#TrustTheProcess: Preparing Your First Conference Talk

One of the things I’ve come to enjoy most about the development community is the sharing of knowledge. It seems as though everyone wants to do what they can to help people to deliver the best products they can; by sharing both the knowledge that they have and the tools that they use. We see this within local communities through different tech meetups almost every night of the week, and also globally through the knowledge sharing and community aspect of sites like Stack Overflow, and open source projects on GitHub. If you search online, you will find a different conference about most any technology or framework you could imagine, which epitomizes this knowledge-sharing aspect of the development community, as conferences serve as a prime opportunity for people from across the industry to come together to share their knowledge and experience. If you’re like me, and you really enjoy this aspect of the development world, you might be wondering – How can I get more involved in conferences? How do I go from attendee to speaker? From my own experience, I can attest – it can be a tough step to take, especially at the outset, when all of the speakers you’ve heard seem so smart and polished.

As I hinted at above, I recently had the opportunity to take that leap myself, as I made the transition from being a warm body in the seat to the professional on the platform. It wasn’t easy, but on the other side of it, I’m so glad I took this step. By the end of this blog post, my hope is that I will convince you to do the same!

Now, a word of caution – I would highly encourage you not to get into conference speaking just to check something off of a performance review. Instead, look deeper at how this opportunity could grow you both personally and professionally. Speaking is a phenomenal opportunity to teach and share something that you’re excited about. You get to give back to the community you are a part of, those who have helped you to get to where you are in one way or another. Further, you get to bring attention to your company. Your network will expand immensely through the other speakers you’ll meet along the way, and the people you’ll talk to due to giving your presentation. Being forced to talk in front of people will help grow both your confidence and your communication skills, both of which are very transferable and beneficial in your day-to-day work.

For me specifically, I have been interested in emerging technologies since before I entered the development world back in college. Our field is not stagnant and we get to work with new technologies that help us to solve problems in new ways. As of late, one of those technologies is blockchain. We hear a lot of people still deliberating on exactly how big of an impact blockchain will have and which industries it will impact. But when I learned that it could impact more than just the payments industry, I wanted to learn more about it. I thought giving a talk on blockchain would give me the opportunity to learn more about it, in order to investigate an emerging technology to see what problems it could solve and try to figure out how it works. I was also excited about the opportunity to work on my presentation skills, as I would love to continue to give more presentations and communicate more both internally and externally throughout the business world. Giving a presentation when there wasn’t a sale on the line, and where a group of people wanted to see me succeed, seemed like a low pressure way to prepare and improve!

Hopefully one of those reasons resonated with you, and you are convinced that there is some benefit in giving a conference talk. But, where would you even start? I am going to outline now the process that I followed. My hope is that you will find something helpful as you work on forming your own first conference talk.

First, I benefited immensely from walking through the process of forming my talk with a group of three others (huge thank you to Jim Everett, Patrick Badley and Brandon Rockwell) who were also forming talks at the same time. I would HIGHLY recommend trying to find others to go through this process with you, as it takes time, multiple opinions, and feedback to help you to deliver the best talk possible.

Our group of four started by each picking three to four topics that we were excited about. While I don’t believe that you have to be an expert on the topic, I do think that you really have to be excited to learn about it because you will be spending A LOT of time looking into the technology and learning more about it. Once we each had a few ideas, we all voted on each others’ to determine which one we would each develop further. This was a highly beneficial process. It may seem small, but it simulates the way a conference selection committee will go about selecting submissions. Picking the brains of two to three others in the industry can be a great way to gauge interest in the topics that you choose.

Once we had voted, we each worked to develop a title and abstract around the idea which had been selected by the others. Your title should be flashy, and should definitely be attention grabbing. I would recommend coming up with your title, and then working on that to develop a three to four sentence abstract. In your abstract you will want to hook the audience, and discuss what you plan on covering through your talk. For example, here are my title and abstract:

Blockchain: Worth more than a Bitcoin?

Is this Bitcoin craze for real? What even is Bitcoin? These are questions we in the tech industry may be fielding frequently as of late from friends and family. One question that isn’t as frequent, however, is what is blockchain? Is it just an algorithm for cryptocurrencies? It can answer a much bigger question; a fundamental computer science question around verifying data. This mysterious technology is already impacting a variety of industries and processes from finance to healthcare. Join me as we discover and explore what exactly blockchain is, where it is headed, and how and when you can start using it.

It can also be really helpful to go out to conference websites and read abstracts that they have listed to get ideas for different styles and flows. Once we had a rough draft of a title and abstract, we again sent them out to each other to get feedback and help in order to finalize the abstract for submission. This “group-think” strategy was super beneficial, because what seems like the most novel concept in your head, may not sound quite the same to someone else. Getting multiple opinions really helps to deliver the best abstract possible.

Once we finished the outline, we worked on establishing two takeaways that we wanted the attendees of our talks to walk away with, as well as a story arc for how we wanted to communicate the takeaways. For my talk, I wanted the attendees, upon leaving, to understand first how blockchain works, and second, the business value and usefulness of blockchain. I feel like there is a lot of confusion around blockchain, and a lot of illustrations about how it works that aren’t super helpful. I was hoping I could help bring some clarity to a difficult topic. For my story arc, I wanted to follow what Gartner calls the “Hype Cycle for Emerging Technology”. This “Hype Cycle” graph closely resembles the way we’ve seen the price of Bitcoin fluctuate over the last six months or so, and so I thought this could be a really fun way to walk people through blockchain as most people strongly associate blockchain and Bitcoin.

