Karl L Hughes on Conference Talks

Karl L Hughes on Conference Talks

Adam talks to Karl Hughes about his path to becoming a conference speaker and the work he has done to make it easier for others to follow in his footsteps.


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Adam: Welcome to CoRecursive where we bring you discussions with thought leaders in the world of software development. I am Adam, your host. Hey, Karl. How’s it going? Karl Hughes is a developer and conference speaker. Not everyone is comfortable talking at a meetup or a conference. That includes me. So I invited Karl on to explain how he got started speaking at conferences. Let’s jump into the interview. I start by asking Karl how he decided he wanted to become a speaker.

Becoming A Speaker

Karl Hughes: Every year, I try to set a goal for myself to do something that I’ve never done before that’s a little outside of my comfort zone in some way, and so that’s changed year to year. Several years ago, I stopped eating meat. That was my big goal. And then, I ran a marathon a couple years after that. That was a huge personal goal. And then, I’ve done some professional ones as well. One of the big ones in, I think it was 2017, was I wanted to get accepted to speak at a tech conference. It was really the pursuit of that goal that started me on the journey which is I’m just a very goal-driven person. I like to set that thing and just have something out there in the horizon to look at.

That was my forcing function. From there, what I did was I started to think about things that I knew technically that maybe were a little unique to my situation. I’ve always worked at early-stage startups, and so one of the advantages I’ve had is I’ve been able to help teams set up the initial infrastructure and architecture of an application. I realized after talking to a lot of my friends who are engineers that they didn’t get that greenfield opportunity very frequently. The opportunity to talk about how a small company makes those initial decisions and then how those decisions grow over time and change as business changes was really interesting. That kind of got me started on a couple topic ideas that I started pitching around.

I think for me, a big barrier to getting started was feeling like I didn’t know enough technically to be worthy of being on stage. I think that held me back for a number of years. I didn’t start trying to speak at conferences until I was at least seven or eight years into my software development career, so just a couple years ago. Before that, I think what helped build confidence was speaking occasionally at meetups. I started talking occasionally at local code bootcamps just getting to be in front of a crowd and started to build up some level of self-assuredness.

Eventually, I think the next step was just obvious. I wanted to push myself to do something a little scarier and bigger, and that was get in front of people at a real conference. Unfortunately, I’ve realized now that I’ve done a few that most of them are not that much different from doing a large meetup group, the number of people, the intensity level, what they expect. Most conferences are actually pretty laid back, especially in tech. It’s not as maybe as scary as I initially thought it would be. Anyway, I was interested in the topic of testing and setting architectures at small teams. I started pitching a couple talks at conferences. I slowly figured out how you apply to conferences and how you get accepted and what the acceptance rate was going to be. There’s a ton of things I’ve learned along that first year of the journey, and eventually got accepted to do one. I think it was late 2017 was my first one.

Adam: What conference was it?

Karl Hughes: That was API Strat & Practice it’s what it’s called. Not a huge conference. It’s mostly focused on different open source tools run by the Linux Foundation, and I was giving that talk on testing distributed systems and just testing modern web applications that have multiple services and things like that. I’d done a lot of public speaking up to that point, and I had been in … I was in a band where I played at open mics in college. I did main stage theater production at the University of Tennessee when I was there, and I did a lot of meetups and bootcamps.

I was actually pretty comfortable in front of people, but once I got up there in front of this tech audience and I look out there and I see all this, for lack of a better term, you have gray beards guys and women both who had been doing this for clearly much longer than me, it was intimidating. It was like these people can call me on my BS. I can’t go up there and really not know what I’m talking about because I felt like … I’ve talked to now a number of speakers. This is not an uncommon feeling that we all feel like we don’t have enough knowledge to get up there.

Being Afriad of Public Speaking

Adam: Wow. It sounds scary though, that specific conference especially. I’ve built things that end up running on Linux, but I feel like I only vaguely know how it works. I wouldn’t want to … Did you have that fear of, “Oh, God. They’re going to ask me about-

Karl Hughes: Absolutely. Yeah. I was afraid they were going to ask me about the Kernel, and I barely know what that is. Yeah. I’m a high level web application developer, and at this point I’m okay and I’m proud of that decision, but there’s a lot of people that know these lower level components that know Assembly and C and things like that that I have never really touched in detail. It is scary. Partly also is that because it was my first time, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had only been to a couple tech conferences before. I didn’t know what the audiences were going to be like, if there was going to be this big tomato throwing thing at the end where they would all just bash me, or if it was going to be more of a friendly conversation.

Again, going back to the experiences leading up to that, I think talking at meetups and bootcamps, these sort of friendlier, smaller audiences was really helpful because I at least had some idea of what might get thrown at me during and after the talk. A lot of people I’ve spoken to as well who are speakers, they also try to do company lunch and learns which I think is a great way to get your talks vetted and practiced.

Why Become a Speaker

Adam: I feel like there’s still something missing there. What did you think this goal would get you?

Karl Hughes: Yeah. That’s a good question. Besides pushing myself personally, I think that giving talks has always forced me to create a story around what I’m doing. That’s helpful on a number of levels. It’s helpful when I talk to my boss or CEO who’s non-technical, but certainly interested in why we chose to build things the way we did. If I have a better story crafted around why that is and the results and the things I’ve learned in the past, it’s a lot easier to convey that to her. Even just preparing those talks about these technical decisions that our teams have made and then being able to convey that to other developers has helped me convey it to people like my boss or … I haven’t looked for a job since, but if I were looking for a job, it’d be a great experience for explaining what we’ve built and why we’ve built it because that’s something that always comes up in a job interview.

