Go Time – Episode #277
How to ace that talk
with Natalie, Johnny & Kris
Now that you’ve aced that CFP, the gang is back to share our best tips & tricks to help you give your best conference talk ever.
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Notes & Links
|1||00:00||It's Go Time!|
|4||16:59||The crowd doesn't know what you meant to say|
|5||25:25||Dealing with attention seakers|
|6||32:36||Introducing yourself in a talk|
|7||45:03||How to ace your talk|
|8||50:10||Twitter handles on your slides?|
|13||1:15:37||Next time on Go Time|
Click here to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧
So today we have a very exciting episode on the topic of acing that conference talk, which is the follow-up episode to the previous one on the topic of how to ace that call for papers submission… And we have hosts and guests who are all wearing the same hats for this show today. So I’m joined by Kris and Johnny. How are you guys doing?
I’m doing well. It’s another great day to be recording a podcast.
Yeah, we were just talking before the beginning of this as we were doing our sound check, we were talking on how - or hearing how was it like to record a podcast in 2009, 13 years ago, and I guess it is a better day now to do this than 13 years ago.
And no clapping, no – we still have to do some secondary recordings, but I’m hoping one day we won’t have to do that either. But yeah, it’s a much-improved experience.
Yeah. So what do you think of the Eurovision winner? The most important question. Silence in the room… [laughs] It’s my favorite question to ask American people. What do you think of the Eurovision? What is the Eurovision? Have you seen the movie about the Eurovision? I think in 2020, during COVID, there was no Eurovision, so then the movie came out in a perfect timing. Have you seen that?
You explained it last, I think one or two episodes ago… And then I was like “Oh, that’s interesting. It’s an interesting concept.” And then I was like “Do I really want to go seek that out and watch it or experience it?” And I was like, “Meh…”
I’ve seen clips…
Well, that’s a fun movie… You saw a clip from this year?
Yeah, I saw clips from this year’s Eurovision. But I’ve seen clips from previous years’ Eurovisions as well. I think that’s enough for me… I imagine Europeans are much more into it, but…
Europeans and Israel and Australia, the new European, non-European Eurovision members.
Australia’s in it?
[laughs] It’s a rather recent thing, and yes.
I can sort of get like Israel’s. It’s like, “Okay, well, you’re close enough…”
It’s a stretch, it’s a stretch.
Australia… That’s a whole different continent.
So it’s just basically the spirit of the event, not necessarily what part of the world you’re in…
It’s a – what’s the term for that? UK, the way that they see the world… There’s a name for that, from everything that –
The Commonwealth. The Commonwealth, there. Australia’s part of the Commonwealth, and you know… UK is actually no longer in the European Union, but it’s still somewhat Europe, so… It makes sense to bring Australia on board.
I mean, it’s still in – oh, I see, because Australia is part of the Commonwealth. Okay. By that manner, you can also have Canada be…
That’s my answer. I don’t know if this is the reason that Australia joined… But I know that this is a recent thing. They had a fun song. It was very ’80s this year. Well, I recommend to everybody to listen to the Finland song. It was really cool.
Now that we have this out of the way… Conferences. They’re as exciting as performing in the Eurovision, but you actually have probably higher chances, because in the Eurovision, each country only sends one person one year, and in a conference, you can have many people from the same country, presenting different talks. So…
That is nice.
It’s also different types of presentation when you present a song, versus when you present a talk.
I don’t know, I think I’ve seen people sing their presentations. Or at least part of the presentation. Yeah, actually, it was at DevOps days in Austin, a couple weeks ago, and the last speaker of the talk, he rapped the first half of his talk, or the first third of his talk. I’m not sure if he meant to do that… Maybe it might have been just nervous energy, but it did it sound like he did rehearse it a little bit, but he was very nervous doing it… I was like, “It’s cool, dude. No judgment. Just do your thing.”
Instead of remembering the first few words of your talk, you just remember the first third… [laughs]
That is a nice hidden talent.
I know, right?
Like, “I accidentally rap sometimes when I’m giving presentations.” Like, oh, okay…
Yeah. Hey, anything to make you stand out.
