Presenting at Heartland Developers Conference

Being an introvert, the idea of standing in front of a hundred or so people getting ready to speak for 45 minutes would be the seventh layer of hell. It wasn't. In fact, one of my former co-workers took a picture of me a minute before the start and there was a bemused smile on my face.

I have had the privilege of speaking at AIM | HDC two times over the past three years. They were both great experiences and I had a lot of fun doing them. My employer, Farm Credit Services of America, is one of the major sponsors of the show. Because of that, some of the people I have talked to assume I was guaranteed a timeslot in the conference. As far as I can tell, that is far from the truth. I just had a good idea for a presentation which the conference organizers liked. Anyone with a good idea for a presentation should submit it for consideration.

Benefits

When it comes down to it, I am not anyone special. In the tech world, I am very, very far from the likes of Scott Gu, Jeff Atwood or Scott Hanselman. That is what is so great about AIM | HDC. They give the chance for members of the regional development community to present. I volunteered to present at the conference. I was not paid any money.

That is fine with me. Expecting a tangible benefit such as money is incredibly short-sighted.

Presenting at AIM | HDC offers a lot of intangible benefits.

Public Speaking

Any fear of public speaking will be destroyed. Back in college, I had to give a three-minute presentation to a class of about 25. That petrified me. I was so nervous the night before I couldn't sleep. I rehearsed the speech over and over. Anytime I went on an errand I went over the speech in the car. When I was getting prepared to give my first presentation at AIM | HDC I had to fiddle with my computer a little bit. I focused on the screen for a few minutes. When I looked up the entire room was packed. So much so people were standing in the back. A "holy shit" escaped from my lips. Thankfully my mike was not on.

In the movie Three Kings starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube, there is a scene in which George Clooney's character explains courage. It is short, but very to the point.

Three Kings

For those of you who don't want to watch the video:

Archie Gates: You're scared, right?

Conrad Vig: Maybe.

Archie Gates: The way it works is, you do the thing you're scared shitless of, and you get the courage AFTER you do it, not before you do it.

Conrad Vig: That's a dumbass way to work. It should be the other way around.

Archie Gates: I know. That's the way it works.

After my first AIM | HDC presentation, public speaking got a lot easier for me. But I was still very nervous for my second presentation. If anyone paid close attention to my legs two minutes before my presentation they could see I was rocking back and forth. It almost looked like I was dancing.

Public speaking gets easier after each one. It is getting easier for me. But I still need more work. Right now I still stand behind a podium. Who knows, at some point, I might even get out from behind the podium.

Public Relations for your company

I want to work with the best developers possible. Farm Credit Services of America does a great job of recruiting. And the IT department really does a lot to get out into the development community.

That being said, one of the reasons I wanted to work for Farm Credit Services of America is because of some of the presentations I have seen at AIM | HDC prior to my employment. I remember one in particular, a presenter held up a then-prototype Microsoft Surface and talked about developing for it. I couldn't help but think, they are doing some cool shit and have some smart people over at FCSA. I want to work there if given the chance.

Me presenting is just a way to continuing that cycle. A pay it forward if you will.

Public Relations for Yourself

It is impossible to know what the future will hold. Four years ago I was sitting at my desk when I got a random email asking if I was interested in a contract position at Farm Credit Services of America. I wasn't actively looking to switch companies. It was just one of those random solicitations that caught me at the exact right minute in my life.

For whatever reason, it has taken me a long time to learn the lesson of the importance of "building my brand." I'm 99.999999999999999999999999999% certain this will never happen, but tomorrow could be one of those days where one of the leaders at Farm Credit decides "You know who I hate, Bob Walker, it is time to get rid of him." Doing presentations at a large developer conference helps build that brand and hopefully opens doors for me.

Wow, all this talk is a real downer. Sorry about that.

One final closing thought on this section. All the above talk was all speculative, here are some cold hard numbers. 100 more people now know my twitter handle and my blog's website than on 9/1/2016. There is something to be said about that.

Registering an idea

Two years and half years ago Farm Credit Services of America hired Roy Osherove, the author the book The Art of Unit Testing to come train all the developers on test driven development. The class primarily covered C#, which is great because that is what we all work in at FCSA. My team was in the midst of a large project with a lot of JavaScript. Could we apply the same principles we learned in the class to JavaScript? The answer was a resounding YES.

After putting the ideas into practice I had, what I thought at the time, a crazy idea. Why not present at HDC that year? Other employees from Farm Credit Services of America had presented in the past. After some encouragement from my co-workers, I submitted the idea.