Having that … I guess it’s a professional practice doing professional communication, it was really valuable to me too. There’s also these other tangential benefits that are really hard to measure like personal branding. Now, I’m out there as a conference speaker and maybe others conferences see that and maybe they decide to invite me to speak later or maybe people just start to know me as a topic expert in a certain area. Around the same time I started speaking, I actually wrote a short book about PHP and Docker which were two technologies we were using at work, and it was just kind of a getting started guide. It was really short. It was free, but writing that and then having some conference talks about the same topic later in 2018 and ‘18 was really helpful for establishing a little bit of my personal brand around those topics. I knew those topics pretty well, and so when they come up, a lot of times people end up writing the questions on the internet, which is kind of cool.

Adam: So if I or somebody listening wanted to get started, what do we do? To me, it always seems like a catch-22. Step one, speak, step two, become a guru, and then once I’m a guru, then I’ll be able to speak at things. I don’t know.

Karl Hughes: Yeah. It is a catch-22. I think that this is the thing that holds a lot of people back. This is what I was afraid of was that because I wasn’t a guru, I would get up there and people would call me out for being an imposter. I think the reality is everybody takes that first leap without being really ready, and that’s okay. It’s like I think back to getting my first job as a software developer. I didn’t think I knew enough to be a software developer. People would, in the job interview and the first few days, people would rattle off these acronyms that I’d never heard before. We all go through that.

The first step is being willing to put yourself out there a little bit. That’s why I always recommend starting with things like meetups and bootcamps and places that are a little friendlier, easygoing audiences. Once you decide, “Hey, look. I’m going to speak at a conference. I think it’ll be beneficial for my career,” or maybe it’ll be a good way to meet other people in the industry that I haven’t before. It’s a great way to travel. Usually, the conferences will cover some of your travel costs, and so you can get out there for free which is nice.

Let’s say you decide to do that. The first thing you want to do is find a CFP, which is a call for proposals or call for papers. Everybody’s used that a little differently. There’s a bunch of websites out there. I run a newsletter called CFP Land that sends out CFPs, but there are several others that you can find or you can just Google around for tech conference CFPs or ask people in your community. If you go to conferences, you can meet other speakers and ask them about it. All this stuff is actually not too hard to find on the internet. Once you find a few CFPs you think are interested in submitting to, you have to write what’s called an abstract. That is usually a … It can depend, but one to 10 sentence sort of introduction to your talk. Sometimes, they ask for as much as an outline where you give the bullet points and everything you’re going to cover. Sometimes, it’s as little as two couple paragraphs and you’re just going to explain what it is you’re going to talk about, why you’re the best person to talk about it.

You’ll fill out that abstract, you’ll submit that, and then you’ll wait. You do a lot of waiting with the conference speaking game. What I found initially, I think the first year that I submitted, that I really decided I was going to do this, I talked to some other speakers and they said, “You’re going to have to submit 20, 30, maybe 40 conferences before you actually get accepted because the first one is really hard and you have no idea what you’re doing.” I think my acceptance rate in that first year and still is probably 10 to 20%, so it’s pretty low to be honest. You may have to submit to 10, 20 conferences before you get your first acceptance. That’s okay. That’s normal. It’s just insane. It’s like job interviews.

It’s this two-sided matching that’s really hard to do. You can never fully predict what the conference is looking for. You can read their website, you can try to tailor your talk for them, but at the end of the day, you can only adjust so much. They don’t exactly know what your talk is going to be, and they can’t fully understand it even if you write a great abstract. It’s like this imperfect knowledge on both sides means that nobody makes perfect decisions and it’s impossible to get 100% acceptance rate.

Booking Conferences

Adam: It seems to me that there’s some … What I’m thinking of is Saved By The Bell where Zack has two dates to the prom or something, where I’m going to apply to the JS Conference and then the rust conference, and they’ll both be like, “Okay.” I’m like, “I can’t be in Munich and Prague at the same place.

Karl Hughes: Right. That does happen. Even in just a couple years doing this, I’ve had to decline one or two invitations that were conflicting with either something that came up after I had applied or another conference. It’s perfectly okay to decline. They know there’s a certain percentage of the speakers they invite will decline. That’s part of the whole thing. There are some people that speak at dozens of conferences a year, and for them it’s a whole scheduling challenge to just figure out where they should go and when and who’s going to invite me to what. Anyway, it was be actually pretty challenging. In your first year or two, if you’re submitting 10 or 20 conferences and you’re getting a couple acceptances, there’s probably not going to be a ton of overlap to worry about.

Adam: How soon do you find out? I’m still imagining scheduling being hard.

Karl Hughes: Yeah. It is. Usually, the way I’ve handled this is I apply to a conference and I’ll have the date of what that conference is written down somewhere, either a spreadsheet or I use CFP Land’s tool for this, but you can just keep track of that event date so you know you don’t have too many you’ve applied for in the same weekend maybe. I don’t go as far as blocking it off my calendar until I get accepted to be honest because there’s such a low chance of actually being accepted. They’ll usually start sending out acceptances anywhere between two and six months before the conference happens. Usually, you have quite a bit of lead time. Usually, it’s more four, five months of time. That’s plenty of time for you to decide is this really going to happen, or am I really going to do it, or do I need to book a flight, or is this not going to happen for me.