When I’m nervous, I speak fast, so I remember I remind myself at presentations to slow down. For a while, when I was teaching myself or practicing kind of the scale of speaking slower - which is very hard, because I’m listening to podcasts usually on 2x the speed, and I’m used to this very high speed, and then trying to speak slower than what I’m used to… What helped me was actually in the speaker notes write timestamps. “At this slide, you should be five minutes in. At this slide, you should be 10 minutes in.” And if I’m two minutes in, and I see the five minutes, and it’s only been two minutes, then I know I spoke too fast. Or the other way around, I spoke too much about a topic. So this helped me get in sync.
Yeah, I’ve always found that when I’m giving a talk, no matter how many times I practice it, I will always take up less time when I’m actually onstage. So it’ll be like “Oh, you’ve taken 45 minutes, you’re practicing and you’re going 55 minutes, or an hour”, and then I get on stage and it’s like 40 minutes. Oh, okay. I guess I’ll go faster when I’m actually up on stage doing it.
[06:07] And I’ve heard that from a number of people, that it’s a common thing that happens, where no matter how much you practice, you still wind up going usually quicker; sometimes people, a few people I’ve run into said it takes them longer than their practice rounds… But I haven’t really ever heard anybody say “I get it in exactly the amount of time that I practice it in.” Is that y’all’s experience as well? Or do I just have a very odd sample size?
No, I think that tends to happen. That’s happened to me in the past. When you were saying that, I kept trying to think of when was the last time I gave like a talk-talk, like a rehearsed talk. Now it’s gotta be like years. I do speak, but it’s more training and teaching and everything, and to me, that with way less rehearsal. I usually go in with some material and some bullet points of what I want to touch on, but much of it is sort of stream of consciousness kind of thing. Well, that sounds kind of bad, but it’s prepared material, but it’s not like I’m reading off of a teleprompter, or sort of spitting back out what I memorized. It’s much more natural. Plus, I usually want feedback from the audience, people are asking questions, I’m sort of answering in real time…
One of the reasons – I think I got so intimidated by speaking that I was like “Okay, well, how do I turn this into something that I’m comfortable with?” And I’ve found, basically, that if I was to teach something, the audience is way more forgiving of my stutters, and uhms, and ahhs, and things like that, and I’m much more forgiving with myself for not sort of coming off like smooth, like every word is just where it needs to be, and no repetition, no uhms and things. Like, it’s much more forgiving on myself if I’m teaching; that way, I can engage the audience, I can sort of provide examples on the fly, that kind of thing. Oddly enough, some people find that terrifying, right? To go in unprepared. But to me, that’s way more my comfort zone, than to try and memorize. Because the moment I – if I memorize something, and I go up there and I’m like “Crap, crap, don’t forget, don’t forget… How do I start this next sentence again? What’s this next part again? Don’t forget, don’t forget…” And I end up forgetting something, and I’m like “Crap. Do I now start over?” And in like a split second all of this sort of panic is going through my head. I’m like “Wow, wow…” It’s just overwhelming. I’m way much more comfortable doing sort of the ad lib thing, with a plan, of course. But that’s just me.
I think that’s probably a good tip for new speakers, is figure out the technique that works for you as far as how much do you need in speakers notes, how particular do you want to be on the actual talk? I know Dave Cheney would usually get up on stage and literally read through his talk. And that’s how he would do it. And there’s other people who are a bit like you, Johnny - and I think I fall into that camp as well, where it’s like, I tend to be very nimble on my speaker’s notes, and I rarely actually follow them. They’re more like guideposts, that’s like “You’re in the right direction, you’re moving in the right direction of the talk.” And I find that if I do need to cut any content, because I’m running too long, that makes it a bit easier to do that than if I’m trying to go through like a very like well-rehearsed, “These are the actual words that I want to say” speech like format.
So I think for our listeners who might be listening to this and being like “Oh, how do I do this?”, it’s figuring out which kind of camp you fall into, or where along that spectrum you fall into, and just know that it’s fine wherever you are, but you might need to do a little bit of different planning during your talk as a result.
