC to do introductions. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker not to have one, but it’s less awkward, especially for new speakers. An experienced speaker will have tricks to gather attention and get people to settle down and listen, but that’s actually a different skill than delivering a prepared talk.
  • Backup laptop. My slides fail very seldom, but when they do, it’s nice to be able to just borrow a laptop.
  • Adapters and slide clickers. I have my own, but not everyone does, and even if you do, sometimes they get lost or broken, so the conference should have a few to loan out.
  • A/V tech. This is a big request, but at conferences that can afford it, it’s kinda lovely to have someone to make sure the mic, slides, and confidence monitor are all working right.
  • Confidence monitor – that’s something that I can see when looking straight ahead that shows me what is being projected behind me. Many speakers have the presentation on behind them, and what’s on the laptop in front of them is their notes. For talks, especially lightning talks that are given from a different computer, a confidence monitor means I’m not twisting around to check which slide I’m on now.
  • The purpose of a conference after-party, I think, is to let people talk to each other. TURN THE MUSIC DOWN AND THE LIGHTS UP. Most of us are not here to show off our sick dance moves, but to connect with other professionals. Every 10 decibels means that I am thinking about bailing an hour early because I have to be able to keep talking, and yelling all night makes that hard.

After

  • I appreciate it when a conference emails me that my video is up, and here’s the link.
  • I also like and try to fill out the surveys after a conference. I think it’s useful to send speakers both the general attendee survey and a specialized speaker survey.
  • Go ahead and tell me about the CfP dates for next year. If it’s a low-volume list, I’ll stay on it. I will not stay on your slack. I probably didn’t join your slack. I only have so much RAM.
  • If you have collected feedback about my performance, go ahead and share it with me — after you’ve filtered it. I couldn’t do anything about the air conditioning in the room, and you don’t want the abiding taste of your convention to be abusive comments about my speaking. Constructive negative comments are fine, but don’t just pass through the comments page without looking at it.

Desires

Dreams, wishes, and improbably expensive ideas:

Before

  • Get me from the airport. DevOpsDays Chicago and The Lead Developer do this, and it’s such an amazing luxury to not have to think about that part of my trip, and try to figure out which Hilton I’m supposed to be going to, etc.
  • Book me a room with the speaker block, even if my company is paying for it. Being with the other speakers is a huge value for me at your conference, and as a bonus, you know where we are, and it’s not across town in the middle of a transit strike.
  • Send the speaker gift by mail ahead of time so I don’t have to pack it. ChefConf did this, and it was great, because I am frequently traveling in a way that makes the 4 cubic inches taken by a mug significant.

During

  • Make sure I have food tailored to my dietary needs available in the speaker lounge. Especially if we spoke before lunch or dinner, it’s likely we spent a lot of the meal interacting with attendees and not getting in line, and this is especially crucial if a speaker needs a specialized meal.
  • I don’t know what to call this — concierge service? When I showed up to The Lead Developer Austin with no voice, the organizers got me a whole assembly of throat drops, soothing tea, painkillers, etc, and had it taken to my room. That meant that I didn’t have to figure out how to get to a pharmacy or think about what I needed. Honestly, it was so sweet I cried. Hopefully, a speaker won’t need this, but if you have given them a liaison they can trust, and empowered that person to spend a bit of money, it can make a huge difference. It could be anything from “Today is my birthday” (DevOpsDays Hartford bought me cupcakes!) to “I have a tummy bug” (Immodium, don’t leave home without it).
  • Do an audience count for me. There’s no way for me to do it when I’m speaking, but I am not so good at estimating, and it’s useful for me to know for my job what percentage of the attendees were at my talk.

After

  • Caption/transcribe the video
  • Get the video up really fast. Next Day Video does this really well, and ConFreaks has gotten notably faster and also has live videographers who handle pacers (me) better than static setups.
  • Do roll-up posts on the talks and on the conference as a whole so we have something to link to.

Self-Actualization?

I’ve been thinking about what conference self-actualization would me, by Maslow’s standards and my own, and I think it’s about feeling so confident in the underpinnings of the event that I don’t have to think about them, just like most of you are probably not worried about shelter or caloric sufficiency. Being able to trust a conference is running well means that I can concentrate on higher order things like delivering value and sparking discussions.

My part

This is a long (really long) list of things that conferences should/could provide to speakers, but conference speaking is a contract of mutual benefit. Here is a list of what I think conference speakers should commit to providing to do:

  • Be on time. There is nothing, nothing more nervewracking for an organizer than not knowing that a speaker will be there at the right time. I don’t care if you have jetlag, if you have to speak in pajamas, whatever. Be at the venue an hour before your talk, make sure you check in, show up at your room as soon as is feasible.
  • Fail noisily. If for any reason you are not going to be able to give your complete talk, on time, tell the organizers as soon as possible. I know you’re ashamed, but they are in a worse spot, so suck it up.
  • Prepare. I do often tweak my talk to incorporate things that happen earlier in the conference, but it is super unprofessional to joke about how you just slapped a talk together on the flight over. Think of it this way — assume everyone in the room earns $60/hr (it makes the math easy). Now multiply that by the minutes the talk is scheduled for and the number of people in the room. That is what your talk is worth in human-hour-dollars.
  • Participate. A large part of the value of conference speaking is that you get to attend conferences. If you are only showing up for the part of one day that your talk is in and blowing off the rest of the conference, you’re missing a lot of the value, and so is the conference. I get so many great conversations in the hallway track/lunch line. Sometimes (May, June, September), you’ll get scheduling collisions and these things happen, but I promise you that I will try to go to the majority of the conference, be available for people to talk to, and generally help the organizers out.
  • Promote. As I serve on more conference committees, I see how important it is for speakers to reach out and involve their communities. Think of a conference as the middle of a very extensive venn diagram. Speakers bring in parts of their community, which makes the conference as a whole richer.
  • Bonus: I have been speaking long enough that I have a set of talks that I could give on no notice. I usually let an organizer know quietly that if they have a schedule disaster, I can cover. I try very hard not to make this about me, but about their need to juggle a lot of balls and how I can offer to catch something.