Preparing for a Talk

Adam: Are you prepared to do the talk before you’re accepted?

Karl Hughes: Usually not. Now, this is normal. This is another thing. Last year, I interviewed about 35 different conference speakers just asking a lot of these questions like how do you prepare, how do you submit, what are your tips for this. I found that most of them don’t have the talks all ready before they submit. Now, the nice thing is you can reuse talks. In your first year, my first year I think I had two talks that I submitted. I was submitting both of them to every conference every time. They weren’t always both right for every conference, so I’m sure I was wasting some time there, but it was just easier to try to tweak it a little and make it seem okay, and then submit two. Then, once those started getting accepted, it was like I only had to prepare two actual talks so I did I think six or seven conferences after that first year, and they were all … I basically just only had to prepare two real talks. It wasn’t as much work as it sounds like.

That’s usually what speakers will try to do, is get the same two to five talks accepted at as many places they can so that they only have a limited number of presentations they’re actively giving [inaudible 00:13:52]. Then, in the weeks leading up to the presentation, you’re going to get accepted, you’re going to know there’s three or four months at least before the talk, the conference itself, so you might try to submit that talk as an idea to a local meetup so that you can practice it there, or you might schedule a company lunch and learn so you can practice there. You may just schedule on your own in front of the bathroom mirror, which is what I do a lot of before you get there.

Adam: What do you do in front of the mirror? Do you have your slides and you stand in front of the mirror?

Karl Hughes: Yeah. This is so nerdy. I don’t really care that it is. I like to know what my body language looks like when I’m giving a talk. If I just do it out in the middle of the living room, that’s okay, but I don’t really know what I’m doing with my hands and if I’m standing in a natural way. I’ve tried to do it somewhere in a room where I have a mirror to look at so I can see am I making appropriate facial expression at appropriate times and moving around in a way that makes sense, just awareness of my own body language before I actually get on stage and do this in front of people.

I don’t know that every speaker does that, but I did find from talking to speakers that the broad majority of them practice a lot, and a lot more than you would think, anywhere between 10 and 30 times they’ll practice their talk. Usually, it’s just to themselves in a conference room or in front of the mirror, or going to meetups or traveling to other companies to try to give it there. It is important you practice. I think that’s one of the things that helps lower your nervousness and make you more effective as a speaker. There’s a couple good talks, and I’ll send you some links. There’s one by a guy named Nickolas Means. He gives a talk on what happened at Three Mile Island. It’s just this amazingly intricate and detailed engineering story about the disaster or near disaster at Three Mile Island. He’s clearly rehearsed it a lot. He knows the details, but it doesn’t sound like he’s reading cue cards either.

Hitting that balance is what I find really challenging. I think a lot of speakers do. It’s probably something we all could work on, especially because you don’t want your slides just be a bunch of bullet points that you’re reading from. You want to have more of an image on the slides and you do the speaking yourself in an ideal world. Anyway, getting into the mechanics of speaking, and that’s a whole another topic, but I think finding a way to make yourself sound like you know what you’re talking about and you have rehearsed this and you’re clearly knowledgeable, but also not a robot is that challenge that we all have to face.

Adam: It sounds like you have had a lot of public speaking experience before you even tried to speak at a tech conference. What would you recommend for somebody who doesn’t have that kind of experience?

Karl Hughes: Yeah. The biggest thing is practice and just doing it, getting more comfortable doing it. Like a lot of skills, public speaking isn’t … There may be some natural aptitudes that some people have, but it is mostly how much you cultivate and practice it and do it. I was lucky I guess in a way that from the time I was a kid I was in different church choirs and places where I was up on stage and couldn’t get off. I think in a way, that set me up to be a little more open about speaking than some people, but even if that hasn’t been your background, there’s no reason you can’t start small with the things that are just slightly uncomfortable now, but not out of your reach.

For example, whenever I hire new employees, I have them give a six week presentation where they get in front of at least a portion of the company and give a quick overview, 30, 45 minutes of what they’ve been doing in their first six weeks, what they learned, what projects they worked on, if they fixed a little bug or they cleaned up some texts somewhere. I have them put that in there so everybody knows that they’re contributing. It’s a way for other people to get to know them, but it’s also a chance to them to practice this skill of public speaking because I think it’s pretty critical that at some point as an engineer, you’re probably going to do some of it, even if it’s just to your team, even if it’s just in a casual setting, it’s still important.

Adam: Yeah. There’s just communicating even if you’re not going to public speak. I end up talking to people at my company, or even if it’s just a singular person, but somebody very important so it kind of gets your nerves up.

Karl Hughes: Yeah. Then, you think about job interviews. Very rarely we stay in the same job for 30 years and then retire. The field seems to be moving where people change jobs pretty frequently. Every time you go into a job interview situation, it is essentially the biggest test of public speaking that you’re going to have. I think having practiced that in other situations actually helps a lot with making you ready for those really high pressure situations.

Choosing A Topic

Adam: I feel like we skipped over some steps. How should I think about choosing a topic?