[09:55] During the Corona times, I’ve found that – most of my talks obviously were online. And there, I noticed that I prefer something that is a lot more like a script, versus when I am on the stage in front of people, where I need those kind of bullet points just remember I mentioned everything that is important about a specific slide. And maybe for me, it’s because this feedback - even if it’s a conference, virtual conference, and not just a Zoom call with a bunch of pictures, but actually you see people’s camera on, because it’s that platform, it’s just still not the same. So maybe there it was more like narrating something
I’m not sure if you’ve ever experienced giving a talk effectively to these online platforms, kind of like what we’re using now, but basically where most of the time there is no – it’s not like on Zoom, where you have like squares and rectangles with people; you can get that visual sort of feedback from people’s faces… I remember giving a talk, I was at KubeCon, maybe a couple years ago, during the pandemic, and basically I was speaking… I couldn’t see anybody, so whatever jokes that I did, or 0 I had to kind of like laugh at my own jokes, and imagine that the audience was laughing with me… It’s the weirdest, most surreal thing. Like, if I’m teaching at an O’Reilly, or LinkedIn or whatever it is; like, there is no – I’m not sure why they do that, but those platforms, they don’t show you other people, right? You don’t get visual feedback if your talk or whatever material you’re trying to cover… And that’s such an important part of the whole speaking process. And I know for some, depending on sort of your experience with speaking, you get on stage, and you’re looking at a sea of faces looking back at you… And I know for some people that’s very frightening, but I thrive on that. And I think, to your point, you have to kind of find that sweet spot.
Well, if you’re gonna do any sort of speaking, unless you’re doing one of those platforms where you don’t get any visual feedback, you don’t get to see people, if you’re gonna go on stage anywhere, or if you’re going to speak at any event, you kind of have to develop some form of expertise… Or not expertise, but some form of familiarity with the fact that you’re gonna have people looking back at you. Do it with your family, or do it with your extended family, friends, whatever it is… Heck, go to your local meetup. Perfect place for that. You try out your talk at your local meetup; it’s a much smaller audience, much more forgiving… Encourage feedback from them… Get comfortable with that. Don’t let showing up at a conference on stage be the very first time you’re getting eyeballs staring back at you, because that is frightening as all hell. The first time you do it, oh, my goodness; it is very frightening indeed. But you just have to get – it’s like everything else, it’s a learned skill. You just have to get used to it, get comfortable with it, and sort of develop that familiarity with it.
Yeah, I think that people are generally unaware of what their facial expression is doing when they’re intently paying attention to something… So as a speaker on stage, I think one of the things that you learn early is don’t look too much into how people are expressing, because it might just be that they’re looking that way because they’re just very focused on your talk. Like, I remember the first few times I was up on stage, and I was just like “Okay, people are just – I don’t know if people are actually interested.
Yeah. But then there’s kind of those things where it’s like you hit the Next button, and there’s a slide that comes up, and every pulls out their phone and starts taking pictures… Okay, people are engaged. I also think it helps if you can find that one person who’s just into your talk, and giving you good feedback, and just look at them for a good chunk of your talk. I’ve had that before too, and it’s just been great. So it’s like “Okay, you’re that one person that I’m just gonna look to, and this is gonna be like a conversation between the two of us, with just a whole bunch of people around.” That also can really help calm the nerves.
Ideally you know this person, because it’d be kind of awkward to just find some stranger who happens to be smiling. They’re uncomfortable, you’re uncomfortable… You’re just staring at them the whole time… They’re just like “Why are you looking at me, man?” [laughs]
[13:59] Yeah… It is a little bit harder, depending on how the stage is set up, to see that the speaker is looking directly at you… But yeah, don’t stare at one person the entire time. That’s also – unless they’re like your friend, and you’ve had a conversation beforehand… Like, “Okay, if I get nervous, I’m just gonna look at you, and it’s just gonna be like we’re hanging out at a restaurant, having a chat.”
Personally, I find it difficult to lock eyes with anybody. When I’m looking at the audience - first of all, like if I’m lucky enough to be able to sort of see out in the audience… Because sometimes, if you’re on stage, depending on where you are, the lights might be just hitting your eyes just in the right way that you can’t see anything, or you just see shapes and figures out in front of you… Like, I don’t try to seek eye contact per se. I might look through people, but that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m looking through. I’m not locking eyes and focusing on anybody. I’m sort of glancing, and seeing “Okay, are they glancing back?” But I’m not trying to basically lock eyes with anybody. Because to me, that’s intimidating. That’s kind of - okay, what if whoever I lock eyes with, maybe they had a bad day, and they’re
Maybe that’s their focused face.
