What I’ve learned about web communities from public speaking

Late in 2019, I gave a talk titled Considerations of an effective design system at GDG DevFest Sydney, among many other speakers whose topics were related to Flutter, Android, and Machine Learning. They were mostly topics I didn’t have a lot of knowledge in, and didn’t find all that beneficial to my current career prospectives. It was my third time speaking at DevFest, having spoken in 2016 and 2018.

My coworker Ryan also spoke at DevFest in 2019, his talk topic being UI microinteractions. It was wonderful to be speaking at the same conference – it felt like a powerful move. There was an entire track in the conference that was dedicated to web technology, and we both spoke in that track. DevFest has definitely attracted more attendees since I first spoke at it in 2016, and despite having a strong focus on Google and Android, the conference has gradually expanded to include a broader range of technologies and frameworks.

The few occasions I spoke at DevFest were not the only times that I’ve spoken at conferences outside of my usual community. In fact, I feel like the majority of events I’ve spoken at are events that I’d never heard of prior; or they have a community that is outside my expertise of front-end and UI engineering. Sometimes, this difference made me feel uncomfortable and left out. Sometimes, I wondered if people really cared about what I was going to speak about.

My so-called blazing trail of talks and presentations

My inspiration for talks and presentations comes in waves. When I first got stuck into it at the end of 2015, I was damn near addicted. I had a handful of ideas, and I wanted to reach and spread my ideas at different meetups. I searched for opportunities everywhere. I ran out of steam in 2017 and found a bit of a groove again in 2018. I spoke at a few events in 2019 as I had found a new interest in the topic of design systems. Most of the topics I speak about are blogging, creative ideas, documentation, and accessibility. I would consider most of my talks to be non-technical and relate to soft skills and personal development.

In 2017, I went back to a topic that was familiar: blogging. I had re-hashed an early talk from 2015, and to this day, I think that same talk has been re-hashed so much that I think there’s nothing left. In mid-2019, I’d grown tired of doing talks about blogging. Funnily enough, it ties into one of the themes of this blog post: impostor syndrome. I simply felt like a fraud if I had to talk about blogging anymore, because I had spent the latter half of 2019 with my mental health deteriorating and feeling deflated by writing at all.

I have rarely done technical talks involving code or programming concepts, even though that is at the core of what I do as an engineer. Why? Somehow, beyond feeling like I don’t know how to explain technical things, I just feel like I don’t have the authority to do so. I’m surrounded by so many people at work whom I feel are much smarter than me, and so, so good at explaining things I cannot explain well. I’m also surrounded by thought leaders in the front-end web community whose public speaking record is admirable – they’ve done talks explaining code and concepts, and I don’t think I have anything valuable to add. I am also irrationally terrified of “stepping on their turf”.

My first real conference, DevFest 2016

But let’s take a step back into the past, and the experiences I’ve had. DevFest Sydney, by Google Developer Group (GDG), was the first real conference with hand-picked speakers that I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at in 2016. I was really excited to speak at the conference. The conference was quite small that day, but the team had put a lot of effort into planning it.

I was invited to speak at the conference by Zarah, whom I’d met through the Girl Geek Sydney community. At the time, I had some experience speaking at events I’d been either attending for quite some time (SydCSS was one of my first meetups), or had heard were very good (Girl Geek Sydney). Zarah helped me choose a topic that I’d already spoken about but asked me to make my talk longer than twenty minutes. I agreed, and tried to, by tacking a few more points on, and speaking slower, but ultimately, my talk – titled How to let go of the fear of failure and make better goals – felt like a failure.

The other talks were related to Android or Google, and I didn’t feel like my “non-technical” talk was relevant to anyone at all. I felt like an outsider. I felt that the condensed twenty-minute version of my talk that I delivered to a seemingly smaller audience (in reality, it was probably similar in size) was far better. I thought that I’d delivered it better, too. I didn’t think the new points I added to my talk were strong enough, and I didn’t think that the points I made were convincing enough, and I thought that I just made the whole talk fall apart. When you’re delivering somewhat of a motivational talk, a large percentage of success for that talk depends on how you frame the topic and how you present it.

