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Conference Speaking Isn't Good for Your Career Until You Make it Good

Erik Dietrich
Former software developer, architect, dev manager, CIO, and IT management consultant. Occasional writer. More than occasional remote business owner.
Originally published at daedtech.com ・13 min read

I originally posted this on my blog a little over two years ago. If it's interesting to you, I post new content on daedtech.com roughly weekly.

I like watching developer talks, live and recorded.  For my money (or free, depending on the venue), it doesn't get any better than listening to Bob Martin work his way into a talk on software design by talking first about astronomy.

He and so many other speakers are engaging, charismatic, and informative.

So we strive to be like them.  We should put our names out there, give talks, and build our brand.

The Benefits of Conference Speaking

"Build our brand" is a little wishy-washy, though, so let's get specific.  How does speaking at conferences help you?  I have my own opinion on this, but I went out in search of others' to see.  In broad strokes, here are some specific things that I saw.

  • Make yourself better at public speaking.  It's like Toastmasters, but in your domain.
  • Speaking at conferences means attending conferences, and that helps you "network."
  • Give back.  Do your part in advancement of the general cause of programming knowledge.
  • Teaching something is a great way to learn, so speaking at conferences forces you to up your game and improve your chops.

I found some blog posts on the subject offering specifics.  Scott Davis says, "the knowledge that I’ve gained from teaching workshops has been invaluable and I don’t believe that I would have been as successful with out it."  Heidi Waterhouse says, among other things, "I also do it because I want to show up and be technical and expert and pink-haired in the world."

That last statement, in particular, I think summarizes up the common speaker experience in the development world (though Heidi, herself, is apparently not a software developer, per se.)  Public speaking on a topic helps you acquire a lot of skills associated with speaking publicly about that topic.  And it helps you "show up in the world."

What's less clear is how, exactly, that benefits you in your career.

Getting Specific about Your Career and the Benefits

Now let me say something up front.  If you're speaking at conferences for the love of the game or to generally become a better rounded person, then what I'm telling in the rest of the post will either be passive food for thought or else not entirely applicable.  For the rest of this post, I'm addressing people who are speaking at conferences to help their careers, with the idea of offering advice on how to make it help your career much more efficiently.

When listening to people tout the career benefits of conference speaking for software developers, it generally takes on this iconic form.

  1. Speak at conferences.
  2. ....
  3. Profit!

I mean, it doesn't actually go that way.  People don't actually say, verbatim, "you should speak at conferences and then stuff happens and then your career takes off!"  Instead, they just say that speaking at conferences is good for your career.

How so?  Well, it "builds your brand."  Okay.  And what does "building your brand" do for you as a senior software engineer or a freelance app dev pro?  Ah, well, it's about marketing yourself!  Better job opportunities.  Advancement.  You know, ... profit!

But let's look at what, exactly, we're saying will arise out of conference speaking.  And also what, exactly, people put into it.

Preparing Talks is SERIOUS Work

Most of the content I create comes to you in written form or else on Youtube or Pluralsight.  I do the occasional talk, both in public venues and for pay as a consultant inside of companies.

But I'm admittedly not a conference speaking circuit regular and thus probably not optimized and proficient in economical talk preparation.

From what I recall, the last few talks I've prepared probably took something like 20-40 hours of my life.  Let's call it 40 so that we can put the opportunity cost into perspective.

Here's what might happen in 40 hours of time that you spend on that, instead of something else.

  • A typical, 100K per year software developer would earn $2,000 in salary.
  • That same developer, moonlighting could earn $4,000.
  • Someone with a well established consulting practice could earn $8,000.
  • I personally could write 20-40 DaedTech posts and probably about 20% of a book.
  • One could probably make a Pluralsight course and earn thousands.

So let's be clear about something.

Conference talking is a loss leader vis a vis your career.  Instead of doing something profitable, you're deferring financial gain now in the hopes of a bigger future payday.  That can be a solid strategy, depending on investment and return.  But it can also represent a form of carnival cash if you don't bother to pay attention to and quantify investment and return.

Let's say for reference sake that speaking at a conference costs you $4,000.  How do people recoup that?  Do people recoup that?

