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30 Years in Tech: Training & Public Speaking

Although 2021 is over and my ’30 years’ mark has officially passed, there are still plenty of topics to cover. One of them is how I got to start presenting for an audience and made it part of my career in tech. This didn’t happen overnight, and quite frankly, for my first speaking engagement I was nervous as hell! But let’s go back to where it all started: as a technical trainer. This turned out to be a great foundation for my later endeavours in the conference world.

TDWI Europe Keynote 2017

It all started in 1998 when I was hired as an independent consultant to join a team working on an ERP implementation (Baan IV) for a well known Dutch food company. Before I knew it I was heading the data management team, with setting up a new reporting solution being one of the team’s roles. The company had selected Business Objects as their reporting tool, and since this was new to all of us, we were sent on a training. As you might have read in my previous post, I quickly fell in love with BO. I liked it so much that after the project finished I took the certification course and became a certified Business Objects consultant. A little later, I was called by an acquaintance asking me if I was interested in delivering a BO Reporter training.

And so began a new phase in my life, that of part-time (BO) trainer. I really enjoyed (and still do) teaching people something new, enthusing them about all the cool things they can do with the tools at hand. Over the next years, I trained hundreds of people from various backgrounds. This was not just on reporting but on the entire BO universe (pun intended) which was quickly expanding as well. At the same time I kept working as a consultant on different projects, solidifying my product knowledge which in turn could be translated into new training material.

All this experience in the training room helped me to become comfortable speaking for different groups of people, which really helps if you want to make the step to the ‘big’ stage. But still, there are things you cannot prepare for… In 2006 I started writing for the Dutch trade publication “Database Magazine” and worked on a series of articles about Open Source BI. One of the first items in that series was about open-source databases, and I was invited to speak about that topic at Database Systems 2007 (still running as the DW&BI Summit btw). This would be my first public presentation ever, which excited me of course (I was honoured they even considered me), and of course I wanted to be well prepared.

Fortunately, there were some local gatherings where I could practice a couple of times. For aspiring speakers: this is an essential part of your preparation! It helped me to improve my timing and flow, to clarify the material for the audience, and to be ready for questions people might have.

Then, the big day came. I had everything set up, walked into the room after the break and saw who was sitting in the front row. First the famous author and database guru Rick van der Lans, with next to him Professor Martin Kersten who created MonetDB, one of the products I was covering.

I’ve read that some people rather die than speak in public, and at that moment, I for sure was one of them. I still don’t know how I got any consistent sentence out of my mouth, but apparently I did. What’s more: to my great relief both Rick and Martin liked my talk! In fact, Rick liked it enough to invite me to speak at other conferences, such as the IRM-UK DW&BI conference in London.

My open-source BI interest also took me to TDWI Europe in Munich, one of the biggest BI conferences in Europe. During my first visit as an attendee, I met Mark Madsen. It turned out we have so many common interests that we started collaborating on joint presentations on different topics, of which open-source BI was the first one in 2008. After that I became a regular and in 2017, which marked my 10th anniversary as a TDWI teacher, I was invited to present the Wednesday keynote for an audience of about 1200 people.

Was I nervous? Well, a little of course. There’s always a healthy bit of tension right at the start, but I’ve learned that when I make it through the first minute, I’ll be fine. The key word in that sentence is ‘learned’. Every speaking or training engagement is a learning experience and will help you become a better speaker and/or trainer. The same goes for customer demo’s, internal team presentations or even talking to your friends. That’s one of the best speaking tips I ever got from Rick van der Lans: just talk as if you’re sitting at a bar with your friends. If your story is engaging for them, it sure will be for any other audience as well.

Was I ever as nervous as during that first talk in 2007? You bet! In 2010 I was invited to speak at Predictive Analytics World in London, organized by Eric Siegel. And not only he was there; so were John Elder and Usama Fayyad, among others. I still remember Usama grilling me about whether open source data mining tools were ready for enterprise use. I wasn’t entirely convinced back then based on my own experiences, so I ended the discussion with ‘it depends…’. Nevertheless, he and everyone else were very friendly.

And that’s the thing: the audience, including the experts, will figure out immediately if you’re well prepared, did the research, and made an effort to support your talk with a decent slide deck. And invariably they will be very friendly and welcoming, even if you’re a relative outsider or newcomer to the field. If you’ve done your homework, there’s no reason to be nervous. But if you take your audience for granted? Oh boy, I already feel nervous for you.




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Jos van Dongen

Jos van Dongen

Analytics Advisor at SAS | Helping organizations derive value from (big) data and analytics | Every day is a school day!

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