Milen Dyankov

Software Engineer, Consultant, Developer Advocate

Lessons learned from speaking at conferences

May 04, 2016 | 10 Minute Read

Time has come to resurrect the blog (again)! I was never much of a blogger but 3 years is … oh well, almost a lifetime in software industry. It’s not that I don’t have anything to write about (quite the opposite in fact), it’s just that I have always preferred more interactive communication. So for the last 3 years I was concentrating on presenting my thoughts and experience on various conferences rather than posting them here. A huge mistake apparently which someone pointed out to me recently. On the bright side - I learned a few things about being a conference speaker and I’ll share them here. If you think going down that road, here is what to expect.

Disclaimer

I’m not involved in organizing any conference nor I have any official inside information from one. I’m not even close to the famous speakers that every conference organizer dreams about, I’m not a member of any program committee, … just a random guy how happened to have gone through various CFPs and was occasionally accepted to speak here and there. Everything I write here is based on personal observations and informal conversations with people I’ve met during 24 events in 13 countries (according to my Lanyrd profile) in the last 2,5 years.

Who you are matters, no matter what they say

Every conference out there desperately wants one thing (apart from sponsors) - high quality talks! That is of course good thing. The not so easy to answer question is “how to get those?”. It should not come as a surprise to you that “known speakers are verified automatically” as someone who is involved with a famous conference admitted some time ago. Of course this does not guarantee a high quality talk but having such name in the agenda attracts people. If you are reading this, you are probably not one of those “names” and likely will not be anytime soon so quite naturally you’ll have to be verified. This is where what google knows about you becomes important. The official statement is that what you have posted, what you’ve contributed to, what speaking experience you have, … is what organizers are concerned about. However the bottom line from many different conversations seems to be “how many attendees your talk + you can attract?”.

So if you, like me, only have 300 followers on twitter and have not posted anything on you blog for almost 3 years … well you better come up with a topic and abstract that is really really good (in the eyes of the organizers of course) and will likely make few more people willing to pay to attend the conference.

Organizers and program committee members are people with preferences, opinions and business goals

So how do you know what a really really good topic is? You don’t! Most conferences will give you some hints but those are often too generic to be useful. At first it may seem that this is good as it leaves the door open for various topics and opinions. Keep in mind thought, at the end of the day, it’s people that decide. Those people are often speakers themselves and have strong opinions. Those people represent companies that have particular interest in developing and promoting some technologies and making everyone forget about some other technologies. If those people are willing to pay attention to something that confront their believes and/or interests, it has to come from someone they respect (for whatever reason). Again, likely that’s not you! So if you want to talk about something that is controversial or unpopular - forget about it … or disguise it as something else.

Let me give you an example. My experience shows there are significant benefits of using OSGi and I really want to have the opportunity to tell people about it. Unfortunately in todays Docker/Microservices biased world, almost no conference will accept such topic (even thought OSGi was the one to introduce µServices long before it became a buzzword). Yet in the last 2 years I have talked about in on over 15 conferences by smuggling it in “Microservices and Modularity” and “What’s not new in modular Java” talks. I almost always had full room, no one complained about talks being off topic and they triggered many interesting discussions afterwards. So conference organizers should be happy right? Uhhh no, if those were submitted as “OSGi talks”, they would have never be accepted. How do I know? Ah you know … those informal conversations over a few beers are one of the the best parts of every conference :)

It probably helps if you know the right people. I’ve observed many times how some folks desperately try to get into some kind of relationship with famous speakers. Those guys are sitting in program committees and if you get them to remember your name it’s a bonus point for your next submission. I personally never learned to play that game so can’t tell you from experience. My advice would be unless you are really really smart and have something really really interesting to say - don’t make a fool of yourself. But that’s just me :)

Who do you work for matters

You may think working for recognized in the industry company will make it easier. From my observations, it’s only true in 3 cases. The company is a sponsor/supporter/involved (for example Oracle, RedHat, …) , it is a cult-like company (for example Google) or it’s the newest and hottest startup everyone is talking about. Other that that, it not only doesn’t help but can actually be an issue.

