I’m approaching my 25th year in software development, and I’m often asked what were the key decisions that guided my career. Some decisions that had a lot of impact were getting my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, starting at large corporations like Accenture and Deloitte before working at startups, and choosing to pursue a leadership track fairly early in my career. However, deciding to become a speaker at tech events is probably the single decision that has provided the most benefits.
As a public speaker, I’ve stood in front of thousands of people in my field and shared my solutions to their problems. This has given me a confidence that extends to my daily work as an engineering manager. This confidence comes through in how I lead my teams, work with my peers, and support my leadership teams.
Developing expertise in delivering technical talks has also helped me to develop a knack for translating complicated ideas into concepts that people can understand. If you can explain something to 1,000 people, then you can explain it to 10 people.
Here are some other benefits to developing a career speaking at tech events.
A critical skill to develop as a public speaker is the ability to generate strong ideas. After all, you won’t get a chance to speak on stage if you don’t have anything to say. Also, speaking requires getting your ideas on conference schedules, and that requires submitting them to event organizers.
When I started out as a public speaker, I generated several dozen ideas for talks. I submitted them to events, and I soon found that the vast majority of them were rejected over and over again. While this wasn’t great for my ego, it had the benefit of weeding out the ideas that weren’t strong. This provided the opportunity to focus on the ideas that got accepted because they were better developed.
As I’ve honed my sense of what makes a powerful talk, I’ve found that the talks that I create now have a much higher success rate than the ones from earlier in my career. This has the added benefit of improving the ideas I generate at work. Developing talks has improved my ability to think about and articulate concepts in a way that makes it easier for my colleagues to accept and understand.
Showcase Your Expertise
My talks center around three themes: leadership, agile software development, and inclusion and diversity. I intentionally kept my talks around this small set of themes because they are the ideas that align with my passions as well as my strengths. I think too many speakers try to create a wide variety of talks which dilutes the value of what they have to say.
By keeping my talks tightly centered around these themes, I’ve been able to demonstrate my expertise in these areas. Having spoken all over the world, I’ve come to be seen as an expert in the themes of my talks. Since there are several hours of my talks online, this expertise is on display even when I’m not on stage.
Develop Life Skills
Public speaking is an extremely effective ways to develop skills outside of technical expertise. To create a compelling talk, I’ve had to learn the art and principles of storytelling and teaching. These are skills that I use at work where I lead software engineering teams and also in my personal life.
I’ve also enhanced my ability to manage complexity. There have been many times when I’ve had several talks accepted by different conferences, and I have to figure out where these conferences are around the world, how I’ll travel between them, how to tailor my talks to the themes of the events, and solve dozens of logistical details.
Speaking at technical events has also raised my profile in my field. Most people know how to develop a strong reputation inside the walls of your company, but speakers regularly appear at events where people from multiple companies are present. If you do a good job on stage, then that redounds to your benefit in various ways. I’ve built connections at companies that have yielded future speaking opportunities and even opportunities to talk about my employer’s products.
I’ve also been in job interviews where the interviewer notes how much they loved a talk they saw me give. I can say with a fair amount of certainty that I’ve been able to land jobs because my public speaking career gave me an edge over other applicants. It’s easy to demonstrate my skills, experience, and values when there are videos of me talking about them around the world.
As a speaker, I get free access to the content provided by the event. If I summed up the value of the ticket prices of the events I’ve spoken at, it would result in a sum far beyond what I can afford. However, I’ve sat in audiences learning about advanced concepts without having to pay a dime.
This also includes free access to workshops. While workshops require more time than listening to talks (one workshop can last as long as three or four talks), I find that they are immensely more valuable. Being a speaker has given me the opportunity to have hands on access to techniques that make me better at work.
I’ve visited countries I would probably never get a chance to see if I wasn’t a speaker. My first trips to London, Budapest, Bogotá, and dozens of other cities happened because I went to give talks. My travel (airfare, accommodations, ground transportation, etc.) were all paid by the event organizers so I didn’t have to pay for anything.
My travels around the world have given me a greater appreciation for other countries and cultures. I’ve had experiences that I’ll never forget, and I’ve grown as a human by taking advantage of seeing humanity around the world.
I put this last because I think that few people should get into speaking to make money. While I’ve been able to develop a portfolio of talks that people are willing to pay for, I don’t think I’ll ever quit my day job to be a full time speaker. While I love travel, speaking full time would require way more travel than I’d like to experience.
However, I have been able to pay some bills and do nice things for my family based on income for speaker fees. I’ve also been able to meet several of my personal financial goals based on the money I’ve made speaking at conferences and corporate events.