Karl Hughes: Yeah. There’s a number of ways to do this, and different people think about this differently. From talking to a lot of speakers, some considerations you should put into your mix. Does it fit the conference? If you’re going to apply to a Ruby conference, don’t submit a bunch of Python talks. It’s just not going to work. More than that, sometimes you’ll find conferences have a specific agenda or theme for the year. Look at the CFP page, read it, see if your talk actually makes some sense for it. That’ll avoid you submitting a lot that don’t make sense or preparing a talk that doesn’t make sense for the audience. You want to think about whether the talk itself will get you excited and is something that you’re actually interested in talking about because like I said, you’re going to spend a lot of time practicing and reading about this topic and learning it because you don’t want to get up on stage and look like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

A lot of the speakers I talked to last year were very passionate about their topics, whether it’s something very technical like writing Java plugins or it’s something very non-technical and softer skill like building business off of their whatever technology they’re using. Whatever it is, you should shape your talks around something you care about. You obviously want to pick something you know well or think you can learn pretty well. That can mean a lot of different things. Different conferences are going to have different thresholds of how technically difficult they want the talks to be. This goes back to that first point which is make sure you know if the conference only wants senior level talks that you don’t submit a bunch of introduction to X or Y, but think about that and think about if you’re the right person to give that level of difficulty.

The good news is that most conferences want a variety of experience levels to be represented because the truth is the audience is going to be a mix of junior, senior, mid-level and managers probably. Whatever you pick, you can definitely give an entry level talk. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just know what level you’re shooting for.

Adam: I have a sense that people don’t do enough beginner or intermediate talks. Maybe this is just my skill level, but when I go to a conference there seems to be more things where I’m not quite sure what they’re talking about than things where I’m like, “This is too basic for me.”

Karl Hughes: Yeah.

Adam: Do you think that’s true or that’s just me?

Karl Hughes: Well, I think everyone’s knowledge is spiky. What I mean by that is some people … Maybe I know the front end really well, but I don’t know much about backend. I may be a senior level front end person with a junior level backend knowledge or an entry level database knowledge because I’ve never had to deal with those technologies. Just because a talk sounds entry level or whatever, to doesn’t mean it is for everybody. Same with senior level talks. You can be a senior engineer who knows nothing about like we were talking about the Linux kernel. Our field is just so broad and everyone’s knowledge is a little spiky, the levels are a little arbitrary, I feel like. It simplifies the problem to call this a senior level versus a junior level talk. It’s not that simple.

I will say that I would generally agree that there’s plenty of space in conferences to have junior level talks. A lot of conferences are I think becoming more aware of this and starting to try to find speakers who are new to speaking because they tend to be on the more early end of their career. I think that that’s something I’ve seen more in CFPs as I’ve looked at them over the last few years is they want a certain percentage of their talks to be from first-time speakers. That’s a great way to get people up there who haven’t been giving talks and maybe they are giving earlier in their career or maybe they’re from an underrepresented audience group and want to be on stage sharing what they know too. There’s a lot of advantages to that, I think.

Adam: Yeah. If I want to speak at something, step one is build something really cool. Spend three years building a new database or something, and then try to tell people about it. So you haven’t mentioned that at all. You haven’t mentioned creating something or, I don’t know, be the creator of some huge open source project or et cetera.

Karl Hughes: Yeah. There’s certainly people who are, but not many of them. When you think about the millions of software engineers that are out there and the tiny percentage who make an open source library that is used by more than 1,000 people, the reality is there’s just not many of them. Most of them are busy people who have jobs and careers outside of speaking. They can’t just go to every conference and talk about it. Somebody was saying that there’s this fear that you’re going to submit a talk about React, let’s say, and then the creator of React is going to submit a talk about React and you’re like … You’re going to lose that one if it happens, but it’s very unlikely that that’s going to happen. I don’t know who it is that created it, I don’t remember the name, but they cannot be everywhere at once.

The great thing is there’s a lot of conferences that are focused on specific technologies in maybe even regional areas. For example, if you look for JavaScript conferences, you’re going to find local to city JavaScript conferences. There’s a New York JavaScript conference, there’s even a New York node conference that’s a little different. There’s just so many little niches of conferences that there’s no reason you can’t be the person in your tiny little area that is pretty knowledgeable about that topic.

Adam: If I’m like, “Hey, there’s this cool library,” I have some certain fear that the creator is in the audience and he’s like, “Actually, I stopped using that. It’s no good.”

Karl Hughes: I’ve done this and in not the best way. I gave a talk at a meetup about this node framework called Nest. It uses TypeScript and I really liked it. I gave this talk and somebody started asking questions about whether you should use it with serverless and I’m like, “Honestly, I have no idea.” I’m like, “I can’t imagine it would be the best for that,” and then the next week somebody from the Nest team messaged me on Twitter and he’s like, “We actually do support that serverless thing that that guy was asking about,” and I’m like, “Oh.” Of course, I get called out after. I don’t know. I think that people know you’re trying your best. If you don’t know things, that’s fine. Nobody’s going to be mad at you about that. As long as your talk description is clear, what you’re going to cover, there shouldn’t be a surprise.

If in other words you say you’re going to cover building your first React component and someone asks you about some really obscure, small part of React that had nothing to do with what your talk was, I wouldn’t expect you to know that necessarily. That goes back to the whole throw it to the audience and see if they have any ideas or have dealt with that problem. You can’t be an expert in every single thing.

