My Adventures of My First Year of Conference Speaking

I gave my first talk on March 20, 2015. It’s nearly a year later and I figured it’d be great to recap my first year and to tell what I’ve learned from my experiences.

Submitting for the First Time

It was December 2013. Several of my local friends were talking about a software developer conference called Nebraska.Code() Conference. NCC was doing a call for speakers, and they were really pushing for women speakers. They got some bad publicity the previous year for not really reaching out, and wanted to do better. They were also trying to get more than just .Net languages at the conference.

“Hey Sarah, why don’t you give a talk?”

Uh… on what? I really had no idea.

I was still wrapping up my final year at my university after I went back to finish my degree. I had been teaching a C++ lab for 2 years, even while a student. I was teaching the C++ lecture that semester, and by this point I was comfortable talking to smaller groups pretty easily. I’ve been told I’m a fairly good teacher, and that I have a good way of explaining even technical stuff to non-technical people. So I was sure I could give a talk, just had no idea on what. I was a student. What could I speak on that professional developers would want to learn about?

I was reading through Twitter one day and happened to see a ton of stuff about the Raspberry Pi. It’s a $35 credit-card sized computer, but can be used for some fun projects around the house. It was gaining in popularity. I had one but hadn’t really used it for anything. I wanted to do something with it through. I had 3 years of robotics experience at the university, and had mentored middle and high school robotics teams at the same time. I had this crazy idea about teaching people how to build projects around their house with the Pi. I asked a few friends and they thought it sounded great and that they wanted to see the talk too. I also discovered most of my developer friends that had Pis also had them sitting in a junk drawer somewhere due to lack of ideas on what to do with it.

So I came up with this:

You’ve heard lots of hype about the Raspberry Pi, the credit-card sized 
computer available for under $40. This talk will introduce some of the Pi’s 
features, explore some sample projects you can create, and show you how to 
write code to control hardware through it’s IO pins. After this talk you will 
be ready to make your own cool hacking projects with the Pi.

“No one is ever going to accept this. It’s too far out from what they normally do,” I thought. But after having a few friends look it over, I submitted it.

And on January 19th, I got this email:

… wait what!? This wasn’t supposed to be accepted? What!?

But yet, I was kind of ecstatic. It felt amazingly awesome to be selected. It felt like I was valued. It felt like… it was going to be a failure because I actually had to write the thing, and I had no experience actually doing what I proposed my talk over.

On a whim, I submitted to the Kansas City Developers Conference too. And why not? It was in town. But it was 4x the size and clearly they wouldn’t accept it. But on March 8th…

Ok, so this was unreal. TWO conferences accepted me? What the…?

I’ve been on the committee for the Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas Women in Computing conference too. One of the other committee members then suggested I give the talk there too. I agreed. So this was 3 conferences.

Finally, my friend Matt at school said he thought it would be a good talk for their IEEE group. I agreed to give it there too.

I was supposed to give this talk 4 times and I hadn’t even written it yet!

Writing the Talk

My talk idea was based around using the Raspberry Pi not like a normal computer, but like a component of another project. I had used Arduinos many times, and had built and programmed a variety of different robotic doo-dads while on my university’s robotics team. I thought “oh this should be simple! The Pi should work similarly.” And it did. Kind of. Sort of. But not really.

First, I discovered the Pi ran on 3.3 volts and not 5 volts like the Arduino. That’s fine, I adjusted. Then I had to search for the commands to talk to the input/output pins. I found them, but they needed more initialization commands. Then I found the commands but no explanation. Then I found the explanations but no pin diagrams. Then find out for one project I needed to configure the Pi that had something disabled in the firmware. It was a constant chase to find the information I needed to put this together.

