Why (and How) I Started Speaking at Conferences

I did my first public speaking event at DDDNorth in February and then followed it up with a second presentation recently at the Leeds Testing Atelier. In this post I want to discuss why (and how) I went from audience member to speaker.

I’ve always been slightly in awe of people who have the confidence to speak in front of fifty, a hundred, or even more people! A friend of mine started doing technical talks a few years ago and after meeting a few more people who give talks I was rabidly running out of excuses.

I read somewhere that the fear of public speaking comes from our most basic tribe instinct. We’re afraid of making a fool of ourselves, of being ostracised from the tribe, and ultimately being seen as an unworthy partner. Even today, when we strive to create safe teams we’re still afraid of standing up and giving presentations to our colleagues.

So the question becomes what changed to make me want to push through this fear?

I’d been giving internal tech talks at work for several months. We used to do them over Skype, personally I found talking to a microphone much easier than talking to a group.

Something interesting happened when I started speaking about various topics at work. People came to talk to me about them!

I quickly realised that the natural progression of learning was to present. The work you do when you put a presentation together helps you focus your ideas, strip out what isn’t important, and ensure you have your topics clear in your mind. The best way to continue your learning is to allow other people to challenge you. In other words, the only way to become the expert is to act like an expert.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert. But I like to think that the work I’ve put in pulling these presentations together has helped me learn the topics, but also clarify things in my own mind. There’s always the fear of a question you can’t answer, but there’s never any shame in not knowing something – that’s another opportunity to learn!

That brings us to the How. That part is actually surprisingly easy. There are loads of local tech community groups around, and you can quickly find a list of conferences in your area. Chances are they’re the same ones you’ve been going to for years!

Most of these conferences and groups are run by volunteers and most are crying out for speakers. Get in touch, get a date – nothing focuses the mind like a deadline!

Hopefully that’s encouraged you to go and give speaking ago – remember your audience want your talk to be a good one. Here are my top three(ish) tips to public speaking:

  • Submit the topic you want to talk about, not the one you think your audience wants
  • Don’t put bullet points in your slides, they steal your thunder and effectively makes you, the speaker superfluous
  • Don’t talk about pet projects (in the nicest way no one cares) or give sneak precious into something you’re selling (be generous with your knowledge)

And one for luck

  • Memorise your opening, the hardest bit is the moment just before you start speaking!

Playing with Microsoft Cognitive Services

It’s time for a little fun – inspired by Martin Kearn‘s talk at DDDNorth I fired up the Microsoft Cognitive Services Website, signed up and got myself a key for the emotion API. It didn’t take me long to get up and running!

I tried briefly using the SDK library but found some trouble with strongly typed names, deciding the abandon that approach I used the method Martin recommends on his blog and simply downloaded the json myself and parsed it.

Here’s my code:

        var _apiUrl = @"https://api.projectoxford.ai/emotion/v1.0/recognize";

        using (var httpClient = new HttpClient())
        {
          httpClient.DefaultRequestHeaders.Add("Ocp-Apim-Subscription-Key", _apiKey);
          httpClient.DefaultRequestHeaders.Accept.Add(new MediaTypeWithQualityHeaderValue("application/octet-stream"));

          //setup data object
          HttpContent content = new StreamContent(new MemoryStream(File.ReadAllBytes(filename)));
          content.Headers.ContentType = new MediaTypeWithQualityHeaderValue("application/octet-stream");

          //make request
          var response = await httpClient.PostAsync(_apiUrl, content);

          //read response and write to view
          var responseContent = response.Content.ReadAsStringAsync().Result;
          var objResponse = JsonConvert.DeserializeObject<RootObject[]>(responseContent);

          var image = Image.FromFile(filename);
          using (var gfx = Graphics.FromImage(image))
          {
            foreach (var face in objResponse)
            {
              gfx.DrawRectangle(new Pen(Color.Red, 5),
                new Rectangle(new Point(face.faceRectangle.left, face.faceRectangle.top),
                  new Size(face.faceRectangle.width, face.faceRectangle.height)));

              var text = this.GetText(face.scores);

              gfx.DrawString(text, new Font(FontFamily.GenericSerif, 64), new SolidBrush(Color.Red),
                face.faceRectangle.left + 24,
                face.faceRectangle.height + face.faceRectangle.top);
            }
          }
          this.pictureBox1.Image = image;
        }

I’m very impressed with how easy it is (in fact most of it’s being used to update the picture box in my little Winforms app!).

What do you think? Do I look about 65% surprised?

emotion_screenshot

DDDNorth 2016

I was very excited when I saw the announcement of DDDNorth earlier this year. I’ve attended the conference several times before and to see it was once again in Leeds really gave me no excuse not to attend!

Despite having a rather late night the previous evening I was one of the first there, in fact I think I accidentally tailgated a speaker inside and sat quietly in the corner until the masses arrived.

For those of you who don’t know the DDD events are free, one day conferences focused at .NET developers. They’re held around the country and have a very high standard of speakers. DDDNorth is our annual event and usually circulates between the Universities of Leeds, Sunderland and Bradford.

The first session I attended was “Machine Learning for Muggles” by Martin Kearn and it was one of the best geeky talks I have ever attended.

Martin demonstrated how to use the Azure Machine Learning API to upload your own data for analysis. He then took a photo of the audience and used facial recognition and text analysis to ask questions like “show me the happiest person”. Before today I’d always assumed machine learning was only for the likes of Google, before the first coffee break I was already wondering whether I could use the APIs in our own products.

The second session I attended was “10 More Things You Need to do to Succeed as a Tech Lead” by Joel Hammond-Turner. I’d attended one of his talks before (entitled 10 Things You Need to do to Succeed as a Tech Lead) and with my recent change in role I felt it was a wise choice session.

I was right. Joel gave us a good list. It contained tips on requirements, instrumentation, and team training. I was particularly impressed by his thoughts on managing and measuring technical debt!

The last session of the morning was “You read The Phoenix Project and you loved it! Now What?” by Matteo Emili. Having recently bought and demolished TPP while on holiday this was the session I was perhaps most excited about. Matteo argued for pragmatism, he told us that in order to sell process changes the value must be determined. He quoted the common phrase “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” and discussed in depth how you should use the Build-Measure-Learn. There were even a few tips and ticks towards the end to help us get our automation deployments going!

It was lunchtime, which meant sandwiches and GROC talks (I have always been curious to know what that stands for).

I arrived in time to see a few interesting mini-talks. The first was on using the C# interactive window in Visual Studio, the second was around ARM templates for Azure, and the final one was entitled “What’s the Point of Microsoft?” and was a tongue in cheek presentation about how the big tech players compete in today’s software and hardware world.

I’d love to continue, I’d love to tell you about the Microsoft BOT API talks I had lined up for the afternoon. Alas it was not to be, it was around this time that the office called to tell me that several hundred members were having issues with their accounts. No rest for the wicked!

I’d like to take the time to thank the DDDNorth team for putting together yet another fantastic event. The speakers this year were superb and if I get the chance I fully intend to catch the sessions I missed elsewhere in the country at a later date. See you next year!