Productivity in the Midst of Conference Season

Lessons learned after my first year on the road as a developer advocate

I have a solid year and a half under my belt as a Developer Advocate for IBM’s Watson Data Platform. At this point, I’ve experienced one full cycle of the conference season ebb and flow, the hectic travel days to the sleepy/sniffly days back in the office before heading back out again. I’ve found that when you are slammed with travel, speaking gigs, and tech event bookings, it can be almost impossible to keep up with the work waiting in your inbox.

It’s an interesting job, because you are expected to get out there and be the face of your company in the community while still maintaining a steady flow of contributions to your team. So how can you possibly keep up while constantly recovering from jet lag? I want to share some things I’ve learned from this experience and some tips and tricks that have been shared with me by the pros. You CAN increase your productivity and keep your life under control while living the developer advocacy road warrior lifestyle.

Obligatory “view from my hotel room” shot. SXSW Interactive, Austin, TX.

Doing work

Let’s start with the hardest nut to crack: How can you keep track of deadlines and ensure the work still gets done while you’re on the road? There are a few simple process improvements that can make a world of difference in staying in touch with the home office.

Use reminders to ensure you don’t forget about important deadlines or tasks. My team uses Slack for communication between our distributed teams, and this app has powerful reminder features to help you stay on task. You can create recurring reminders for yourself, remind groups of people to remember to do a thing, and set reminders for another person. This will ensure that no matter where you are in the world or sky, the things that need to stay on deadline will have a shot at making it there.

I use a task board in Trello with cards to manage my own kanban-style agile process for tracking work, and my team does the same. This gives me the ease of updating my team on the status of my projects and the satisfaction of moving finished tasks to the “ready for QA” or “shipped” column. It also allows me to prioritize (or reprioritize) tasks at will. I can copy tasks from my team’s project board to my own personal board, to ensure I’m keeping track of my responsibilities and prioritizing them with other work. The mobile app for Trello is also useful at sending notifications when deadlines are looming while I’m on the go.

Keeping effective notes while on the road is an essential way to keep your thoughts in order and remember important things to use as inspiration later. While at conferences and events, take detailed notes during conference talks and start to write new blog posts during breaks. Make sure to always have a notebook on hand (or your favorite note-taking app) and use downtime to distill your thoughts into action items for later. I personally prefer to take written notes, as I find that I remember things better when I’ve transcribed them manually. I prefer not to have my phone out so that conference speakers don’t think I’m ignoring them.

My coworker Lorna Mitchell has an interesting process for taking effective notes while on the road (and at home). She leaves pages at the front of her notebooks for a table of contents so that she can record which pages each event or meeting notes begin/end, for easier reference later. She also has a key of shorthand symbols. One symbol means she wants to refer back to a post she already wrote or read, another that relates to something she saw that she wants to look up later, and another symbol for an idea for a new blog post. She bases her symbols on the The Dash/Plus System by patrickrhone.

Preparing for the stage

Public speaking is an integral part of working in developer relations, but it’s also so intense! Preparation is imperative. You will reduce the stress of speaking, as well as the emotional exhaustion. By finding what works for you to get yourself ready for the spotlight, you will bounce back more quickly and start tackling your inbox again in a shorter amount of time.

Me on stage at JSConf EU 2017 in Berlin, Germany.

For me, preparation means forgiving myself for not being super engaged with the conference right before I give my talk. I skip the talk before mine (or the talk before that one if the talk before mine is just too enticing) and go for a walk. A walk outside is most preferable, but if that’s not possible I find a chill place to hide so that I can enjoy a few quiet moments before going on stage.

I make it a policy not to look at my slides in the hours before my talk. All my rehearsing should be done by this point, and I’ve learned to never, never make the mistake of applying last-minute changes to my slides. Some people swear by power poses, but I’ve found it much more affirming to write a few short sentences about why I belong on stage. I remind myself why I’m an expert in the thing I’m going to talk about, remind myself about all the work and research I’ve done to be prepared to speak today, and why I’m qualified to be there.

My coworker James Thomas likes to speak to someone within 5 minutes before his talk, preferably someone in the front row. This small interaction helps him calm down by making a positive connection with someone in the audience. By the time he steps on stage, he feels like he’s already started, and feels less nervous because he’s already been talking to a friendly face for the first five minutes of his talk.