The Senior Software Engineer Conference Speaker and Job Prospects

Let's say that your're a workaday senior software engineer, contemplating giving your career a boost via the conference circuit.  How does that $4,000 make its way back to you?

Probably not like this.

You: I see that this job offer is for $105,000 per year.  Perhaps you didn't notice, but I've given three talks recently on topics related to responsive client-side development technologies.

Hiring authority:  Oh, our mistake!  Let's just get you a new offer letter for $117,000 per year!

In fact, speaking at conferences probably gives you almost zero salary negotiation leverage.  True, it adds a nice impressive bullet point to your resume, but so do other things.

  • Leading lunch and learns.
  • Receiving recognition for excellence in 1 on 1 mentoring.
  • Writing a technical book or producing a Pluralsight course.
  • Delivering a feature ahead of schedule.

And, none of these have the $4,000 opportunity cost because someone pays you to do all of them.  So, really, the career benefit has little to do with the hiring process.

No matter how many of these impressive things appear on your resume, you still start with a phone screen like everybody else.  And your employer isn't going to randomly give you more money for giving talks.

For job prospects, the real savings comes from the "network" effect.  Speaking to your peers makes them remember you and might make some of them follow you.  So when you announce you're looking for work, you'll get more and better leads for interviews than you would without this network.

Is that valuable and time saving?  Sure, probably.

$4,000 worth?  Probably not.

The Hiring and Interview Factor

So far, speaking makes the top of your job seeking funnel somewhat wider and also perhaps better qualified.  You don't have to filter through the recruiter babble as much since peers of yours that value your talks might pitch you on their companies.

But what about the hiring process?  How does that go?

Well, that's really going to be a mixed bag.  As a hypothetical manager, here's how I look at an applicant with a conference speaking history.

Pros:

  • Probably pretty good with people.
  • An effective presenter and communicator.
  • Probably good with mentoring.

Notice that I don't mention tech chops as a pro.  I would, but remember that I have an entire interview process for evaluating this, and I'm going to trust that more than a line item on your resume.  I remember a client dev manager once told me about hiring someone who had written a book.  "It turns out he was really good at explaining software development, but not so good at doing it."

Cons

  • Speaking at conferences smells like someone looking to job hop or go free agent.
  • This is a time consuming hobby that means you're focusing on something other than working for me.
  • I worry you might not play nice with my existing folks, especially the expert beginners.

So in the end, when it comes to generalist app dev work, speaking probably makes it easier for you to get leads.  But it probably doesn't matter very much in terms of negotiating better pay or getting more offers.

What about Other Jobs?

Okay, so if speaking isn't going to provide much tangible help with getting jobs as a senior software engineer, where might it help?  Dev manager?  Architect?  Tech lead?  Nope, nope, and nope.

But all is not lost.  It probably will help you with roles like these.

Why?

Well, because roles like those ask you to do for money what you do for free at conferences.  Those roles ask you to teach people, to showcase technologies in the best light, to simplify things for others, and to demonstrate value more than just to execute.

In short, these are all roles with significant marketing components.

Conference Speaking is Marketing.  No, I Mean Real, Actual Marketing

The idea of conference speaking as marketing may not surprise you.  After all the wisdom about conference speaking is "you need to brand and market yourself."  But, unfortunately, that advice comes with tragically little perspective on what marketing really is.  Let's look at sentence one:

Marketing is the process of teaching consumers why they should choose your product or service over your competitors.

"That's stupid," you're thinking.  "I don't have a product, service or competitors."

Yes, I know.  And that's precisely the source of the disconnect.

You're taking the advice to market yourself, but without really thinking through what you offer, to whom, and with whom you compete.  In a sense, you might as well dress up like a rooster and stand on a busy street corner with a spinning sign that says "I has teh codez!"

That is also marketing.  But it's also probably not a high leverage play for helping you make money, unless a CIO wanders by and says "that's just the sort of plucky quirkster we need in our app dev group to liven things up -- I'm going to draft an offer letter!"

Understanding Yourself as a Product or Service

If you're a software developer, you do have a product or service: generalist app dev.  You also have a price point: about $100K per year or, call it $200K per W2 relationship on average.  How about competitors?  Yep, all other generalist software developers.  And, finally, you do have a customer: a director or dev manager.

