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.
Joe and I are both from Chicago, so we’ve known each other for a few years. One thing I really admire about Joe is his eagerness to help new developers find their way in our industry. While we didn’t talk about it in this interview, he runs Chicago Apprenticeships, a site dedicated to helping bootcamp graduates find their first development job.
I’ve always looked at Joe as someone who really knows his stuff, so it was interesting to me to hear that Joe still struggles with nerves when he’s speaking. Remember, people may look like they’ve got it all together on the outside, and still be nervous!
Tell me about yourself. How did you get into public speaking?
Hi, I’m Joe! I’ve been in tech for a very long time, and giving talks at conferences for maybe five years. I’m very much a generalist, so I take a lot of different roles in tech. Overall, though, I’d say I’ve been most interested in making teams more effective lately.
I was originally on the fence about whether I should give a talk. Too nervous. While grabbing drinks with someone much more experienced than myself, she basically told me to get over it and just apply. That turned out to be great advice. Since then I’ve given a ton of talks, both soft topics and purely technical ones.
What do you like about speaking at conferences?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to get to meet and become friends with some of my heroes in the industry as a result of speaking at conferences. That’s probably the biggest benefit for me. The Ruby community — where I give most of my talks — is full of supportive, brilliant folks, so that’s really made me feel good about participating.
It’s definitely impacted my career. I still get folks coming to talk to me about talks I gave a few years ago. I can point to videos of my talks when talking to companies or folks inside my own company. And it let me sharpen my own thinking and discussion skills around tech topics. It’s been a huge boon.
Joe speaking at Rails Conf, 2017
Do you remember your first conference talk? How did it go?
Honestly I don’t think I slept for three days before my first talk. One of the reasons I enjoy giving talks is that I get to work on my fear of speaking in front of crowds. That said, I always struggle right before I actually get on stage. I was at a single track conference in a theatre auditorium, which made me feel even more nervous.
But once I was on stage, I was able to get into a rhythm and really get across the ideas I wanted to convey. And at some point I remembered that I do know and care about my topic deeply. That gave me a lot of confidence. I’d say it was a success.
How many conferences have you applied to and spoken at?
I’ve applied to a few dozen. I’ve been accepted at maybe a quarter of those that I applied to? I have a much easier time getting accepted at regional and US-based conferences. I’d really like to do more international speaking, but I think I probably need to have more visibility domestically and focus more on that goal before it’ll happen. I’m also much more comfortable in communities that I feel attached to (Ruby) than general programming conferences.
Do you have a pre-talk routine?
Panic? Honestly, I usually spend the morning of a talk walking back and forth clicking through my slides and making sure that I have the major points from that slide down cold. I’ve never been good at preparing to the point where I’ve got my entire talk scripted, so that’s helpful for me as a routine.
I probably should script my entire talks, but that’s not really my speed.
I do wear the same t-shirt nearly every time I give a talk. That’s pretty much a ritual at this point.
What advice do you have for new speakers?
Ignore the fear and just apply.
I can totally understand the impostor syndrome, it’s hard to make the transition from an audience member to a speaker. It’s a bit cliche, but I do try to help new speakers remember that the things that they learned in the past year are totally new material to others.
I’d definitely recommend taking advantage of any speaker help that conferences offer. It’s a huge boon to get people to listen to your talk ahead of time. There are also lots of articles out there on how to write a good proposal. Overall, let other peoples’ hard won wisdom get you through the early parts.
Are there any other speakers you look up to? Anyone who’s inspired you?
I’ve had the fortune or misfortune to speak on the same stage as Sandi Metz before. The clarity of how she conveys deep technical ideas always blows my mind. She’s definitely the person whose style I’d like to get better at emulating. If I would just start scripting my talks.
Sandi Metz at RubyConf 2017
That said, there are plenty of other speakers with really different styles who all convey ideas really effectively, in really different ways. Say, Nick Means versus Justin Searls. You can’t take someone else’s voice, and you don’t need to.
Where can readers find more about you?
No conferences on the books now as I’m adjusting to a new job and hoping to take advantage of being in a company to get more opportunity to give talks. Hopefully this next CFP season I’ll be back on the trail.
If you’re a tech conference speaker, email [email protected] to tell your story. 💌