By John Sonmez June 26, 2017

A Software Developer’s Guide to Speaking and Conferences

Software development conferences provide many opportunities to advance your career as a software developer.

Attending conferences can be a great networking opportunity, as we discussed in the chapter on networking, but they are also great places to learn from some of the most advanced programmers in the field.

But if you really want to gain the maximum benefit from software development conferences, you’ll have to become a speaker.

As a speaker, you’ll be building your personal brand, networking with other speakers and conference hosts, and perhaps even drumming up some side business or consulting gigs.

I know all this may seem overwhelming.

But don’t worry.

The purpose of this chapter is to give you some guidance on how to navigate the world of software development conferences and—if you choose—to get started speaking at smaller events and eventually, conferences.

Attending Conferences

As I mentioned before, just attending conferences—even without speaking at them—can be extremely beneficial.

I personally think all software developers looking to advance their career should attend at least one software development conference each year.

Spending a few days just focused on learning and networking is extremely valuable.

One of the great things about conferences is that they take you out of your normal environment and force you to focus for a few days.

Every time I go to a conference, whether I’m speaking or not, I walk away from the experience with a huge number of new connections and new ideas, and I’m usually pretty fired up.

But Conferences Are Expensive

It’s true, many are.

But there are also plenty of reasonably priced ones as well.

Search around and look for events that might be happening in your area.

Oftentimes you can use sites like Lanyrd.com or Eventbrite to find conferences you might be interested in attending.

Also, depending on where you work, you may be able to get your boss to pay for your trip to a conference.

It’s usually not that tough of a sell to convince your boss to let you go to one conference a year, especially if you emphasize the training aspect of it.

Try to appeal to how much you’ll learn and the information you’ll bring back with you from the conference.

One good tactic is to offer to put together a training for all the other developers on your team based on what you learned from the conference.

This makes it so your boss can look at the cost of sending you to a conference and divide it by the number of software developers on your team to come up with a much smaller overall training cost.

Finally, consider speaking.

We’ll talk about this more later on in this chapter.

But usually when you speak at a conference, you get in free and even have your travel paid for.

So, if you really want to attend conferences and can’t afford it, speaking is great option.

What To Do At A Conference

Ok, so you are going to a conference, but what do you do when you get there?

How do you make the most of it?

It actually starts before you even get to the conference.

The first thing you should do is to look at the conference schedule and plan your agenda.

What sessions do you want to attend?

Which speakers are you interested in hearing?

Take some time to plan out what your agenda is ahead of time so that you know what to do when you get there.

You may also want to consider showing up a day or so early and either attending a pre-conference event or even hosting one yourself.

Usually there are unofficial dinners and events before or after conferences, which afford you a great networking opportunity with smaller crowds and potentially some time to speak with speakers at the conference or organizers directly.

It’s also not a bad idea to figure out who is going to the conference and who you might want to meet.

Oftentimes, I’ll find there are specific people I’d like to meet who happen to either be attending or speaking at a conference I am going to.

In many cases, I’ll offer to buy them dinner, set up a quick meetup over coffee, or just make a note that I need to try and bump into them while I am there.

This just about covers your “pre-conference game.”

What about at the conference itself?

I’d highly encourage you to utilize the time you have there as much as possible by talking to as many people as you can.

|Hey John| How do I just go up to someone I don't know and start talking to them?

Honestly, you just do it.

Yes, I know it may be scary.

Yes, I know you might not know what to say or you might be afraid that you’ll say something stupid.

But, it’s an acquired skill that will only develop over time if you make a concerted effort to practice it and the fear won’t go away by itself.

You’ll only become a better—and less fearful—conversationalist by having conversations.

But, what do you say, you ask?

Really, it doesn’t matter that much since at conferences like these you will have so much in common with everyone you meet, and there will be plenty to talk about, but if you are really unsure of how to start a conversation, here are a few quick tips:

1. Try complimenting them on something they are wearing or something unique about them. It’s always a good conversation starter, because people like talking about themselves and they usually like compliments as well.

2. Try asking open-ended questions—questions that don’t have just “yes” or “no” answers–especially about themselves. “Why are you here? What’s your story? What did you get out of the last talk?” (Just don’t ask them all at once.)

3. Just simply go up and introduce yourself. I know this seems lame, but it’s super easy to do and at an event, like a conference, it’s really all you need to do.

4. Comment on some common experience or what is happening around you. “Hey, wow, that guy with the bright red top hat. I was going to wear mine, but it was in the wash.”

But, like I said. The most important thing is just to practice and to get into the habit of opening up conversations with people wherever you are.