So with that in mind, let's consider your marketing efforts at a conference.

  1. You speak at an event that none of your customers will attend.
  2. Then, you teach your competitors to do something.
  3. Finally, you hope that enough of your competitors are impressed enough to follow you, talk about you, and eventually recommend you to your prospective customers, who will then put you through a lengthy evaluation process (interviews).

Let's re-imagine if Apple or Samsung behaved this way.

  1. A Samsung engineer attends an Apple event.
  2. That engineer teaches the Apple folks some cool tricks for making phones.
  3. Finally, the Samsung engineer hopes that the Apple folks will tell Apple customers how awesome Samsung is.

Is this a completely accurate parallel?  No, because there are far more providers of app dev labor than cell phones.

But it is my hope that the parallel will, nonetheless, jolt you into a different way of reasoning about this stuff.

The Core Problem with Conference Speaking for App Dev Prospecting

In the scenario I painted above, there's one main problem that outshines the rest of them.

Specifically, you're spending a lot of time showcasing your value proposition in a venue that your customers/buyers ignore.  As software developers, we uniquely love impressing our peers instead of speaking to our buyers (and I understand that myself -- as I've said, showcasing knowledge and helping people are rewarding).

Remember how earlier I said that trainers, evangelists and coaches would do disproportionately well speaking at conferences?  Why is that?

Well, simply put, developer conferences will attract buyers of these services, but not buyers of commodity, generalist app dev.  Anyone wanting to hire a developer evangelist will probably want to evaluate how that person plays to a room, in a way that's hard to simulate in the conference room when interviewing.

So unless you've got buyers in the audience, you're in a sense marketing to an empty room.

Could the effort bear fruit via word of mouth, weeks or months later?  Sure, anything's possible.  But, as they say, hope isn't a strategy.

You Need a Marketing Pipeline or Funnel

So how do you form a strategy?  How do you, as I advertised in the beginning, make conference speaking good for your career?  How do you make it less inefficient as a marketing tool?

Well, to do that, you have to trace a direct path from your talk to some actual, valuable outcome.  And that outcome has to be tangible and measurable.  It can't be "raise my profile" or "build my brand."  You have to work out what effect your talk will create, and how that effect will translate into some other effect, and so on down the line to profit.

And laying out this strategy will probably reveal that there are other things you ought to consider doing before just deciding you want to speak at conferences.

A Hypothetical Example of Using Conference Speaking to Your Benefit

Let's look at how you might really reap some significant benefit from talking at conferences.  Say that you work as a software developer and, at a few companies now, you've helped your teams by setting up some pretty sophisticated CI automation.

In a sense, you've become an expert in efficient CI.  Maybe you don't have any designs on going off on your own just yet (and specializing in this CI service delivery), but you'd like to leave the door open.

Here's a sequence of activities that could tee things up pretty well for you.

  1. Put together a website with a blog, and make your blog's mission about helping people reap the benefits of CI.
  2. Write a bunch of posts for the blog, and then polish and re-appropriate some of their content into a self-published book on the topic.
  3. Put together a detailed landing page about how to sell your boss on this stuff, and then give it a simple URL like yoursite/convinceyourboss
  4. Now, start answering CFPs for conferences and talk about your CI stuff when you speak, mentioning your landing page at the end.

Why is this preferable, and how do you benefit?  You have a clear sequence of calls to action, working buyers through your marketing funnel.

  1. People watch your talk, and they like it!  Good news, 20% of them bookmark your URL to check out.
  2. Of those 20%, another 10% are impressed by it and actually do show their bosses, while a somewhat intersecting set of 10% buy your book.  That's actual revenue!
  3. For each conference, a handful of bosses call you up to talk about your service offerings.

Set an Actual, Tangible Goal for Your Speaking Efforts and Measure Them

Now, giving a talk has real, quantifiable benefits for you.  You can see how many book sales and leads each talk generates and tune accordingly.  And you can let these leads materialize into moonlighting opportunities and then let the success of that help you decide whether or not to pull the trigger on efficiencer nirvana.

