Since the late 1990s, I’ve been a fairly regular speaker at technical conferences. I’ll talk to groups of 15, and I’ve spoken to groups of 5,000. I’ve almost always done pretty well, but if you think all that experience makes me any less nervous…
When it comes to serving as a Master to one person or hundreds, we all get afraid.
Back in the late 1990s, I worked for a company called Micro Endeavors, based near Philadelphia. They were well-known in the FoxPro world at the time, and they were growing a name in SQL Server education. They were approached by Shirley Brothers, who now runs the “Intersection” conferences (like Dev Intersection), who wanted to partner with them to launch a FoxPro event and a SQL Server event. Part of the deal was that some of Micro Endeavors’ trainers would get speaking slot at her other dev-content shows until the new ones launched, and I was tagged to be SQL Connections’ first conference chair. So that was my first speaking gig, back in 1996 or 1997 – I think I presented on ActiveX Data Objects (ADO; this was before .NET had launched).
So my entry into the world of conference speaking was a little unusual; honestly, with most conferences these days, it’s easy to submit a session proposal. Most conferences are eager for a diverse variety of speakers and actively solicit submissions. The exceptions are your major first-part vendor shows like Microsoft Ignite; they’re less open to outside speakers (and if they do accept you, can get a little dictatorial about what you present on and what you say, which is why I don’t present there).
Once I got over the basic nervousness of standing up in front of a bunch of people and pretending to know what I was talking about, I’ve really only had a couple of scary presentations.
One was at TechEd… 2007, I think, in the US. This was a few months after Windows PowerShell had launched, and Jeffrey Snover called me and asked if I could give a presentation on it for TechEd. He’d been scheduled to present, but had a schedule conflict and wasn’t going to be able to attend. “SURE!!!!!” I said. Well, TechEd time approaches and the organizers contact me. They tell me that the session is overbooked, and ask if I’d be okay scheduling a repeat the following day. “SURE!!!!” I said. A few weeks later, the repeat was overbooked, and they asked if I’d be okay live-streaming the first session. “SURE!!!” I said. This was in the LiveMeeting days, so I show up and they’ve got the stage bathed in lighting. There are three cameras. I have to present slides from their machine, and if I want to do a demo, I have to make a big deal that I’m about to do a demo so that someone in the back can push the screen share button in Live Meeting. The lights are hot, and I’m sweating bullets. The room has like 5,000 people in it. I was working with SAPIEN Technologies at the time, and my partner, Christopher, was working for them as well. He came up from the expo hall and sat in the front row, right in front of the podium, for moral support. And Jeffrey Snover walks in and sits next to him. “Um, hey, what’re you doing here?” I asked. “Oh, PowerShell is getting an award, so they rearranged my schedule so I could come accept it. Have a great session!” Gulp. So I start. I’m telling my jokes, I’m waving my arms around, and I’m sweating like a whore in church. I do my demos, and I keep seeing Jeffrey leaning over and whispering to Christopher, which makes me even more nervous. I finally get to the end – a perfectly timed session, by the way – and everyone claps. Jeffrey stands up, says, “good session,” and hustles out. Gulp. I answer a few questions for people, and start walking out with Christopher. “What the hell were you guys talking about?” I asked. “The first time, he said, ‘I’m glad he’s up there, because I couldn’t say that but it needs to be said.’ After that, we realized it was making you nervous, so we just kept doing it.”
The second was in Antwerp in Belgium. I’d been asked by Microsoft over there to come and do a couple of presentations at a TechDays event, and they were bussing us to The Hague the next day for a repeat. We’re in this huge movie theater, my slides and demos are up behind me on this enormous screen, there’s a damn camera pointed at me again, and I can’t see anyone. The theater is pitch black, and they’ve got a spotlight right in my eyes. So I’m doing my gig, telling jokes, waving hands, and it’s all falling flat. Nobody makes a sound. No questions. No chuckles. And I’d meticulously pre-screened my material for cultural differences. I was dying. And I did this for two 90-minute sessions in a row. I finished, and basically limped to the nearest bar. Christopher was waiting for me, and I said, “dude, I died.” It felt terrible. The main organizer for the event happened by, and said, “hey, I’m hearing great things about your session!” I looked at him, and explained he must have mixed me up with someone else. I told him how it had gone. “Ah, no, that’s just Belgians. They never laugh or anything in a session. They loved you!” Um, yeah, you might have freaking mentioned that up front. Jeez.
Anyway, I don’t think I’ve ever had a fear of bombing so badly that I’d want to stop presenting. I love presenting, and it’s mainly because, by and large, the people I get to present to are awesome. Once you realize that they’re all really rooting for you, and you decide just to lay it all out there and not hold anything back, it’s a ton of fun. I work in one of the most supportive, amazing, friendly communities ever, even if the Belgians don’t actually show it (grin). Being able to present at conferences, in front of small groups, or anything has really been the highlight of my career, and I’m grateful every day that I took the chance, overcame my nerves, and did it that first time 20-odd years ago.