Keeping it real with Mozilla Tech Speakers
Author’s note: An earlier version appeared as a guest post on The Eloquent Woman, Denise Graveline’s blog, offering “Inspiration, ideas and information to help women build public speaking content, confidence and credibility.”
Huge thanks to Denise for all she’s taught me about public speaking and coaching speakers, for crafting the questions below, and for giving me a chance to write about Mozilla Tech Speakers, so close to my heart these days. (Thanks to Christos Bacharakis, above me in the photo below, for use of images from his wonderful album, TechSpeakers Berlin 2016.)
What prompted the creation of Mozilla Tech Speakers?
Mozilla is a global non-profit. We make the Firefox browser, in alignment with our mission to build and protect the Web. As part of our work, we think a great deal about supporting and inspiring a global community of volunteers. Volunteer Mozillians contribute code, participate in testing, infrastructure support, localization, marketing, evangelism, advocacy, and more. We are all guided by Mozilla’s mission to protect the Internet as a global public resource, and promote openness, innovation, and opportunity online. Many Mozilla contributors offer tech talks, workshops, and classes at venues ranging from classrooms and cafes to co-working spaces and conference centers around the world.
Early in 2015, we designed a program to activate and inspire volunteers doing technical outreach and evangelism. We are a small Developer Relations group competing for mindshare with vastly resourced for-profit browser makers. We’d heard requests from volunteers for up-to-date presentation materials and a better understanding of Mozilla’s strategic priorities for product and platform development.
At the same time, we realized there were individuals around the world speaking about the work of Mozilla and the open web, and we had no way to support or extend the value of their activity and interests. As a globally distributed organization, with a time-zone-spanning work force, these were familiar challenges. Many communication channels, many tool cultures, and varying degrees of access to information.
As we were scoping the program, the Mozilla Foundation leadership was articulating a Participation Plan for working with our volunteer community. Mark Surman’s plan took the position that contribution must be a reciprocal relationship, a virtuous circle of give and take in which the volunteer meets needs and/or achieves goals of their own, and Mozilla inspires the contributor’s keenest abilities and highest caliber contribution. The Tech Speakers program was created in alignment with this point of view.
Why did you use a pilot project approach?
From the start we wanted to emphasize the experimental nature of what we were doing, to give ourselves upfront and explicit permission to change in real time, based on what worked and what didn’t.
We knew we wouldn’t get everything right the first time. We wanted to provide tools for more effective and better informed presentations, and give speakers better access to staff and to each other. And we wanted to learn what inspired them and their peers — all this during a dynamic time of leadership change and strategic refocusing at Mozilla.
We’ve tried to stay open to what we’ve seen and learnt from each other — staff and volunteers. And we’ve adjusted the shape and content of the program over the course of three 6-week pilot sessions, from spring 2015 through the first half of 2016.
This past summer we initiated an application process for Tech Speakers, and produced a second phase of the program, which brings speaking practice and support to qualified volunteers, and looks to build local self-sustaining, self-facilitating teams of tech speakers. We’ve also started to produce a series of Masterclasses focused on developing skill and awareness as a technical speaker.
The core program activity remains public speaking practice with a small group of fellow contributors and designated facilitators. Preparation, presentation, and constructive feedback in a safe and friendly environment are at the heart of how we work. Mozillians and friends of our mission, at all levels of experience in public speaking and at different stages in their technical careers, are welcome to apply. Most participants are not native English speakers, but must be willing and able to communicate in English to participate in this program. We look forward to offering non-English versions in future.
After each pilot we’ve run a short survey that asks participants to weigh in on highlights of the program, the bits they’d change or optimize, and what they’ve found less interesting. We continue to adjust.
You had one round focused on women speakers. Why, and what did it accomplish?
In November of 2015, I went to Mozfest in London, along with quite a few Tech Speakers from a variety of countries. We’d just completed our second pilot, which followed a pattern similar to the first, with increased focus on speaking practice. We’d had one nonbinary person in our first pilot, but no women in the first two rounds.
Tech Speakers attended Mozfest as part of a larger group of Mozilla volunteers hosted by George Roter and our Participation Leadership initiative. George led a goal-setting exercise at the close of the weekend.
I announced my intention to run an all-women’s pilot of the Tech Speakers program as a way to start to redress the gender imbalance. More than one woman expressed interest then and there. I also recruited women technologists from two Diversity & Inclusion programs that Mozilla sponsors: Outreachy and TechWomen.
I believed that having a virtual meeting space that was just for women would add a level of comfort and security for the participants. Participants came from Cameroon, Greece, India, Lebanon, Palestine, Romania and Tunisia.
How many speakers do you have and what do they do for Mozilla?