Of course, you might not have a goal of leaving the world of app dev generalist for free agent status.  And that's fine.

But if that's the case, speaking at conferences, which is marketing for a significant cross section of your contemporaries, will probably be a hobby activity for you.

Will it help you acquire new skills?  Absolutely.

Will it help you meet new people?  Most definitely.

But will it help you market yourself to an absent buyer that hides behind a complex job interview process?  Nope.

So I'll close with a generalized bit of wisdom.

If you want to improve the way that speaking improves your career prospects, then approach it in data-driven fashion.  Set a tangible goal for your speaking.  Something like new social media followers acquired, hits to a landing page, downloads of an app -- something.  Trace that goal back to some measure of quantifiable economic success for your career, and then measure your progress against it.

Doing things that you think might help your career is certainly good.  But doing things that you know help it because you measure them is better.

If you'd like to ask a reader question, you can do so at the "ask me" page.

Discussion (14)

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tedgoas profile image
Ted Goas

Thanks for writing this. This is one of the deepest dives into public speaking I've seen :)

Before reading, I was in the "do public speaking and great things will follow" camp, but I didn't have a good plan to connect those two dots. It was eye-opening to see how much effort can go into that.

Will it help you acquire new skills? Absolutely.
Will it help you meet new people? Most definitely.
But will it help you market yourself to an absent buyer that hides behind a complex job interview process? Nope.

A tough but fair take.

I'm a little more optimistic that public speaking will get you in front of a decision maker, I suppose that varies by industry. But I'm also happy to consider public speaking as a hobby activity.

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daedtech profile image
Erik Dietrich Author

Personally, I think the idea of "I'd do this for personal development" is the key. For instance, I blogged for a lot of years (and still do today) because I enjoy writing, first and foremost. So any career implications were a bonus.

But if I didn't enjoy writing all that much, then starting a blog because "I think it'll help my carer somehow" isn't a path I would have recommended to a younger me. I'd say, instead, "before you start writing, figure out exactly what you want out of this content creation effort and work backward."

As for having buyers in the audience, I think this probably varies both by industry and by what you're intending to sell. For instance, if you're intending to sell courses or tools to software developers, you're in front of precisely the right audience.

If you're looking to sell labor... it's complicated. In many organizations the economic buyer, the "decision-maker" and the gatekeepers are three different people: VP/CTO, dev manager, and architect/tech lead/senior engineer, respectively. You're certainly in front of the gatekeepers (who are kind of competitors), you might occasionally be in front of the decision-maker, and you're rarely, if ever, in front of the economic buyer.

But even if you were, the economic buyer creates a system (i.e. interview/hiring process) to take care of spending his or her money. So the economic buyer would say, "wow, I like the cut of this speaker's jib, but I'd be a bad boss if I stepped on my people's normal process, so I'm not going to do that for a random person that impressed me vaguely for a little while." And the decision-maker would say, "I like that speaker, but I'd get in trouble with my boss if I bypassed the interview system and gave this person the inside track." And if either one tried, HR might have something to say about it.

It's not that these things never happen, of course. It's just that buying app dev labor is a such a well-established group buying process that it's "sticky," in the sense that it strongly resists impulse buys/opportunistic hires. And that, in turn, makes "impress them from afar at a conference" a sales/marketing channel where you're swimming very much upstream.

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daedtech profile image
Erik Dietrich Author

Oh, another thing that I forgot to mention is that even if you're in front of a decision maker or economic buyer, there's a good chance you're talking about stuff that they don't care about or can't evaluate, anyway. A director of software development, 10 years removed from the keyboard, will have no way to evaluate whether your "The Pitfalls and Joys of Closures" talk should give you the inside track for a position, assuming he or she attends such a talk.

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integerman profile image
Matt Eland

I love this article.

I'm emerging into the speaking space over the past half year. The original trigger was a desire to give back to the community and develop skills in communication that could serve me as a director or CTO or if I choose to pivot into teaching at some point down my path. As you said, these things offer intrinsic benefits and aren't the topic of your article.

What I found in submitting to my first conference was that I felt like an unknown person and so I started writing after the CFP ended on KillAllDefects.com on Software Quality in order for the speaker panel to understand who I am and what I think about.

