September in Paris with Mozilla Tech Speakers

This post is a slightly longer and much less breathless re-working of a 5-minute presentation I delivered last week to my colleagues at work, in the Emerging Technology organization at Mozilla. It’s a recap of the Tech Speaker meetup we hosted in Paris, September 15–16. This was our second in-person meetup, designed to bring together some of the most active and engaged Mozilla Tech Speakers for a weekend of two-way learning. For speakers, it was an opportunity to present to their peers, to influential coaches, and to us. For us on staff, it was a chance to assess participants’ interests, knowledge, and skill, and offer onsite feedback, coaching, and the exchange of knowledge. For two days we gathered in Mozilla’s historic Paris office, in the Salle de Fêtes, a former 18th century ballroom that served as commons and conference theater for our event.

Mozilla Tech Speakers & staff, Salle de Fêtes, Hotel de Mercy-Argenteau, Paris

The Mozilla Tech Speakers program has been around for 3 and a half years. it was designed to increase developer awareness and adoption of Firefox, Mozilla, and the web, by training up and supporting volunteer speakers — as a way to amplify and extend the reach and influence of our small Developer Outreach team. We provide basic training in public speaking and presentation skills. We supplement that with early access to relevant technical information from Mozilla, delivered over video by members of Mozilla staff and guest experts. We have a process and a budget to support these vetted volunteer speakers to represent Mozilla and speak at relevant, regional conferences on topics of interest. These days, the Tech Speakers logo is a well-known and well-regarded icon on the web conference circuit.

Mozilla Tech Speakers on the conference trail…

So, who are these Tech Speakers — and what do they do? They are developers, designers, advocates, activists, analysts, digital nomads, entrepreneurs, managers, students, and teachers from dozens of countries, at all stages of their careers. Some of them have joined Mozilla as employees and contractors since becoming Tech Speakers, and several have landed new jobs as developer evangelists at other companies and organizations.

At present, Tech Speakers skew young, male, and many come from countries where Mozilla has built a strong community presence over the last decade. We are at work to re-balance and increase diversity of the program across multiple axes (gender, geography, age), recruiting participants from industry-wide Diversity & Inclusion programs such as Outreachy and Tech Women, as well as through serendipitous scouting and discovery.

Grace Hopper Celebration, 2018. Mozilla Tech Speaker Rabimba was there (and took this photo).

In the first three quarters of 2018, tech speakers delivered over 300 talks, and reached tens of thousands of developers. To be eligible for an invitation to the meetup, active Tech Speakers were defined as those who’d completed at least one workshop or speaking engagement per quarter. We extended invitations to over 30 people from our current base of more than 60.

Each invitee was expected to deliver a 7-minute presentation with slides — we offered a choice of a dozen or so technical topics of interest. In return, we would provide actionable, constructive feedback in a safe and friendly environment. We also hoped that attendees could learn more about our technologies from each other’s presentations.

To provide constructive feedback, we sought out coaches who had both skin in the game and relevant experience. We found expert allies from our own networks. Ada Rose Cannon is a friend of Mozilla Mixed Reality, and an awesome presenter who works at Samsung. Jessica Rose is a technical program manager and developer relations leader who loves to mentor newbie speakers. Vitaly Friedman created the Smashing Mag/Smashing Conference empire. Smashing co-founder and partner Marc Thiele also cultivates inspiring speakers at the Beyond Tellerand conferences for web folk in Germany. Vitaly and Marc had joined us last year at various segments of the Mozilla Developer Roadshow. The four coaches amazed us all with their insights and attention, accuracy and wisdom, tempered by kindness and enthusiasm for their subject.

Ali Spivak (red mic) moderates the Coaches’ panel (left to right): Jessica Rose, Vitaly Friedman, Marc Thiele, and Ada Rose Cannon

Because you have to be really really committed to listen to eight hours worth of 7-minute presentations and associated feedback over the course of two days, we offered workshops over the weekend as well. Dan Callahan from DevRel and Kathy Giori from Project Things ran multiple small group/hands-on workshops on WebAssembly, Rust, and Web of Things. Tech Speakers and experienced VR educators Rebecca Poulson and Ram Vaishnav, helped workshoppers sideload Firefox Reality onto new Go headsets just days before the release. They went home to 4 continents with headsets and Firefox Reality demos ready to share in their local communities.

Felipe Do Espiritu Santo showing WebVR demos at web.br 2018, not long after the meetup

While we were in Paris, the office was also hosting European Heritage Days (Journées du Patrimoine), an event where usually private heritage landmarks of historic interest are opened to the public. While we spoke about technologies for the future of the web, more than 1,000 local visitors passed through the historic rooms of what had been the 18th century home of the Austrian ambassador, who might have hobnobbed there with Marie Antoinette, in gilded rooms that were thought to have been redecorated in the 19th century by Charles Garnier, famed architect of the Paris Opera. French Mozillian Christophe Villeneuve created a Common Voice kiosk to raise awareness of our open voice dataset, and accept donations of spoken French from visitors on the Heritage tour.

To make our ambitious agenda manageable, I dove into Airtable over the summer, and we built a custom conference programming template to manage a schedule that included 3 physical spaces, 2 hardware workshops, 2 software workshops, 32 tech speaker time preferences, and one track with over 35 presenters, some of whom were also participant/attendees and occasional trainers over the course of the weekend.

You can see the distribution of speaking topics in this Airtable block view: Mixed Reality is the big winner, followed by Common Voice/Deep Speech, PWAs, and Web of Things/Project things. We had interesting talks covering CSS, JavaScript, Firefox Quantum/DevTools/Add-ons, Rust, WASM, and a category for Internet Health and Diversity & Inclusion in tech.

Speakers brought their a-game to the podium in Paris, even those who lost sleep to jetlag, procrastination, and late night slide prep. Some folks took risks and tried out new demos. Some of those risks paid off. Early on in planning, we’d floated the idea of saving a lightning talk slot at View Source (later this month) for one of the Tech Speaker talks — in the end we couldn’t decide, and so we invited two: Andre Garzia, who recently relocated from Brazil to London to present “Agriculture, Loanwords & WebAssembly,” about the benefits of a polyglot programming environment; and Shagufta Gurmukhdas, from India, to present “Deep speech: Scaling up end to end speech recognition,” a great introduction to the technology powering Mozilla’s Common Voice project. Congratulations to Shagufta and Andre — and thanks for your work!

In a way, it’s far too early to talk about the outcomes of an event like this, that brings people together to learn from each other, build friendships and collaborations, design alliances, and extend their networks.

In the weeks since the meetup, Singaporean Tech Speaker Hui Jing Chen had a CSS talk accepted at Beyond Tellerand in Berlin, and took a new role as a professional developer evangelist covering Southeast Asia. Two longtime Tech Speakers have just started newsletters: Alex Lakatos offers Developer Avocados, for people who want to get more involved in developer advocacy, and Indonesian Python hacker Rizky Ariestiyansyah started Speakninja, a newsletter to share information about conferences with open CFP calls. Felipe gave a WebVR workshop in Brazil, and Abhiram delivered a Rust Workshop in India… And there’s always another conference.

I suspect the best is yet to come.

Huge thanks to all the folks whose hard work made this event possible, especially Jean-Yves Perrier for most of the photos in this post, and much else besides, and Michael Ellis, Ali Spivak, Flaki, Dan, Kathy, and Clara and Sylvestre in the Paris office, who made us welcome despite the already busy agenda. And a special note of thanks to Jason Weathersby, who dared me to start the Tech Speakers program in 2015, and has been a staunch supporter of our work.