Why You Should Speak at Conferences

Kristin Collins (a Lead Programmer at Tighten) joins us for her second time on the show, and this time she’s talking about conference talks: why you should consider doing them, how to get started, and a lot more.

Transcript

Dave Hicking: Welcome to Twenty Percent Time, a podcast that takes you behind the scenes of Tighten, a web consultancy based out of Chicago, but entirely remote and spread out all over the place. We specialize in Laravel a PHP framework, but we're often pairing that with a number of Javascript frameworks and libraries. I'm your host, Dave Hicking. And this week I'm joined by Kristin Collins, a lead programmer here at Tighten. Hi Kristin, how are you?

Kristin Collins: Hi, Dave. I'm doing well. How are you?

Dave Hicking: I'm excellent. It is a chilly Friday morning here in the Northeast, and I am super excited to have you on once again as a repeat...

Kristin Collins: Thank you.

Dave Hicking: ... podcast guest. I appreciate it. Kristin, for folks who haven't heard you on a podcast before, or haven't interacted with you online in any way, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Kristin Collins: Absolutely. So, as you said, my name's Kristin. I work at Tighten as a lead programmer. I've been doing Laravel and PHP for a number of years now. My favorite thing to do is to work on projects from scratch and kind of build ideas up from nothing, basically. I like throwing that together and collaborating with people. It's my favorite thing to do.

Dave Hicking: That's fantastic. I love doing that too. So, today we've got you on to not talk about building a project from scratch or anything to do with Laravel, but kind of something to do with, not just Laravel, but really being a programmer, or honestly, if you want to extend it even more, just being a professional out there in the world. And that's conference talks, all about them, why people should do them, maybe a little bit about how to prep for a talk. I don't know if we're going to go there or not. But, let's start by talking about your experience with conference talks, if that's okay.

Kristin Collins: Absolutely.

Dave Hicking: What was your first conference talk and why did you want to do it?

Kristin Collins: My first ever conference talk was actually a little sort of mini conference. My workplace, several years ago, had what they called Innovation Week. And so it was a rather big company.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: And we would all get together and come up with neat ideas for the company. And it was a really great idea. Tighten does a similar thing, which is Twenty Percent Time. So we're doing it every Friday, not once a week, but it's the same idea.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: And basically you give people freedom to kind of come up with new and innovative ideas that can benefit themselves creatively as well as the company. And when I worked there, it was the first year that they opened it up beyond just the software developers. They included us in web, they included marketing, they included everyone. And my boss at the time, and his name was Justin, very great boss and everything just, kind of threw it out there. "Hey, let me know if you guys are interested." And I put together something that I thought was very silly, very low key. I did kind of a comical presentation along with it just to keep things light and airy. And it actually went very well. I got follow up from it. I found out a couple years later that they actually implemented my idea in their software. And so it was a really rewarding experience for me. And so it got me on the track to do it more often. I just did two talks at Laracon back to back. We did winter 2021 and then summer 2022. And both of those are sort of along the same... Oh, a similar vein, I guess, which is, I work for a company that they really stress innovation and being creative. And I put myself out there thinking, "Oh, this will be silly and nobody will care." And I got some really positive feedback. So, I really wanted to take the time to sort of encourage other people to also do things and challenge themselves because it can be a really rewarding experience.

Dave Hicking: What was the biggest lesson you took away from, I guess, prepping and then ultimately first doing that conference talk? That first one, sorry.

Kristin Collins: I think that the biggest thing to take away from it is that we make assumptions about ourselves and our own intelligence. I think sometimes that what we have to offer is smaller than what other people have to offer or even not valid in some way, or people will see it and think less of you because you have that point of view. And I think what I've sort of taken away from all my experiences is that that really isn't the case. We're all individuals, we all think differently. And having multiple points of view, having multiple streams of input is how we learn and grow in our development community.

Dave Hicking: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, and honestly, that's more than just being a developer. I think we all, I mean, honestly, the first time I ever did a podcast, I'm sure the first time you ever saw yourself on a video or heard yourself on a podcast, you were just like, "Oh my God."

Kristin Collins: Yes.