Speaking for Non-Experts

Adam: Yeah. I feel like there’s a certain talk persona. Maybe it’s just in my head of the very polished expert who’s here to tell everybody how things work. I don’t feel that that’s me. I have this podcast where it’s basically me asking smart people stupid questions. The person of, “Hey, I’m the expert.” How do you approach that?

Karl Hughes: Yeah. There’s a couple ways that I think people do a good job of addressing that problem. You’re right. Coming off as I am the guru of X technology is really hard to do legitimately. I think a better way to approach that would be to take a personal story of your use case for a certain technology and tell the audience your honest story. For example, I used to do a talk a couple years ago about microservices and this kind of microservice/service-oriented architecture for small startups. The trajectory was we started off, we had this huge monolith, we had no idea what we were doing. It was like and here’s how we start breaking it up and making the pieces more digestible and learning to test it. It wasn’t like I’m an expert in microservices and I know how to do it. It was more like here’s the things we tried and what did work and didn’t work, and the tech stacks we were using.

It’s great because I give that talk, and then immediately people in the audience, they have their own experience to throw in there. It really invites a lot of participation and people being okay with just chiming in. Nobody in that room is necessarily setting themselves up as the expert who knows everything. I’m not telling you this is the way to do microservices. I’m giving you one story about how I did them once. There’s lots of room for improving and changing that.

Adam: Yeah. I like that. It’s a case study or something. This isn’t Karl’s rules for microservices.

Karl Hughes: Right. The older I get, maybe the less I believe there’s absolute truth and way to do everything.

Adam: Yeah. The other distinction that I perceive, it seems easier to give a talk about something that is a hard piece of tech than career advice for developers or something that could be very valuable, but it’s less specific, it’s harder to evaluate. I feel like soft talks are for the keynote speaker who’s famous.

Karl Hughes: These talks that are not heavily technical may be more about people skills, team management, things like that that are fuzzier. They are harder to give. I would agree with that. Maybe it’s just because I’m an engineer and that’s like my brain goes to engineering things, it likes absolutes and it likes black and white, right or wrong, and evaluating decisions with data and all this stuff that is really, really hard to do when you are talking about something like team management or feelings or performance reviews with team members. All that stuff is very hard. I agree with you.

Now, that said, I like the speakers who bring it back to a personal story again because I think that is really a powerful way to convey that these things I’m telling you are not absolutes. They are just one experience. We form ideas about things based on all the data we have, and that data might just be a lot of stories because those top 10 lists, they flow in your brain and right out. There’s nothing really memorable to dive in there, but the more you can tell stories that link it into something that’s memorable, I think the more your audience will receive and ingest that information.

Adam: It’s like the sneaky soft talk where you’re like, “I’m here to talk about Docker,” but it’s really a talk about how learning has changed my life.

Karl Hughes: Yeah. That could definitely be one way to do it. I think again, I don’t want to discourage new speakers from talking because that sounds really hard to do because it is. I think there’s tiers where people get in their speaking careers. I’m way down here in the early stages trying to learn it all, sucking the information from as many people as I can, and I see people all the time who are in the keynote stage of their career where they can give these big talks that are so inspiring, TED talk level things. To me, it’s like, “Man, I don’t even know where you start there,” but I think you have to start down here. You start down just doing what you can, and you get a little better and you keep getting a little better, and maybe eventually you do get up where you’re giving these keynote talks and you’ve got these really inspiring stories to tell people, but it’s about being critical and thinking through how you want to get there.

Adam: I talked to somebody. They had applied to a lot of conferences as sort of a way to travel around. The method that was described was to gather a bunch of buzzwords that were popular and put it in Excel, and they had some sort of pick a random word from this row and then this row and this row like Mad Libs. How do talks get chosen?

The Call For Proposals (CFP) Process

Karl Hughes: Yeah. It can vary quite a bit from conference to conference. Most of them have a CFP process. If they don’t, then they just [inaudible 00:29:37] the speakers they want to speak. Some conferences do that because it’s simpler and they want to have control over every talk that comes in, but excepting those because you just have to be a well-known speaker to get invited, most of them will have a CFP, and it’ll open up and they’ll either do one of the few ways they can evaluate the submissions. They could do a rolling review where every time a submission comes in, they check it, they see it if it meets a certain criteria, and if it is they might accept the speaker or accept that talk, and then move on and evaluate the next one.

In that case, it’s beneficial to get your talks in as early as possible. That’s interesting. Sometimes, they’ll tell you they’re doing that, sometimes they won’t tell you, so you just have to know or learn or ask the organizers. That’s a rare thing. Usually, what they do is they wait until the end when they have gathered say a couple hundred submissions or more, whatever the threshold is before the deadline, and then they’ll just sit down as a committee of organizers and they’ll decide which talks they want based on some predetermined criteria usually. Usually, that’s things like the uniqueness of the talk, the interest level of the topic, the buzzwords included might be a criteria, I don’t know.

I haven’t been in a lot of conference selection committee, but I’ve talked to a couple people who have organized conferences, and they’ve told me basically what they realize. Their job is to sell tickets so they can keep doing the conference, but they also want to give speakers an opportunity who are new and from different areas to spring in new perspectives to the community, which I think is really cool too. There’s a mix of things happening in how they make that selection, but usually it’s done by the organizing committee.

The Abstract Writing Process

Adam: I want to submit my abstract and I want it to get picked. What’s the key to that?