Once I was selected, however, I kept writing - first in order to flesh out my ideas more before the talk (it's a huge bit of work as you mentioned - at least 40 hours). When I did come out to give my talk, I had a lot to say and a central place to push people to learn more about software quality.

That said, I had no concrete product or goal other than this: Become known as an expert in software quality.

I'd say it was somewhat accomplished - at least measurable results came out of it. I'm not the name people think of necessarily, or extremely well known, but it's opening up writing and partnership opportunities via using the act of applying to speak and preparing to speak as a catalyst for professional development.

I think you yourself can be the goal or product (which touches on your developer evangelist point), and I think that the preparation process can also have byproducts in the form of a series of technical articles. True, you're never going to build as much content as you would normally, but it can drive you to create content focused on related topics, which is nice.

Incidentally, I've watched at least a couple of your older Pluralsight courses and enjoyed them. Kudos to you.

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daedtech profile image
Erik Dietrich Author

Wow -- first of all, thanks for the kind words and for watching the courses!

And, honestly, I think just thinking through contact capture beyond the conference probably puts you in at least the 80th percentile in terms of what I'm talking about here.

It takes the game from "show up, talk, end of story," to "show up, talk, call to action back to your site, build a somewhat sticky following via specific expertise." And the latter is better.

It makes me think of high school/college physics. If your ultimate goal is kinetic energy, most conference speaking is basically heat (waste, in that it dissipates uselessly into space). You're instead generating potential energy, which you can later optionally convert into kinetic energy.

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integerman profile image
Matt Eland

Potential / Kinetic energy is an interesting lens and I think that squares a lot with my thinking on reading books and the like on software development. Concepts I encounter and experience in my day-to-day life is this potential energy which I then convert to kinetic via writing or speaking.

And yes, both are heat - they flare up - get people's attention for a brief period, then die down. Each blog article is essentially a log on a fire, so I try to push out a few a week as my "normal" pace, scaling up and down depending on other commitments.

Most of them are brief benefits to myself and the reader, but a few of these logs catch people's eyes and send other opportunities my way, which inevitably leads to me researching new things and discovering MORE potential energy.

The end goal is more vague, but it's a beautiful fire to tend.

Thread Thread
helenanders26 profile image
Helen Anderson • Edited

it's a beautiful fire to tend.

Well said :D

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sandordargo profile image
Sandor Dargo

Interesting article, thank you. Do you consider (technical) blogging useful or again, it's more like a hobby for you?

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daedtech profile image
Erik Dietrich Author

I'd say that, like speaking, the idea that "it's only useful if you make it useful" still applies. You can easily have a blog that's pure hobby.

That said, a blog is much more of a blue chip bet for career usefulness. A post doesn't cease to exist as soon as you're done writing it. It sticks around, continuing to draw traffic any time you promote it, people find it through search, or someone links to it. And it's more cumulative -- a few years of blogging and you've got a rich set of positions/takes to showcase. And, finally, even if you don't have a plan now, you can retrofit one, so to speak, adding a call to action to old posts like "hey, check out my recent eBook about making regexes simple" or whatever. You can't go back in time and do that with a conference talk.

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sandordargo profile image
Sandor Dargo

That's perfectly right, we can't go back to change a talk! At least, talks from bigger conferences stick around, especially if they used some professional cameramen to record the presentations. Probably those you can also promote anytime and build a showcase.

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steelwolf180 profile image
Max Ong Zong Bao

Awesome article I think besides the benefits of learning better.

The key might be confidence one develops through public speaking and presenting your idea to people.

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daedtech profile image
Erik Dietrich Author

That strikes me as something that falls under the heading of "makes me a more accomplished human" in a general sense, but without a clear path to value. Confidence could lead to better career outcomes, but it could also lead to snake oil sales.

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steelwolf180 profile image
Max Ong Zong Bao

It depends on ultimately it's a double-edged sword which you can use it for good or for bad it comes down to the intention and ethics of the person using it.

If I were to use it I always search for it to be good, but as the saying goes hell is paved with good intentions.

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colinmcdermott profile image
Colin McDermott

Great article Erik! @daedtech