I was also only able to stretch my talk out to thirty minutes, instead of the required forty, and when I looked back on the video recording, the video recording itself was fantastic, but my presentation was so poor. I might be a little harsh on myself, but I think it was obvious that I lacked confidence in myself and perhaps in the topic I was talking about. I said “um” and stumbled over my words and halted in my speech many times. I sounded awkward. Who was I to talk about failure and goals when I couldn’t confidently talk about them? The video remains on YouTube, but it feels cringeworthy, so I avoid talking about it.

My lack of preparation and confidence was not what I should have focused on. I had been given an opportunity. No one had given me a hard time. The organisers were very supportive. The audience was supportive, too. A few people spoke to me during the lunch break before my talk, and said they were excited to hear me speak, because I was talking about something that wasn’t technical, and they felt that the topic was something they could relate to.

Conference attendees don’t care how technical you get. They care that you speak about something that is interesting, or that they leave your talk having learned something.

Sometimes there are topics at a conference that you don’t have enough technical knowledge to understand. Some talks require some background knowledge of a certain programming language. That’s fine. Some conferences make use of tags or labels that indicate whether a talk is for a beginner or advanced level.

Attendees look at the program or the schedule and read the titles and abstracts of the talks that are scheduled. They choose based on what they read, and what the abstract tells them. It gives them some idea of what they will get out of the talk. If they decide to watch your talk, and they get what they were expecting, they will likely be satisfied.

When it comes to the variety of conference types out there, the list is endless. There are conferences for specific programming languages; there are conferences specifically for managers; there are conferences for concepts such as accessibility and design; there are even conferences about company culture. There are many conferences for specific disciplines, and many that are broad. Conferences with broader topics will likely have broader audiences, so you can expect folks of many different technical and non-technical backgrounds to be present. It therefore means that speaking at a conference with a variety of topics will likely result in an audience from a variety of backgrounds – both technical and non-technical.

I’ve learned that attendees don’t really care how technical your talk is. They don’t care if all or none of your slides have a code example on them. They want to listen to a talk that they can learn something from, even if it’s a non-technical one.

In hindsight, I probably needn’t have felt like an impostor. 🤷🏻‍♀️

My first international conference, Hong Kong Code Conf 2018

I hadn’t heard of Hong Kong Code Conf prior to submitting an application for it. I had heard of WebConf Asia and I assumed that Hong Kong Code Conf might attract a similar audience, but the conference schedules from previous years definitely suggested it was a much smaller conference. After doing some research on it, and then submitting an application, I was surprised to be asked to deliver my talk Not a designer? You can make your website more accessible.

A group of people around a round table, smiling. The table has food on it and the setting is inside a food court.
Speaker dinner for Hong Kong Code Conf (📸: Matthew Rudy Jacobs)

My feelings about speaking at what was labelled as a “full stack polyglot conference”, where I’d seen photos and conference schedules that suggested a lack of diversity, and an uneven, not even close to fifty-fifty gender split, made my mind separate into two trains of thought. I had heard many a tale and seen evidence of speakers refusing to speak at events with less than 40% female speakers.

I could be one of them?

I sat in front of my computer, brainstorming some kind of email… I put it aside and continued to think about it.

Here I was, though, a lesser-known speaker – compared to the speakers who had enough credibility to get invited to speaking gigs, who could afford to turn down events – I was a nobody. And I had the opportunity to speak at my first international conference. It wasn’t, like, Disneyland level, but it was still an international conference. Something that I’d be proud to do. And my passion for teaching people that accessibility isn’t hard, and that we should care about building the web for everyone, was something that burned brightly inside me. I wanted to share that knowledge with a new audience, even if I didn’t know them that well. I could assume all I liked about the conference attendees before I even saw them, and I could have reservations about the conference itself, but that passion caused me to write a different email to the one I originally envisaged.

I challenged the organisers, and asked them why, in previous years of the conference, there was such a small amount of female speakers – or no female speakers at all.

I’m glad I asked. I am also glad I gave them a chance.

You learn a lot about a community by spending valuable time with them.

Be yourself, I told myself. Be yourself. I bit my lip. Despite feeling empowered to speak about something I was knowledgeable in, I was also somewhat scared to be speaking in an unfamiliar environment. I was worried that being the only woman in an unfamiliar environment would open me up to being victim to some kind of harassment.

