conferences

Video: How to give a conference presentation, by Mark Jason Dominus

December 8, 2011 Communication No comments , , , , ,

Mark Jason Dominus is one of my inspirations for giving talks at technical conferences. I saw him give this presentation at YAPC 2002 in St. Louis and was inspired to try it myself. The video below is from OSCON a month later.

The video is horrible by today’s standards, but it’s the audio that matters. You can follow along with his slides since they don’t always show up in the video.

Thanks to MJD for his kind permission in letting me post it to YouTube.

Making Your Tech Conference Presentation, and Experience, Not Suck

November 11, 2011 Uncategorized No comments

Tech conferences are incredibly expensive, and not just in dollars. Even free conferences like BarCamps incur the expense of the attendee’s time. Taking time off from work or family is a hassle at the very least, and it’s time that isn’t billable. The draw of the conference boils down to those 45 minute sessions, and speaker and attendee alike should make the most of it.

Read the rest of the article at Software Quality Connection.

Distracting examples ruin your presentation

July 26, 2011 People, Social , , ,

At OSCON today, I went to a talk called “Why Know Algorithms” by Andrew Aksynoff. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the speaker was the author of Sphinx, a powerful full text indexing engine that I’m considering adopting for a project.

However, halfway through I was shocked, especially in light of all the problems with sexual harassment and sexist attitudes at conferences that have been brought to the fore lately, to see the example that Andrew used: Selecting women from a database, ranked by “hotness.”

Here’s the table layout he used (and I apologize for the blurriness):

CREATE TABLE usertest (
    id INTEGER PRIMARY KEY NULL,
    sex ENUM ('m','f'),
    age INTEGER NOT NULL,
    hotness INTEGER NOT NULL,
    name VARCHAR(255) NOT NULL,
    INDEX(sex,age,hotness)
)

His sample code revolved around ways to optimize this query:

SELECT *
FROM usertest
WHERE age >= 18 and age <= 25

The latter half of the talk discussed various ways of creating indexes to efficiently provide answers to that query, and which queries would run best with different indexes, in case you want to order by age instead of hotness, for example.

I was angry about two things. I’m specifically not going to address the crass sexism here. I know plenty of others can (and will) address it better than I can.

I was more upset about the effects of the sexism in the classroom. When I’m here at OSCON, I’m both teacher and student. When I’m a student at a session, I want to pay attention to the content, not wonder how the women in the audience feel about the instructor’s attitudes towards them. Are they offended, but afraid to leave? I saw no women leave, although plenty of men did.

Andrew clearly knew his material, and he explained it well. Strictly from a teaching perspective, Andrew’s problem was that the examples overshadowed the lessons to be taught. It’s the same frustration I had with Steven Feuerstein’s book from O’Reilly on Oracle 8 where his examples included a table of war criminals including Henry Kissinger.

When you’re teaching a class, don’t include anything that detracts from the message you’re trying to teach. A LOLcat slide is fine but include too many and that’s what people will remember rather than what you’re trying to teach. It should go without saying that examples that make the audience uncomfortable will also ruin your class.

Note: I will delete any comments that include personal attacks on anyone.

Six tips for preparing to attend a technical conference

July 21, 2011 Open source, Social 4 comments , , ,

I’ve been going to technical conferences since YAPC::NA 2002, and next week I’ll be at OSCON 2011 talking about community and Github. Preparation is important to getting the most out of the conference with the least amount of hassle. Here are some tips I’ve learned along the way.

Bring power tools

Power cord, display dongle, cube tap and business cards

Not electric drills and saws, but tools for getting power. Conference organizers may not have planned adequately for the influx of laptops, and electric outlets can be a rare commodity. If you’re flying to a conference, it can be especially difficult to find a plug at the airports. O’Hare in Chicago is especially bad.

If you can fit a power strip into your laptop bag, good. If you want to go cheap, go buy a cube tap at your hardware store for two dollars.

Make sure you bring your cell phone charger and a USB cable to hook up your phone to your laptop, too.

