Getting Ready For Your First Conference Talk: A Junior Developer’s Guide

When I heard that PyCon South Africa (PyConZA) was accepting talks for the 2018 conference I was excited to hear about other people’s work. Little did I know that I would also be submitting a talk. At first I was thinking “why would anyone want to listen to a junior developer’s experience?”, but my colleagues at Praekelt convinced me it would be valuable for others to hear, so I submitted my first conference abstract.

Getting over the imposter syndrome

My PyConZA talk

Imposter syndrome follows me everywhere, at work, at meetups and even at my own talk. Even though everyone kept telling me that the work I do is worth hearing about, I thought they were just setting me up for failure, but I soon learned that no one is going to invest their energy and company time if they don’t believe in me.

It’s okay to believe that people believe in me, odd as that may sound. Even after my talk was accepted I felt as though it was “just” accepted, that maybe they weren’t that serious about accepting my talk. When I told a close friend of mine about this he said “They are putting their reputation on the line with each talk. I am sure that they only accept the talks they absolutely believe in”. The best way to get over imposter syndrome is to talk to someone about it, most of the time our biggest fears are actually just silly.

Choosing a topic

When I first started writing my abstract I tried to find something exciting and complicated. I felt that the work I do on a daily basis may be boring for other Python developers, who may already be doing similar things at their place of employment. However, our Technology Strategy Lead (Fritz Brand), told me that people can always tell when you are talking about something that you are not passionate about. Yes, they may all be somehow using the same tools as you, but everyone has a different experience and perspective.That’s when I decided to focus my talk on an open source project that I had been working on since April.

I realised it’s a conference for Python developers, so there was already very little chance that everyone was talking about something completely new. Most people know what the talks will include — they are just interested in people’s experience with the technology.

Getting started

One thing that really helped me when I was putting together my abstract was speaking to Jamie Hewland, one of my colleagues who had given talks at PyCon before. He was able to point me in the right direction about getting all the important aspects of a technical talk correct. My other colleague, Ambika Samarthya-Howard, who is a writing expert helped me turn the abstract into a beautiful piece and not just a passage of technical jargon. I know that writing is not my strong suit so I always get help.

Once my talk was finally accepted I started thinking about the details. The abstract gave me a good idea of where to start but I was still very puzzled about how to approach it. So I did what any reasonable adult would do: I created a Google Doc and ignored it for a few weeks.

Every now and then I would do some research and throw it in the document. Even though I use Python and Django daily there were still some things that I knew intuitively but could not explain in words. It was important that I research some of the obvious things and spend time fine-tuning my knowledge.

Trial Run

I gave a practice run of my talk at the Cape Town Python User Group (CTPUG) and it really gave me the confidence booster I needed. There were a lot of senior Python developers (including my fellow dev-colleague, Jeremy Thurgood, who claims to have been programming for longer than I have been alive), whom I initially thought would be bored with my single year’s experience with Python, but they seemed to have really enjoyed.

I also got some good feedback with regards to how I could improve the slides and some not so up-to-date information in my talk. What some of my friends loved about my talk is that it had a lot of images and humour. The most important feedback I got was that I did not sound nervous — even though I felt nervous.

The talk

The Praekelt Foundation team at PyconZA

On the morning of the talk I was still nervous but I am told the feeling doesn’t ever go away. I attended the talk that was before mine in the same room to get a feel of the environment. Just before my talk, there was a technical issue, and my computer was not detecting the projector. But that was quickly resolved. I was lucky to have so many familiar faces in the room cheering me on. My colleagues didn’t care if I was nervous and messed up some words, the only thing that mattered was that I got up there and did it. I still can’t believe I gave a talk at PyConZA.

Although I am still nervous about watching the youtube video, this was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I definitely would not have been able to do it without the amazing people I work with and of course Pi Delport. My talk has also been accepted for DevConfZA which is happening March 2019.