I also had the idea of doing a 10 minute intro, then going over 5 projects, then a conclusion. I had trouble coming up with 5 projects, so I started off with two. I slowly built the projects and they seemed to work. Great! I got them programmed so they actually did something. Great! I still needed some extra time to fill. I ended up coming up with a third and fourth project, then scrapping the fourth project because then I felt I had too much stuff and not enough time to write it all out. In the end, a 10 minute intro, 10 minutes on 3 projects, and a short 2–3 minute conclusion worked out nearly perfectly.

I made it to NCC to give my first talk. And I was in the hotel room the night before and none of my projects were working. I was sure (again) that this was going to be a miserable failure.

Giving the Talks

A few of my local friends that were also accepted to speak decided to get together and practice giving our talks, since it was all of our first times. I learned that my project was very dense. With a LOT of suggestions from them, I rewrote about 50% of it to be clearer, have better diagrams, and explain some more concepts a bit deeper so they could be understood better. This was a wonderful thing that the four of us did, and I recommend this for any first time speakers.

An artsy picture of my first talk at Nebraska.Code(). Does fiddling with my fingers help show I’m nervous?

So first up was Nebraska.Code() in mid-March. A couple of weeks before it started, I found out that I was supposed to be in a conference room. I learned there were two projectors in the auditorium, so thinking one for the Pi and one for my code, this worked. On the day of, though, I saw the auditorium and freaked out. It was HUGE. I was daunted at the idea of speaking to that room. As it turns out, the projectors weren’t working right, so they had to move me anyway. I got moved back to another room of someone who cancelled. Turns out it confused a lot of people since they hadn’t heard someone cancelled and others didn’t hear I got moved. But I still had a decently full room of almost 30. I gave my talk (and I knew I was nervous). But overall I it went alright. I call this version 1.0. My evaluations (only 4–5 of them) all were pretty good. The nice thing was that many people came up to me later and told me they got confused with all the room swapping and wished they could make it. (And well, I would have been less nervous too probably!) But I pointed people to my website where I had my notes and said I’d answer questions by email or Twitter.

Next up was the IEEE meeting at school. I ended up giving it to a very weird mix of students, not just developers as I had before. I’ll call this version 1.1. I had made a few changes, but probably perhaps the most enlightening thing was when one of the attendees came up and said he was disappointed in it. I asked why, and he thought the projects would be more practical. It felt more like something he’d learn in a class, not something cool he could do. Good point.

Third was KCDC. For this conference, I really took the comment from before to heart and redid every project into something more useful. It wasn’t just lights, but it was a Knight Rider/Cylon demo. It wasn’t just an LCD screen but it was a twitter hashtag-displaying screen. It wasn’t just some sensors but now a robot. And I rebuilt them all, wrote programs for them, redrew all of the diagrams, and was ready to go. I called this version 2.0.

Except the night before they quit working again. I had read advice never to do live demos unless you were SURE they would work. And I wasn’t. I made the decision to not try to demo these things live. I had videos, which helped. I also wasn’t feeling it. My talk was at 2:30, the conference opened up at 8, and I didn’t show up at the conference until about noon because I felt (again) destined to failure.

I hung out in the speaker room at 1:20 and went over the slides again. I was eventually ready enough. I left the room about 2:20. Three people approached me on my way to my room that the line to my room was out the door. Sure enough:

I really couldn’t believe it. This 80 seat room had at least 120 people in it. People sitting on all four walls. I had to (literally) shove my way in the door to even get up to the front. The director came in, told me “Uh, this is pretty crazy, huh?” and asked if I’d be willing to give it the next day too.

So I gave the talk to those 120 people. I made a few minor changes, then gave it again the next day (version 2.1). The second day had another 90+ people in the room. It was absolutely wild. The failure I felt it would be only succeeded by success I never would have dreamed. I was on SUCH a people high for those 48 hours! And it was unbelievable how many times I was stopped by friends, old coworkers from internships, and just random people I’ve never met before to tell me they either enjoyed it, or had cool project ideas, or just that they were inspired in general. Even the vendors who hadn’t went to any talks were all talking about this. (“Wait, YOU’RE the one that taught that workshop? People won’t stop talking about it.”)