Label your stuff

If your forget your laptop power cord in a room, whoever finds it isn’t going to know whose it is. At the Apple-heavy conferences I usually attend, everyone’s cords all look the same anyway. Label it with your name and cell phone number. Same goes for anything else that you might use and lose, such as display adapter dongles. It’s frustratingly expensive to realize you lost a $25 piece of plastic.

Plan what you want to see

If you leave conference talk planning until the day of the talk, you’re more likely to miss seeing the really good stuff. Amidst all the talk in the hallways and hanging out in the exhibit halls and hackathons long lunches with new friends, it’s easy to forget about that one talk you really wanted to see until you look back on the schedule and realize it ended half an hour ago.

The OSCON scheduler makes it easy to mark the talks you want to see, but for the most important ones, I suggest adding them to your calendar on your phone and setting an alarm.

Bring business cards

You’re going to meet people, so give them something to remember you by. I’m talking about making your own business card, not your company business card. Your card need not be fancy, but if you can get a graphic designer friend to put together something nice in exchange for lunch and/or a few beers, so much the better. At the very least, you’ll want to include your name, website, email address and cell phone number. I also put my Twitter ID and Github ID on mine.

My box of 500 business cards was only about $20 delivered to my door. It’s fantastic bang for your buck for keeping in contact with the people you meet.

Get a laptop bag with a shoulder strap

While you’re at the conference, you’re going to take your laptop with you at all times. AT ALL TIMES. Every conference, someone gets a laptop stolen. You’re not going to let it be you.

Do not trust the guy next to you to “watch this while I run to the bathroom.” When you go to the bathroom, or grab a drink, or whatever it is that you do that isn’t seated at a conference table with your laptop in front of you, you’re going to have your laptop zipped up in your bag, with the strap over your shoulder. This goes double for airports.

Bathrooms are an ideal place for a thief to take your laptop. I assure you that standing at a urinal trying to take care of business with a laptop tucked under your arm is not fun. If you’re in a stall, be aware of how easy it is for a thief to grab a bag from under the stall, or from reaching over a door and taking the laptop from the hook.

A laptop bag with a shoulder strap is the only way to go.

Clean your house

Wash the dishes. Empty the garbage. Take stuff out of the fridge if it’s going to go bad in your absence. A lot of nastiness can happen in five days.

Other tips

I asked on Twitter for suggestions for conference prep. Some replies:

  • Give a practice session of any talk that I haven’t given before. — @mjdominus
  • Make a checklist of all cables I need. Then research where to buy them in Portland just in case. — @rjbs
  • Get a lot of sleep the week before. — @adamturoff

What suggestions do you have? Please leave them in the comments below.

Toward ending RTFM marketing in open source

July 20, 2011 Open source No comments , , ,

Too many times I’ve seen a conference announced once, and then never heard about it again. It’s what I call the RTFM method of marketing: Either you happen to know about the event, or you lose out. This year for YAPC::NA, the annual North American grassroots Perl conference, lead organizer JT Smith isn’t going to let that happen.

No sooner had the 2011 conference wrapped up when JT started daily postings about 2012’s event to the YAPC::NA blog. He plans to keep that pace going for the next year, until June 13th, 2012 when 2012’s event start. The goal is to keep people thinking about YAPC::NA in the next eleven months, and to keep everyone’s expectations high. “Everyone at YAPC 2011 laughed at me when I said I was going to do a blog post a day,” JT told me on Sunday, “but I’ve got the next 300 postings planned out.”

It’s not just frequency that’s different this time. JT’s writing about the details of the conference, and why you’d want to attend. His posts give tips about the best way to travel to Madison, and attract potential attendees with views of the conference location on the lake. A “spouse program” for the non-hacker members of the family is also high on his publicity list.

As JT and I ate lunch at the bar where he hopes to have a YAPC beer night, we discussed the mechanics of this ongoing communication campaign. JT has the next thirty postings written and posted to Tumblr with future publication dates, letting him create postings in batches, rather than every day. “I chose Tumblr for the blog because it has the best posting scheduling system,” he told me.

