Earlier this year I decided to speak at a large tech conference in 2019. I’d never done it before, but I figured 2019 would be the year. A sort of New Year’s resolution if you will. Or a development goal I have at work, whatever you want to call it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Who am I? I’m Hanna and I work as a web developer at FINN.no, Norway’s answer to American Craigslist or British Gumtree. This makes me uniquely qualified to speak at tech conferences, in no particular way. Yet, the reason I’m writing this is because I want you to join my resolution. I’m going to speak at conferences, and you should too.
Straight away, I’m guessing you’ve fallen into one of three groups. The first group is thinking “No. No way in ‘heck’ am I doing that, you can’t make me, leave me the ‘heck’ alone”. We’ll call you Markus. The second group are the maybe’s. You’re thinking “No, yes, well maybe, I mean. I’m not completely opposed to the idea. I’ll consider it”. You’ll be called Anna. And the last group, you’re the ones who are saying “Yes, I am already speaking at conferences”. We’ll call you Charlotte.
If you are a Charlotte, then just keep doing what you’re doing. You’re awesome. To all the Annas out there, this is for you! I will try to be the little nudge that pushes you over the edge and actually makes you submit talks to conferences. And finally, if you’re a Markus, then I just want you to keep an open mind. I probably can’t change how you feel but I’ve tried to put in a few jokes here and there, and maybe you’ll enjoy this read anyways.
There are many reasons to speak at conferences and broadly speaking the reasons can be divided into two categories - personal gain and business gain.
From a business perspective, conferences are good for two main reasons - recruiting and promoting your product. In other words, a perfect arena for a pyramid scheme. I’m sorry, I mean multi-level marketing.
From a personal perspective though, we find cool things like: free conference tickets, free merch and travelling! If you want my attention, those are hard to compete with. Many people also seek internet fame. If this motivates you, make sure to speak at conferences that will upload a video of your talk to the internet. Otherwise your fame will be very short lived.
It’s also worth mentioning that there are great networking opportunities for you if you speak at conferences. People will come talk to you after your presentation because now they think you’re cool.
Haven’t you ever been to a talk where the speaker was just amazing? That could be you up there! Have your friends ever agreed they were all really inspired by a cool person on stage? They could be talking about you! And you’ll be able to say cool stuff like “oh, I don’t have time to go to the movies tonight, I’m giving a TED talk tomorrow!”.
The very best reason to speak at a conference, though, is because you have a story to tell. Not everyone has this luxury, however, myself included. We won’t let that stop us! Everyone has something to talk about, we just haven’t found out what it is yet. Talk about something you’re currently working on. Talk about something you want to work on in the future. The things you do every day aren’t common knowledge to everyone.
Now, let’s say that you are convinced that speaking at a conference is a good idea. How do you even go about it? If you start googling your favourite conference speakers you’ll soon be overwhelmed. You certainly should, at all costs, avoid comparing yourself to any of them. Let me demonstrate for you exactly why that is such a bad idea.
First of all, they all have twitter profiles like this:
- 95,000 followers
- Bio with a list of achievements including award winning speaker
- A pinned tweet mentioning that their book is the number one new release on Amazon
My Twitter is a little different… I’ve had it for 9 years, but until recently, I only had 5 tweets. All of them retweets. I had a very exclusive list of… drumroll… 3 followers! Here they are.
And the funny thing is that I can’t for the life of me remember how Jens Stoltenberg, the current Secretary General of NATO, ended up being one of them. It makes no sense! I’m trying to get better at Twitter, though, because the first rule of how to be a conference speaker is that you need to make sure that your twitter handle is clearly visible at all times during your presentation.
If we pull up a comparison of these successful speakers and me it would look something like this.
I mean, sure we both have twitter. So far so good, but these successful people have so much more stuff. They are often core contributors on amazing open source projects in Github. They write blog posts and they write books. And they typically have really nice web pages/portfolios to show off their work. Me? Well, I have 2 commits to an open source project, pat on the back there. But blog posts? This will be my first! Book? Not even close. And when it comes to web pages, I don’t have anything as amazing as this.
This person is a designer as well as a frontend developer, so that sucks for the rest of us. You know what it says down there in small letters? “Is an award winning speaker” it says. But I mean a web page is easy to make. I can do that. I’m not a web developer for nothing! So I made a website of my own. All it says is “Hanna Holler Kamperud, soon to be award winning speaker”. Check that one right off.
The point I am trying to make here, is that you should not compare yourself to people who work as professional speakers and get paid to be amazing on stage. They started out as beginners, same as you will.
It’s so easy to get demotivated if you do this. To make excuses. Let’s go over the most common excuses, shall we?
“Hanna, there are so many cool, smart people out there that are much better at this than me.”
Yes, that is true. It is also such a bad reason. Jake the dog said it best. “Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.”
“Yes, but Hanna. How do I even get anyone to come listen to me? I probably won’t even get my talk accepted to a conference”
Oh, yes you will, and the answer to this is simple. Use your employer’s good name and reputation to shamelessly promote yourself.
“Oh, but Hanna. I don’t have anything to talk about. You can’t sign up to be a speaker if you don’t have anything to talk about!”
Well certainly not with that attitude! Yes, it’s true that sign up forms usually ask what topic you wanted to talk about, but you know what I noticed? Not always a mandatory field! They’ll let just anybody sign up to these things.
Now I will grant you that you should probably have something to talk about before actually walking up on stage. This is one of the problems I struggle with as well. After an evening with beers and your teammates though, I promise you that you can come up with a lot of suggestions on what to talk about. And even more topics you probably shouldn’t talk about. I’ve made some suggestions for you, free of charge:
If you are an expert at machine learning, chess or both then this is the perfect talk for you. Shine away. If you, however, are not an expert on either of these, I suggest instead the topic:
And believe me, this is a much funnier talk. Here you’ll experiment with how close you can get to implementing AlphaZero through googling everything, knowing nothing, and having a deadline. Should be great fun.
For most conferences though, you apparently need to submit an abstract for a talk many months in advance and hope to get approved. I’m not gonna talk about that, since I’ve only tried it once. I got accepted, though! A pretty impressive success rate. My first talk at a large tech conference will be this September at JavaZone 2019 in Oslo.
You may find it weird that I’m telling you how and why you should be a conference speaker when I’ve never actually done it myself. The irony isn’t lost on me. Nevertheless, I’m going to end this with a call for action; Start thinking about submitting abstracts so you can be a speaker. If you’re the type of person who needs to be asked to speak because you don’t like to volunteer, then consider this as me officially asking you. You specifically. You’re a rock star, go show the world.
I really hope that you found something here that will motivate you, be it internet fame, free conference tickets or promotions of pyramid schemes. Hopefully every Anna, turned into Charlotte. And maybe a Markus or two turned into Anna? I can’t wait to see what you come up with!! And I really, really hope that within a year one of my readers will be up on a stage somewhere doing a talk with the topic Oops, shouldn’t do that at a conference!. It will probably be me…
To sum up:
- Speak at conferences
- Don’t not speak at conferences
If I can do it, you can do it.