On speaker life…

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Last week, I did a tweet while at the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, working on blog posts (part of my job) and drinking bad coffee.

The backstory is I just finished a week of conference and speaking (Microsoft Experiences Paris, JetBrains Night Paris) and there is of course some real work to be done in between all the “glamour” of public speaking. Many people I talk with at user groups or conferences sometimes feel speakers at conferences are special and rockstars and have glamourous lifes. In this post I want to touch on that, and also on a reply I got to my tweet:

Before going into those, let’s first look at how I started speaking at user groups and conferences, and go from there.

How I started speaking

My public speaking career started more or less at the same time as my professional career as a developer. I had been doing lots of little projects and fresh out of school, joined RealDolmen. My manager at the time was in touch with some user groups and a speaker himself, and got in touch with a fresh evangelist at Microsoft Belgium, who wanted to build out the developer community in Belgium.

During my first or second 1:1 with my manager, he asked if I wanted to do a session for the VISUG user group in Belgium, on something I liked back then: ASP.NET MVC preview 1. Me, slightly to refuse “because OMG first job, no is not an option!”, said yes, and to my own surprise (I’m actually quite introvert), I liked doing that talk and wanted to do this more. Both my manager and the person at Microsoft helped in landing a few more user group speaking gigs, and that’s basically how things started. Thanks, Joris and Katrien, for the opportunity at the time!

Flash forward a year of user group speaking, and I got the chance to do a session at a bigger event in Belgium, I think in front of an audience of 300. If anyone reading this remembers ReMIX, that was the one. Nervous as hell, but I got a kick out of it and found this is something I actually like doing.

My next manager (I switched away because I didn’t want to do SharePoint, sorry Joris :-)) was supportive and whenever I had a speaking gig in the country, even during work hours, most of the time he just let me go on company time, as he felt this was also building a brand for the company.

Then three years into speaking, I got my first international speaking gig at 4Developers Poznan, Poland. Funny enough this is also where I first met Hadi, my boss and friend at JetBrains. The travel aspect was new, but now I found that I loved speaking as well as meeting people from other countries and cultures, and international speaking is a bit about both!

Flash forward I have now been doing public speaking for several years and still enjoy doing it, because it allows me to share my passion for technology, allows me to do the actual speaking, and lets me meet existing and new friends on pretty much every continent apart from Antarctica and South America, so far. If you have an opportunity there, let me know :-)

Rockstar glamour

A fun thing happened at some point. I was chatting with someone after a session, and the person mentioned he really appreciated being able to approach and talk with speakers. The person was in awe, and I got the impression the person thought I was a rockstar and more special as a speaker than anyone else at the conference.

Newsflash! Speakers are not special. Speakers are just peers who happen to like sharing their passion in public. Or as we sometimes say: we are your colleague, just with a bigger mouth. That’s all. Approach speakers. Become a speaker, do a session. Or not if you don’t like it. Speakers are not rockstars.

Conferences often highlight a few well-known names to sell tickets, and contribute to looking at speakers like they are rockstars, but remember again: they are not. The conference just wants to sell tickets and does so by marketing. Period. Some companies may have special titles to attribute “rockstar” to some people, but that is also marketing. There are no rockstars. Speakers are like you and me. Everyone I have met so far, barring a few exceptions, is super approachable and will be happy to talk before and after sessions, over beer or coffee, about technology, life and random things.

On to glamour. I often post a picture of the city I’m in on Facebook, but that’s mostly to show my family I am still alive while in a three week conference spree. The traveling is not glamourous. Often people tell me I have been everywhere, and that is true to a certain extent. I have definitely been to a lot of hotels and conference venues, but that’s not the same as visiting a foreign city to explore. It’s not vacation either. It’s doing what I like to do, and trying to mix in actual work when I can because one has to make a living and keep the boss happy. That means doing some work and drinking bad coffee while you have an hour to spare at the airport. The travel is often just the airport, plane, hotel, conference you see. I’ve been in many places, but haven’t seen them all.

Of course it’s not all dull. I’ve met a lot of people I consider friends and going to a conference also means seeing those friends and hanging out and having a beer or coffee. Approach me at a conference and I’ll elaborate :-) So yes, that’s fun! Also most conferences have a nice speaker dinner or speaker activity. I’ve had dinners in cool places (the Atomium in Belgium, a sugar shack in Canada, …), swam in a hole in a frozen lake in Finland, … So yes, maybe a little bit of glamour, but that’s often a thank-you from the conference organizers for being there. Because…

Who pays all that?

I don’t know a lot of speakers that make money by speaking. Many have Pluralsight courses or run workshops to make a living, but conferences don’t pay your time. They usually pay for travel and hotel, and that’s’where it stops. A week to the USA for a 1 hour session? That’s an expensive week if you’re e.g. a freelancer, because the conference won’t pay for your time.

Some speakers solve this with delivering paid workshops, often organized by the conference. Or they visit customers in the country or city where the conference is held, earnning back their time that way. And of course there are speakers whose job it is to go and speak, which makes things easier. As a Developer Advocate for JetBrains, they pay my time when I’m off speaking. The various evangelists at other companies will have a similar way of doing things.

In my speaker story I opened with, I’ve been lucky that my company supported me in speaking at conferences and did not require me to take vacation days to go out and speak. Keep in mind though that there are many speakers at conferences who are dedicating a big percentage of their vacation days to be able to do what they like. Some conferences do offer a speaker fee, but these are often more symbolic. My biggest fee up till now was USD $150 or so for a full week, so at least I had almost free lunch and dinner that week.

One thing I personally do not do, is pay to speak at conferences. There are a lot of conferences out there that charge an entrance fee, and expect speakers to come on their own cost or even pay to speak. There are conference that ask the speaker to buy a conference pass. Those I skip. I firmly believe in Hadi’s Speaker Maturity Model and that no speaker should be at level 0. If it’s a user group I may travel there on my account, but if the conference is a business, then my travel is the minimum compensation because I’m already dedicating my time and often doing work on strange hours to be able to come to your conference.

This post was more some sort of brainfart that was too large to respond on a single tweet (even with 280 characters now), just wanted to share some thoughts on the matter. With that, I’ll follow Julie’s and start preparing for my talks at TechDays.nl this week.

(note the above tweet holds a nice thread of its own)


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