The tech scene in Hong Kong is underdeveloped compared to that of areas like Silicon Valley, and later, I learned, even compared to Sydney. I learned this from Matthew Rudy Jacobs, one of the organisers of Hong Kong Code Conf. He told me later in person, once I arrived in Hong Kong, that there had been some submissions from women, but of the few that they selected to speak, only I was able to make it. Matthew and a lot of other attendees at the conference obviously had a lot of familiarity with the Hong Kong tech scene, because they were all locals and I was a foreigner. I was able to have conversations with them that gave me a lot more context about what things were like in Hong Kong: finance was still seen by folks’ parents as the career path of choice; the Silicon Valley “dream” was still relatively alien; startups were few and not plenty, so the tech scene was small. It seemed like a slow-growing bubble that needed some inspiration and insight from outside the local community.

Had I not given the Hong Kong tech scene a chance, I would have missed an opportunity and I would have been oblivious to the smaller tech communities in non-Western countries. I would not have learned that the best way to really know a community is to spend time with them.

Back in 2016 I attended Mixin Conf, a conference organised by the web community in Perth. It was through Mixin that I made many close friends with the people of the Fenders web community. I also learned about their passions, and pains, of being on the west coast of Australia, where they felt that they were missing out on many of the conferences and events on the east coast.

Seeing a community from the outside is extremely different to being inside one. Being a part of Hong Kong Code Conf and Mixin allowed me to make many friends and connections. I found that everyone welcomed me with open arms and genuinely wanted to know more about me or talk more about the things I was passionate about, even if they weren’t familiar with them. I didn’t feel alien, and I didn’t feel lost. Maybe, just somewhat different.

It is here where I mention, with extreme gratitude, that Matthew sadly passed away in 2019, and I am very thankful for his support throughout my Hong Kong Code Conf experience, and for tolerating my challenging questions about diversity and my curiosity about the tech scene in Hong Kong. He was a passionate person who really made an impact on that community, and he will be missed by every single one of those people. 💐

Another round at DevFest in 2018

In 2018, Zarah invited me to speak at DevFest again and I told her upfront that I did not have a very technical topic to speak about. I mentioned talks that I did recently, that I wouldn’t mind presenting to a new audience, and she encouraged me to submit them. She said that it didn’t matter if the topics were non-technical. To avoid feeling inadequate, though, I also submitted a proposal for a technical talk that I had thought about, but hadn’t written – one about the landscape of JavaScript in technology today.

To my surprise, the team chose my non-technical talk over the technical one. I was relieved at the prospect of not having to write a completely new talk, and hoped that the audience would resonate with what I had to say. This was the second time I was delivering this particular talk, and I was feeling really good about it, despite feeling like it would be out of place. I hoped folks would come along to my talk anyway. I was sure that the interesting title “Untitled”, <insert years here> would get people’s attention. My talk was about telling your story through blogging.

A woman in a grey t-shirt and orange skirt, speaking on stage. Behind her is a screen with a screenshot of a blog post on it
Speaking at DevFest in 2018. (📸: Zarah Dominguez)

Despite speaking in an auditorium yet having a smaller audience than I expected (it was early on a Saturday morning – I get it), my talk was well-received. People spoke to me afterwards, really motivated to start a blog, or simply commending me on such a great talk. I felt a lot better about being some kind of strange outsider, for presenting a talk to a community I wasn’t really “in”. I reflected on my previous experience at DevFest, and I felt a lot better about how much my presentation skills and confidence had improved since then. I also remembered how welcoming the community had been, and how welcoming they still were.

Being invited to speak at Laracon AU 2019

In 2019, Michael Dyrynda, organiser of Laracon AU, sent me a message and invited me to speak at Laracon AU. He specifically asked if I could deliver the same talk I did at Hong Kong Code Conf – and if I could speak about it to a “room of PHP developers”. My train of thought went a little something like this.

Oh wow. I’ve never been invited to speak at a conference. This is such a good feeling. This is literally THE DREAM. Wait, how did he find out about me? That’s gold! And he picked out my accessibility talk! This is great! Woohoo!

The feeling was quickly hampered by the thought that I would be speaking to a room of people who probably didn’t give a shit about what I was going to talk about. The little experience I had with PHP – WordPress, heheh – led me to assume that if I spoke at this conference, many of the attendees wouldn’t know much or care much about accessibility. Even though I consider myself an accessibility advocate, I was thinking negative thoughts about the battles I had to fight early on in my career, and how regardless of the importance of accessibility, some companies don’t make accessibility a priority in their websites and apps. But the fire in me was burning. I love talking about something I care about, and encouraging people to consider something they may not have considered, or to try something new. I love teaching people something through my talks. I always hope that people learn from what I speak about. And I had written my talk specifically for non-designers: it was perfect for programmers, for folks with limited knowledge of HTML and CSS, or for anyone who had beginner knowledge of accessibility.