Yeah, it could be their focused face. Like, I look angry and I’m focused. It’s like, what if I happen to look at the wrong person, or something? But yeah, regardless of what your style ends up being, that’s the thing - you have to discover your style. The first time, the first two, three, four times… Or heck, the first dozen times you do it, it might take that long for you to find your style, to find your sweet spot, and what works for you, what doesn’t work, what lessons dulls the edge a little bit, what are you comfortable doing if you know your material well enough that you can-ad lib a little bit… You have to find that sweet spot for you. And I think for people is different. We’ve all attended many conferences at this point; we can tell who’s comfortable on stage. We can tell who has rehearsed. We can tell who’s going off of bullet points, and just allowing sort of a natural sort of cadence in their talks. We can tell who is super-nervous and just wants to read their slides… And we can actually tell who is very prepared, and still uses their slides, and reads off their slides. So all these slight nuances and things - you can tell all that stuff if you attend enough conferences, or if you give enough talks. But these things are, I think, part of developing your own style and understanding sort of where your comfort zone is, is attending talks, is giving talks at your local meetup. It is taking a leap of faith and submitting that conference proposal, and if you get accepted, going on stage and doing it for the first time. There’s a first for everything, right? But you’re not gonna find that sweet spot, you’re not gonna find your comfort zone once you actually do it.
About that bullet points, I think it a good tip that I received early on is that the crowd doesn’t know what you want to say. So even if you said something too early, and then you see it in the next slide, the best thing you can do is ignore; the less good thing you can do is say, “Oh, I wanted to say”, “Oh, I mentioned…” Kind of like saying “But this is deviating from the structure that I had.” Nobody knows your structure. It’s fine, just move on.
So this was also something that I was practicing sometimes, because I enjoyed talking about something that I went outside of the structure, and telling myself “Just look at this. Let this thought be. Don’t speak it out. Take this moment of silence, move on.” It’s an acquired skill. And also, just the silence on stage; sometimes, at least about myself, because I tend to speak fast at times, I had to also practice including one or two stops… And a good way of doing that is telling a joke and waiting for the crowd to laugh. And it always feels like 27 minutes from the moment you say, until it reaches the crowd, and the laugh reaches you back… But this is actually – I try always to do a joke early enough to get this time delay, and remind myself that this is the pace. So kind of if I show a slide for three seconds and move on, it means most people will not even understand it. So setting the pace with a little bit of a stop, a little bit of a joke, a little bit of understanding kind of the velocity of the group is important as well.
[18:31] Yeah, someone gave me some advice that’s a lot like that in the past, where I gave a practiced talk, and they said, “Oh, you’re saying uhm and ah a lot. Think about those as like little breaks for the audience.” So instead of saying uhm or ah, just take it as like “It’s okay to just have a little silence there, and give people the time to process.” And I think that helps with both - you know, then you don’t wind up saying uhm and ah a lot, but you also give your audience a little bit more breathing room to kind of really understand what it is you had said.
It’s like when you prepare a workshop, you obviously cover 75%, and then you’re happy, and then you say like the remaining 25% is “For those who are curious, here’s [unintelligible 00:19:11.16] for you.” And same with talks - you can always squeeze more, but actually filtering what’s important is the harder thing to do, but it’s the better way of sending across that knowledge.
I can’t stress this enough, honestly… It’s oftentimes - you know, in the case of GopherCon, as the chairs, when we’re asked to sort of mentor people who are first-time speakers, and things of that nature… Like, I end up always saying “Look, I know you’ve got a lot of material here…” There’s an interesting thing that happens for first-time speakers. One, they’re frightened at some level that they’re about to step on stage, especially at an event as big as GopherCon All these people… It’s gonna be recorded, it’s gonna be on YouTube afterwards… All these sort of outside things, even before they sort of look at the content they have to produce, and the slides they have to create, and whatnot… And then from then on, it’s just working backwards, saying, “Well, how do I impress these people? How do I make this a good time? How do I not embarrass myself?” All these things that it’s like - everything having to do with anything, except the content they need to put together. It’s like, all these fears… And it’s like, “Okay, well, let’s take a step back.” Rather than working backwards from, “Oh my God, this is very frightening. How about we work bottom up in terms of the content you need to cover?” And what they start doing is like “Okay, how much can I cover?” Then I’m like “Okay, why do you want to cover so much?” They’re like “Well, I don’t know.” I’m like “Well, is it because that you are trying to prove that you belong up here? Are you trying to impress, are you trying to show your technical acumen?” What are you trying to prove, basically? Because you can go on a stage and spout out everything you know about a particular topic, and then people walk out thinking, “Okay, that was just way too much. I don’t remember any of it.” Or you can say, “Let me pick three things.” I usually tell people “Look, listen. Rule of threes.” It always helps, across the board, whatever you’re doing; rule of three. It’s a good starting point. Pick three things, three important things, three fascinating things you want to talk about before any given topic. And then trust me, in 30 minutes or 45 minutes, those three things are the only mission. Elaborate on them just enough. Have a beginning, middle and end, and don’t try to teach everybody about everything there is to know about a given topic. Just pick the three interesting ones, and then give yourself enough time. Maybe add some humor in there, if that’s your thing, maybe work in some pauses, rather than uhms… Give the audience a bit of time to catch up on what you’re trying to teach… People really sort of overestimate how much people retain from a talk. It’s a lesson I had learned even in teaching, because when you’re teaching, there’s so much material that you’re trying to cover… At this point, it’s like “Okay, that’s just way too much to cover in this right.”
