Wednesday, March 28, 2018

On talks and talking

I love talks. I consider them a top expression of the human intellect. They rank second only to a good book on how people communicate, collaborate, share knowledge, share opinions and make progress.

Each talk is an image of the speaker. It reflects its intentions, its knowledge, its passion and its theatricality. The ultimate judge of the talk are the listeners in the crowd. They accept or reject the talk by also talking! If they liked it, they will talk about it to others and they may even give a new talk inspired by the previous one. If they didn't liked it then they either don't talk about it or they give a talk supporting the opposite view of the previous talk.

A talk can be very important as when a head of state announces the plans of the government but it can be non critical as when a soccer coach explains how he will win the next game. A talk can be very formal as when a scientist presents a new medicine but it also be very casual as when a mother answers questions of her kids about the world. A talk can also be emotional, influential, motivational, educational and much much more. There are excellent historic talks in all topics for example politics, science, religion. There are also excellent fictional talks in all topics for example politics, science, religion.

From all these amazing topics i would like to focus on one particular type of talk.

Information Technology Talks

I am an information technology professional, i work as a software engineer for many years. It is essential for my profession to attend conferences to catch up with the later developments since IT is the fastest changing field. The talks at these conferences are mostly about engineering: Presentations of new products and tools, discussions about best practices and speculations of the future of IT. So, what kind of talks are delivered at IT conferences?

New developments, products and tools

These are the talks about new trends and the future. Engineering is an always evolving discipline and progress never ceases. In such talks you can hear about new storage systems, new programming languages, new programming environments and essentially everything new that might not existed even just a month ago. The important thing is to be absolutely clear in what aspects the new thing is better than the old. The IT field is a bit of a fashion victim. New technologies appear continuously and professionals become fascinated by buzzwords and rush to adopt them almost without thinking. This kind of talk is very important and many conferences are remembered because of technologies that appeared there. In these talks the focus is on the product. The speaker can deliver an impressive talk but in the end everything is about the product whether it is good or not. One example of such a talk is the presentation of Docker at dotScale 2013.

Best practices with technology

These are the talks where an expert in some area delivers a talk about using a technology effectively. He discusses feasible approaches, best patterns, good usage examples and usage counter examples. The audience can be inspired to use a technology, adopt some guidelines and start thinking like the expert. This is the equivalent of "learning from the masters" in art. In these talk the focus is on the speaker. The way he presents the material, the examples and his thoughts can make a big difference between a boring talk and a classic.  An excellent example of such a talk is Joshua Bloch on API design

The Community

These are the talks about the people. It is of the greatest importance that people must communicate and collaborate to exchange opinions and ideas. This is how progress is achieved. These talks about the organization of communities and the conventions for communication and collaboration and no less important than the talks about products and practices. This is best demonstrated by the open source movements. Products that started humbly as weekend projects, or as personal tools have become excellent software because of the many people that contributed ideas and code. Moreover such talks explain the present and reveal the future. In such talk you can understand why ruby is not yet good enough for machine learning and predict the future of Python. IMHO these are the talks that make a conference worth going to. An excellent example of such a talk is the opening keynote of Russ Cox at GopherCon 2015 

Lightning Talks

Admittedly, preparing and delivering a good talk is neither easy nor straightforward. It definitely requires some preparation and it may require some expertise on the field of the talk. The latter is something that candidate speakers see as a prerequisite or even as a burden but it does not have to. Some of the best talks are by people who were curious or interested in a subject, studied it a bit and decided to share their findings. Their talks helped others to demystify the topic, study it, talk about it and so on. Remember that a talk is not a lecture, it is not indented to teach. This requires the full theory-practice-example cycle and cannot be done in 45 minutes. The purpose of a talk is to inform, inspire and provoke thought.

Nevertheless the issues of preparation and expertise are valid. The best practical way to loosen them a bit is the lightning talk The speaker has a little amount of time, usually 15 minutes to make a talk on a topic. Because of the short duration it requires little preparation, since the material for 15 minutes is small, and little expertise, since in 15 minutes you cannot go deep on any subject. Lightning talks come in various formats that emphasize content, theatricality, brevity etc. The most popular formats are Ignite, for which there is an OReilly conference and PechaKucha There are many examples for each on the web. In my free time i like to watch them especially on topics i have no idea about, for example why Japanese paint brushes are the best

Lightning is not light

Some may argue that in 15 minutes you cannot deliver something good. Well, the practice contradicts this claim rigorously.

First of all there are excellent lightning talks in the web. I highly recommend the series by Francesc Campoy "Just for Func" which is on topics for the Go programming language and the series by David Heinemeier Hansson "On Writing Software Well" which is on general software engineering topics but with a bias toward the Ruby language. On the average each of these talks is about 20 minutes, easy to watch and with very good content. These talks are very inspirational. After each video you want to rush to your laptop and start practicing on what you have just heard.

Secondly there is the practice. More and more conferences include a session for lightning talks in their schedule and this sessions becomes one of the best moments of the conference. I have watched lightning talks in dotGoFOSDEM and in voxxeddays and some of them were even better than the actual talks. The speakers and their talks represented a wide spectrum. Seasoned experts on their specialties and novice speakers on state of the art technologies giving very well paced talks.

Lightning talks and communities

But what about local, small communities? Is the lightning talk relevant? I would say: yes it is and in some ways more important that the regular talks.

Small communities, like the go, java or javascript meetup of a town are about their people. It is of the greatest importance that they meet regularly and exchange information and opinions on their favorite topics. In such communities everyone should know about the other members. Who is a spring expert? Who works currently with typescript? Is there a company that uses kubernetes in production? Is there a startup that considers elixir for production? The creation of a small web between the members of a community greatly favors both personal and community wise progress. People in communities are both teachers and students. They teach and learn from each other depending on the topic. As topics change and evolve teachers become students and vice versa. The only constant is the community that acts like a safe and secure environment for the transformation. Meetups and conferences can be organized better, faster and up to the challenges if the communities are well informed about the needs of the members.

First of all lightning talks are about identification. Each member can certainly give a small talk:
  • I am John, i work with J2EE and in my company we do web analytics using mongoDB
  • I am Patrick, i work with Python on a custom CI/CD system for AWS
  • I am Maria, i like Go, read some things about it and i think it suits my needs better than C++
Second they are about the trends and needs of the community
  • I am Peter and i think J2EE is dead, we should move to Spring
  • I am Johanna and i think RoR is too slow for web apps
  • I am  James and i used d3.js effectively for the new dashboard of my company
Third they complement the schedule of a meetup perfectly. It is much better to have a central talk on say "jpa persistence" and then some lightining talks on hibernate, jooq and ibatis that a second central talk on a different topic.

You should give a talk

Every professional want to improve. That is well understood and respected. That's why he reads articles, attends conferences and practices constantly. One of the best roads to improvement is giving a talk. The process of preparing the material, organizing it, presenting it and answering questions on a topic puts the knowledge and the skills of a speaker to a very good test. It is like a sports event. Even if you go fully prepared you may loose but you will learn from your defeat. Also as in sports you cannot wait to be of world champion skill before your enter the arena. You start from the C division and you climb to the top. The same holds for talks. You think you know a subject? Give a talk! It is the ultimate test. If it goes well then you can be sure you are good at it and move to your next challenge. If it does not go as desired you can learn from it, correct your mistakes and go on.

There are countless meetups and conferences to submit a talk proposal. In Greece i can suggest JHUG(my favorite!), GreeceJSAthens Ruby MeetupAthens Gophers and PWL Most of them accept lightning talks (JHUG and PWL for sure) and do monthly meetups so there is no hurry or a deadline for a submission.


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