Karl Hughes: I have to cop out, but it depends. It’s definitely the answer here. When a conference opens up their CFP, they’re usually going to include some details on the CFP website. It’ll tell you what topic areas they’re looking for or what focus the conference has. Matching your talk to that focus is the first thing. Also, just writing a good abstract in general is a skill in itself. This is kind of an interesting thing I didn’t find out until I got speaking was that there’s the skill of public speaking, but then there’s the skill of writing the abstract. It’s like taking a lot of information that’s going to be an hour long slideshow and putting it into two paragraphs. That is a skill and it certainly can’t be discounted. I think some of the best speakers or most prolific speakers at least are very good at abstract writing, and maybe they could be average speakers. Making your abstract compelling, that’s a whole skill in itself.

The conference organizers are also looking for a good blend of topics. What this means is if there are tons of people submitting about React, they aren’t going to just take 10 React talks. They’re going to sort of vary it up and maybe they’re going to have one person talk about React, and they’re going to have another person talk about Vue, JS or Angular, or whatever. They’re going to look for that. They’re also going to look a little bit at speakers’ prior reputation. Why this matters is a couple things. One is a well-known speaker will draw some audience members, so that’s part of it. But also, people who’ve spoken before are less likely to flake out or be unreliable or blow it when they get on stage. To be honest, conferences are trying to derisk the fact that new speakers, there’s some level of risk.

They could also be looking at the cost of transporting you and the hotel that you’re going to stay in. In other words, local speakers might get preference in some conferences, especially if they’re smaller committee-run conferences that don’t have much budget to pay speakers.

Conference Travel Costs

Adam: How do these costs get covered?

Karl Hughes: Great question. This is a whole another thread. Every few months, the thread on Twitter will crop up as people debating whether speakers should get paid, whether they should get all their costs reimbursed or whether these committee-run conferences, it’s not their obligation, maybe the company should cover it instead. There’s no right answer here. It depends on the conference. I’ve seen a few things. In general, about 30 to 50% of conferences that I collect for CFP Land have either travel or hotel or some combination of those covered for all their speakers. It’s not even half the conferences cover that. Probably only three to 5% of conferences give you a stipend on top of those costs. It’s actually pretty rare to get paid anything to speak in tech conferences, but it’s not that rare to get at least your travel and hotel bills covered. That’s kind of nice.

Adam: My wife took me to this home show around here. It’s like you pay to go into an arena where people are selling things like a hot tub or whatever. I paid to get in there. The people selling things there, they paid to be there. I found the whole business model like it’s genius, but confusing. Like what?

Karl Hughes: Yeah.

Adam: I guess conferences, they seem similar too. What is the business model behind the conference, or is there one?

Karl Hughes: Yeah. No. That’s a great question. Honestly, I think a lot of speakers don’t ever ask this or think this. It’s too bad because conference organizers most of the time are very idealistic, good meaning people that want to make a community better. They don’t always do a great job of that. Sometimes, they screw it up massively, to be honest, but I believe most of them have very good intentions. Now, the way that a conference makes money is either they sell sponsorships and/or they sell tickets. Usually, conferences do both, but some conferences are only one or only the other. It’s interesting too that every conference has a different actual business structure. For example, a lot of the smaller conferences, local conferences, might be either non-for-profits, which means that they can’t make a profit at the end of the day and nobody can make really money off this thing other than just cover their costs, or they’re actually for-profit companies that create conferences for brands, or they’re brands themselves that create the conference.

I’ll give an example. AWS throws a big conference every year. The goal of that conference is to get a bunch of developers in one place they can teach them and sell them on AWS products. It’s very clear that their goal is this is a marketing cost for them. They probably subsidize the conference. I don’t know how expensive it is to go, but it’s probably not as expensive as it could be because Amazon wants you there. That’s one end of extreme corporate end of the conference world.

On the other end are these smaller community-based events where maybe a local meetup organizer decides they are going to try to get a couple hundred people together to do a local conference. For those, usually they’re going to have to get sponsors to help out with the cost. They’re going to sell tickets for at least a couple hundred bucks a piece to cover their costs. They have to rent a space which is by far the biggest expense, and they’ll probably have to provide some food, they may have to pay for speakers’ travel and hotel lodgings. Anyway, most conference organizers at that level make very little to no money or lose a lot of money on the effort. I’ve known several conference organizers, I’ve never known one who got wealthy off of the conference organizer game. Most of them do this as a sort of social good, goodwill sort of thing. Keep that in mind as you’re applying to speak and you’re peeved about the conference not covering your costs. They’re probably not making money.

Adam: That’s good to know. Are there counterexamples?

Karl Hughes: Yeah. There are. You can certainly dig into from the conference website, you can probably figure that out if it’s run by an event organizing company that does this professionally. Maybe they do have a profitable business. Even a lot of those event organizing companies, they’re not extremely profitable businesses. They’re just small businesses, couple people running this because they enjoy it. I’ve met a couple people that do that as well. I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like this big faceless corporate entity. We don’t see as many of those in tech conferences right now.

Adam: Yeah. No. That’s very true. Once I get selected, what do I do?

