Why /you/ should talk at conferences

An attempt to encourage more people to speak at conferences. Summarises conferences I've attended over the previous year and discusses the differences between academic and industrial conferences.

Sun 02 December 2012

I've finally got around to coopting this site as a blog for my ramblings about technology, and also made an early new years resolution to blog on here more regularly. Historically my blogging related resolutions seem to have vastly more success than other ones!

Academic vs Commercial Conferences

One of the thing that I've been up to over the last few months, aside from working for jclarity, is attending more conferences. Now I've attended conferences during my PhD, but commercial conferences are quite different from academic ones. Science has the overarching goal of advancing human knowledge. Part of that is researching and investigating important topics, but in order for your research contribution to be recognised and useful you need to publish your findings and expose yourself to peer-review. So any talk at a decent academic conference will go hand in hand with a paper that describes what advances were made in more detail.

Commercial conferences are quite different, however, in that there's no requirement for, or value in, novelty. That's not to say that people never say new things, or don't use conferences to push their ideas out to a wider audience, but its not the primary acceptance/rejection criteria. Furthermore whilst most academic conferences only invite their keynote speakers many commercial conferences invite many of the people who talk. In some cases a majority of talks are invited.

Getting up to speed

The first non-academic conference I spoke at was at the LJC's Openconf in 2011. This is a great place for new speakers. You don't need to get through a programme committee or make a formal application, all you need to do is fill in a yellow post-it note and put it up on a wall. I spoke with Jim Gough about JSR-310. We gave a general introduction to the topic and tried to encourage people to help out our effort to get the TCK started. Sadly I failed to follow this up with more proposals for a few months.

The next conference I went to was Javaone 2012 - which was good fun. I spoke a bit about adopt-a-jsr and adopt-openjdk. Also gave a first runthrough of "The Bluffer's Guide to Elitist Jargon" which was meant to be an entertaining introduction to some technical terminology and also some thoughts about how jargon can overcomplicate topics. This seemed to go reasonably well. I met a lot of different and interesting people, and helped some discussions with regards to JSR-310 making it into JDK 8. Also the LJC won two awards: a Duke's Choice and a JCP Award though in all honesty the greatest slice of credit for any individual should go to Martijn. Also was good to visit San Francisco, since I've got a couple of cousins out there who I rarely see.

After coming back from San Francisco I went to JAX London, and gave an expanded version of "The Bluffer's Guide to elitist Jargon" again with Jim Gough. This wasn't a disaster, but I didn't feel that it struck a chord with the audience, or have the atmosphere or its SF outing. It was still an enjoyable conference, was good to catch up with Mike Barker and a bunch of the other speakers. I also concluded when I attended a talk by Kevlin Henney that I had a way to go as a speaker. He managed to provide a really articulate and interesting talk with a few gems of insight thrown in and I think that's something that many people aim for but few succeed at.

Finally we get back to LJC Openconf 2012. This was great fun, but utterly exhausting. I started off on a performance analysis/tuning panel, when I could get a word in between Ben and Trish. Then we did an LJC JCP Committee Q&A; - which is always good to get feedback about the direction of the JCP from the LJC members at large. Then I did at a talk called Caching In, which is about how to measure the caching behaviour of software and offers some common strategies for fixing the resultant performance problems. I finished off running a workshop about Java core library changes enabled by the existence of lambdas.

We've just had the first programme committee meeting of Devoxx UK and the enthusiasm and people are involved are great. Even though its months away, I'm already looking forward to it.

What I've learned

  • Most people who are speaking at technology conferences aren't really ultra-expert. As long as you've got a point to make and can communicate clearly then you're in a good position to be able to contribute.
  • I really enjoyed giving the caching talk - I think its the first time I've ever been in a public speaking position and not felt nervous in the runup. It took a while to get to that stage, but getting there felt good
  • Unconferences and smaller venues provide a great route to leveling-up.
  • If you're too nervous to talk on your own or don't think you have complete enough knowledge of a topic area, talk with someone.

I think a lot more people can and should try to do more public speaking at conferences. Its something that's open to a lot of people to try, and which a lot of people I think have something to offer the wider community which they aren't using at the moment.