My final bit of advice is to give the same talk more than once, or many times, if you can. Writing a well-researched, 30–40 minute talk takes me about 40 hours when all is said and done. Make this work more sustainable by submitting the same talk to multiple events. I keep my talk fresh by changing it up a little bit each time, updating it with the most current data and stats. By the second or third time I give the talk, I barely even need my speaker notes and feel a lot more calm before and after.

Work/Life balance

Another obligatory “view from my hotel room” shot. Abstractions Conf, Pittsburgh, PA.

First and foremost, you need a personal life to survive. When you are home, whether you have roommates or not, your body and mind need to unplug from work. No matter how fun work is, you need to spend time off Twitter and away from the command line to be a normal, productive human. The easiest thing you can do is to pay strict attention to setting time limits on your notifications to keep a balance between work and life.

All that said, installing your team’s Slack/Trello/email on your phone is a no-brainer for the working road warrior. Just be careful to ensure it doesn’t mean you are expected to be available at all hours, day and night, when you’re back from the road. The great thing about developer advocacy is that you can usually make your own hours and work when you are feeling most productive; however, you need to set boundaries so that your personal life doesn’t suffer from the constant buzz of the job. Twitter will still be there after spending precious time home with your partner/cats/game console.

Speaking of boundaries, set clear ones with your family too. Earn their trust by ensuring that if your family blocks out your calendar first, then they should trust that time is sacred. Vacations are paramount. While you’re on the road, be clear with the family about when you will not be accessible by phone. Schedule FaceTime calls or text chats with your partner or kids, and do everything you can to stick to those times. Your family gets peace in knowing when they get to catch up with you, and your day remains uninterrupted when you need to be focused on work.

Travel tips

Your own travel routine will come with time, but there is much to be learned from the frequent traveler. I especially love the #travel-tips channel in the We Are Developer Evangelists Slack team for last-minute travel advice. And I have learned a few things of my own this past year that may come in handy for you.

First of all, IMO TripIt Pro is well worth the cost. This handy mobile app compiles all your trips into one accessible place. Even with the free version, you can easily access flight departure times, addresses for your hotels, confirmation numbers, etc. With the pro version, you get the added bonus of flight alerts (sometimes a few crucial minutes before the airline sends them), alternate flight info, and frequent traveler point tracking, among many other benefits. I have this app loaded on both my work and personal cell, and use it to forward itineraries to my partner so he knows my comings and goings. I also love this app because you can forward reservation confirmation emails directly to it, and it automatically builds my trip schedules for me.

Some of my coworkers love working in the airport because of the white noise and peaceful anonymity. Make sure everything you need is saved offline though, in case you want to work on it during your flight. In my experience, in-flight Wi-Fi is unreliable. I have other coworkers who just can’t work while en route because of body stress. Instead, they use this time to decompress. Do what works best for you and be upfront with your team about when they can expect to hear from you.

For longer trips, it’s always helpful to spring for more legroom on the plane. I’ve become accustomed to checking in for my flight as early as possible because I’ve found the seat options are always different than they were at the time of booking. I decide where to sit on the plane based on whether I have connections. If I have a short layover, I’ll check my bag and sit as close to the front as I can. If I have a direct flight, I’ll sit toward the back of the plane so that I can board first and ensure plenty of overhead room for my backpack.

Staying hydrated while traveling is the best way to avoid getting sick. I never drink alcohol on the plane on the way to a work event—water only. I also bring an empty water bottle and always ask for an extra cup of ice so that I can keep some extra cold water on hand for when the flight attendants are busy or in case of turbulence.

In the spirit of treating others the way you would like to be treated, be kind to your teammates when they return from travel. They will be exhausted and may need a few days to catch up when they are back in the office. This is ok because you know how it feels! Check in first before you schedule meetings with them in the first days following their return.

Lastly, always pack a bathing suit. No matter what. Sometimes that hotel hot tub is a lifesaver after a long day on the conference exposition floor.

See you down the road

Remember that no matter what your coworkers are doing, you do have control over how you strategize your presence in the developer communities you target. You have it within your power to be responsible for your self care. And not only that, you are no good to anyone if you allow yourself to burn out, so be kind to yourself, road warrior. You are your greatest travel companion.

Some hotel elevator somewhere.