Don’t sit there working on your laptop.

You can do that on the plane ride over or on your trip back.

Maximize your networking opportunities by talking to as many people as you can and attending as many events as you can.

Have some business cards to give out and have an “elevator pitch” worked out so you can say who you are and what you do in two to three sentences max.

Apply the networking techniques we talked about in “Networking and Groups.”

Speaking

Personally, I think every software developer should try their hand at speaking.

I know it might make you nervous and uncomfortable, but if you can learn to get over that initial discomfort and conquer the fear of public speaking, there are huge benefits.

One of the biggest benefits is building up your reputation.

Being known as a conference speaker can open up a huge amount of opportunity to you in your software development career.

In the chapter,“Creating a Reputation,” we talked about getting your name out there, and this is a great way to do it.

Being known as a speaker, or even speaking at just a few events, is kind of like being a book author.

It gives you a certain prestige, which sets you a bit apart and can greatly increase your perceived value.

Plus, it’s just a great way to get people to know about you.

It’s perhaps not as effective as having a successful blog or podcast, simply because you don’t reach as many people, but you impact the people you do reach much more because of the personal nature of the medium.

Aside from just building up your reputation, speaking can be a great way to build or even create a freelance or consulting business as a software developer.

I know several software developers who bill hundreds of dollars an hour and their main source of business is the speaking they do at various software development conferences each year.

Speaking at conferences provides you a unique opportunity to get in front of potential clients and demonstrate your knowledge as an expert they may want to hire.

|Hey John| Is it okay to advertise that I'm available for consulting or is it best to wait for it to come up?

If you speak at a conference or event, you shouldn’t have to advertise your services directly, but you should instead mention a few successful clients or case studies in your presentation, if you really want to be the most effective at pitching your services.

Make sure your audience is aware that you are a consultant and do provide consulting in the area you are talking about and that your clients have had success using you.

I’m all for making strong and direct sales pitches, but in this context, a less direct approach is likely to yield you better results.

You can also finish up with saying something along the lines of “if you have any other questions or if there is anything I can help you with, please don’t hesitate to reach out and contact me” and then provide your contact information.

This is a good way to get potential leads.

You would be amazed at how much business you can drum up just by speaking at a few events each year.

Plus, if you enjoy travel, speaking is a great way to experience it at a discounted price in a way that also benefits your career.

Speaking has afforded me the opportunity to visit many countries around the world.

Just this year, I spent three weeks in China and most of that trip was paid for simply because I was invited to speak at a conference there.

Getting Started Speaking

So you are all fired up.

You want to travel the world.

You want to meet new people and start a consulting business.

You want to get out there and speak at software development conferences.

Great!

Unfortunately, you can’t just volunteer to speak at most software development conferences—especially if you have no experience and are relatively unknown.

So, how do you get started?

Well, just like everything in life, you have to start small.

You aren’t going to be keynoting large software development conferences if you haven’t at least spoken at smaller ones.

And you probably aren’t going to speak at smaller software development conferences if you don’t have any experience speaking in general.

The first thing you need to do is get experience.

One of the best places to start is at your current workplace.

Offer to give a presentation to your team on something new you are learning.

You might even consider offering a brown bag style lunch where you deliver a talk or training during lunch time.

Don’t even worry about being a good public speaker—that will come in time.

Just prepare your presentation and do your best to deliver it.

You are going to have to suck a lot if you ever want to get good at something, so you might as well get good at sucking.

A good move up from giving a few presentations at work is to give a talk at a code camp or user group like the ones you can find on Meetup.

Code camps allow just about anyone to register to give a talk, so they are a great place to get some experience speaking in front of people you don’t know.

Another great option you can pursue at the same time is to join Toastmasters.

Toastmasters is an international organization with clubs all around the world, and possibly many in your area, dedicated to helping people become better public speakers and to giving opportunities for people to practice speaking in public.

I joined Toastmasters this year (2016), and I can tell you that it’s an extremely supportive and encouraging environment.

I’d highly recommend it.

Once you are ready to move up to the big game, you’ll likely need to submit abstracts to software development conferences.

Usually conferences have a call for speakers where they officially ask speakers to submit an abstract about what they want to talk about and perhaps some video of them speaking or a list of events they’ve previously spoken at.

Unfortunately, as much as conference organizers deny it and claim to be a meritocracy, it’s just not true.

It’s still a “good ol’ boys” club for the most part.

That means you’ll need to develop relationships and build a reputation if you want to be able to speak at bigger events or even be asked to speak at a conference.

But, if you have some experience and write a really good abstract, it can certainly help you break into the circuit.

