My first technical conference talk at the superlative inaugural Serverless Days Belfast

Glenn Horan
Feb 5 · 7 min read
One awesome track

I had just finished a full day of conference attendance at AWS re:Invent when I first saw the call for speakers for ServerlessDays Belfast. The fact that I was immersed in an incredible conference atmosphere was undoubtedly what gave me the final push to send off my proposal. That and I had not long finished a piece of work that gave me a funny anecdote which I had planned on sharing with my colleagues via an internal talk at some stage anyway.

As this was my first technical conference talk I had not filled out a call for speakers before. I quickly got to work giving an abstract of my talk, personal details, the technical level my talk was aimed at and what type of talk I’d like to give — a lightning talk felt right for what i wanted to share. I submitted the proposal and largely forgot about the submission as I didn’t think I’d have much chance in securing a slot (I’d like to thank imposter syndrome for making this neurosis possible). Imagine my surprise when a few short weeks later I received the E-mail confirming my place as a conference speaker and asking for profile details for the conference website!


The Story

The story I wanted to share was how I’d attempted to write my first AWS Cloud Formation Template (CFT) from scratch but failed spectacularly after banging my head against the proverbial wall for a week and a half. Thankfully I discovered Serverless Framework and their domain specific language for creating CFTs that had my task completed in 5 short lines of code. The title wrote itself: “144 lines of CFT to 2 lines of Serverless — A lesson from a noob on the frontlines”

I ❤ Serverless Framework

After a busy Christmas I got to work on the presentation. I got a lot of support from work (Liberty Information Technology) who have some great resources for giving conference talks including presentation templates, documents filled with advice, proof reading services and plenty of people willing to listen to your talk and give invaluable feedback. Before long I had something I was happy with and got to work learning it. If you’re reading this for advice on your first talk then it’s important to appreciate that different preparation techniques won’t work for everyone, but here are some things I found particularly helpful:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel — If your company has a template slide deck, this can be really helpful as it allows you to focus on the talk instead of slide design
  • Bore your friends/family — I’m rubbish at giving a talk to a mirror, but thankfully I had colleagues and family who I could give the talk to to practice my timing. When they weren’t around I gave the talk to the dog
  • Practice makes perfect — It can be nerve-wracking being up on stage in front of people, but if you’re well prepared it’s much easier to go into autopilot on the day and rattle through everything
  • this twitter thread http://bit.ly/31xEk3O
  • Relax and enjoy it as much as possible — This may be the most difficult depending on your approach to public speaking, but at the end of the day, what’s the worst that could happen?

The conference

I can honestly say that ServerlessDays Belfast was among the best conferences I’ve attended. It didn’t help my anxiety any when I first heard that it was a one track conference (one track= everybody hearing my talk!), but the format worked great. Things kicked off for us the night before at the speakers dinner where I had an opportunity to meet the other speakers as well as the organisers. This was great to steady the nerves a little as well as a valuable opportunity to get chatting to some real experts and genuine thought leaders from around the world.

The conference itself took place in Life Church Belfast which seats around 200 in its main room. Guests were greeted by volunteers adorned in awesome bright red ServerlessDays Belfast T-shirts, featuring a unicorn with a rainbow spewing jetpack — it really captured the fun and friendly feel of the day. The role of compère was shared between three of the organisers, Gillian Armstrong (Liberty IT), Garth Gilmore(Instil) and Peter Farrell (Kainos). They did a great job not only of introducing everyone, but also building a bit of hype for the day, so much so that ServerlessDays was trending on Twitter in Belfast before lunchtime.

The organisers and hosts of Severless Days Befast: Garth Gilmour, Gillian Armstrong and Peter Farrell.

My personal highlights from the day

Every speaker on the day was awesome and there should be videos of some of the talks published. You can also find an overview of each the talks here along with speaker profiles— https://belfast.serverlessdays.io/. Unfortunately it’s outside the scope of this article to review each of the talks in a way that would do them justice so here are a few of my highlights

  • Lego use Serverless! Senior Engineer from the Lego group Sheen Brisals took us through the Serverless philosophies and architecture used in a number of Lego websites and showed us how and why this important paradigm shift has resulted in them having record breaking Black Friday sales figures in previous consecutive years. Something about lego using an architecture that builds an application out of lots of smaller applications (micro services) makes me happy.
  • Wardley Maps are so hot right now. Two of the talks heavily featured Wardley mapping- both Michael O’Reilly of Liberty IT and independent tech consultant Susanne Kaiser evangelised its use in the design of customer focussed applications. In short, Wardley Extrapolates five factors outlined in Sun Tzu’s Art of War used for competition between two forces (purpose, landscape, climate, doctrine and leadership) and applies them to business cases. Read more about it from the horses mouth here: “https://medium.com/wardleymaps/on-being-lost-2ef5f05eb1ec
  • Serverless paradigms transcend cloud provider specificity. It’s clear that various cloud providers offer analogous services (eg. AWS Lambda Vs Google Cloud Functions). With cloud provider agnosticism being an important factor for some stake holders, there are an increasing number of services out there to manage interactions between services hosted through different providers. Check out Mark Allen’s talk — “Serverless Kubernetes” for more details if this is a concept that piques your interest.
  • Yes I can Serverless! Farrah Campbell’s talk highlighted how, far from making things more complex, a Serverless architecture can be used as a springboard to develop your technical skills. She demonstrated how products such as Stackery can get Serverless architecture deployed in a matter of clicks using their drag and drop UI.
  • Miscellaneous valuable tidbits from leading experts in the field. While the day was jam packed with useful knowledge, there were two talks in particular that I found offered quick fire tips and advice that anybody can adopt regardless of their exposure to Serverless. These were Yan Cui’s “Beware the potholes on the road to Serverless” and Paul Swail’s “Top 8 mistakes developer teams make in their first Serverless project”. Check these out when they’re available on-line for some great “bang for your buck” Serverless wisdom.
  • Serverless is here to stay. The excitement generated around the sold out conference only shows the popularity of the Serverless paradigm. People attended from all different levels of dozens of companies around Belfast (and beyond) and it was clear that if they weren’t implementing Serverless already, they would certainly be bringing the information back to their respective companies to give it a whirl.
  • I didn’t make any major mistakes in my talk. This really is a personal highlight! My talk went smoothly with no major technical (or otherwise) issues. I was scheduled to talk later in the afternoon, so I was a bag of nerves all day, but as soon as it was over I realised how unnecessary it was to be so nervous. The feelings of relief had barely washed over me before I was thinking of what other talks I could give…
Excellent stickers!

I can’t recommend ServerlessDays enough as a conference. Between the absolute bargain ticket price (£40), the warm organisers, the knowledgable speakers and the sheer number of expert talks squeezed into one day, it should be considered an unmissable day in the Northern Ireland conference scene if (when!) it returns next year. I want to thank the organisers for giving me a chance to give my first technical conference talk and all the other speakers for taking the time out of their schedules to impart their wisdom upon the developers of Belfast.

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