So I agreed. I said I’d do it. And it turned out to be great!

As I reflect on all these experiences, I realise that I’ve been looking at them from the entirely wrong perspective. My experience at Laracon was so positive and full of attendees who really valued what I had to say. With the exception of my lovely friends from Perth – Patima, Amy, and Jess B – the other speakers were from outside of the usual community I’d hang out with, and I met some new people. I guess those three ladies are from the Fenders group based in Perth – but as I mentioned earlier, I found out about their community by going to Mixin in 2016.

Having someone else speak about a similar topic is considered a nightmare for some speakers, and I will admit I panicked a little because Jess B’s and my talks covered some common ground. But when I delivered my talk, I was able to refer to points that she’d made, in order to introduce and give background to some of my points. Because I spoke the day after her, some of these points were a gentle reminder for anyone who might have forgotten about the importance of accessible development and design.

No one “owns” a particular domain, topic, or area of interest.

I mentioned earlier that I was terrified of stepping on someone else’s turf, or speaking about a topic that I felt already “belonged” to a thought leader. Many thought leaders are known for what they talk about, and in that sense I felt it was off-limits. But this experience, along with many others, has me retracting those thoughts.

It was great that Jess B and I were talking about similar topics. It goes to show that there are many facets to accessibility. Many people can talk about the same topic – we all have different experiences, and we have different ways of looking at and explaining things.

I used to feel like I could only speak at lesser-known events about accessibility, because there are quite a handful of people out there who are globally known for speaking about this topic. I thought I could never speak at the “big” events those people spoke at. I felt like this limited me. But it doesn’t. Someone has to speak to and reach smaller communities. Instead of selfishly thinking that I’m not “big” enough to speak at “big” events, I should think of the fact that I’m the person delivering this knowledge to smaller communities. I’ve learned that these smaller communities may not have access to, or even be aware of, those bigger conferences. And for me to help them learn about something they didn’t know about? That’s kind of a “big” deal. 😅

After delivering my talk Considerations of an effective design system, my manager Chris – who spoke at some conferences internationally in past, but hasn’t in some time – said that he was motivated to do a talk about design systems. What was I going to do, get mad about it? No. It’s great that I spoke about something we could both relate to and that it sparked some ideas for him. I don’t “own” the topic of design systems. It’s a broad topic that so many of us can talk about based on our own experiences.

Communities are about knowledge sharing and welcoming new people and ideas.

After speaking to Michael at the end of Laracon, he said he was really keen to get some new speakers from outside the community to speak at the next Laracon. He said he didn’t just want to get the same speakers year after year because it would get stale, and there is so much out there that can benefit the Laravel community. It was then that it hit me: communities are for sharing ideas. It didn’t matter what any of the speakers were talking about or how relevant they were to Laravel or PHP. It was about all of us sharing our ideas and experiences so that other people could learn from them too.

There were so many non-Laravel/PHP related talks at Laracon. There were talks that I enjoyed that were related to logging, JavaScript, Typescript, security, legacy code, and CSS. In an instant, I realised that every conference I spoke at, I was so hyperfocused on myself. It was all me, me, me. I was an impostor, I was an outsider, I was this, I was that.

It should have never been about me.

It should have been about the attendees and what they would learn from my talk. It should have been about the people, and the community, and growing them, through me sharing my knowledge.

Communities don’t just sit there and stay stagnant like a clique, turning their nose up at anything that’s new to them. Good communities welcome in other people, who have fresh ideas and different perspectives. That’s how we grow. That’s how we all grow.

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Thanks for this post! I really want to start speaking at conferences and one of my goals for this year is to submit to at least three calls for talk proposals. However, I feel really stuck because I don’t feel like I have any ideas or unique-enough approaches to topics. This post is really relatable and hopefully will inspire me to get over it and submit some talks. :)

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I’ve felt a similar lack of inspiration. I think it helps to attend events and see what others talk about as it can help inspire you to talk about something from your own perspective (or a totally new idea). If you have a mentor figure or a good manager or boss, it might help to bounce some ideas with them, they might be able to help you hone in on a talk topic 👍

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