[22:10] Like Natalie says, if you want to know more, here are resources, and here are places, and here’s a blank document, wiki, whatever it is. You can always point people to other places, where they can go further their knowledge. But your job is really you’re introducing a lot of times people to a new idea, or to a technology, or to a framework, or tooling, whatever it is; you’re introducing. Your job is to – unless you’re speaking to a group of experts on a very particular subject, where you can be certain that all of these people have all the background and context necessary, and you’re just here to talk about something very specific, and you need to dive in great depth in detail… There’s a time for that. Again, this is Go Time, but at a Go conference, for example, you can’t teach everything there is to know about any one thing about Go in 30 minutes or 45 minutes. Learn to provide resources and things, and just focus on three important things that you want to relate, and tell stories along the way.
Yeah, I think that kind of relates to something I – it’s about writing, but I was watching this one YouTube video… I’ve probably brought it up before, but “Answer in progress” video, where the premise of the video –
We’ll add it in the show notes…
Yeah, we can add it in the show notes. The premise of the video is basically this question of “Why are people so bad at writing?” And kind of spoiler - the conclusion it kind of gets to is for a lot of us, we spend all of our time in school, learning how to write to demonstrate knowledge, instead of learning how to write to teach others, or to communicate with other people. And I think conference talks are a lot like that. I think people tend to go and think that they need to demonstrate knowledge to an audience of people, but the mode you should be operating in is this “I want to teach these people something.” And when you’re trying to demonstrate knowledge, you’re trying to really pack in as much as you can, and be like “Look, I understand this.” But your audience in that case are people that already know the thing that you know, and you’re just showing them that you know the thing. That’s pretty much any conference talk; people that already know the thing are probably not going to go to your talk. So the bulk of your audience are going to be people that don’t know, and probably don’t have a lot of context for what you want to talk about.
So whatever it is you want to put in your talk, probably cut it down - to take your rule of threes, Johnny - by a third. Do a third less of – like, a third of what you were going to do originally. And that will probably be Roughly the right amount of stuff.
In a piece or a series of pieces I wrote about CFP a couple of years ago, I gave this recommendation of - and I think I got this from Dave Cheney… For like a 20-minute talk, kind of like one main thing you’re trying to teach people, and for a 45-minute talk you can have like two or three… But don’t go above that. So once again, your rule of three there, Johnny, of really keeping to those three solid things, and demarcate them in your talk. Because any more and people are just not going to be able to remember what it is you sad, because it’s just, once again, assaults of information, no matter how much you try and strip it down.
It’s also a good point about the context, having in mind that most people know less than you think. It’s like that XKCD comic that’s a, “Oh, of course, everybody knows this about the 352 processor”, and so on. And then it’s like “The what?!”
Exactly. One of the things you mentioned, Kris, or rather one of the things that I came up while you were elaborating is sometimes you have to sort of know how to deal with people who do show up to your talk, knowing what you’re going to be talking about, but they themselves want to demonstrate knowledge to their audience and their peers. So you’ve probably come across them; heck, you’ve probably had to deal with them when you give a talk… The people that will raise their hand and make a statement, rather than ask a question.
