Brent Stewart

Live life on purpose

How to attend a software development conference

I am always surprised at how many attendees at a conference go to the sessions and then head off to their rooms and wait for the next day.  They are missing out on all the extra curricular activities that the event organizer spent so much time planning.  Not only are they not getting the most out of their money, but they are missing out on meeting some great people.  My first few conferences I was guilty of this behavior, but through dumb luck I ended up going to dinner with most of the speakers of the conference and realized what a fun group of people they were.  Because of the friendships forged from that conference I was inspired to become a speaker share my experiences with the community.  I know being social is not always easy for us developers, and it can be uncomfortable at first, but it is like a muscle in that the more you use it, the easier it gets.  Step outside your comfort zone and forge some new friendships.

First conference speaking engagement post-mortem

Well, I survived my first time speaking at a a conference and thought I would share some of the things that I learned.

Know your material

I know it sounds obvious, but make sure you know your material backwards and forwards because anything you can forget you will.  The added stress of having a group of people staring at you means that it is hard to recall anything that is not automatic.  While I knew most of my material very well, there was still a bit that I changed last minute and of course when the pressure was on I struggled to remember everything that I was planning on saying.

Have a paper copy of what to check before you start

I had an a list of things to check before my talk, but it was on my phone.  The speaker before me took a long time breaking down his setup, so I felt like I was in a hurry to get everything setup and in the hustle and bustle I forgot to pull up my list and I forgot to prep  some things that threw me for a loop during the presentation.

Engage with your audience prior to starting the presentation

This is one area where I felt I did decent, but could improve.  I talked with individuals as they came in and talked with the group and tried to get them comfortable with interacting, but you should never underestimate the awkwardness of a room full of introverts.  This is something that I have noticed that all of the speakers that I look up to seem to do well with.

Relax and enjoy the experience

I know this is easier said than done, but take a moment just prior to your session and appreciate where you are and how fortunate you to be able to do this.   

Preparing for my first talk at a conference

I am getting ready to head off to my first conference speaking engagement, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to capture my thoughts on the whole preparation process.  The talk I am giving is one that I have presented to my local .NET user group, so I already had most of the content, but there was a lot of refinement needed.

When I was younger I was quite nervous to get up in front of people and talk, but as I have gotten more life experience I realize that this is not something to fear.  I’m actually quite excited about the prospect of speaking and almost regret not submitting more than one talk.  I have reached a point in my software development career where one of my favorite things to do is to impart knowledge to my peers.  So I hope this is the first of many speaking engagements.

The single largest concern on my mind going into this experience is how I am going to warm the audience up.  I have watched talks by other wonderful speakers and the one thing they have in common is their ability to get the audience’s attention and hold it.  Many use humor to engage the audience which I feel is one of my strong suits, so it is the tact that I would like to take.  But humor must not be forced and I have struggled with how to weave it into my presentation and make it feel natural.  I know that if I can just make that first connection that I will be ok.

During my preparation I have ran across many useful and thought provoking tips.  Some of the common themes include:

  1. Break your session down into smaller chunks.  For example if you have an hour long presentation, then break it down into a 5 minute intro, five 10 minute segments, and a 5 minute summary.
  2. Keep your slide content to a minimum.  Don’t write what you are going to say on your slides.  The audience won’t be listening because they will be reading your slide, and you will be just re-capping what is written (boring).
  3. Practice, practice, practice.  Don’t just think to yourself that you can wing it.  Make sure you know your information forwards and backwards so you can focus on your stage presence and not spend all your mental focus on trying to remember what comes next.
  4. Pay attention to what your body is doing.  Watch out for unconscious nervous habits like swaying from side to side.  These can be quite distracting and take away from your presentation.  Record yourself and watch for any nervous habits such as touching your face or putting your hands in your pockets and jingling your keys.
  5. Make sure you have a backup plan because Murphy will strike.  My business partner will be there, so I am using his computer as my backup and I am making sure I have all my materials on a thumb drive.  Plan for internet outages, or other worst case scenarios.
  6. Spend time in the speaker’s room and get inspiration from your peers.

Here is a checklist of items to bring to your talk (backups on everything you can):

  1. Computer
  2. Power supply
  3. Video adapters (plan for every possibility)
  4. Thumb drive with backups
  5. Extra batteries (mouse, clicker and anything else battery operated)
  6. Clicker or some way to advance your slides without using your keyboard
  7. Notes printed on a piece of paper
  8. A Timer
  9. Water
  10. Lip balm
  11. Tums

Things to think about ahead of time:

  1. Watch what you eat prior to your talk.  No matter how comfortable you think you are, your body will still experience stress and you don’t want to add upset stomach to your list of concerns.
  2. Get some sleep the night before your talk.  Prepare ahead of time so you don’t have to stay up all night trying to polish your talk.
  3. Make sure your slide deck will work in the resolution and format of the projectors (4:3 or 16:9).
  4. Pick your outfit carefully.  Decide what impression you want to make on your audience.

Have a checklist to go through just before your presentation.  It should contain things such as:

  1. Make sure your video adapters are working
  2. Make sure your clicker is working
  3. Check internet connectivity
  4. Put your computer in presentation mode (turn off all notifications, Skype, etc…)
  5. Silence your phone
  6. Use the restroom – don’t forget to check your appearance as well
  7. Check your zipper

Hopefully I am prepared and can start my speaking career off on the right foot.  But even if I run into unexpected issues, I know this will be a great learning experience.