How I Unintentionally Became a Public Speaker
I’m not an extrovert. I’m not very good at making conversation with people I’ve just met. If I make the decision to speak up in a meeting, I have a 15-30 second debate in my head about my word choice and whether I should say anything at all.
So when people ask me, “How did you start speaking at tech conferences?” The answer is always, “I dunno… I just started doing it.” That statement could not be more true. When I decided to move to New York a few years ago, I didn’t understand the tech community that I was relocating to.
It all started at my last job, which was a start up that built advertising software for big companies. We were using Ember.js to build out a lot of technologies, and I had just worked on an npm library that gave the Aviary SDK a nice interface to work with in an Ember application. My coworker suggested that I give a lightning talk on the work I had just done at the next Ember NYC meetup. I don’t remember what my response was, but I remember being open to it. I had been to enough meetups to see people speak for a few minutes or extended periods of time, and it seemed simple enough.
The day of the meetup came, and to say that I was freaking out is a complete understatement. I look back on a lot of my fears, and they are honestly ridiculous:
- “No one wants to hear me talk.”
- “Everyone will be listening if I mess up.”
- “I don’t know what to say.”
- “I don’t know enough about what I built.”
- “Someone is going to ask me a question I can’t answer.”
The entire day I kept going over and over what I would say in my head. I rehearsed it with my manager, and then changed it again. The meetup came, and it was time for me to present. I had prepared a demo to help lead the talk with a funny image.
To be honest, I completely blacked out that whole talk. It could have been anywhere from 5-15 minutes. I remember exactly three things about it:
- The entire audience was male. (This made me more nervous.)
- A few people laughed at my funny image in my demo. (This made me less nervous.)
- 2 people asked me questions. (They were great questions.)
That was almost 2 years ago, and there are a few things I wish I could tell my younger, inexperienced self:
- 99% of the audience is generally interested in what you have to say.
- 99% of the audience does not care how much experience you have.
- 99% of the audience wants you to succeed in this talk and everything you do afterwards.
- 99% of the audience will appreciate an informative and/or educational talk.
A few people asked me questions about the library I had created after I had left the podium. Some people tweeted me. Some people had starred the project on GitHub. The audience could not have been more friendly and interested in what I had to say. I am not sure what I had hoped to gain from this experience, but, looking back, the outcome could be considered a success.
Some time later, a coworker at my next job told me that he remembered my lightning talk from that meetup. “What did you think?” His response? “It was good! I could just tell that you were really nervous.” Go figure.
A year later, I attended my first EmberConf. I had been working with Ember for about a year and a half at that point and wanted to take my relationship with the framework to the next level. Come spring, I made plans to fly out to Portland to attend.
I arrived in Portland a few days early to explore the city a bit. The conference started on Tuesday, but there were a few workshops on Monday. One in particular caught my eye: A workshop for women interested in getting into public speaking. At that time, I had not consciously thought about public speaking, but the thought of any workshop that was only for women was intriguing if not only for the networking. First thing Monday morning, I went to early registration and asked the organizers if I could attend, and they allowed me to even though I hadn’t signed up.
Upon entering the workshop, I was amazed to see how many women there were. Some of the attendees were speakers at the conference, but a majority of them were just there to gather information. I won’t go into too much detail about the content of the workshop (you’ll just have to take a speaking workshop with Bear Douglas because it is SO WORTH IT), but I was in awe at how many women that work in development roles were in one room.
The rest of EmberConf was just as eyeopening. The conference had a wide range of topics from debugging to CSS to best practices, and probably half of the speakers were women. The selection process is anonymous, so the selection committee for the conference is not actively seeking out female speakers. It means that of the total number of submissions, roughly 50% must come from women. How is that possible? The Ember community has played an active role in encouraging women to get involved, and it has paid off.
After EmberConf was a two-day hackathon at my current employer, Blue Apron. I don’t know if it was the high of going straight from a conference into a hackathon (which I was working on an awesome project with a coworker), but the second day of the hackathon I woke up with this crazy idea. (I will later learn that if I am having a creative block, sleep is always the answer.) I had an idea for a conference talk that involved performance in Ruby code based on some benchmark tests I had run with some coworkers earlier in the year. I have no idea how I even stumbled into GORUCO’s (Gotham Ruby Conference) CFP page, but I spent all morning putting together a proposal that I hoped made sense. I didn’t have anyone review it, but I read it over and over again out loud to make sure it made sense. I sent it in and then headed to the location of the hackathon to finish out the week.
The following Monday, I attended work like any other week. Most of the hype of the previous week had worn off. I wasn’t even sure if I had successfully submitted my talk, or if it was just another vivid dream (Dreaming about code is not new to me). I had no idea when I would hear back. Around 11am, I received an email with “Accepting Danielle to speak at GORUCO 2016” as the subject. My stomach did a full cartwheel. I thought, “HOLY SHIT! They picked me?!” There aren’t words to describe this experience because I literally never thought in 100 million years that I would be selected.