Dave Hicking: We have that tendency to react in that way, but no, it is okay to put yourself out there and understanding that everybody comes into it with that kind of trepidation at first. Right?

Kristin Collins: I think so. I think it's a common viewpoint for a lot of people who actually give these conference talks that right up until they give it, they're worried that what they have to say either doesn't have value or someone's immediately going to come in and correct them after the fact. And the truth is that those fears are just fears that sometimes keep us from doing things that we're scared to do. But in actuality things like Stack Overflow would never have been invented if people didn't want to ask questions or our community involvement with forums and social media. It's all a result of people wanting to collaborate with other people and ideas.

Dave Hicking: And also it goes along with honestly doing work on open source projects.

Kristin Collins: Yes.

Dave Hicking: It's becoming comfortable with working in public, which is a whole... Or showing your work or not being quite as guarded in public, which can be hard for lots of people. And even if you've done it, it can still be difficult. Do you find that even though you've done multiple conference talks, do you feel kind of jitters when you are about to go and do one?

Kristin Collins: Oh, 100%; every time. Every time!

Dave Hicking: Yeah?

Kristin Collins: Yes. I have been told that sometimes I make it look easy and that is just facade. I tell you, because it is an intimidating experience. And I think that I do have more confidence the more I do it, which is why I think people should try to do it more often is because the more you do something, the less scary it becomes. But, I think that we are all still challenging ourselves every time and putting ourselves out there in public.

Dave Hicking: Yeah, I was going to ask you along those lines, so you just mentioned confidence, so let's say someone's listening and they're like, "Okay, we all love going to conferences." Well, many of us love going to conferences, whether virtual or in person, but actually speaking at a conference might be a whole different thing. Especially if they think that maybe, "I haven't done this for long enough," or, "I'm not an expert." So, you mentioned confidence. Are there other reasons why people should really think, "Yeah, actually speaking at a conference would be beneficial for me or beneficial for my career?"

Kristin Collins: Oh yeah. I can think of a lot of reasons. So, networking is probably at the forefront of that.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: When you attend conferences, I've noticed that even active participation where you're asking questions in the audience. You can meet a lot of great people that way by also putting yourself out there and saying, "Hey, I don't know an answer to a question and I'm willing to ask it in front of a group of 100 people or more."

Dave Hicking: Right.

Kristin Collins: People are more willing to talk to you after you've sort of been a little bit vulnerable with them, I think. And once I gave my first Laravel talk on the Nova SEO packages, I didn't get a lot of feedback at first, but I have noticed people forking or starring my package that I shared in sort of a collaborative effort.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: And I think that by putting myself out there and by saying, "Hey, here's some code," I invited people in to continue that conversation with me offline.

Dave Hicking: Yeah, that's interesting. I hadn't really thought about the sort of asynchronous nature that, maybe software specifically, but at least in this case, software particularly offers in terms of feedback for conference organizers. Because one thing I always get a kick out of, and this is an interesting, I don't know, perk thing about working at Tighten. Every time there's an in person Laracon, we go, we are a sponsor, we have a sponsor table. Because I am not a dev, I end up working the sponsor table because as much as I love all of my colleagues and I love the community, many of the talks are going to skim right over my head. And what I always love is anytime we have a first time speaker at Tighten, or maybe someone who hasn't spoken in a long time, or honestly, anybody who speaks, afterwards, there are people who will come by the table and they'll be like, "Hey, have you seen Kristin? I have a question." And sometimes it's, I don't know. I'm always excited by the idea that we're helping to share knowledge throughout the community, but also that if someone sees someone on stage, they're like, "Oh, I'm kind of like that person," whether I'm like, "Oh, I met them before and they seem kind of shy, but they're up there. So maybe I can ask them a question." You're making those connections in other sorts of different ways. I love that. I think that's a great... I don't know. I love that we encourage conference talks. I think that's why we're kind of doing this podcast, is to talk about it a little.

Kristin Collins: Yeah, and encourage more people to do it because you definitely, again, you don't want to get in sort of what's I think commonly referred to as an echo chamber in development where you want those new ideas.

Dave Hicking: For sure.