You can follow the YAPC::NA Twitter stream at @yapcna, or the blog itself at blog.yapcna.org.


I give “RTFM marketing” that name because it’s an extension of the geek notion of RTFM. “RTFM” comes from the rude geek response of “RTFM”, or “Read the F-ing Manual”. It’s used as a reply to a question that the geek thinks should not have been asked, because the information exists somewhere that the querent could have looked himself. It’s as if the rude geek is saying “The information exists in at least one place that I know of, and therefore you should know that information, too.”

The idea that one should just have known about a given piece of information applies to this sort of undermarketing as well. Project leaders seem to think that when information has been published once, everyone will know about it. The RTFM marketers expect that everyone know what they do, read the blogs they do, travel in the same online circles as they do. This is a recipe for failure.

This mindset can be crippling when it comes to publicizing projects and events. Organizers do their projects a disservice when they market their endeavors with the expectation that everyone will automatically know about something simply because they’re written one blog post about it.

RTFM marketers also don’t spread their messages wide enough. They advertise to the echo chamber of the circles in which they normally run. They’ll post to the standard blogs, post to the mailing lists they read, or discuss it in the IRC channels they frequent. This limits the potential audience for the project to the one with which the project leader is already familiar.

Tips for doing open source project marketing right:

  • Write & post frequently.
  • Write & post in many disparate locations.
  • Explain the benefits. Explicitly tell the reader why they would want to attend your event or use your software.
  • Change your messages. Don’t post the same thing twice.
  • Never assume that someone will have read your previous message. It’s OK to repeat something stated in a previous message.
  • You don’t know your potential audience as well as you think you do. Think big.

I’d love to hear stories and ideas about how you got the word out about your project.

Geek conferences for families

July 13, 2009 People 2 comments

Skud asked me a few weeks ago if I’d mention something here about support for women with children at geek conferences. Specifically, she asks for updates to the Geek Feminism wiki page on childcare and women-friendly events.

What jogged this in my mind was a geek conference of another kind. I went to the American Library Association’s annual conference on Saturday, and they were very family friendly. A big sign by registration pointed to the child care area, and there were plenty of amenities to help conference-goers with families:

Child Care and Camp ALA
Make this year’s annual meeting a family affair. Once again, ACCENT on Children’s Arrangements, Inc. has planned a great children’s activity center for ALA convention attendees’ children. ACCENT is a nationally recognized professional childcare company organized to provide quality on-site children’s activities in a nurturing, safe, educational environment. ACCENT’s counselors are fun-loving professionals with plenty of experience with children. With activities such as arts and crafts projects, active games, movies and much more, the children are sure to have a great time. The fun includes optional field trips for children ages 6 and older.

CAMP ALA welcomes children ages 6 months – 17 years, and is available Friday, July 10-Tuesday, July 14. The cost for the camp is $80 per child per day. Parents pay $48 per child per day for the center and ALA funds $32 per child per day. An optional $15 lunch is available, or children can bring their lunch. If you prefer, you can register your child for a field trip day instead (children ages 6 years and older only), which includes lunch. The cost for each child with a field trip is $90 per day. Parents pay $58 per child for the field trip day and ALA funds $32 per child per day. A $10 Non-refundable registration fee per child is also required. Download a Children’s Program and Registration Form.

Children’s Policy
Strollers are permitted on the exhibit floor but only if there is a child in them at all times. Unescorted children are not permitted on the exhibit floor. Children under the age of five must be restrained at all times (stroller, back pack, etc.). Any child over the age of five must have an exhibits only badge to be admitted to the exhibit floor. These badges are available at onsite registration for $25. An adult must accompany all children under the age of 16.

New Mother’s Room
The New Mother’s Room is located in the First Aid Room, Level 1, near the Concierges, McCormick Place West.

Can you imagine a computer conference like this? Maybe they’re out there and I’ve just never been to one.

The wags out there will likely point out that librarian conferences skew female far more than techie conferences, and that’s true. But is that cause or effect?