The Surprising Benefits of Speaking at a Technical Conference

#

Now, this is a story all about how
My life got flipped-turned upside down
And I’d like to take a minute
Just sit right there
I’ll tell you how I took 3 planes and talked JS with some flair

Way back in February I was lucky enough to travel to Salt Lake City, Utah to speak at Loopconf. Loopconf is a developer conference for WordPress folks and it’s a conference I’d wanted to attend since Ryan started running it. The catch, however, was that I had to do a talk…

Scared

Getting there

But before we get into how it went down, we need to cover getting there. For those that don’t know my life story, I live in Ottawa Canada. That’s pretty far away from Utah, something I had not realized when I applied to speak at Loopconf. Being that I live quite some distance from Utah I needed to take a couple flights to get there. Not a big deal. However, this is where things went sideways. The morning of my flight I got an automated call from the airline at 4:30 AM. My flight had been cancelled and I had been automatically rebooked. Unfortunately, the rebooked flight did not take into account my connecting flight. Long story short I re-booked a flight later in the day and would be in Salt Lake City by 6pm that day.

Or so I thought…

Turns out my flight from Ottawa would land about an hour before my connecting flight was to leave Toronto. Welp, my Ottawa flight was late and I missed my connecting flight. The upside was that I got to spend a free night in a hotel and catch another flight at 6am the next day…to Chicago. Chicago? Yeah…

In any event, after two days and three flights, I managed to get to Salt Lake City at noon the day after I left home.

https://twitter.com/petetasker/status/966737568179122182

This wasn’t much of a problem, I’d only have missed the first morning of a two-day conference (🙄) and I wasn’t scheduled to speak until the next day. Plenty of time to settle in and get acclimated.

Or so I thought…

I get to the conference at about 12:30 (Utah time – though after only about 3 hours of sleep I’m not sure what internal time I was on) and I see a Slack message from Ryan asking if anyone would like to switch speaking spots as a fellow speaker had fallen ill. For some reason (as I was collecting swag from the booths at the conference and stuffing my face with free food) I felt the urge to say ‘I will!’. So now, instead of 24 hours until my presentation, my time to speak was in t-minus 90 minutes. No biggie. 😱

The Talk

Now is probably a good time to mention that this was my first legit conference speaking experience. Fortunately Iain had some advice for me as he had done a talk before. I had also practiced for over a month and done a run through with my local WordPress group (of 4 people) and even did a practice recording for the DBI team to review, but nothing like a real-world conference. I got fitted up with my Britney Spears headset microphone 10 minutes beforehand and I was all set to get on stage.

You might be wondering if I was nervous at all? Before the conference I was a bit nervous, but once I was there I was actually pretty calm. Might have been the lack of sleep or it might have been that I was ‘in the zone’. Practice helped a lot with this.

And guess how it went? Great!

My talk was about refactoring JavaScript in WP Migrate DB Pro, something that I’m surprisingly passionate about. The experience of speaking in front of your peers is actually pretty thrilling. I love to talk and I love to explain things, so doing a talk turned out to be right up my alley.

I learned a few things about giving a technical talk along the way too. My opinion is that you have to know your material inside and out (though Poulson doesn’t agree). If you’re talking about something you’re only slightly familiar with you’ll have a hard time. I read countless articles and wrote sample code just to understand specific things I was talking about.

The second thing I learned is what they say about practice is true. The more you practice the easier presenting will be. I knew my presentation inside out so that when it came time to present I didn’t have to think about what I was going to say and I could focus more on the audience interaction. That’s probably why I had no issue with switching time slots.

Another big thing I struggled with early on was realizing that talking about code is very different than writing about code. When you’re writing a blog post it’s pretty easy to include code samples and screenshots. But when you’re talking about technical things it’s entirely different. Sure, you can include screenshots and snippets in your slides. However, rather than hear you explain a technical topic, people are there to hear you speak and be entertained. It’s a mix, but I think the idea of ‘entertaining’ your audience at a talk is just as important as the ‘nerd’ things.

Are you not entertained?

The Conference

After I gave my talk I was able to watch my fellow speakers and start to take in some of the knowledge. Some key highlights for me were Peter Wilson’s CMS replatforming, developing offline by John Blackbourn, Chris Lema’s talk on leading diverse teams, and Scott Deluzio’s emotional talk on mental health.

Peter Wilson’s talk was cool because he talked about some of the scaling issues you run into with a large publishing site and how they overcame some of the restrictions with WordPress’ data structure, cron and media library.

I enjoyed John’s talk because he brought up some tools that you can use without being connected to the internet. I’m now using Dash with it’s Alfred integration daily!

Chris’s talk on diversity was very interesting and brought up something I’ve been thinking for a while, that diversity in the workplace is something we all need to think about much more frequently.

Scott’s talk on mental health and the tragic story of his time in overseas in the army really brought home the point of mental health in our industry and how we all need to take time to make sure our brains are in shape.

But to be honest all of the talks were amazing and big props to all of the speakers. I especially enjoyed seeing how different agencies and companies work with WordPress – each very differently from one another. This is something I’m not too involved with in my current role. Building a WordPress product is lots of fun, but you tend to lose out on how people are using WordPress in many different ways.

Something else I noticed was a lack of talks about the WordPress REST API. In years previous the REST API was big talking point at many conferences, but barring Ashley’s talk, there wasn’t much discussion about using the REST API. I’m not sure if this just the selection of talks or if it’s a sign of Gutenberg taking over the WordPress world!

Hallway Track

For me the biggest benefit of most conferences is the discussions you have with fellow attendees. As I was attending Loopconf on my own, I had to get out there and talk with people. It was great to hear about how others are working with WordPress and especially encountering customers using WP Migrate DB Pro in their workflow. We’ve been doing a lot of customer feedback and survey work but getting to hear from people IRL is something that can’t be beat and is most definitely going to inform how I approach development.

I learned something from each of these chats, I discovered that a few attendees use (or don’t use) WP Migrate DB Pro with multisites. I hadn’t considered how much time our Multisite Tools Addon was saving people!! Nor had I realized how popular the use of WordPress multisite is with educational institutions–with some schools having tens of thousands of subsites! That’s like a bajillion database tables.

Whoah.

As a developer though, it was also great to meet people that use the product I work on every day and to hear mostly positive reviews in person. 10/10 would chat again.

Surprising Benefits

On a personal level, the biggest benefit of speaking at Loopconf is that I learned a lot about presenting a technical topic verbally and just how much work it takes. As far as attending the conference, the surprising part was chatting with WP Migrate DB Pro users and learning how they use the product I work on every day.

Next time I give a talk, I’ll be sure to make my slides less ‘blog post-y’ and more succinct. I’ll probably use way less slides as well!

If you’ve ever considered doing a talk, I highly recommend it. It’s a great way to expand your skill set and if you’re lucky you might even get a free hotel out of it 😬.

Have you spoken at a conference before? How did it go? Have a conference recommendation for me? Let us know in the comments!

About the Author

Peter Tasker

Peter is a PHP and JavaScript developer from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. In a previous life he worked for marketing and public relations agencies. Love's WordPress, dislikes FTP.