HDC is great because it allows the regional community an opportunity to present alongside the big dogs during breakout sessions. The process itself is rather simple, the presentation idea is submitted via their website. A few months prior to the conference a panel meet to discuss all the ideas submitted. That panel will whittle down the list of proposed ideas to fill in the schedule. If the idea is selected then the applicant is notified and awarded a timeslot.

Two years ago my idea was selected for Test Driven JavaScript Development. Last year my idea of Automated Database Deployments using Redgate tooling was rejected. This year I had two ideas submitted, Automated Database Deployments and Securing ASP .NET WebApi and MVC websites.

This year I really had a chance to refine both those topics at Farm Credit Services of America. I was sent to SANS training in Orlando which gave me a lot of good ideas on how to improve security in my application. And I am part of the Octopus Deploy Workgroup, one of the primary focuses has been getting other teams on-boarded with automated database deployments.

Thankfully, one of my ideas was selected this year.

Preparation

The folks over at AIM | HDC gave me a shot to present. If I didn't put in the time to prepare then I would be embarrassing not only myself and them. And I would kill any shot of them accepting another presentation idea again.

I am not one of those people who can just whip together a 45-minute presentation. It takes quite a bit of time to get everything together. My rough estimate is I spent 25-30 hours getting my presentation together. This includes time creating the PowerPoint, setting up the GitHub repo, and creating a sample site.

I had two major goals with my presentation. Give practical tips and tricks that anyone could implement when they got back to work and create a sample site giving working examples for anyone to download and experiment with. If I forced myself to use the sample site during my presentation then that would force me to finish it on time.

PowerPoint Presentation

When PowerPoint is done incorrectly, it is the bane of the attendee's existence. I have been to quite a few PowerPoint presentations where someone threw a ton of text into each slide and read it to you. But at the same time, I have also been to presentations where the information inside the PowerPoint is very minimal. In some cases, the presenter will spend 3-5 minutes on each slide.

I constantly struggle to find a healthy middle-ground. I am constantly editing the presentation. Hell, I made a series of edits 30 minutes prior to my presentation. Even then I am still not 100% happy with how it flows. But as the old saying goes, "perfect is the enemy of done."

Sample Site

There are a number of hard lessons I have learned giving multiple presentations and providing sample sites over the years.

  1. Do not code during a presentation. That is boring to watch and it is too easy to mess up.
  2. If you do have to edit code, make sure the code you want to write is commented out for ease.
  3. Any code offered up for download better damn sure work.
  4. There is no need to go overboard on a sample site with the architecture. The goal is to reach the widest possible audience. Showing how clever the code is a hindrance.

Rehearsal

About three weeks prior to the presentation I started practicing the presentation. My goal was to run through it at least once a day. After a while I had the slide deck memorized. I started going on 45-minute bike rides where I would just present to the air. I got a lot of funny looks.

I was even lucky enough to do a dress rehearsal for about 30-35 developers at Farm Credit Services of America six days prior to AIM | HDC. This was a massive help. I found some parts didn't flow as well as I would have hoped and it gave me the opportunity to clean them up.

Preparation Help Killed My Fear of Public Speaking

I have read the fear of public speaking is greater than the fear of death for a vast majority of people. I talked about this a little earlier in this post, but I wanted to touch on it again.

The fastest way to kill the fear of public speaking is to prepare and rehearse.

Well, that is what worked for me. Prepare and rehearse. Rehearse and prepare.

All that didn't stop until the minute prior to the start of my presentation. During the lunch hour prior to my presentation, the room was open. No one was in it so I went up to the podium and hooked up my laptop. I brought up my presentation and walked to the very back of the room. It was hard to read a white font on dark background. No problem, I switched my color scheme. I then brought up my code and repeated the same step. The code was almost impossible to read at the current font size, cranking up the text zoom to 200% fixed that problem.

The Actual Presentation

The freakiest part about the actual presentation is the first time my voice came through the speakers after turning on the mike. That wasn't the only thing I could rehearse. It is a little unsettling at first because there is a small lag between what is coming out of my mouth and what the speakers are blaring. It takes about a minute to get used to it.

After that, then it starts to become fun. That is when all the hard work starts to pay off. It is fun to hear people laugh at your jokes, albeit very lame ones. I saw several people writing down notes. People liked what I had to say so much they started writing down notes. How cool is that?

Conclusion

Presenting at AIM | HDC is a great experience. It is a lot of work, but it is so worth it. I have been very lucky to present two times. I hope to do it again next year. I would encourage anyone to submit an idea. The worst that could happen is they are going to say no.

Author image
About Bob Walker
Omaha, NE
Founder of CodeAperture.io. Principal Software Architect in Omaha, Nebraska. Friend of Redgate. Working as a Full Stack Developer since 2004.