In preparation for GOTO Chicago 2020, I am talking to some of the conference’s speakers about how they got into speaking and what their advice is for new speakers. This week, I’m featuring my interview with Denise Yu, a Senior Software Engineer at GitHub who has found speaking to be a great springboard for her career in tech.

Like many speakers I’ve talked to over the past year, Denise comes from a nontraditional background, and is deeply passionate about helping other speakers get their starts. She also included some great recommendations for other speakers to watch, so be sure to look for that section towards the end.

Tell me about yourself. How did you get into public speaking?

I’m about to start a job as a Senior Software Engineer at GitHub, working on the Community & Safety team. I previously worked at Pivotal in their Cloud R&D business, where I wrote lots of YAML and pair-programmed everyday.

I make tech art — mostly, doodling things quickly when I’m watching people speak at conferences, but also cat-related doodles of technical concepts, at deniseyu.io/art. I started public speaking when I was about 12 years old, because at that time I thought I wanted to grow up and become a lawyer. I joined my school’s debate club, and spent about the next 12 years participating, judging, teaching, and facilitating competitive debate, Model UN, Mock Trial, and lots of other speaking-related extracurricular activities.

What do you like about speaking at conferences?

For me, technical speaking has been a pretty significant career accelerator. I’ve met gracious and talented engineers who I consider to be mentors and sponsors, and I’ve been able to network my way into every single job I’ve taken, after my first job in tech, either as a direct or indirect result of my participation in public speaking at meetups and conferences. There’s no such thing as being too junior when you’re brave enough to get up in front of an audience and share what you know.

Speaking has never officially been part of my job, but I’ve been lucky to have had employers who supported my speaking endeavors by granting me paid time off to travel to conferences.

What makes distributed systems such an interesting topic for you?

I career-switched and didn’t study computer science in undergrad, so I have a persistent sense of imposter syndrome around missing out on foundational knowledge.

I started becoming interested in the mechanics of distributed computing while debugging RabbitMQ issues in production a few years ago. I can’t remember the specifics now, but a customer experienced a network partition, and the RabbitMQ cluster nodes came back to life in an unexpected order, which caused a host of unexpected side effects.

I had such poor understanding of the design decisions for partition recovery strategies, that I decided to start doing my own research, and uncovered a world of deep, deep academic research into resilience engineering for distributed systems. For someone with no computer science background, I found the reading material out there to be targeted at advanced practitioners, and it was so difficult to me to get started on learning about distsys, so I did the reasonable thing, which was to submit a talk proposal to DevOpsDays London promising to compare partition recovery strategies between a few popular open-source databases. (Side note: This was not a reasonable thing to do.)

While I was writing this talk, I was also reading Martin Kleppmann’s book “Designing Data-Intensive Applications”, and I realized that before I could even talk about network partition recovery strategies, I had to spend a significant amount of time laying groundwork around why these strategies even needed to exist in the first place. The talk evolved from “RabbitMQ vs. Kafka vs. Cassandra” into a more general discussion of why distributed systems are so hard to understand, operate, and maintain. I think that as this talk has further iterated and evolved, the constant thread has been that distributed systems are difficult to learn about, and there is always space to revisit the fundamentals.

Do you remember your first conference talk? How did it go?

The first conference I spoke at was SwanseaCon in 2017. I delivered a talk titled “Building Empowered Teams at Scale”. I am not sure if it was recorded, but the slides are available on my website.

I pitched the talk because in my first few months at Pivotal, I saw that the product teams were so much more empowered to make their own decisions, than previous teams I’d worked on, and I thought that some pieces of our philosophy around building and managing teams would be interesting to share with the world.

I was terrified - not about presenting in public, but specifically about speaking to a room full of engineers who knew a lot more about software and organizations than I did. I remember being so nervous about the talk that I started writing it seven months in advance. My manager helped me connect with people in leadership within the org to interview about their perspectives — which actually ended up being a really cool way to build rapport with very senior-level folks that I didn’t have day-to-day contact with.

I think the talk went well - to be honest, my brain completely blurs out the exact memories of being on stage usually - but I was proud that I had pushed myself to pitch, create, and deliver a full-length conference talk, about 2.5 years into my career in tech so far.

How many conferences have you applied to and spoken at?

I think I’ve spoken at upwards of 20 conferences. I’ve applied to more - I think I applied to 10 conferences last year and got accepted to 7. This year I’ve been recycling talks and being less ambitious about submitting, because I’m switching jobs and want to invest my energy in getting ramped up.

Do you have a pre-talk routine?

When I develop a new talk, I spend a lot of time doing research. I actually blogged about my process here!

As a former debate kid, the key thing that’s always worked for me is practicing in front of diverse test audiences before the big day. When I lived in London and was developing new talks regularly, I had a crew of tech friends who didn’t work with me at Pivotal, and I’d invite them over, cook them dinner, feed them wine and beer, and run my talk for them and ask for feedback. This always caught “Pivotal-isms” that I subconsciously put in, and it’d be a good way to level-set about whether my talk made sense to people who didn’t work on the same types of software that I did.

What advice do you have for new speakers?

I also have decks on this! I sometimes help local meetups with training new speaker and drumming up talk submissions for CFPs. Here’s the 15-minute deck that I usually run.

For new speakers, particularly folks with non-linear trajectories into the tech industry like myself, I always tell them this: Your story is interesting. You have a unique voice and set of experiences, and someone out there wants to hear your story.

It’s great to get started with smaller and lower-pressure speaking environments like meetups and possibly even presenting to bootcamp students or university student groups.

How to Tech Talk” by Denise Yu

Are there any other speakers you look up to? Anyone who’s inspired you?

Loads! I aspire to give talks as badass as the ones by Nick Means one day. Elisabeth Hendrickson is such an open and warm storyteller, the fearlessness of Liz Rice’s live demos make my FitBit think I’m doing cardio, I don’t know how Sandi Metz holds and communicates so many parallel threads of thought so clearly.

Also can’t not mention Tanya Reilly, Laura Nolan, Liz Fong-Jones, and Liz Keogh. There are so, so many people I look up to, that I’m trying to learn from, while developing my own style.

Learn more about Denise’s talk at GOTO Chicago 2020 and how you can contact her here.


Technology conference speakers come from a wide range of backgrounds, experience levels, and interests. At CFP Land, we highlight different speakers every week in our Speaker’s Story blog posts. If you’re a tech conference speaker, email [email protected] to tell your story. 💌

Never Miss a CFP Again

If you're a tech conference speaker, this newsletter is for you. Get upcoming conference calls for proposals delivered to your inbox every week.