(About this time, I was asked if I would give it for the Kansas City chapter of the IEEE professional group. I said yes.)

The fourth (well, really fifth) time I gave my talk was at MINK WIC. Since I was helping to run it, I got to go around and speak to a lot of the women that were there. I often asked about the sessions they wanted to go to, and so many told me about how cool the Pi one sounded. I was expecting another “sold out” room. Sure enough:

I got a lot of thanks from the women there too. Several told me they were inspired, or it was just cool to learn about. I think some of them liked knowing that it was a conference full of great presentations by women.

Finally came the IEEE-KC meeting. By this point I felt the talk had been so successful and productive that I wasn’t worried about it failing for that reason. However, the audience wasn’t developers, it was other engineers. Electrical, civil, mechanical, others. It was NOT who my talk was geared towards. I thought about rewriting it for them, I thought about doing it totally different. In the end I took the crazy approach: I didn’t change a thing. I basically gave the exact same talk I gave on day 2 of KCDC. I made my disclaimer: As a software developer, I wrote this talked geared towards them. However, hopefully there’s a lot here to fill in the gaps of knowledge you don’t know about it. And the hardware lessons may be boring, I’ll rush through those.”

I asked people afterward how it was, and I got a lot of great responses. Some wanted to know more about the hardware, which I covered. Most didn’t know how you programmed it at all, so they got that. The electrical stuff was easily glossed over, which worked fine. For being my smallest and the least intended audience I had spoken to, it somehow worked wonderfully.

I concluded my sixth version of this talk. It was fun. But after that sixth talk, I knew I needed a break for a little bit.

Reflecting on My Year

I imagine in some ways my experiences are similar to other first time speakers. Lots of nervousness. Lots of last-minute stress trying to get things ironed out. Lots of times I walked into a room going “this is going to suck.” Then again, I know I had a bit of a non-typical adventure, and many things were pretty unique or lucky for me. (How many do you know have had an encore talk?)

I think I can safely say based on survey results after speaking, the number of people approached before/after my talks, Twitter feedback, and just attendance, I had a POPULAR talk. I’m incredibly thankful that my first year of speaking went the way it was. My confidence level rose immensely over those 8 months, and I feel humbled at the number of people that said I inspired them to do their own cool projects. I couldn’t have asked for a better response than that.

I was a student when I gave the first two talks, and was only in my first real developer job for less than a month when I gave the next one. This is definitely not typical. One thing it did help me realize is that you really can have something to share no matter what your age or skill level in life. I was definitely no expert in Raspberry Pi things when I started, but I essentially was the expert for all of these hundreds of people that heard me speak. People still ask me questions and show me links to cool things related to the Pi. I somehow established myself as credible in this area, despite literally starting the year off with no knowledge on how to program the Pi.

It also helped me realize this is a great way to keep talking on things: Find a topic I want to know more about, develop an abstract on it, and submit it. This year I created another talk called “A Primer on Functional Programming.” I know about 1% of what I feel I need to know to give this talk, so it’s a great way to force myself to learn it. Sharing that knowledge with others in a few months is a great way to challenge myself to embrace this.

I couldn’t have done this alone though. My friends Abbey, Thuy, Lyndsey, and I all did practice talks with each other, and that was immensely helpful. My friend’s comment from school helped me redo the talk to be even more practical. My talk wasn’t ever perfect. It’s still not. But I can keep tinkering at it and improving it. And with that I also learn how to improve my future talks.

Overall, this first year of speaking was a LOT of work. I learned A LOT. And I gained a lot of great experience from this event, both from the skills of writing the talk, the skills of learning new information, and of learning to present to groups (and some unexpectedly large). I think anyone who is curious about giving a talk should definitely do it. Find a topic you enjoy or want to learn about, and go for it. It’s not easy, but it’s so valuable.

I’d love to answer any questions about my experiences! Feel free to tweet me at geekygirlsarah on Twitter or leave a comment below.