I work for Liferay, a company known mostly for it’s open source portal solution that successfully competes with Oracle, IBM and Microsoft as far as portals are concern. But wait, it’s 2016! Who cares about portals anymore? Enterprises - yes, a lot! But developers - they are struggling to forget this technology exists while moving to containers and microservices and the coolest JS framework this week. It doesn’t matter that the company has evolved and products matured over the years! It doesn’t matter that we now

  • have state of the art modular platform and let you develop applications using almost any cutting edge Java technology from JSF to OSGi µServices
  • have on board some of the best modularity experts and JavaScript developers on Earth building things like AlloyEditor and tracking.js
  • are the Spec Lead for JSR 378 and Co-Chair OSGi Alliance
  • have years of experience to be shared

What many of the conference organizers and program committee members think when they hear Liferay is legacy technology (portlets). Not interesting for anyone. Next please!

Sometimes (although not that often) I hear the argument that since Liferay is profitable company it should become a sponsor and get a speaking slot. I find this quite amusing. It seams some people think that their event is so special that companies are desperately trying to show up there for the sole purpose of self promotion. There are of course such events where it is worth doing so and Liferay has sponsored many of them. In general though, unless a company is in the business of selling something to developers, tech conferences are totally not the right place to do a marketing campaigns. For me personally I just don’t go to events where someone does not appreciate the fact that my company is heavily investing in free and open source projects and is willing to cover the costs for an employee to go and share their experience and company’s know-how publicly and for free.

You’ll never get to know why not

Your talk proposals will be rejected many times. I suggest you to get used to it! And don’t expect any explanation or feedback. The best you will get is something like “We’re sorry to inform you that your proposal was declined. Please keep in mind that we received many proposals during the Call for Papers and the available slots are very limited.”. It may have been that it was tough choice until last minute between your talk and someone else’s talk. It may have been that no one actually paid attention to what you sent. It may have been that they don’t trust your speaking skills. It may have been any of the other thousand things. No one ever will bother to tell you. This is the sad reality of CFPs. It’s like sending a pull request that get’s rejected with “Thanks, but we’ll not take that from you!”. It leave a bad taste but there’s nothing you can do about it.

I understand it would be hard to sit down and write a personalized and detailed message to the author of each submission. But I can imagine when program committee members vote on talks, they do provide their reasons. It shouldn’t be that hard to have a one or two sentences of explanation and it will certainly help people improve. During those 2.5 years and tens if not hundreds of submissions, only one conference organizer (I T.A.K.E.) has contacted me expressing their concerns and asking for clarification. Everyone else was simply notifying me about their decisions.

As the time passes and your experience as speaker grows it’s even more weird. For example I have spoken at Devoxx BE twice (speaking slots ware part of sponsoring package) and as far as I can tell both talks were very well received. I even had people approaching me after the talk and asking to submit proposals to their local conferences. However Devoxx itself (BE, UK, PL) consequently rejects my talks that other conferences happily accept. It’s (hopefully) not due to the lack of speaking experience. It’s likely not the subject as I later on see many similar talks in the agenda. I wish I knew what was the reason so that I can learn and improve.

Summary

In general speaking at conferences is interesting and challenging experience. How much you gonna like it or hate it depends a lot of what your goal is. As someone who has learned a lot from more experienced folks, I spend a lot of time teaching others and very much enjoy when I can pass further what I have learned. But to get people to listen to you, they need to trust you. And personally I found that to be the hardest part - building credibility. When you do training on behalf of your company you only need your management to trust you. When you aim at speaking at events, you need to constantly convince random and often biased people that you know well what you are talking about and can present it in interesting way. It’s hard and often frustrating but by all means worth doing.

Keep in mind the above is just some thought and observations regarding aspects that I don’t see anyone else writing about. There is a lot more involved into preparing a good talk and getting it accepted. There are many good posts out there to teach you how to become a speaker and how to deliver good talks. I don’t feel I’m the right person to advise you what you should or should not do. If this is whole new experience for you, perhaps start by watching Matthew McCullough’s presentation on 10 Quick Tips for More Effective Conference Submissions and Presentations.