Kristin Collins: That's what spurns on creativity. It's what spurns on development. We are not going to find new developers or work with new packages if we never see them. And there's always, I think, this inclination when you're getting started, or you're starting something for the first time that you want to keep it private to yourself because you're worried about the criticism and the backlash and I'm not going to say...

Dave Hicking: Or looking silly.

Kristin Collins: Yeah! And I'm not going to say it's not there, Dave, because that would just be a lie.

Dave Hicking: Sure.

Kristin Collins: But, the honesty is that I've noticed that it's a very small percentage of the community that we experience. And when you do put yourself out there like that, you're going to meet more and more people who want to help and want to contribute to your ideas and also give you their ideas. It's a great way to learn and grow.

Dave Hicking: I love the point about not having an echo chamber. I think that's so incredibly important because this, and I'm not even talking about Laracon, I'm saying just more broadly in tech, you sometimes see conferences where over the years, it's the same three people, four people show up and that's, in some cases that's because no, these people are doing awesome things continually and they have new things to announce and that's great. But it's also great to have fresh faces, new people, new ideas, new perspectives. Yeah. I think that's a really good point. Okay, so let's say somebody is listening to this right now and they're like, "All right, Kristin, I'm starting to feel some confidence. I'm on board with the idea, but maybe speaking at Laracon seems daunting or maybe that seems like a big bite to take for your first time out." Do you have advice on how do you think someone should start?

Kristin Collins: Oh, absolutely. I think the best place, honestly, to start is some form of a meetup group or sub community. I mean, I know meetup is hard to pitch right now because it's during COVID so we're not meeting up.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: But when I first moved to Maryland, I was actively involved in the Women Who Code down in DC and would go pretty much once a month to collaborate on topics. Right now, I'm in the Lara Bells Community with Susanna. And we talk about conference talks there pretty regularly and people will give you the space to pitch. Obviously, working at Tighten, everybody helps to review my talks before I go out and give some feedback, which only makes it better and stronger. But, yeah, I think just getting involved in a community would be super helpful to just kind of practice and get some topics underway. It's really a good place to start.

Dave Hicking: Yeah, if I can add onto that, I think another place, so Tighten has, we call them Tighten Talks. They are internal talks for our team on Twenty Percent days. But, I've been at companies, especially ones that are maybe a bit more traditional, maybe you're in person. We called them Lunch And Learns.

Kristin Collins: Oh, yeah.

Dave Hicking: I think like even starting there. Getting like sort of being okay, talking out loud with folks, maybe some folks who aren't on your team, maybe some different folks might come. Yeah. I think that's also, I think that's, if you're in a bit more of a traditional company, that might also be an idea.

Kristin Collins: Yeah, and for people who maybe are scared of doing the presentation and the content all at once. Blog posts are a very big medium right now. You can, obviously if you're web developer listening to this, you can just spin up your own.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: But, there are also a lot of examples of people who will take your work. I know that Laravel News, in particular, is very open about publishing packages, right?

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: So, if you wanted to do a small writeup on your package, I'm sure you could submit that over. Obviously there's more than that out there in the world. I'm not, I only publish, my blog posts are Tighten and I'm still under the review process. So I unfortunately cannot give much direction as far as that's concerned. But, if you do, if you want to take it one step at a time and say, "Okay, I want to do my content first. And then I can kind of put that together." That's a great way to start.

Dave Hicking: And we haven't even talked about, especially now, you could livestream if you really wanted to go big and bold, but you don't have to start there. So, let's say, all right, someone has signed up for their first conference talk, but maybe they know a little bit where to start, but they would love some advice. Do you have any advice that you could give somebody who's about to give their first talk?

Kristin Collins: Yeah, absolutely. As far as like finding a topic or, you know, kind of narrowing down on an idea.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: I definitely encourage people to sort of examine their niche. If you look for feedback in your own team or even sometimes review some of your old projects, I think that a lot of people find that there's work, that they've done that has been praised for a very specific reason.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: Whether it's, "Oh, this has a great user interface." Like, "I would use this, I wish this was available on all my applications."

Dave Hicking: Right.

Kristin Collins: Or, oh, I think we are just watching the Laravel documentary and the, what is it? Taylor's code comments, right?