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.

Dignity, Always Dignity

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

In 1972, art critic and philosopher John Berger wrote,

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

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

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

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

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

Because here’s the key point –

Dignity has nothing to do with competence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Construct, Capable, Confident

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

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

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

Construct

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

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

Capable

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

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

Confident

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

I believe in you! You can do the thing!

Well, that didn’t go like I imagined

The Toggle Talk

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

  • Slides
  • Narrative flow
  • Speaker notes

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

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

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

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

I had no slides.

I had no notes.

I had no narrative.

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

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

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

That wasn’t how it was supposed to go!

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

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

The webinar

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

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

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

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

The meta-lessons

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

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

2017 Speaking Recap

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

Summary

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

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

Longer version

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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.

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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Talk slides are not a presentation deck

This year, I watched a talk called “I’m Judging Your Slides” or something like that. I watch a lot of conference talks. No, more than that. As if it were my full-time job, which it pretty much is. 25 conferences x 2 days (rough average) x 6 talks a day. Plus recorded talks.

As such:

  • I’m not going to go find the link to that presentation, sorry.
  • I have a lot of opinions about talk slides.

In this new job, I have a designer. Someone paid to have professional aesthetic opinions. This is AMAZING, and super exciting. I’m pretty sure she gets heartburn every time she looks at the spectacular pinkosity of my current slide style. She’s given us a Google Slides template to work with, and it is all branded and lovely and works with our website and has the right hex codes just built in so you can always find them instead of wandering around a color picker. I was super excited to port my slides over to the new style.

 

And then I tried to do it, and it is hard. There are a bunch of slide styles that I would never use in a talk, and I’m missing some that I really need, like section headings. What was the disconnect?

Talk Slides Are Not Presentation Slides

I realized that I wanted slides for giving talks, and the template she gave me was slides for giving presentations. That seems like a pretty subtle distinction, but it’s a very different audience and intent, so key parts are different.

If you ask someone for a presentation deck because you missed a meeting, you would get something that gave you a lot of information – facts and figures and decisions and charts. If you got the slide deck from a well-designed technical talk, it would be an unhelpful amalagam of cat pictures and command prompts.

Talk Slides

When I’m designing slides for a talk, I visualize a room that can seat about 100 people. I’m at the front of it, I have a projector with an HDMI connection, and a slide clicker. I’m standing to one side of a screen. It’s the middle of the day, and these people are sitting in hotel banquet chairs to listen to what I have to say and fight off the waves of sleepiness from catered lunch. I need to be energized, my slides need to be punchy, and my points need to connect with their needs. I am here to inform, entertain, educate, provoke thought.

Presentation Slides

Presentations are an entirely different thing. They’re being displayed on a large tv in an office meeting room. The audience is people who are thinking of themselves as “in a meeting”. The slides exist to guide thought and discussion around action items that need to happen and information that needs to be evenly distributed across a group of people who have very similar interests. Presentation slides have agendas, and points that you move through, and they are a persuasive medium in themselves, instead of relying on the speaker to add the persuasion.


Given those two very different goals, I can see why it’s hard to design slides. The majority of the advice and templates are geared toward the common case, which is a presentation deck. I have a friend who says that she works on presentation decks “every ding-dang day”. It’s no wonder that we learn to design slides with articulated points on them as the default.

I never had to do that kind of slide construction, so I didn’t build that habit, and when I started doing technical speaking, I found the spare, almost wordless style was much more effective for that audience. I was reasoning from the opposite direction.

Talk slides best practices

Given that I am probably a disaster at presentation decks, I’m not going to talk about how they should work, but here is what I feel strongly about talk slides:

  • Put your twitter handle or attribution on EVERY SLIDE. That way if you say something memorable halfway through the talk, people can attribute it properly, and every slide has the possibility to work as a standalone photo.
slide screenshot

Slide example 1

  • Except for your handle and attributions, 36 point font is a bare minimum, and I really want something closer to 48-60. Giant font means fewer words, and that’s good, for talk slides.
  • One thought per slide. You can explain it at whatever length you want, but whatever you put on the slide only needs to be a place for people’s eyes to rest while they are digesting the one thought. That thought is tied to your slide in their memories. When you switch to the next thought, change slides.
  • If you have the luxury, go look at a  presentation in the room you’ll have. Different projectors and ambient light sources can mean that a dark background or light background will work better.
  • Remember that your slides are not the persuasion, you are. I try to put information in my speaker notes for other people, but that’s a very secondary use case.