Conferences

My First Ever Conference Talk

I have talked at many conferences since my first public appearance at DevTalks Cluj in May 2017. That one came about because my esteemed former colleague, Pat Kua, couldn't take up the invitation to speak and they asked him to recommend somebody. He sent an email to ThoughtWorks UK and I was the lucky one that saw it first and said "me, please!"

That was a talk entitled "Being Agile in a StraightJacket" which was a mash up of my experiences in the first two and a half gigs I did for ThoughtWorks and, looking back, it was pretty basic. I highlighted a lot of problems that I had come across in bloated, process (rather than outcome) oriented, organisations but it offered little in the way of solutions. I did offer a "top 5 tips" on navigating such organisations successfully but it was thin on examples and proven success stories, where "thin" means non-existent.

I arrived in Cluj quite late and went to the hotel. I managed to have a couple of beers before the bar closed for the night which was fine since I was speaking first the following day. I remember being confident about the talk and in no way nervous when I came to deliver it. Being nervous before talks strangely came many months later when I was many conferences more experienced. I think it was well received and there were some interesting questions afterwards but no feedback was ever passed to me so I'm speculating.

My First Successful CFP

Another esteemed colleague, Chris Ford, gave me a lot of sage advice when we worked together for a few months right at the start of my ThoughtWorks career. Amongst lots of great tips, he gave me advice on how to successfully get a talk accepted into a CFP. A corollary to this advice was to never prepare any presentation until it was accepted. Think about what the flow might be by all means. Think about what material you might like to put together. Maybe work on some demonstrations that you might use (since that is useful for learning in its own right) but on no account whatsoever should you make any slides at all. Basically, this is a simple application of the YAGNI principal. Why make slides that you aren't certain of ever having to use?

So throughout the final months of 2016 and the early months of 2017 I applied to talk at many conferences. I got rejections from everywhere but no success. I got some good feedback from Agile on the Beach for my "Agile in a StraightJacket" submission and it got to the final stage of voting (their CFP feedback is very detailed) but ultimately, all of my submissions failed. Just when I was in despair at ever being accepted through a CFP, I got an email from Codemotion Berlin saying my talk (Agile in a StraightJacket again) had been accepted. I was very suspicious that I was a late substitution as I got the acceptance email only a couple of weeks before the conference but I was keen to do it and ThoughtWorks was happy to let me go.

Berlin is a great place to go. I met up with an ex-colleague, Jaideep, who had moved to Germany and I was out pretty late the night before my talk. This was in October 2017 and I hadn't looked at the deck since I'd delivered it back in May in Cluj. I thus for the first time had the experience of modifying the slides for my presentation immediately before delivering it. I have since found this technique to be both necessary and rewarding. I especially like to include some slides of other people's talks at the same conference and some shots of local (building) architecture if I have had time to see the city.

It was at this conference that I first saw the "ThoughtWorks effect". In between watching talks on the first day of the conference I was chatting to a woman about something that had been said. In the course of the conversation I showed her an email that I had in my inbox which had the ThoughtWorks logo on it. She kind of gasped and said "Wow, you work for ThoughtWorks?" I was quite shocked by the reaction. Obviously I was aware of the reputation that we have as a company but until that moment I had always thought that the reputation was something that was down to other people (it is of course) and I had never seen myself as a part of that reputation, albeit a small part.

This was the first time I felt like I was on a "big" stage. the conference was in a converted factory of some kind, I think it may have been a brewery at some point, and the room I spoke in had quite a large stage which I had to climb a few stairs to get on to. When I was on the stage, the rest of the room was in darkness and I was a bit blinded by the lights shining on to the stage. I could only really see the front row of the audience where Jaideep and PJ, another speaker who I had made friends with, were seated. Again, I think the talk was well received though again I got no formal feedback. As I exited the stage there was a group of about half a dozen people waiting to talk to me before I could escape to the pub for a well earned drink.