I’d recommend getting someone to film you giving a talk at a smaller event, so that you can submit that along with your abstract.

Frequently, event organizers are afraid to accept first time or unknown speakers because they don’t know if you can actually do it or if you’ll just freeze up on stage.

Anything you can do to assuage this fear is going to help you get selected.

Also, when you are getting started you want to submit as many abstracts as possible.

If you can talk to the conference organizers ahead of time and ask them about what kind of talks they are looking for and what makes a good abstract, do it.

Overcoming Stage Fright

You know what is scary?

Getting up in front of a bunch of people you don’t know, and have them all stare at you while you try to speak to them about something.

It’s true. It’s ok to admit it.

It is scary—well, at least at first.

The first time I got up on a stage to deliver a talk, I was trying to be calm and confident, but my voice kept trembling—completely out of my control.

My armpits were sweating and making huge sweat stains on my shirt.

It was awful.

I was just glad to be done with it.

Then I did it again and I had pretty much the same result.

Still trembling voice, still sweating like a pig.

And again, and again.

But guess what?

About the fourth or fifth time I delivered a talk in front of crowd, I didn’t feel quite as nervous.

Somehow, magically my voice held.

Somehow, I didn’t drench the stage in sweat.

Somehow, I actually felt a little confident, perhaps a little energized.

What was once terrifying was just a bit frightening.

And now, when I get up on stage, I absolutely love it.

I feel most alive when I’m delivering a talk to a large audience.

I honestly can’t think of a better feeling.

But what changed?

How did I go from being afraid to get on stage to confident and actually enjoying myself?

To be honest, the biggest thing was time and experience.

Fear tends to be caused by the unknown.

The first time we get on stage, we don’t know what is going to happen.

We don’t know what it is going to be like.

We aren’t sure if people will like us, or boo us, or what will happen.

But if you keep getting on stage and giving talks, eventually most of that mystery disappears.

You realize that even though you may not have given your best performance, no one booed you, no one threw rotten eggs at you… you survived.

So if you want to get over stage fright, you have to get out there and do it.

Don’t wait for courage to come or for you not to be afraid.

That won’t happen; courage is acting in spite of fear, not in absence of it.

Have some courage and get out there and be willing to mess up.

Don’t be afraid to look like an idiot—we all do from time to time.

That’s how you get better.

Some Practical Tips

I like a good pep talk as much as anyone, but practical tips are often more useful, so here are few.

First, do it at least five times.

Get on stage and give a talk at least five times before you decide it’s not for you.

Oh, and these five times don’t really count.

Just get up there and do it; don’t worry about the outcome.

If, after five times you decide it’s not for you, then fine, at least you tried. But don’t give up until you’ve at least been on stage giving a talk five times.

Second, when you get into a room to give a talk, show up about 10 minutes early.

Instead of messing with your mic or pacing the stage, go to the front rows of the audience, introduce yourself and shake hands.

Now, when you get on stage, you are going to have at least a few people in the audience who you know or at least have met, and they are going to be rooting for you.

It’s an honor for the speaker to come up and talk to you.

It makes you feel special.

Those people who you just met will reciprocate by paying extra attention to what you are saying and will positively encourage you.

If you start to get nervous on stage or feel your heart rate start to rise, just take a look down at the front row, where there will be smiling, encouraging faces.

I don’t really need this trick anymore, but I still do it every time.

Finally, prepare and practice.

The more you know about a subject and the more prepared you are, the less nervous you will be.

When someone asks you about your favorite TV show or movie or video game, are you nervous?

No.

You have plenty to talk about, you might even be gushing.

But if someone asks you about nuclear physics and you are not a nuclear physicist or don’t have really strange reading habits, you are probably going to be a bit more nervous.

So, make sure you know your material well and you’ve practiced it quite a bit.

Get in front of the mirror and deliver your talk, timing yourself.

Use a video camera and record yourself, and then watch it.

Preparing Talks And Slides

I tend to prefer to give talks with no slides or as few slides as possible.

If your topic is highly technical and involves quite a bit of code, this won’t be possible, but you can still work on making things simple and easy to follow.

You should strive to convey only a few key points in a talk, and they should all be based around one big idea.

If you use slides, try to make them as simple as possible.

Do not make slides with many bullet points full of text, and then read the bullet points during your talk.

Your slides should provide additional information or visualizations which enhance your talk, not repeat the content in it.

Simplicity is key—and so is being entertaining.

You can’t teach someone if you don’t entertain them.

Your job as a presenter is always to entertain first and educate second.

