So you think you’re a great speaker…?
In this funny world of high-tech, an increasing number of high profile developers have been elevated to a God-like status. Developers who manage to snag a coveted speaking spot at huge conferences like Droidcon London are revered and worshipped for the achievement.
But as one of Israel’s leading developers who has given some of the most popular talks at conferences around the world including Mobius Conference and Droidcon Tel Aviv, I can tell you that despite the hype, speaking at high-profile conferences means little about your abilities as a speaker and will do little in terms of cultivating new knowledge.
Want to know what makes a speaker truly great?
Most of my professional knowledge came to me through preparing different talks, for which I need to take a deep dive into subjects to stand on stage ready to address myriad possible questions. The plan is not important; it is the very act of planning that exposes you to deeper knowledge and your own personal gaps therein. But preparing talks for major conferences in places like London and SF is in many ways relatively simple; the audience knows you, you know them, everyone’s deeply familiar with the issues being discussed, and the level of knowledge there is ridiculously high. You’ve heard it all before
Meanwhile, in other regions, a whole different audience is struggling with a whole different range of issues, problems, ideas and contexts. This is a world away from what we are dealing with at the big conferences, with conversations revolving around the specific contexts and unique issues and capabilities they are experiencing. Speaking at conferences in regions such as Eastern Europe presents a great challenge for people like me: the talks are far away from your comfort zone, on topics you have less experience with, to a hungry and demanding, non-native English-speaking audience that receives far less attention and knowledge input from external sources than they both need and deserve. Speaking at these kinds of conferences demands much more technical knowledge, adeptness and flexibility, and makes you a much more experienced and knowledgeable speaker in the process.
In 2016, I began working fulltime on my startup KolGene. My new focus made me reevaluate how I manage my time. At first glance, conferences may seem like some easy fat to trim from my schedule, however speaking at DevFest Ukraine that year inspired my decision to eschew these “rockstar conferences” and speak only at the conferences where insane talent is plentiful but the demand for external expertise is the highest — conferences like DevFest Ukraine.
It’s the biggest DevFest in Eastern Europe yet just take a look at the speakers list and you’ll see most of them are local, with only a handful from other parts of Europe. Very few experienced, international speakers were there — just me and a couple of others. This goes for DevFests in Belarus, Russia, Poland, South Africa and so many others. The second I finished my presentation, I was surrounded by dozens of people throwing questions after question at me, looking for detailed answers to the complicated issues they were experiencing with their apps. It required every bit of knowledge I had. I sat for almost two hours after the talk, just talking with people and trying to solve their different problems.
I left realizing just how much these guys deserve but are missing that extra bit of outside knowledge and guidance that draws us to the major conferences. For them, this event was like a breeze of fresh air in a desert of knowledge.There are so many whip-smart, talented young developers that really seek out quality knowledge, expert guidance and mentorship. These very same countries have become the largest source of the smartest developers for all major US companies. In Israel, almost 50% of Hi-Tech companies have developers from those regions. And yet, so many well-known speakers would rather stay in the comfort of the well-known conferences than challenge and prove themselves at conferences like this one. Of course, travelling to the other side of the world can be difficult, but I maintain that the low attendance of international speakers is due to low motivation in doing so and a lack of understanding of the major benefits it would reap.
Not only do I strongly believe that it is the duty of those fortunate and talented enough to succeed in their fields to share their knowledge with the next generation of skilled developers, but speaking at these kinds of conferences is a major reason I am good at what I do — both in public speaking and development. My time is limited, and as much as I would love to speak at every conference, I simply cannot attend them all. I need to be purposeful and strategic in choosing conferences, to identify where my impact as a speaker will contribute most to the community. With the time I have, where can I maximize my input, to change someone’s life or open a door for them? And in the process grow as a professional.
Similarly, one of the driving forces behind starting Android Academy together with my amazing team was to have a forum in which we could share knowledge, hear new ideas, and face tough questions.
Whenever I have my doubts about the significant time and effort I spend helping and speaking to younger, less knowledgeable but much hungrier audiences, I think of the dozens of inspiring stories from the Academy like this one:
A young woman joined the Academy completely inexperienced and under-qualified, having completed a sub-par course that left her with little viable technical knowledge and unable to find a job.In our Android Fundamentals course, she bombarded us with one question after another.
Upon completing the course, she managed to find a job as a developer at a small start up. In this role she continued to receive support from our Android Community who rallied behind her to help her succeed in first job.
Some time later, she gave back and became a mentor at the Academy, talking about her experience as a novice, how to succeed and make the most out of the help available.
This same young woman, who came to us with next to no experience and only a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for success, recently joined a major company as a senior android developer. In just one year she grew exponentially, because she was determined to cram in as much knowledge as possible, and because expert guidance was available to her. Because of the amazing support she received from the Android community, she decided to give back without hesitating.
By sharing my knowledge with the people who need it most, in my own small way, I can make the world a better place, and become a much greater and more impactful speaker in the process.
What will define you as a great speaker is sitting with these guys, taking your precious time and spending it on lifting them up and giving them the precious opportunities, platforms and knowledge they desperately need. This is what makes a speaker truly great.
So what about you? Are you brave enough to step out of your comfort zone and speak to a whole different audience — one that truly needs your help? If not, how great of a speaker are you really?
This article was written with the intention of drawing attention to the need for higher participation of expert speakers at more local conferences.
It is an issue which the author feels passionately about, for the good of the home-grown talent and the industry as a whole.
Comments regarding international speakers are not aimed at specific individuals, rather a sector-wide call to action to spotlight, support and exchange knowledge with the developers of tomorrow from throughout the globe