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Heidi Waterhouse
Heidi Waterhouse

Posted on • Originally published at on

Why I Speak at Developer Conferences

I don’t write code for a living, and I never have. Developer has never been part of my job titles, and my Github history won’t impress anyone. I think that’s why people are surprised that I speak at developer conferences — next month I’m going to RubyConf, PyconCA, and Nodevember.

When I started speaking at conferences, I thought I was only “allowed or “entitled to speak at technical writing and generalist conferences. As I got more confident in my messages, I realized that there is a lot of value in cross-pollination of ideas. As I talked to more developers, I realized that the talks they found the stickiest were not about how to do something, but rather, what it was possible to do.

Think about talks that you remember after the conference. Are they the bravura live-coding examples of how to execute something tricky or new? Or are they the talks about what you could do, how you could think about things in a different way, what might be possible in the future? The demonstration of current things is important, but so is the discussion of where and who we want to be in the. future.

Most conference committees seek to balance talks and speakers based on experience, representation, intended audience level, technical depth, and appeal to attendees, sponsors, and employers. We need to have deeply technical talks, and we need to have talks about mental health and accessibility and usability. it’s not either-or, it’s also-and.

So I speak at developer conferences to bring balance to the force. I also do it because I want to show up and be technical and expert and pink-haired in the world. I want to share my decades of experience with people who have poured their energy into learning different things. I think I bring value, and evidently conference organizers agree.

Have you thought about what you can add to a conference by being different? If you feel like you can’t compete because you don’t have anything new to say about the topics that are usually covered, consider covering a topic that you haven’t seen at the conference. If there are a lot of code demonstrations, consider doing a feature overview. If you have expertise in something that you can relate to the conference topic, sometimes it helps people grasp what you’re talking about in a different way. I have a talk about how knitting and documentation and how we teach code are all linked together.

If you’re a “non-technical technical person, don’t let that stop you from proposing to conferences – you still have valuable and meaningful experience to share. If you’d like to brainstorm about it, go ahead and leave me a message.

Top comments (2)

georgeoffley profile image
George Offley

How do you start speaking at conferences and meetups? I've been coding on and off for years but have never even considered it.

gavincampbell profile image
Gavin Campbell

This is easier than you think. Most meetup organisers struggle to fill their speaking slots month after month, and providing a platform for new speakers is certainly a goal for most of them - or at least it should be!

So, show up at some meetups in areas that interest you. It won't be long before you hear the organiser asking if anyone from the audience wants to speak. If it takes more than a couple of months, collar the organiser directly during the break.

Next, write some slides and present them. The writing will take a surprisingly long time and the presenting will take a surprisingly short time. Don't pick a vast topic, pick something interesting and talk about it for a while. Also remember that "why" is often more interesting than "how".

Having done that, you now have some "material", or at least you will have after you go back and fix all the things that didn't really work during the first outing.

Now you're all set; many conferences have some kind of public call for speakers, to which you can submit your new "material". You will get loads of rejections, but that's OK. Keep plugging away at the meetups, and eventually someone who is on the program committee at a conference will remember that great talk you did about endofunctors in Angular 4.

Good luck!