Over 60 Mozilla Tech Speakers have participated in the program to date. They come from over 20 countries, and are at all levels of experience. They have different interests and skills — from web design and development to systems programming to security to hardware hackery. What they share is an alignment around Mozilla’s mission to protect the Internet. Some are passionately Open Source, others are more entrepreneurial and opportunistic. They skew young, and single. Some of them dream of living from airport to airport, and conference to conference, while others are building skills and recognition to advance their professional lives while also serving their local communities.
We support volunteer Tech Speakers to travel and present about Firefox and Mozilla technologies and projects at community meetups, educational events and regional developer conferences. We mentor and encourage them to increase their skill as public speakers and extend their influence. Tech Speakers are representing Mozilla and sharing their knowledge at regional tech events, and as active members of allied open source communities. They increase awareness of our mission and our technology, extending our visibility into developer communities worldwide.
How did coaching 5-minute talks fit into the mix of training?
Remember, this is still a very young program.
By mid-2016, we’d created a cohort of nearly 30 Tech Speakers who’d worked together and gotten to know each other online and some in real life, over varying amounts of time. They are software engineers, web developers, students, designers, quality assurance (QA) engineers, game-makers, slackers and hackers.
This was the group we invited to Berlin for a two-day workshop in September. It was a first trip to Europe for some of the attendees, a first trip to Berlin for others, our first face-to-face meetup of Tech Speakers to work on public speaking. For many of us, this was the first time meeting each other in real life. This was true for Denise Graveline and I.
I’d contacted Denise by email 18 months earlier seeking guidance on how to structure remote speaking practice for technical presenters. I’d heard about The Eloquent Woman from Cate Huston and Chiu-Ki Chan of Technically Speaking. On our initial call, Denise was generous with her wisdom and her time. I learned more than I’d hoped for, and gained the confidence to move ahead.
I knew Denise did occasional coaching workshops in Europe, so this past summer I got back in touch, inviting her to work with our group in Berlin. Lo and behold the timing worked out, and over several calls we devised a plan for a two-day intensive speaking workshop with a group of 25.
All attendees were asked to prepare a five-minute presentation on a technology topic they were planning to speak about elsewhere. We would spend roughly 10 hours over 2 days listening to the pitches and considering the constructive feedback that was being shared and curated by our coach.
The structure was Denise’s suggestion, and I knew instantly that it would serve the needs of the group. I managed the video camera, which kept me attentive throughout. In addition to 10 minutes of individualized coaching in a group setting, each speaker received a video file of their 5 minute presentation to review and reflect on later.
The five-minute presentation format gave us a chance to learn from each other in a highly focused and compressed amount of time. As program organizers helping Tech Speakers develop goals and increase their competencies, it was invaluable to have this kind of visibility into individual presence and areas of interest.
Denise ran the room with calm and benevolent authority. And utmost professionalism. Her insights were pragmatic and actionable: Gestures, posture, breath, stance, colors, narrative and rhetorical devices, tactics for practice and recovery. She began each critique by asking each speaker for their own feedback first, and then took in feedback from the room, without ever losing focus or going off-tone. This approach amplified learning and helped us all stay open and attentive.
What have you learned by doing this program? Any advice for others?
There have been many interesting and unexpected outcomes in the 18 months or so since the Mozilla Tech Speakers program began. I’ve seen subtle things about how people from varied cultures and backgrounds make each other strong in ways I had not foreseen. I have seen ego give way to grace, and a camaraderie and generosity of spirit that gives me hope for the future. Tech Speakers embody a prankster spirit that I’m happy to sustain, a source of solutions and valuable hacks.
Tech Speakers check in with each other in telegram, a lightweight mobile chat client. People vent; share tips, triumphs and travel snafus; ask for tweets and retweets; drop stickers; answer questions; brag; and commiserate. I’ve watched people initiate activities together and give each other space to nurse a wound or blow off steam. A safety zone. People gain skill in listening and giving constructive, empathic feedback.
Let me close with a recommendation. If you work with any kind of volunteers, but especially on an open source project, take a look at “Connected Devices Contributor Experience Research”, a report from a project led by Mozilla user experience researchers. Subtitled “What motivates contributors to give their time and skill to open source projects,” it’s an engaging, highly visual document that maps the lifecycle of a contributor and explores the attributes of experiences that resonate with volunteers and inspire them to stay on.
This study was not in the works when we launched the Tech Speakers program in early 2015, but I find its taxonomy of contributor personae (types of people who contribute), motivational themes (why people contribute), and experiential attributes (characteristics people seek in volunteer activities), useful and persuasive. I believe that the Tech Speakers program has succeeded because it’s been crafted in recognition of the same guiding principles identified by our researchers, principles that are relevant across a host of projects and disciplines, for volunteers and employees.
We will open a call for applications for the upcoming 2017 session of Mozilla Tech Speakers in November. If you are interested in learning more about this program as a speaker or coach/mentor, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line.