[25:55] You kind of have to learn how to deal with those, especially if you’re a new speaker… Because these people can sort of completely throw you off your game. They can stand up and say, “Well, my experience is that thingamabob does thingamajig instead of whatever you just said. That’s not how it works. I don’t think that’s the right way to do it.” They will go on, they will ultimately take up like two minutes, three minutes, and just go through their whatever it is they want to do… And at the end, you’re like “Okay, thanks for that.” You have to anticipate that they are going to be those people in the audience who are there not really to learn from you, but to really show others that they know something… And my advice to you, if you’re a new speaker - heck, even if you’re an experienced speaker, who hasn’t had to deal with this yet, is basically say, “Oh, okay, thank you. I’m sure some of this I didn’t know, and some of this many folks in the audience didn’t know. Thanks for that.” I mean, you just give them the acknowledgement that they seek, and then you move on with your life.
Yeah. I think that’s like a – I remember when I was talking to the organizers of GopherCon, one of the things they mentioned is just like “Yeah, we don’t do questions, because questions are always just disastrous.” And I think for that kind of reason. It’s just like “Oh, you’ve just spent all this time preparing this material, and now someone just asked you something random, perhaps related to the material…” Even if you do kind of good with answering that, it usually still doesn’t wind up being that good for the audience overall. I vastly prefer the “Oh, if you have questions, I’ll be over there. Come talk to me.” As you say, Johnny, don’t throw random stuff at me when I’m up on stage, in front of like hundreds of people.
And putting all your brain resources into doing this.
Yeah. I mean, when you’re a first-time speaker and you’re nervous, I would say ask the conference if you have to take questions, or even request not taking questions. I also think questions can eat into your talk time, and I think that talk time would be better spent on your actual content, getting people to understand it, than maybe answering some random questions. And also, it kind of feels a little bad if you’re like “Does anybody have any questions?” and no one has any questions. You’re like “Oh, so either I did really good, or really bad.”
But also no questions after the talk. After you had a break, and then somebody meets you at the conference area, that’s great. But at the end of the talk, after everybody clapped and is still in the room, and then there’s a cue to the microphone, that’s also something I would not opt in for anymore.
Yeah, yeah. I’m like “If you want to talk to me when I’m off stage, great. That sounds fine. Let’s have a conversation.”
Exactly. I have rested, I have reset…
If you end your talk a little bit early, and you ask the audience if they have any questions, and you get crickets, it’s usually a good time, if you have a little bit of extra, maybe like a joke related to whatever you just covered, or something that leaves on a positive note. Because I hate when – I don’t hate, but I think it could be better if when speakers walk off the stage, it left like a memorable, sort of lasting, sort of feel-good impression kind of thing when you’re walking off the stage. I think that makes you more memorable that to just end on a very dense technical note asking questions. Not that people didn’t find what you were saying interesting, but if you just laid a ton of dense information on people, they’re probably still processing whatever you just said. So if they don’t have questions for you right away, it’s because a lot of times they’re trying to articulate what it is that they’re thinking, because the stuff you just covered might have just been packed with just stuff.
I know a lot of times I’ve sat in the audience and kept thinking, “Okay, she just covered a lot of in-depth material on the Go memory model”, or something. “I have so many questions”, but I’m like “Okay, I know she’s about to walk off the stage. I can’t raise my hand and ask for a question that would probably take her two or three minutes just to answer.” I’m thinking “Okay, I don’t want to monopolize the Q&A.” There’s all these things going through people’s heads. It’s not that they don’t have questions per se, or that they didn’t find your talk interesting. Sometimes it’s just that they just need time. And again, to your point, say “Hey, I’ll be around. I’ll be on the side. I’ll be whatever it is, after this, if you want to come talk to me. Find me after, and we can dive into it a little bit.”
[30:22] You’ll find that way – you have to invite people, though… Because a lot of times people walk offstage… You’d be surprised; even if you’re a new speaker, people have sort of this intimidation factor in talking to people that are sort of perceived to be sort of at a different place from them, a more advanced place for them, like technically. Even if you’re a new speaker, people will be like “Oh, you’re now considered an expert on whatever it is. I’m gonna have some fear and trepidation about going and talking to you about something.”
Even worse, if you are a longtime speaker, or you are well-known within the community, people are going to be very fearful of going up to you, and walk up to you and sort of ask questions, and have an intelligent conversation and ask questions, because they fear looking stupid in front of you. So you have to go that extra mile and say “Hey, please come talk to me. I like to talk about this stuff, I’d love to hear your experience of it.” Invite them to come talk to you. Because without that, you’ll have missed some opportunities to connect with people.