It’s impossible to teach someone when you don’t have their attention, and you won’t have their attention if you don’t keep them entertained.

So make sure your talk is not boring, that it’s simple enough to follow, and that it is entertaining in some way.

It could be a few funny cat pictures, it could be a few jokes or stories.

There are many ways to entertain.

Rather than trying to give you a whole treatise on how to prepare a talk and create slides for it, I’m going to give you two books for reference.

The first one is called “Presentation Zen.

I highly recommend this book for learning what makes a good, simple presentation.

Your slide deck and your audience will thank you for reading this book.

Second, I’d recommend Dale Carnegie’s excellent book, “The Art of Public Speaking.”

It’s a classic book about public speaking, where I first heard the idea of:

Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.

Paid Speaking

If you speak enough, or you become famous enough, or you are aggressive enough to advertise your “speaking services,” you might get the opportunity to actually get paid to speak.  Imagine that.

When I first started speaking, I was honored just to get a chance to speak at an event.

But after time—especially after my first book came out—I started getting quite a few speaking requests and realized I needed to start charging money if I was going to spend all the time and effort required to go out and speak somewhere.

And don’t be mistaken, there is quite a bit of time and effort involved.

You have to book plane tickets, show up somewhere, spend usually two or three days at an event or traveling, prepare your talk, rehearse your talk, give your talk and then talk to people afterwards about your talk

Plenty of logistics and time required.

After I realized this and realized how little time I had to spare in the year, I started asking for speaking fees.

At first I would ask for travel and expense reimbursement and $2,500.

Then I started asking for $5,000.

Now, at least at the time of writing this book, my standard fee is $10,000.

I know many public speakers who charge a great deal more than that.

The famous author and creator of Dilbert, in his excellent book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big,” said that his highest speaking fee was $100,000.

So, yes, you can actually make quite a bit of money being paid to speak.

Now, usually if you are going to be paid to speak at a software development conference, it is going to be for a keynote spot.

You usually don’t apply for those, someone invites you to speak.

So, you need to build up a reputation or be a well-known speaker in order to be able to even get into that game.

There are also often speaking opportunities at private company events.

I’ve been asked to speak to software developers at corporate events where they have specifically put aside a budget to have a famous or semi-famous speaker come in to give a talk.

Caution: if you really want to pursue paid speaking, you might not want to speak for free or submit to conferences too often.

I know this seems a bit backwards, but let me explain.

Once, a long time ago, when I was an “actor” taking acting lessons in Santa Monica, California, my acting coach told me something that has stuck with me because it applies to many different situations.

He told me to never sign up to be an extra.

He said, “I know you think it’s a good way to make some extra money and you’ll get on the set of real productions and get in front of casting directors, but if you ever want to be an A-list player or have a leading role, don’t do it.”

He went on to say that once they see you as an extra, you’ll always be an extra.

It’s very difficult to convince someone to pay you a large sum of money and take you seriously if you are or have been willing to work for free or even for peanuts..

You don’t want to compete with every speaker out there who submits for every conference and hopes they get selected to speak for free or for peanuts.

Instead, if you are really serious about being a professional speaker, turn down most free speaking requests, build up a solid reputation and charge from the beginning.

|Hey John| But how do I go from speaking at code camps to speaking at large conferences for a fee?

Let’s be honest, it’s not going to be easy and most people are not successful at it.

It’s certainly the long-game approach.

The key is reputation and patience.

You have to build up your reputation enough, using the other techniques in this section, to be a desirable enough speaker that people want to pay you to speak.

It may take a long time or not happen at all.

You can always go the free route and submit for conference speaking opportunities, like most developers do, but if you want to eventually be a paid speaker, my opinion—and my acting coach’s opinion—is that you’re better off charging from the start.

That’s how you set yourself apart and don’t have to compete with the masses.

Get Out There And Do It

If you’ve never been to a software development conference, find a good one, book some tickets, and go.

If you have any interest in speaking, pick a topic, make some slides, and do it.

Your life isn’t going to change if you don’t take steps to change or improve it.

Yes, I know it’s scary.

It’s scary just going to a conference if you’ve never been, but when you regularly do the things that scare you, they eventually become routine.

I never thought I’d go to conferences or speak on stages, but I’ve done it so many times now that it’s become natural—even exciting.

Most importantly though, overcoming those fears, doing those things that made me feel the most uncomfortable at first, were the very things that improved my career—and my life—the most.

So, take a chance.

What do you really have to lose?


About the author

John Sonmez

John Sonmez is the founder of Simple Programmer and a life coach for software developers. He is the best selling author of the book "Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual."