@adlrocha - Dissecting Tech Conferences

Submitting a talk v.s. attending to one.

person discussing while standing in front of a large screen in front of people inside dim-lighted room

This past week my talk “WASM: A Universal Bytecode” was accepted to the T3chFest2020. A few months ago, I was also honored to receive an invitation to talk at the Hyperledger Global Summit about “Going into Production! Performance Best Practices in Hyperledger Fabric”. These two invitations are huge for me. I am super happy and humbled to have the chance to share my knowledge in front of so many experts in the industry. Nonetheless, after going through the Call4Talks process, and receiving these invitations, some questions started wandering my mind: What is the point of these tech conferences? Why so many professionals in the industry are so eager to talk at these events? What makes a talk suitable for such events? And finally, what is in for attendees, speakers, organizers and sponsors? Let me share with you my own experience in this matter.

Should I submit a talk?

So you’ve come across a renowned event in your field which is accepting Call4Talks (C4T) and, for years, you have been looking to speak at one of these. The first two questions you have to ask yourself before submitting a talk are “what topic am I looking to talk about” and “what are my goals for speaking at the event”. This will largely determine your success in being accepted as a speaker.

Lets take my case as an example: one of my new year’s resolution from last year was to be accepted as an expert speaker at a high impact tech conference. I submitted several talks to different tech events, but I was always rejected. The reason for this? I usually selected a “random topic” I felt I knew enough about and could be interesting for the audience and the organizers. My goal for the talk? Plain and simple, “to be a speaker at the event”. I was submitting talks for the wrong reasons, thus, my proposals lacked real value for the community of experts.

What changed from these first talk submissions, and my recently accepted ones? They have a clear goal. I am looking to have a specific impact in the audience, not just give an inconsequential talk. Let’s take my HF Global Summit talk for example. A lot of companies have been exploring blockchain technology and have deployed Hyperledger Fabric-based proof-of-concepts in the past few years. Usually, these exploration PoCs work fine and are useful to show our C-Level grown ups at our corporation the benefits of using blockchain technology. The problem comes when you try to move these PoCs into production, as the current performance of Hyperledger Fabric (and, in general, all blockchain platforms) are unable to accommodate the high load of users expected to have at a production system. This is a problem my team and I have been facing for a year now, and it seems like no one in the field is being really open on the problems of moving a blockchain-based (and specifically a Hyperledger Fabric-based) systems into production. So with this talk, my goal is to set a groundwork of Hyperledger Fabric-based systems performance evaluation and a common framework so that other big players in the industry can start exploring this problem and sharing their achievements with the community (as we are doing). My goal was clear, right?

The case of my talk “WASM: A Universal Bytecode” is a bit less ambitious but it still had a clear goal in mind (and those of you who have been following this newsletter for a while have already a quick glimpse of what is my opinion about WASM). The development of Web Assembly has been outstanding in the past years, and the fact that we can have a de-facto target bytecode compilation equally interpretable by several systems, regardless of the source high-level programming language used, opens the door to new opportunities and use cases from which I want to draw the attention to my peers. I feel like WASM could change, not only how we run smart contracts in blockchain networks, but also how we design web applications and operating systems.

Of course there are still smoke experts able to push their low-quality talks to some high-impact events for the sake of self-promotion, but usually these talks don’t have much of a run, and the audience sense the lack of enthusiasm and motive behind the talk. So my personal advice would be for you to escape from these “smokey experts modus operandi”, and forget about self-promotion for the sake of self-promotion. You will strengthen way more your personal brand if your talk is about a subject of interest. If this is not the case, don’t worry and target the next big conference (this is something I learned from my times in research: don’t get stressed if you don’t reach this conference’s call for papers, you can always have it ready for the next one). Patience is a virtue, my friend (take this from someone who really lacks patience).

EXPERT MEMES image memes at relatably.com

What makes a talk “good enough” to be accepted?

Of course, when you are submitting a talk to a conference you need to clearly understand what kind of conference you are targeting: the specific topics of the conference, the tracks, the organizers and sponsors, the expected background of the audience, etc. This will really help you design your talk. Bear in mind that you only have an abstract of a few hundred words to convince the organizers that your talk is worth being part of the program. You have to make the organizers really want you there. Some advice I can give you about this with my limited experience:

  • State clearly the context of your talk to the organizers. Make them feel the problem addressed in the talk as theirs, and make them really want you to attend their event (you are the solution to their problem).

  • Describe briefly what will be the structure of your talk, and the outline of topics to be presented.

  • And as you may have realized already, what for me is one of the key points in order for a talk to be accepted, the aim of the talk. The same way you would state the main contribution in a research paper, you have to state how is your talk going to benefit the audience, help the tech community, etc. In short, what value your talk brings to the event.

Related to this, for me a good way to get inspired while I write the abstract of a C4T is to read research papers abstracts. Obviously is not exactly the same, but research paper abstracts have the basic structure a C4T abstract should have to have a good chance of being accepted.

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It is worth speaking at tech conferences?

If you have a clear goal for your talk in the event then definitely! It may be because your are looking to share a new way of doing things that have worked for you, because you want to introduce a new discussion in the industry, because you want to share a specific piece of knowledge, or because you want to present your latest research/product to the community. In any of these cases, I feel it is something every “expert” in our industry should at least experience once.

You have to bear in mind that preparing a high-quality talk for a conference is a lot of work, and it must to be supported by a lot of prior efforts. Nonetheless, you will learn a lot in the process: about public speaking, about your own topic, about how to share your ideas efficiently to an audience, etc. And after all this work is done, the interesting (and usually uncomfortable) questions you may get after the talk, and the deep conversations and networking you may trigger with your peers, are totally worth your talk. Do not focus your talk solely on strengthening your personal brand and sharing “what an expert you are in a topic”. Benefit instead from the conversations and questions your talk may arise as they can be a source of innovation and collaboration. As my boss and a good friend of him use to say, “innovation appears at random conversations with people from different backgrounds and fields of expertise”, and I totally agree with this statement. So take the most out of your conference talk (not only from the talk in itself).

And attending to one?

To be completely honest, I am not a big fan of tech conferences myself. I usually get bored at them. It depends on the conference, of course, but I usually end up going to a few talks of interest to me and leave. This is because I am more into learning things in books than in talks, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t get a lot of value from attending tech conferences. From a general point of view it is worth attending a tech conference for these two simple reasons:

  • Learning: You can learn a lot from the experts speaking at a tech conference, specially when they address topics relevant to you professionally. Learning how other’s approach certain problems could help you “see the light”. However, be also prepare to attend talks that promise to solve all your problems in their abstract and they end up being shallow talks which tiptoe around the important issues (it may be a good idea to collaboratively write “The Definite Guide To Attending Tech Conferences” to avoid these issues. Patent pending).

  • Networking: For me the crown jewel of tech conferences. Talks at tech conferences are just an excuse to gather experts in the field and trigger discussions between them. The talks are just way of setting up the context for deep and interesting conversations (as already mentioned above). That is why I feel is so interesting to set the aim and goals of your talk, to help your peers steer their questions and conversations with you. I insist, a lot of good innovations and collaborations are born from these “nerdy” gatherings.

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What are the benefits for your company?

Companies can benefit from tech conferences at several dimensions:

  • You can encourage your employees to talk at expert conferences thus showing their knowledge in the field and demonstrating the company’s expertise in the technology. Apart from my personal achievement, my company will also benefit from me going to the Hyperledger Global Summit, as it shows how Telefónica is actually doing real stuff with blockchain and Hyperledger Fabric, and how we are at the forefront of blockchain-based systems in production at corporate environments.

  • Companies can also organize and sponsor tech conferences in other to attract experts from all over the world to talk about an interesting matter for the company. It is a way of gathering world renowned experts on their premises so their employees can “suck all the knowledge they can” from these experts. These conferences are also a good way of PR.

The same way speakers should have a clear goal with their talks, I feel organizers and sponsors at tech conferences should have a clear view of what they are trying to get out of the events. Sponsoring for the sake of sponsoring, or organizing for the sake of organizing may be a fundamental error.

Do not disregard other tech event formats

Today we have dissected a bit more tech conferences, but it would be interesting to perform this same exercise with other format of events in the industry such as hackathons, workshops, think tanks, etc. They all have their drawbacks and benefits, and as they are becoming increasingly popular, it may be something worth discussing.

Disclaimer: All the opinions in this publications are inferences resulting from my limited experience at tech conference. In order to give a broader view about the matter, I would love to have your opinion about this. Share it with me in the comments section or through social media, and I’ll make sure to update this post with your contributions. People should know what to expect from tech conferences before committing their valuable time to them. I would really appreciate if your could help me on this.