Learning to do CFPs

Though the last part of 2017 and the early part of 2018 I filled in a lot of CFPs. I felt like I was learning how to catch the eyes of the people that read the submissions. Typically, the synopsis, perhaps limited to only 300 characters, and the title of the talk is all the chance you get to impress the judges and get your talk accepted. Many CFPs ask for links to earlier talks and for a summary of your experience of conference speaking. At this stage I had none of the former, neither DevTalks Cluj nor CodeMotion Berlin had recorded my talks, and very little of the latter. What I did have was two developing ideas for talks which were to be accepted at several conferences throughout 2018.

Architectology is an Anti-Pattern

This talk idea had been kicking around in my head for a many months. Whilst working for ThoughtWorks and through talking to many of my ThoughtWorks colleagues, I had formed an idea that often the role of "architect" isn't really a planning role. It is more of a retrospective, understanding the legacy that exists in our estate, kind of role. I have written about this idea on this blog before. This talk was accepted as a lightning talk in Devoxx Bristol and Devoxx UK in March and May respectively, although the Bristol conference was later postponed until October.

Microservices are not Worth the Trouble..?

This was my first stab at a click-baity kind of title. As a ThoughtWorker, I am expected to be very pro-microservices. A talk title that seems to question whether they are a good idea or not was very controversial and very attractive, apparently, to those that judge CFPs. In fact it was so controversial that I got asked to provide the material to the internal conference committee before I was allowed to deliver the talk the first time. Given that i was sticking rigidly to Chris Ford's "no slides before acceptance rule, it was hard (well, impossible) for me to comply with this request. The committee accepted my explanation of the talk that the title was deliberately controversial and that it was not going to be contrary to ThoughtWorks core messaging. Rather, it was complementary to our messaging as it was similar in tone to Martin Fowler's Microservices Prerequisites blog post.

Getting Bold and Speculating

In March 2018 I presented my Microservices talk at Voxxed Vienna (which sadly didn't happen again in 2019). I have very fond memories of this conference. This was the place where I first met my good friends David Leitner and Alasdair Collinson. Alasdair presented a talk on quantum computing which totally blew my mind. I had heard of them before but apparently they were nearly a real thing. The trouble was, I didn't understand much of the talk. I tried to talk to Alasdair that evening but failed miserably, probably because I was too drunk. The following day when I left the conference Gregorz Duda asked me to submit to the CFP of two conferences in Krakow that he was part of. I assumed they would want me to do the same talk I did in Vienna so I submitted that (it was only real talk at the time) and I also submitted a speculative punt on quantum computing to both conferences. "How hard can it be?" I thought. So of course, both conferences picked up the quantum computing thing and there I was with about 5 weeks to learn about it before presenting it to Devoxx Poland in Krakow in June 2018.

That "success" taught me a lot about submitting to CFPs. It taught me that being bold on a title and in the synopsis was what got you accepted. It didn't really matter if you had the material. It almost didn't matter if you knew anything about it (although after the initial quantum experience I don't recommend this at all) as long as you have the time and space to learn. I think I got away with it the first couple of times with quantum because nobody else knew anything at all about it back then. This technique spawned "Agile is a Dirty Word" (my favourite talk from late 2018 through 2019), "Architects such, Architecture Rocks!" (only done this one once so far but it was very well received at Devoxx Poland), "What Drives Your Development" (a fun lightning talk that I've done a few times now) and more recently, "Should I be Scared of Shor's Algorithm?". This last one I gave as a lightning talk in Devoxx London and Lead Dev London and then I managed to get a cancellation spot at Devoxx Poland to present it as a 40 minute version which is probably my favourite talk to date.

What Next?

As I write this in July 2019 I have just started my new job at Codurance. Since April I was looking for a new job while I was still at ThoughtWorks and I had no idea where I was going to go. This made me stop applying for CFPs as I obviously had no idea what attitude my future employer would have to conference speaking. It turns out that Codurance has a similar, probably better, attitude to ThoughtWorks so I'm back looking for conferences to speak at. Hopefully there will be many more to come, hopefully my reputation is building. 

Having links to videos of me talking certainly seemed to help a lot when I was applying for jobs. Many of the people I met had already seen one or more of my videos and told me so. I had no idea that this would be a side effect, I was doing the talks for the love of standing in front of an audience and to share my views. This happy side effect was an unexpected bonus.

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