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: The scaffolding structure; there are little niches about the way that everybody works or the type of work that they do that can shed an interesting perspective. I think another thing to remember is that it's okay to not have a full, clear picture when you submit a talk because it, I think being broad, even with your topic selection can help steer you once you start deep diving into it. Most of my talk titles that have been submitted, they're not a hundred percent precise as to what I actually delivered that day, you know?

Dave Hicking: Yeah, so it sounds like you don't put the topic on a pedestal. You're not thinking, "It's got to be perfect. It's got to be precisely like sort of crafted," you're comfortable sort of with something a bit bigger and then honing in as you get closer to it. That's interesting.

Kristin Collins: Absolutely. And I think that that is a very important process of writing in general, is being open to editing in a lot of manners. There's going to be new technologies that come out all the time.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: Your team's probably going to tell you things like, "Oh, I know that you use this particular package a lot, but people might not be familiar with it so spend more time." And I think that by setting a broader topic, you are giving yourself room to grow into the areas that are most beneficial.

Dave Hicking: So, so far we have talked mostly about what potential first time speakers could do. But I want to flip this around. What do you think, or do you have opinions on what conference organizers can or should do to encourage more first time conference speakers?

Kristin Collins: Oh, that's a great question. So, I'm going to throw people under the bus. No, I'm just kidding.

Dave Hicking: Hahaha.

Kristin Collins: Haha, one of the things that we've talked about locally is that a lot of people post call for speakers on social media or Twitter.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: Sometimes, that gets lost in kind of a deluge of other notifications. Other times there's a small population of the world that, like myself, that doesn't use Twitter very often or every day. And also I think that, again, with the echo chambers, sometimes we share with the people that we know...

Dave Hicking: Right.

Kristin Collins: ...But doing a broader outreach or casting a wider net, so to speak, can be a really good idea. I've seen some conferences that have a dedicated page for the upcoming year or upcoming talk well before they're actually putting it together that just has a call for speaker applications.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: So they know that people who are interested in the conference can go ahead and submit things as they want to and it doesn't need to be a full dedicated site for, you don't have to plan out all the events yet. You can just say, "Hey, we're calling for speakers." And I think personally that's an excellent tool.

Dave Hicking: I think that's a really good point about social media and not, first of all, you can't assume everyone's on there. But also, I think we all sometimes forget that because not just Twitter, but whatever social media you're on is ultimately like decided by a combination of people you've decided to follow plus whatever the algorithm might be showing you that they like, your Twitter is not the same as my Twitter.

Kristin Collins: Right.

Dave Hicking: And so people, you're like, "Oh, well I shared it with all these folks." And it's like, "Yeah, but like, that's such a small niche at this point." We don't have a shared, there's no such thing as like a universal timeline for Twitter. That would be impossible.

Kristin Collins: Yeah.

Dave Hicking: So I think that's a really good one. So, keeping on the trend of maybe what conference organizers could do more of, or do better at, you've spoken at a couple of them, we don't need to throw, we're not trying to throw Laracon on the bus. We love Laracon, we sponsor them, but just in general, and this can be for first time speakers, this could be for all speakers. Are there things that you would love to see that would make the experience of speaking at a conference better, or maybe more comfortable or whatever term you want to put in there?

Kristin Collins: I'd say that with my previous experience, first of all, that there are pretty tight deadlines given for talks. But that doesn't actually translate into the day itself. As we all know, talks go under, over, way more than they go under. And as much as people would like to plan for that, I think the truth is that maybe trying to hone in on, I think maybe setting a more fluid limit, or even trying to check in with people the week before and saying, Hey, did you time your last talk? What'd you come in at?" Might help to kind of define that schedule a little bit better and not make people feel rushed or pressured or...

Dave Hicking: Yeah, sure.

Kristin Collins: ...Because I know some people really stress if they run over and then a break is canceled and then you see a bunch of people that are upset about it, and then you sort of feel responsible like, "Oh, did I cut someone's lunch short? I feel terrible." So, I think that might make people feel a little bit more comfortable as far as schedules, but I'm not sure that there's a real perfect answer for that because...

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: You're organizing a lot of people...