Yeah, there’s always that fear… Like the “Oh, you’re someone special.” I feel like in tech communities we tend to see some people as like deities, and we’re like “Oh no, I must not approach them.” I think to some degree, even us on this podcast right now are like deities. I know at the last GopherCon - I wasn’t even speaking; I was just like an attendee, I was just there… And I walked to the table where you were, Johnny, and I sat down, and I talked, and someone was like “Oh hey, you’re on Go Time, too. I recognized your voice.” And I was like “Oh, okay…” And it was one of those “Oh, okay. I’m in a slightly different position than a lot of other people.”
I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind when you’re a speaker as well, because it’s just kind of like, yeah, people will see you a little bit differently than they might have seen you before. So just be conscious of that. It’s kind of one of those, like, they’re afraid of you as much as you’re afraid of them situations.
Also, not everybody will know if this is one of your first talks, and you’re nervous about this. The fact that I look at the agenda and I recognize some names and I don’t recognize some other names does not give me information “Is this the first time somebody is giving a talk? Or are they a seasoned speaker and we’ve just crossed paths now?” So you also – as a first-time speaker, you know you’re a first-time speaker. Not everybody knows that.
Something that is a mildly unpopular opinion, maybe, maybe not… How much time do you take to introduce yourself, or do you do this at all? Is this a slide, is this half of your talk? How much do you introduce yourself in a presentation? …at a conference, not at a workshop.
Like, 10 minutes in, “Well, my very first job, from 20 years ago…” [laughs]
“And that’s me. It’s been nice knowing you all.”
I think I’ve been, in the conference talks I’ve given – like, over time I started to shrink the amount of introduction I had. It’s just like “Hi, I’m Kris. Here’s where you can find me on the internet.” And then I try and move as quickly into “This is why I have authority to talk about this”, which I think is still kind of the introduction, but it’s more like laying the foundation for “Why should you believe anything I have to say?” And I think spending a little bit more time on that is important. So I think the last time talking about – like, I used to say a lot “Oh, I am a baker, and I do all this baking stuff.” But it’s like “Okay, well, that’s not really relevant to the talk.” You can mention it, but don’t spend a minute or two on that.
So I think I tend to prefer shorter introductions, because I just, I want to get to the content. I guess that’s where I fall. For both giving talks and for when I watch talks. I don’t want to hear about your whole life for 10 minutes on stage. This isn’t a biography about you. You’re supposed to be telling me something.
[34:02] But it is important for you that the speaker introduces themselves, and that they also add a part of “Why you should trust me on this topic.”
Yeah, yeah. I want to know who you are; I don’t need an in-depth, but it’s just like “Okay, well–” Like, a) because I might want to go look up other talks that you have, or go look at your socials, or whatever. So providing that to the audience is, I think, good. But I think especially like building credibility… I don’t even know if it’s credibility, but just like saying why you’re talking about what you’re talking about; like why you have authority to speak on this topic I think is important, because that also I think helps shift the audience’s mindset into, in some ways, being able to challenge what you’re saying and kind of process it more for themselves. Like, I think if you just kind of go off of “Oh, I have like this implicit authority, and you should just straight-up believe me”, I think that can make it a little bit more difficult for audiences to absorb what you’re saying.
The same is true of writing. If you have an article, or a book, or whatever, the question in the audience’s mind should always be “Why should I believe you?” You need to build up your credibility with me about why you’re giving this talk and why should I absorb it.
I think the latter, like the whole building of credibility thing, I think - if you don’t contextualize that, if you don’t use a very specific kind of lens for it, I think it might be detrimental to new speakers, people who don’t have experience in whatever it is they’re about to talk about. So to me, I look for two signals. One, the establishing of credibility. If this is your bread and butter, if somebody comes on stage and saying, “Hey, I have experience doing performance or optimization work on the Go profiler. I’m going to talk to you about how to manage potential memory leaks with goroutines etc. because this is what I do. This is my bread and butter. I talk about it, I tweet about it. This is my jam.” If somebody establishes that I’m all for it. But if you’re a brand new speaker touching on a topic that you are not known for, but that you really spent a ton of time getting to know and study, and maybe something that happened to you while you were at work, or working on an open source project, and you’re like “Hm, that’s curious”, and you dive into it, and you come up with a good talk, I’m also interested in that sort of level of expertise. It’s not like you’ve been doing it for years and just have sort of time put in, but you did put a ton of time into learning very specifically what it is that you’re about to talk about.