A few weeks later, I started to prepare more in depth for the talk. I knew my topic would be covering performance, but I wasn’t sure how to make that interesting. I thought about it a lot, and subconsciously tossed the topic around my brain endlessly. About 2 weeks after my acceptance, I woke up with a weird idea. Instead of benchmarking my code normally, I could make a game out of it. It wouldn’t be a full rewrite of Ruby’s Benchmark library, but it would be a fun way to measure performance. I got to work, and I published the ruby-racer gem. It’s still available on rubygems.org. (Not to be confused with the-ruby-racer which had a minor version release this year.) This would be a perfect way to present my topic in a non-boring way.
The day of my talk, I was more nervous than I had probably ever been in my life. Looking back, I don’t know what I was so nervous about. I knew my content. I had practiced. Maybe it was the live coding. Maybe it was the thought of standing in front of hundreds of people and explaining a topic that they may or may not already know better than me. After all, the takeaway from my talk was “You may not know what you think you know.” What if they already knew everything?
My slot came and went. I was really happy it was in the morning, so that I could enjoy the rest of the conference. Again, I blacked out the whole talk. I think I went 2 minutes over. I think my live coding went smoothly. I think people clapped. It was over.
GORUCO is great because they do a booze cruise after party in the evening after the conference. I had lots of people come up to me afterwards to ask me about my findings in detail and give their opinions and perceptions. It was great! I had no idea people cared what I had to say or that it would make them think.
When I received the feedback from the conference, there were three pieces of feedback that could be summarized:
- Attendees were interested in hearing about the inner workings of Ruby. (I was totally wrong.)
- Attendees wanted me to go into even more detail about the topic. (It was only a 10 minute talk.)
- I had appeared nervous. (Recurring theme.)
A few weeks later, a remote coworker that was visiting the office asked how my talk went. “Good,” I replied. He then suggested that I reuse the topic and reapply to other conferences. “Don’t let it get stale.”
Luckily, there’s a website that lists upcoming Ruby conferences with their CFP and registration dates. I found 4 to submit to: 2 were international and 2 were national. After tweaking the proposals slightly for each conference, I submitted them all. Now, it was time to wait.
Months passed, and I was accepted to the 2 conferences that were international. Blue Apron agreed to send me to one of them, so I chose to attend RubyDay. I spent the next few months turning a 10-minute talk into a 40-minute talk. The feedback I received from GORUCO was invaluable. I knew exactly what I needed to add. RubyDay came and went, and I was starting to feel more confident speaking in front of large groups of mostly technical people. I didn’t black out the whole talk, maybe just 50% of it.
It was the new year now, and I had worked hard on the presentation for RubyDay, so I wanted to see if I could get one more talk out of it. There was a regional Ruby conference in Salt Lake City, RubyHACK, coming up in April that seemed perfect for it, so I submitted my conference talk one last time.
At the same time I slowly had been getting involved in these conferences, the team I worked on at Blue Apron made some changes to their software that involved adding hardware to the system. One morning I woke up, and thought, “There’s a talk here.” At around that time, RailsConf was accepting proposals for talks. I got the topic approved and submitted the proposal. The 2 conferences were back-to-back though. “There is no way I will get into both, so I don’t have to worry about that.”
I was wrong. The folks at RubyHACK accepted my proposal to speak. A few weeks later, I received my acceptance to speak at RailsConf, one of the single most exciting moments of my life to date.
I won’t go into the boring details of the next few months, you can just watch the output of the work on YouTube. The reception at both conferences was incredible, and I’m so proud of the work that I put in. I am also happy to report that I have stopped blacking out while speaking, and I have discovered a few coping mechanisms with the stress:
- Tweet ridiculous things leading up to the talk, especially on the day of.
- Pacing on stage helps.
If you want to get into speaking at tech conferences, the TL;DR of my story is the following:
- Apply to every conference that you can.
- Reuse your talks. (3 times works for me.)
- Nobody knows everything, and few people think they know everything.
- Don’t worry if attendees care what you have to say. They usually do. Those that don’t will have already left.
- Speak every opportunity you can get in front of an audience. (I didn’t get into this point, but I volunteer for Women Who Code and RailsBridge, which sometimes requires me to speak in front of large groups of people.)
- Most importantly, if you think you don’t have anything to talk about, you probably do. Let it stew in your brain for a few days. It’ll come to you when you least expect it.
I’m still not sure what I hope to get out of these conference talks. What I do know is that attendees have told me its ‘made them think’, and that’s enough reason for me to keep doing it.