Friday, October 17, 2014

My first six months as a female tech speaker

I'm not the only one who thinks getting up on stage is scary, if not terrifying. Most of us recognize the feeling of not being brave enough or good enough. "Why would someone want to watch my presentation when there are so many out there who know more about this than I?" This is what a lot of developers feel and so did I over a year ago. But that has changed, and I'd like to tell you the story of how it all turned around.

There's a difference between being good at writing code and being able to talk about code, or technical concepts for that matter. I probably owe half my career to a couple of recent and present colleagues who have taught me a lot by talking about code. Talking about code inspires me, but at the beginning of my career I was uncomfortable doing it. What if I used the wrong word? What if I said something wrong? I decided to turn the question around: what would my colleagues do if I said something wrong? Well, some wouldn't say anything at all, other would correct me and one would ask me the right questions so I would realize and correct the mistake myself. No one would laugh, talk behind my back, or label me as useless.

I put on a brave smile and some fake confidence, and I started discussing code with my colleagues. It didn't take long before the fake confidence became real, and it grew fast. Discussing and talking about code had a side effect I hadn't thought about, suddenly my learning curve sky rocketed. Being able to understand new technical concepts explained to you without seeing them written down gives you possibilities you didn't know existed.

After a while, I felt comfortable and confident  talking about code with my colleagues, and I had become somewhat addicted to the learning experience that comes with it. I wanted more, but how?

I used to love public speaking when I was younger. Being part of the European Youth Parliament, I got a high from standing on a stage in front of hundreds of my peers. But somehow, over the years, that love had disappeared. The thought of doing that sort of thing again terrified me, but there was a small part of me hoping I could rekindle the fascination I once had.

I gave it a shot, I signed up for a course on public speaking on Coursera and I spent months creating presentations, recording them and having people all over the world give me feedback on the content and my performance. Of course, speaking to a web camera, recording yourself is not as scary as standing on a stage, you mostly just feel silly. So at the end of the course, I gave myself an exam: To submit a lightning talk abstract to Booster Conference 2014 in Bergen.

Weeks passed and I received the message that I'd been accepted as a speaker. I flew to Bergen and back, completely exhausted after a great conference. The talk was fine, given that it was my first. In hindsight, I've realized how hard it is to say something useful in 10 minutes. As for the performance, it seems like I completely forgot how to smile and  relax.

A couple of months later, I found myself standing on stage at NDC Oslo, nauseous, wondering why the hell I would torture myself like this. My presentation was at the same time as Hanselman and Crockford, so I was amazed that someone turned up for mine. But people showed up one by one, and I survived my first full hour on stage. Still, my performance was stiff and rehearsed, and the content not much better than satisfactory.

That was all about to change though. I'd been asked to speak for the .NET user group in Oslo and I had decided it was time for a completely new presentation. The one I'd held so far simply didn't do the trick. I had worked on the presentation for a couple of weeks when my grandpa had a heart attack and was put into a coma. I can't remember much of the following weeks, but the day of the .NET user group meetup I'd spent the day in the hospital saying goodbye to him. I wanted nothing more than to go home and sleep, my mind and body completely shattered from trying to understand how someone could just disappear without any warning. But I had spent so much time preparing this presentation, and I didn't want all that to be a waste of time. So I went through with it.

Going through a crisis, you quickly find yourself with new perspectives. That happened to me on my way to the .NET user group: I realized that in the larger picture, this presentation didn't matter. Who would care if I said something wrong? If the presentation turned out terrible, if I made a complete arse of myself, I could simply quit. I could walk away from this speaker project I've thrown myself into at any time, no one is forcing me to go on.

Thinking all these things took away my fear and I was no longer nervous. As a matter of fact, speaking to a room full of developers was a nice break from the rest of the terrible events I'd gone through that day. Did I say something wrong? Yes, I did. And the audience corrected me when I did, which I really appreciated. But still, being a pretty inexperienced speaker, I rocked the presentation! It didn't seem rehearsed, I engaged with the audience and we had some nice discussions going. I think I might have cracked the code, figured out the secret.

The secret is to realize that it doesn't matter if you blow it, being a speaker is (for most people) not the most important thing in your life. For me, it's actually quite far down on the list, I do it for fun.

Since the .NET user group meetup, I've done the same presentation at Code Pub Oslo. Later this month I'll be speaking for the developers at NRK. In November, I'm on for TechDays Sweden and in December it's NDC London. So many amazing opportunities I'm extremely grateful for being given!

Then what? Who knows, but it doesn't really matter, does it? If I still enjoy this at the end of the year, I'll go on. So what's my tips to all of you out there who want to become a speaker? There are plenty:

1) Creating a presentation takes a lot of time, more time than you think! For my last presentation, I've probably spent about 40-50 hours doing research, putting it all together and rehearsing. When you're done though, you can use your presentation several times.

2) Don't rehearse too much. This is what I did for my first presentations and the result is that you're not able to show your true self up on that stage.

3) Find a thought that makes you relax and that takes away your nerves. For me that thought was: "All this doesn't really matter"

4) Talk to experienced speakers and don't be afraid to ask questions. I've received some great advice from Johannes Brodwall, Niall Merrigan, Hadi Hariri and Troy Hunt when I've asked for it.

5) Don't be disappointed if you submitted a paper for a conference and don't get accepted. This happens to everyone, it has happened to me twice already. You should be glad all conferences are different, imagine how boring conferences would become it they all had the same speakers?

6) If you want to get started as a speaker, then throw yourself into it. Start by presenting something for your colleagues, contact a local meetup, or submit a lightning talk to see if this is something you'd enjoy doing.


  1. Great year for you, looking forward to seeing you on stage at a conference next year maybe! :)

  2. Just a thought: Given your ongoing focus on women in tech (and your inclusion of the word "female" in this blogpost title), do you feel the gender thing has had any impact on your own path towards your goals?

    1. Great question! And yes, my focus on women in tech has had a great impact on my own goals. I've been disappointed at several conferences by how few female presenters there were, but at the same time I had no good reason for not being up on stage myself. So I thought it would be a bit wrong of me to start complaining about there not being enough female presenters if I didn't make an effort myself.

      At the same time, I believe one of the needs necessary to get more women into tech is to change the image of the industry. We need to show girls out there that you don't have to be a complete basement nerd in order to work in tech, but that there are "normal" (yet nerdy) women in the industry. And the easiest way to do that? Being visible.