Dave Hicking: Oh, sure.

Kristin Collins: ...Across a lot of different time zones and that in and of itself is quite a major feat.

Dave Hicking: Oh, there's a reason why we don't have Tighten-con. It's a lot of work and I appreciate the folks who do it. I really do.

Kristin Collins: Absolutely.

Dave Hicking: Is there anything, so that's actually, that's the end of my questions. Is there anything about giving a conference talk or prepping for a conference talk or anything like that I didn't ask you about that you would like to talk about? Anything else in your mind? Anything else you want to share?

Kristin Collins: I think that a couple of questions I've been asked overall is, "How do you even pitch a conference talk?"

Dave Hicking: Okay, yeah.

Kristin Collins: "I have this open ended Google form. And what do I say? How much do I say, should I be, should I be pre-thinking my entire talk ahead of time?" And I would say that, just to reiterate, it's okay for your talk title to be a little broad or vague, especially Laracon, but I know other conferences, they don't lock you in to the first title you submit, you can refine it after the fact, if you find something that's a little more fitting. It's okay to give yourself a little room where that's concerned. As far as talk descriptions, I think that a lot of conference organizers are looking for something that they can copy and paste directly under your speaker info or what they'll be talking about. So, you really want this to kind of be a sales pitch. You want to approach it, I'd say one to three sentences most times, unless they ask you for a long description. I'd keep it to one to three sentences and you want to answer two things. One, what is the problem you want to solve? And two, why would people want to hear your talk? And I think that just a quick address of those things really helps the organizers to judge, "Okay, what audience are they hitting at here? And what topics will they cover?" That'll help them create tags or invite certain people say, "Hey, this is kind of your community. Maybe you want to hear this out." I think another thing to remember is that you can buddy up with people. You see a lot of conference speakers doing solo talks.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: Because I think that there's some people who can stand in front of others and I think there's some people who can't.

Dave Hicking: Right.

Kristin Collins: And I think it's important to remember that's okay. A lot of our work as developers is collaborative. We do use a lot of open source products. We do have teams of people that we work with. It's okay to also have teams of people that help you on your talk. And if one person wants to deliver that and just sort of share credit, don't be scared of that. Don't be scared of contributing just because you don't want to talk. You don't want to be the one talking to people.

Dave Hicking: That's a great point. Yeah. This is all really great, Kristin, because the last couple times I have tried, I have submitted a talk, I have not been accepted and that is totally okay. And I think one thing I just realized listening to you is I think I'm writing too much. I'm writing like a short novel basically about why my talk would be awesome. So that is really useful and actionable even just for me, if no one else. So thank you, Kristin.

Kristin Collins: Yeah.

Dave Hicking: And is there anything else before we wrap up today, is there anything else that you wanted to share about this topic?

Kristin Collins: I think the big thing that I hope that everyone takes away from this is that we are a diverse community of people in life, in work.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Kristin Collins: And we are more diverse than sometimes who is actually saying it or giving the talk.

Dave Hicking: Right.

Kristin Collins: But, I do think it's important to remember that you can inspire other people by getting up there and talking. You want them to see that there are a lot of different people who code. There are probably as many different types of people as there are IDEs at this point to configure your environment. Just like your local setup, nobody's the same. We all do it differently. And I think it's good to represent that in our community and to show that we are diverse, we have great talent and we have a lot to share.

Dave Hicking: That's fantastic. Kristin. Thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a lot of fun. I really appreciate it. I know you said you're not super active on Twitter, at least, if people want to connect with you or find you online at any places there any specific way place they should go to?

Kristin Collins: Well, I did join the Laravel's discord and I am actively trying to be more involved in that.

Dave Hicking: Excellent.

Kristin Collins: And I know at least the general channels are open to everyone. So, don't feel excluded. Come, hang out. I think also my GitHub is constantly monitored. It's not really a social media platform, but if you want to tag me on a package that you want to look over or collaborate on an idea, I'm definitely watching that all the time.

Dave Hicking: Excellent. Well, Kristin, thank you so much. It's been wonderful having you on and I'll see you around Tighten.

Kristin Collins: All right. Thanks Dave.

Dave Hicking: Bye.

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