Once we had our takeaways and the story arc pinned down, our fearless leader, Jim, charged us with coming up with an outline. This process was really beneficial, but it was also a very easy step to complete once we had decided our takeaways and how we wanted to walk through those takeaways. This step may seem easy to skip, but I would highly encourage you to take the time to do it. Having an outline prepared can help drive and focus your research, as well as give you a very easy way to build out a slide deck. Here’s my outline as an example:

  • Welcome

  • Bio

    • Brett

    • HMB

  • Overview of the rise and fall of bitcoin

  • Essential prerequisites

    • Cryptography at a high level

    • Hashing at a high level

    • Bitcoin != Blockchain, it’s one implementation

      • Differences between bitcoin and ethereum
  • What is blockchain? Bottoms-up approach

    • Transactions

    • Blocks

    • Blockchain

    • Nodes

    • Network

  • How do these parts combine to bring together a powerful technology? Benefits of blockchain

    • Double spend problem

    • Validity of data

      • Immutable

      • Key signing algorithm

    • Source of data/traceability

      • Cut of known bad actors

      • Auditable

    • Security

      • No one point of failure

      • Immutable could be thrown under here

      • 51% of CPU required to hack

      • Cryptography

    • Take out middle man

      • Social impact is huge
        • Money orders to relatives in other countries

        • People with no access to a bank

    • More CPU power as a collective network than in any one place

      • Current bitcoin implementation of blockchain CPU power is estimated somewhere between 10-100X of Google
  • Industries being affected

    • Everyone knows financial/banking

    • Kodak

    • Walmart

    • LL Bean

  • Negatives

    • Truthfully, a lot of folks don’t seem to care very much about learning the subtleties of how these systems work, and simply want to profit.

      • ICO’s
    • Technical barriers… As far as the technology itself goes, it simply takes time to really take all of the tiny moving parts and think of the system as a whole.

      • Not a lot of technical talent available right now
    • Not just a better sql db

    • Key management – lose your key and you could be in trouble

    • Immutable could be a downside

    • Scalability – right now ethereum blockchain is ~10 gigs and there are light clients that don’t have full blockchain but as this grows, as more people are putting more data on it, only a few machines will be able to hold the whole blockchain

  • When to use Blockchain?

    • Bad scenarios

    • Good scenarios

  • Address the disconnect, even if someone had a valid scenario to use blockchain, how do the nodes on the network work together to help walmart track food?

    • Smart contracts

    • Decentralized apps

    • Cryptocurrency

      • How and when it’s awarded
        • Proof of work vs proof of participation
  • Demo

    • Getting started with ethereum blockchain

    • Make a private blockchain

  • Next steps on your own

    • Metamask plugin

    • ethereum.org/token -> smart contract code to create your own cryptocurrency

    • Software Engineering Daily

    • Learn Blockchain by building one

      • PHP

      • JS

  • Q & A and contact info

Once I had this outline formed, it was time to start doing research and gathering sources. I formed this outline in a Google Doc, and then as I read or heard something that I wanted to include, I put it under the appropriate bullet and added the link to the content to a list of sources. I would recommend adding everything you come across, even if you’re unsure if you will include it in your final presentation, as it is easier to boil down content once you have it, than to go digging around to find it again.

After finishing the outline, it is time to form your slides! In my opinion this is a fun process. I would encourage you to form the slides and get the content on them without any design. Once you have the content on the slides, it will be more clear to you how the information can be formatted in a clear and communicative way, and it will also save you time from making numerous adjustments. As you’re forming your slides, you will want to use the last slide to list sources where people can learn more about the topic, as well as your contact information. Attendees can take a picture of the slide, and it gives them something tangible to walk away with, especially for those who are interested in learning more.

This can and should be an iterative process! You don’t have to come up with 50 minutes worth of content your first time. Maybe shoot to come up with a 15 minute, lightning-talk style presentation and then decide which areas you’d like to build out more. This may make the task seem much more approachable.

Giving conference talks is an awesome and exciting opportunity, and will be very beneficial for your career. It may seem like a lot of work, but once you have it done you can use your talk multiple times and shop it around to different conferences, local user groups and meetups. I had a blast doing it and was very thankful for the group of guys that went through the process with me, and helped give me direction of how to go about it. If you want to see how my talk about blockchain turned out after following these steps, you can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4m8RcfEWqo. Following the process I outlined above was very beneficial for me as I took the leap into the conference speaking world, so I hope it is also serves you as you go on this journey yourself. However you go about it though, let me know how it goes!

Next steps:

  • Apply to speak at a conference yourself!

  • Check out my next blog article of ten tips to remember heading into a conference talk here: https://brettkoenig.com/ten-tips-for-conference-speaking/

  • Watch my conference talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4m8RcfEWqo

  • Listen to a podcast where I’m interviewed about my talk here: http://shoutengine.com/CodingPersonalities/blockchain-worth-more-than-a-bitcoin-57575

  • Read an article I was interviewed for on ZDNet here: https://www.zdnet.com/article/10-ways-the-enterprise-could-put-blockchain-to-work/

  • Watch a live interview I did with TechRepublic here: https://www.techrepublic.com/videos/where-is-blockchain-heading/

About the author: BK

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.