I gave a talk at a tech conference, and here’s how you can too

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Indira at ATO 2019
Speaking on stage at All Things Open 2019 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo by All Things Open.

This time last year I gave my first ever talk at a technical conference. It was a fairly small local conference and there were only about 20 people in the audience, yet I was still so nervous! I’m not particularly great at public speaking, and after only three years of working as a software developer, I was definitely one of the youngest and most junior developers at the conference. Yet, I had a great experience and ended up giving a three more talks in the past year.

I would’ve never thought of giving a talk at a conference had it not been for my colleague Lina. She’s also a software engineer, and we met through the Women In Technology group at work. Outside of her day-to-day job, she’s an organizer for BostonJS (a local tech community meetup in the Boston area) and also one of the organizers for Boston Code Camp (a local tech conference in Burlington, MA). After much encouragement from her and other colleagues, I decided to sign up to give a 25 minute talk on web performance at BCC. I’m definitely not an expert in the topic, but it’s something that I’ve learned a lot about in the months prior due to the nature of my work, so I figured I could whip up a talk summarizing the things I’ve learned during that time. Thus, I filled out the talk submission form, and got accepted!

Indira at BCC
My first ever talk in front of 20 people at Boston Code Camp 2018. Photo by Louise Fitzpatrick Hayes.

Two months and many more hours of preparation later, I gave my first ever talk at a technical conference. It was 25 minutes of nervousness, but I made it! The talk went surprisingly well and dare I say I even enjoyed it! BCC had such a welcoming and friendly audience (great for first time speakers!) and a few of the audience members even came up to me afterwards to ask questions. After that experience I thought, “Wow, turns out this isn’t too hard. Maybe I should try doing more of this,” and I did! Since then, I’ve spoken at a local Boston meetup (Women Who Code Boston) and two more conferences (Women Who Code CONNECT and All Things Open).

How do I get started?

A year ago, I used to think that only very experienced senior engineers are able to attend, let alone speak at conferences. Turns out, in the tech industry at least, there are many conferences that are open to public and instead of getting their speakers from invitations, they open up their speaking slots to the public through what is known as a Call For Presentations otherwise known as CFPs. The CFP can take many different forms but at its simplest it’s an online form where you fill out your name, contact information and abstract for your talk. The conference organizers will then use this information to curate a list of speakers, and if they like your submission you will then get invited to speak. Some conferences may have more complicated CFPs however where they may ask you to submit prior speaking samples among other things. Depending on the conference, they may also prefer more seasoned speakers vs beginner speakers. It all varies on the conference you’re applying to.

If you’re interested in giving your first conference talk, I would suggest starting by speaking at local tech meetups. If you live in a city, there’s a pretty big chance that there’s at least one fairly active community of technologists that host tech talks every month. See if you can speak at one of their next meetups and use that as an opportunity to practice your talk and get feedback on it. Once you feel comfortable with a small crowd, start applying to conferences. There are a lot of tech conferences in North America, and many more around the world. I’ve found that https://confs.tech/ is a great resource to see which conferences are currently looking for speakers.

Indira at WWC Boston
Giving my first talk at a local meetup, Women Who Code Boston! Photo by Shayna Cummings.
Indira at CONNECT
Knowledge sharing at CONNECT 2019 in San Francisco

Why should I speak at conferences?

Before this year, I thought that in order to give a talk at a conference you have to be a genius and know everything there is to know about a particular topic. After giving some talks and having met some other conference speakers, I’ve started to realize that you don’t have to know everything to be able to give a talk—it can be as simple as you learned a new technology at work and want to share what you learned with other people. For me, giving a talk has been a great way to solidify what I’ve learned about a new technology. People say that a great way to test your understanding on a topic is if you’re able to explain a complex concept in layman terms to a group of beginner—I definitely agree with this!

I’ve also found attending and speaking at tech events to be a great way to meet other technologists. If you attend a talk and really enjoyed it, go up to the speaker afterwards and let them know you enjoyed it! Chances are they’ll really appreciate it and who knows, maybe you’ll make a new friend.

Last not not least, giving a talk at a conference is also a good excuse to travel to places you’ve never been before! Many conferences offer travel and accommodation to speakers, which means that you get to visit a place you might’ve never been before…for free! Even if they don’t offer travel reimbursement, many companies will offer to reimburse your travel fees. After all, having an employee give a talk at a conference is good press for the company too.

Indira at ATO
All smiles after finally giving my talk! Photo by author.
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Indira is a software developer currently based in Boston. She graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science from Brown University in 2015, and prior to that, she attended community college in Seattle and secondary school in Singapore. She is involved with the Women Who Code chapter in Boston and is also passionate about using technology to make education and knowledge more accessible. In her spare time, you can find Indira scuba diving, taking photos and traveling to new places. She can be reached at indirapranabudi@gmail.com.