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Why I hate being an “expert”

About two years ago I started giving talks on the topic of machine learning. I spend around 60–70% of my free time working on projects, figuring out, whether they are worthwhile talking about, setting up a story that is informative, yet engaging and creating pretty slides.

But, whenever I am invited to speak as a JavaScript or Machine Learning “expert”, I hesitate. I hate being an expert.

My first developer networking experience was a PHP Meetup when I was still in training as a software engineer. Most of the attendees knew each other well, and they were laughing, giggling and sometimes heckling the speaker with little inside jokes. I’m sure it was all in good fun, but as an outsider, this felt very exclusive and intimidating to me.

I visited another big developer conference a year later. That experience was even worse. It was language and technology agnostic, which might have been the reason, why lots of talks were pretty superficial or straight up sales pitches (I hear there were some good ones too, though). All during the conference, it was made clear that the speakers were the experts and we were paying to be inspired and educated by their genius.

And then I attended the JSUnconf, which three years and some conferences later remain to be my favourite tech conference. If you’ve never heard of the Unconference or BarCamp format: no talks are set before the event. Attendees pitch their proposals at the beginning of each day, and everyone gets to vote on their preferred topics. I really love this. It adds to the idea, that everyone might have something relevant, interesting or fun to share and that everyone can be an “expert”. That’s why on every attendant’s badge it says “Potential speaker”.

My first JSUnconf I tried speaking in front of a big crowd. It was a 5 minutes lightning talk on speaking to non-devs (so a non-tech talk), and even though I created the slides from scratch in half an hour or so, I got a lot of positive feedback. I even got applause when I stated, that it was my first talk. Another thing why I love this conference so much: the community is really supportive ❤

So, the following year I thought about giving a full 30-minute talk. Incidentally, I had finished a machine learning course a few months back and worked on a little private ml project. I was (and still am) by no means a machine learning expert, just a nerd, hacking away on something that intrigued me and I wanted to share it with those who were interested.

And to my surprise, a lot of people were interested. I also pitched another ml related talk, explaining some of the technical workings of AlphaGo (whose famous showdown with Lee Sedol had taken place just a few weeks before) which was also picked. I felt both overwhelmed and delighted, mainly because people seemed to like my presentation style. I realise this might sound a bit arrogant, but I immediately felt at home on stage.

From there I was invited to other events and conferences, I was also confident enough to start pitching my talks to “real” conferences. But I don’t want to be introduced as “expert” or in any way more knowledgeable than the rest of the attendees. Like many people in tech, I suffer from chronic self-depreciation (now commonly known as imposter-) syndrome, so there’s really no need to add to that by having some two class system. I already feel I’m not good enough, and especially before talks I often have this irrational fear, that someone from the audience jumps up and yells “She has no idea what she’s talking about!” and people are starting to nod their heads in agreement, mumbling “Yeah, they’re right. She doesn’t have a clue”, then suddenly I’m on the stage naked. But that story is for another post (or my next therapy session). I call it the Emperor’s new clothes’ anxiety.

Looking back, had it not been for JSUnconf and the amazing people there, had I always just gone to tech events that invited “handpicked experts” for the crowd of “just normal” tech people, I would have never had the confidence to start giving talks myself and I would have missed out on one of the greatest adventures of my life.

Top comments (1)

makiten profile image

I was a ".NET expert" when they reorg'd my IT department. Up to that point, I had one C# project for a Microsoft Imagine Cup contest I did 2 years before. When IT decided devs should all just be a shared service on one team, I became the .NET expert.

Of course, when it came to getting "expert" pay, I was always "lacking enterprise experience," so I was never a fan of being an expert.

The "unconferences" were a lot of fun. Truth be told, I actually hate giving talks unless they're impromptu. BarCamps were far more interesting and fun to organize. I could come up with a list of things I'd rather do in an evening than be at a meetup.