Today TechEd Africa 2011 ended. It was a great conference and the first time I have ever had the opportunity to present an hour long topic – I had the joy of presenting two sessions at this conference, one session based on a topic which I should have been able to cover easily and one with a topic that I battled with and felt totally out of my depth. In retrospect, there are a few bits of advice that I would like to give other people that are thinking of presenting at a conference like this for the first time… so here goes…
1) Do your Tech Checks
A tech check is a quick run through that one does over ones slides and the setup of the room as early as possible. The worse thing anyone can do is think that they will do a quick tech check 15 minutes before presenting – 15 minutes is not sufficient time to reformat you slides because you got the resolution wrong, or trouble shoot projectors because for some reason the projector does not like your laptop or heaven forbid, you discover that the venue does not have a projector and that you will be doing things off a 40 inch monitor.
Wit me, I flew in late so I did not get an opportunity to do a tech check during the allotted time, however I did manage to speak to the sound technician and set a time to check the one venue. Unfortunately for the other session that I presented there was not sufficient time before presenting to get time to do a tech check – and so I only discovered during the presentation that for some reason power point was cutting off some of my text on some of the slides – luckily I don’t think too many people noticed.
2) Do dry runs in front of people who have presented before and know the technology / topic
A dry run is when you do your presentation against a fictitious audience with someone watching that can give you advice. I managed to do dry runs for both my topics. I found though that some of the advice I got after my first presentation was most valuable and it came (surprise surprise) from a seasoned presenter who had been there before. My suggestion is do as many dry runs as possible and with experienced presenters that know your topic – when you do dry runs with people who are not familiar with the topic, they cannot really tell you if you missed the point, all they can comment on is whether you spoke well.
3) Don’t be scared to fail early
Fail early – yes, I am buying more and more into this concept. With my one talk on MVVM I only started to get feedback from people after I had prepared the entire talk. By that time I had invested enough time and energy into the structure of the session so that if I had missed the point, I would be very reluctant to change. If I had taken a different approach and done some “fail” dry runs very early into the preparation stage I think I would have had a better flow and would not feel like I was loosing a whole bunch of work when the refactoring comes in.
4) Enjoy the topics you are not comfortable presenting
Enjoy the topics you are not comfortable presenting. This is where you grow and become a better developer. If we always talked on things we knew backwards there would be no room for improvement. I felt totally out of my depth on presenting on async programming topic – however because I knew I would be with my peers and I didn’t want to look like a total idiot I spent a lot of time preparing and reading up on the different technologies. While I still don’t think I am an expert on the topic – I do appreciate the fact that I am a lot closer to that point than I was a month ago – so appreciate when someone gives you a topic that is going to challenge the heck out of you – it is growing time.
5) Be wary of the topics you think will be easy
Legend has it if you want to boil a frog – put it in cold water and slowly heat it – I think with “easy” topics we often think it is going to be a walk in the park, and so we don’t prepare enough and suddenly we realize we are in hot water but it is to late. There have been several presentations I attended where I knew the presenter knew his/her topic backwards, but because they thought it would be easy they didn’t necessarily prepare enough – only to discover that their frog was being boiled on stage. Beware of easy topics – they leave you complacent and ready for failure.
6) Set expectations at the beginning of your talk on the level of technicality, even if they should know – assume they don’t
At TechEd they rate the talks in levels of how in depth they will be. I had a level 200 topic for one of my sessions which means it is really an introductory session. I got several feedback items from the session… one being that my talk was not technical enough and the other being that my talk was to technical. In this instance, I think that the person who said my talk was not technical enough did not realize that he/she was at a level 200 talk and that I had no real intention of being “very technical”. The lesson I learned from the comment was that I should at the very beginning of a sessions highlight the level that the session is targeting and give people who are not at that level an opportunity in attending someone else’s sessions.
7) Don’t give prizes/swag for questions – give prizes/swag for attention
This one bit me in the butt. In my second session I started giving prizes for people asking questions. To my surprise, half way through my session a good friend of mine puts up his hand to ask a question that I have no clue how to answer. And to add to it, I know he knew the answer too. Afterwards I asked him why the heck he asked the question when he knew the answer already – his reply was that he saw me handing prizes for questions and he wanted a prize as well and so thought up a question that he was sure was technical enough to deserve a prize. I of course looked like an idiot unnecessarily – In future I am going to hand out prizes based on attention – that way I don’t have people thinking up questions they feel will be technically challenging so that they feel they deserve a prize/swag.
So, those are some of the most valuable tips I can give from the experience I had. I am hoping this will not be a one flash wonder and that I will get more opportunities to present at conferences like this in the future. It was a great learning experience for myself and one I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to grow as a developer. Nothing beets “pair” programming with 100 people at the same time.