First Time Speaking at Tech Conference

A couple weeks ago, I spoke at the inaugural DevOpsDays Salt Lake City (SLC) on “What DevOps Is to An AdTech Company.” The talk highlights projects at Sharethrough that have shaped our DevOps culture.

As a first-time speaker, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It turned out to be a great experience.

Top-down and Grass-roots Conferences

Prior to this, conferences I attended were organized by large companies. Well-funded, with product-driven agendas, these conferences often feature companies and their products, and lead with lessons and tips for using these products. As such, they serve as a great platform for product announcements and marketing.

DevOpsDays are grass-root events. Before registering with the DevOpsDays organization, organizers must find conference sponsors and reserve a venue. This often leads to a chicken-and-egg situation. Organizers – lacking a venue – struggle to get sponsors; at the same time, organizers can’t pay for venue reservations without a sponsor. This makes the conferences much harder to build, but, in the end, more rewarding for participants.

Conference Themes

Although each DevOpsDays event offers its own theme, most revolve around bringing development and operations together (naturally). Some big takeaways I got from DevOpsDays SLC were:

  1. How do we define DevOps?
  2. How do we introduce DevOps to your organization, both as top-down and bottom-up approaches?
  3. What are the benefits and challenges?
  4. How do we run effective operations?

Understanding the main themes of the conference helped me shape the focus of my talk, which was on my time as the first DevOps engineer at Sharethrough.

Before Speaking

Speaking for the first time in front of technical audience at a conference can be intimidating; some audience members may have more knowledge than you about your subject. Preparation is crucial. I spent 40+ hours working on my deck, and gave my talk as a lunch-and-learn with Sharethrough engineers. They gave me helpful feedback, particularly about expanding the content to make it more relevant.

Giving the Talk

Public-speaking anxiety is very real; in front of people, you may get nervous and speak at a much faster pace. The first few minutes are the toughest. Your heart pounds faster, you sweat and you might even shake, but your body will adapt and become less anxious.

My coworker Kelley Robinson once said before my talk, “As long as your talk helps one person, even that person is yourself, it is worth it”. Having the right mindset took some of the anxiety away.

Lastly, remember that when you’re at the podium, just be yourself. This is just a talk, and audiences are more forgiving than you’d anticipate. Try to have fun.

The Aftermath

After the talk, it’s rewarding to get feedback from the audience and hear their thoughts on what you had to say. One comment I received from an audience was “It’s nice to know that we are not the only one doing this.” It was a great relief to learn I didn’t screw up as bad as I thought I might, and maybe my talk helped someone.

Preparing and speaking at a tech conference takes effort and time, but it’s worth it. If DevOps is going to transform our Operations costs into assets, we need more engineers to share their DevOps experiences so we can continue the movement. Having done it once, I’m looking forward to more opportunities to speak and share stories.