Karl Hughes: One of the things I found as I was speaking and getting invited to speak was that the conference organizers may or may not tell you exactly what to expect and when as you get ready for the conference. It’s on you as a speaker to figure out your timeline and what you need to have prepared. Usually, I try to have everything worked out with my employer as far as time off and all that at least two or three months beforehand just so I know I’m going to have the days off or be able to be remote those days. I may also double check with the organizers on the dates and location because to be honest, running a conference is really hard, and it takes coordination between places, times and money. It’s actually pretty challenging to work out. Sometimes, maybe a venue decides they can’t do it that week, so they may have to move it to another venue or they may have to change the date, so just double check on all those things, either check the website or email the organizers a couple months ahead of time to make sure you’re in a good spot.

And then, beyond that, you’ve got to do a lot of logistical things on your own like book the flights and hotel rooms. Most of the time, conferences won’t do that for you, but you can ask if they will. A lot of times, they would prefer if you just submitted receipts to get reimbursed rather than they pay upfront. It’s just easier for them from a cashflow perspective. That’s something to think about. You may in some cases, if you’re going to travel internationally, you have to have a passport and all that stuff, so make sure you have that ahead of time. That seems obvious, but if you’re US-centric like I am or if you’re living in the US, usually you can travel all over the US with no restrictions, but in somewhere like Europe, it may be more common that you’re having some form of international ID. Just be ready for that paperwork.

Adam: Yeah.

Karl Hughes: And then, there’s a lot of times a speaker dinner or speaker after hours event where you’ll get to meet some of the other speakers. Try to get some details on that. Make sure you go to those. I found those to be one of the most fun and helpful networking events in tech. You get to sit down with a bunch of other speakers. I always feel way outclassed by these people. They are way sharper than me, more experienced, and it’s always fun to learn from them and just try to pick their brains. And then, as you get closer to the date, hopefully you’re practicing, you’ve got your slides going, all that good stuff.

Some of the other things you want to think about are are you going to go to other sessions, which I would recommend that you do, but you may want to look at the schedule and see what other sessions would be fun to attend. Maybe there’s other speakers you know, things like that. You want to also think about how you actually get to the conference from wherever you’re staying if you’re not staying in the conference hotel. There’s all this logistical stuff is my point that they don’t necessarily give you. Be ready for it. And then, once you get there, what I like to do is try to test out my laptop and presentation on the exact same equipment that I’m going to be giving it on because in most cases, the event venue will have projectors and all that stuff that you can plug right into, but you want to try it ahead of time so that you’re not debugging live if it doesn’t work, and you have hopefully a backup plan of email your slides to somebody or something like that.

And then, the other thing to think about here is what happens when inevitably you’re giving a talk and the wifi goes down. Do you have all your slides backed up? Do you have a video of your demo you were going to give? All this stuff that could go wrong because there’s that whole if it could go wrong, it will go wrong at some point. If you speak enough, you’re going to hit one of these times. Just be ready for that. I’ve unfortunately seen speakers who didn’t have a backup plan and something went wrong, they forgot their slides or lost them or the power went out, something weird. They were just stuck. There’s nowhere to go. You can’t avoid all of that, but try to think about that. When you get there, you’re getting up to your time, it’s closer, figure out what your prep needs to be.

Some speakers I’ve talked to, they have funny little rituals they go through. You don’t have to have anything really cool, but one of my favorites is Alex Lakota. He is a speaker and he goes into the bathroom before his talk and just starts celebrating, just acting like he won something. He’s like, “It doesn’t matter what. I just want to get in there and get pumped up, get that energy going, get moving, get jacked up.” He’ll just beat on his chest. That’s how he gets himself hyped up. You don’t have to go that far if you don’t want, but I think it’s good to have … A lot of people have pump up songs they listen to or they’ll run around the building real quick [inaudible 00:41:55] 30 minutes before just to get their blood moving. I don’t know. Figure out what works for you.

And then, as you give your talk, start thinking about … As you sort of wind down, you have to decide if you’re going to give questions time or not, and that you probably want to think about ahead of time. A lot of conferences will either say we do or don’t encourage questions, but if they don’t say you can pick what you want to do. You can tell people either I’ll take questions while I’m on stage or maybe tell them I don’t take questions on stage, but afterwards come meet me in the hallway. I’ll hang out there for a few minutes. That can be good too if you don’t want to get yourself on the spot, which can feel a little awkward.

Adam: Yeah. What’s your preference on questions?

Karl Hughes: I enjoy them, but I understand why people don’t always. I don’t think there’s a right and wrong answer. I think it’s what works for you. I like the ability to get the audience involved, and so when someone asks a question and even if I don’t know it, I’m okay with pushing it off to another audience member saying I’ll look it up and get back to you.

Adam: There’s always somebody at the conference who asks a question and then it’s not even a question. It’s you talking and any questions, and there’s somebody who is like, “That was neat. Let me tell you something I did that was better.”

Karl Hughes: Yeah. That does happen. That’s probably a big part of why some speakers don’t like questions because that’s just very distracting and annoying. I don’t know. I always look at this like I just got my 45 minutes to talk on stage. If you want to have two minutes, I don’t care. I’m not going to fight you.

The Benefits Of Tech Conference Speaking

Adam: Nice. Now, you’ve done it, you’ve completed your goal. Was it everything you thought it would be to be a speaker?

