The sticker bag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What stickers mean

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

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

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

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

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

Secret Sticker Rules

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

My ideal stickers

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

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

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

Other handouts

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Don’t Hand Out

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

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

To Sum Up

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

Well, that didn’t go like I imagined

The Toggle Talk

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

  • Slides
  • Narrative flow
  • Speaker notes

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

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

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

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

I had no slides.

I had no notes.

I had no narrative.

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

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

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

That wasn’t how it was supposed to go!

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

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

The webinar

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

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

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

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

The meta-lessons

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

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

2017 Speaking Recap

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

Summary

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

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

Longer version

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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.

Talk write-up: Choose Your Own Deployment

Yesterday, I was in Phoenix for their first DevOps Days.


The interesting thing about doing this talk in Twine instead of my beloved Google Slides was how much I had to learn to make it look anything like I wanted. There’s a lot of CSS and Twine-specific syntax. At first, it felt like I was wasting my time and being slow because I know other people know this better than me, but as the project went on, it was honestly delightful to learn something new and get my pages to look like I wanted. There was a lot of fist-pumping success in getting a font to work.

It’s still not perfect, and I need to do some pretty drastic revisions for version 2, but now I know which of the resources are most useful to me and I have a conceptual model that I didn’t have when I started, so I think it will be easier to learn the parts I still don’t have.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to learn something that had immediate tangible results, instead of concepts and pitches and taking what I already know and distilling it down. It was good to do that, and I should remember to schedule it into my life sometimes.

Why I Speak at Developer Conferences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lady Conference Speaker Talk Wrap-Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

The virtuous thank-you cycle

We talk a lot about vicious cycles, and how it’s easy to end up in bad places because the incentives are all bad, but let me tell you a story.

It’s a pleasant Saturday, my family is watching Star Trek: TNG together, and I’m in my home office, working on a side project and slightly resenting it. It’s the collateral for a workshop Carol Smith and I are giving at LISA about the non-technical part of interviewing, and we think it’s really an important part of helping people get jobs. So the workshop will be great and important, but I’m currently wishing I was doing something else. And then this comes across my twitter:

Marie says she uses the principles I espoused in that talk even when she starts side projects, like Call My Congress. Because she set it up to be easily localized, anyone could come through and easily add instructions in Spanish or Somali, without having to fight the project to do it.

I gave that talk 17 times. I took it to a different continent. I got most of my expenses paid, and I got an honorarium exactly once. I figure I spent 60 hours researching and writing it, and and 3-5 hours in prep and rewriting each time I gave it. I was working for myself, so no one paid me for that time.

A thank you note like this makes that all worthwhile. I give technical talks for the same reasons that novelists say they have to write – because it’s something burning in me, and I need and want to share everything I have learned the hard way so that other people don’t have to. In my grandiose moments, I think of it as reducing the entropy of the technical world, giving people a boost up the ladder. Most of the time I think it’s funny that all of my teacher-mother’s children have found our own ways to teach, far from school classrooms.

Now I have a job that pays me for development time for talks, and means that travel and conferences are not lost productivity for me, and that means the world to me, but most of the technical speakers you see at conferences are like I was — working evenings and weekends and taking vacation time to battle entropy with education.

I’m going to try to remember to do better about saying thank you, and thus spread the cycle of appreciation further and wider. A virtuous cycle perpetuates because the rewards are so good. Thank your mentors, and the friends who want you to expand your horizons, and the organizers who make safer spaces to speak in, and the bosses who don’t make you take vacation days. Thank them publicly and specifically.