Karl Hughes: Yeah. I guess I’m still doing it. I really enjoyed it. The biggest takeaways have been I enjoy the chance to travel and meet people that I never would’ve had the opportunity to meet in person before. Whether those are attendees or other speakers or the organizers, the connections to me are the really most valuable thing because at the end of the day, you can probably go online watch a lot of these conference talks in video form, so the information itself is going to be available soon, but the face time you get with other humans is not easy to replicate in other places.

Biggest takeaway has been that. I still do it because I enjoy all that side of it, so I don’t think I’m going to stop completely, but I’ve definitely slowed way down. I’m trying to do more like two conferences a year, which seems like a nice number for me partly because I just had a family, just had a baby, so adding to the family. It makes it a little harder to get away and I feel like I enjoy being home as well because having a new baby is a whole new experience at home. Doing less, but still doing some.

Adam: Out of your current speaking experiences, what was the most powerful or rewarding experience?

Karl Hughes: Let’s see. I probably have a good one and a bad one that were both memorable in their own ways. I’ll start with the time I really blew it. I was giving a talk for an audience that was mostly system administrators and website administrators and [inaudible 00:44:57], they’re more like people who work in Drupal and WordPress, other CMSs to update their college websites. It’s a different audience than software engineers. They’re certainly people with a lot of knowledge and technical ability, but they don’t have this … They don’t go in and write low-level code. It’s like basically when I’m talking to a Linux kernel administrator, I have no idea what they do, and they think I’m …

Anyway, I was giving a talk on testing distributed systems to this group that was a lot less technical than I was used to in the ways that I was used to. I really did not adjust that talk to the audience well at all. I got up there, I started giving it, and I look at the audience and it’s clear blank faces. I felt like an idiot. It’s like that is the kind of mismatch that you do not want. It’s one thing if people call you out for missing a couple facts here and there, but to throw something at people that they don’t understand at all and have no grounding in, it just makes you look you have no idea what you’re doing. To me, that was the biggest failure as a speaker because afterwards … A couple people said, “That was really interesting, but I had no idea [inaudible 00:46:00] you were saying. That’s way beyond me.” A couple of people were like, “That was good. I got it. [inaudible 00:46:07] more about this than other people.”

It was rough. That’s something I’ve tried not to do again. In a way, screwing that up once has made me really conscious of who my audience is and what their level is at different skills before I go in there. I really try to go research the conference, look at prior talks and even ask the organizers questions about what their audience makeup is before the actual talk.

On the other side, I had a talk that I did. The latest one I gave was my favorite one. We were talking about it earlier, the challenge of non-technical talk. I started pitching one this year called Stop Writing Code and Start Solving Problems. The idea is that a lot of times as developers we tend to jump first to … Someone gives us a problem and we immediately think, “Yeah. That’ll be fun. I’m going to go write a bunch of code that solves it.” That’s our engineering brains that want to just build stuff. I am guilty of this as much as anybody, but I have learned that that is often not the best move for the company and for the longevity of the project you’re working on because oftentimes what we do is we reinvent the wheel because we thought that would be really cool to build and we didn’t stop and think about, “Was there an open source package that did most of this? Was there a vendor that would do this for us that we could just integrate with?” Or even higher level is do we go back and say, “Is this really necessary? Is this the only way to solve this problem, or could we maybe do this instead? It’s way easier and less technically challenging.”

I’ve noticed that engineers just tend to jump right in. I wrote this talk about that or pitched this talk about that. I gave it at a local conference here in Chicago last year, and I feel like I’m starting to get how to give those sort of less technical talks now. It’s making me feel encouraged to do more of that. I’ve been pitching that talk and versions of that talk a little more lately and trying to get a little less technical and more story-based and things like that. Anyway, I don’t know that that’s super discrete success as much as that discrete failure, but it’s feeling like I’m starting to crack a code that works for me in giving those sorts of talks.

Adam: Do you think that talk has been impactful?

Karl Hughes: Yeah. I give it in form of stories. We’ve been talking a lot about how I think that’s a good method for giving conference talks is to try to tell personal stories. I was starting it off with how I used to work at GE Appliances, and I worked in this new product that was called a SmartDispense Pedestal. Anyway, it’s supposed to be a whole new invention for washing machines, but the reality is they have together 10 or 12 parts that were all available off the shelf and made this thing that was “unique” to GE. A lot of it is marketing, a lot of if it is the truth is that most inventions are just a product of what has come before them. That’s just how it always has been. We just overlook that because I think it’s just tempting to think of the story of the master engineer who just knows so much that he or she can just build anything from scratch.

Adam: Yeah.

Karl Hughes: That is just so rarely true. Isaac Newton talks about we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants. That just continues to be true. It’s even more true in this world where we have open source and Wikipedia, this public knowledge base that is just massive. By telling stories, I think it does make some impact on people because everybody afterwards came up to me. I’ve never had people do this, come up to me and call me some things. They all said, “You’re the washing machine guy. I loved that talk. That’s so cool.” Once you start to get known as the washing machine guy or whatever your talk is, I think that’s when you know you’ve made at least some impact. [inaudible 00:49:43].

Adam: This month and every month, developers will be traveling to conferences. They will be watching talks and learning new things and getting excited. Karl went from an unknown developer to a conference speaker, from a vague yearly goal to the washing machine guy. Thank you, Karl, for showing us how we could all become conference speakers. All right. That was the show. Thank you so much for listening all the way through. Let me know what you thought. Until next time. Thank you so much for listening.

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Karl L Hughes on Conference Talks