So I don’t like to discount people, new or not; new speakers or not. I don’t like to discount people on account that they haven’t been in a particular space for a long time… It’s all about how much time have you spent preparing for this? How familiar are you with this? Because again, you’re gonna be way more familiar with that whatever it is you’re talking about, on account of having prepared for the talk. Hopefully you prepared for the talk, right? I might be aware of some of the things you’re about to talk about at a sort of superficial level. But if you’ve spent the time diving deep, getting to know sort of the nuance and all the crevices, all the edge cases and stuff like that, and you come on stage and you’re trying to teach me something, I’m not gonna hold it against you that you haven’t been doing this for years. I’m gonna be very attentive, because I’m like “Oh, here’s a new person”, or “Here’s a person who’s encountered this for the first time. It’s new to them… Heck, it’s new to me. What can you teach me, this being fresh in your mind? It’s fresh in my mind, too. What can we learn from each other? What can you teach me about how to approach this?” It’s not always about the experience you have, it’s about the experience you have preparing for the particular talk as well.
Yeah. And I think that’s like a perfectly valid way to build credibility. I didn’t mean to imply that it’s just experience…
No, I gotcha.
[37:54] …or how long they’ve been doing something… I think it’s also very helpful for the audience to context-set for themselves a little bit, of like – oh, if there’s like a mistake in a talk, or something that’s wrong, something that as an audience member you’re like “Is that right?” If it’s someone that’s like “Yes, I’ve been doing this for 30 years”, it’s like “Oh, maybe my understanding was wrong.” Whereas if it’s someone that maybe doesn’t have experience, it’s like “Oh, maybe they just made a little bit of a mistake.” But I think it’s easy to kind of just move on from that if you have the right context, whereas if you don’t have the right context, you might just kind of be like “You said something that’s very wrong, and I don’t understand what level of credibility you’re trying to kind of hold, or what level of understanding you have, so I don’t know if I can believe other parts of your talk.” Because that’s also like an important part of getting people to take stuff away from your talk in technology, is making sure that they can push through any smaller mistakes that might have popped up in your talk. Because I think we’ve all said things that it’s like “No, that’s not quite right”, or “You said that thing wrong.” So making sure that the audience has a way to kind of forgive you for that I think is helpful. And I think one of the ways you can do that is by building up like “Yeah, I really know this topic well.” Or “I don’t know this topic super-well, but I’ve studied and researched a lot, and I think I have a good grasp on it.” Obviously, said not like I said that, because that might detriment the audience’s confidence in you. But finding a way to say that clearly to the audience, and clearly convey, that’s like “Oh, I don’t have 30 years of experience, but you should still listen to me because I did this research, and I did all the things, and I’ve figured how all this works.” I think that’s super important.
I can tell that as an audience I find this also super-important, to get the understanding of… Like, call me a suspecting person, but at talks I need this “Why should I trust you on this topic?” I don’t know exactly why, but I know that talks with introduction, and especially the part of introduction of what’s my connection to this topic… And it can be “I worked in it”, it can be “I’m curious about this”, but just explain your connection to the topic, for me to kind of trust enough… I don’t know maybe it’s Academia influencing me, but this really helps me accept the talk better. And not even looking at mistakes or not, but just being convinced, kind of, by something.
I totally get that. Maybe it’s just years of experience sort of teaching me to – not everything is always as they seem, kind of thing. I’ve really learned to keep my mind open, even with somebody not having the credentials to speak on something… Again, to touch on what I was saying before, if they did the research, that matters way more to me than them establishing a lineage of experience, and this and that. Because to me - I don’t know, maybe it’s where I’m coming from, but I think that sometimes that can be an unnecessary hurdle to people sharing ideas. And again, it can be the lack of experience maybe to share an idea, that maybe it’s a solved problem and they just don’t have enough time and experience to realize it’s a solved problem… But it is their experience of something, right? And I think – I go in to talks expecting (and I alluded to this before) to hear stories about what you experienced, what is your experience of this thing? Even if I happen to know a little bit about it, what is your experience of it?
Exactly. And What is your connection.
Yeah, exactly. Where are you coming from with this? I don’t particularly care if you’ve been working in it for decades, or whatever it is. I want to know in this particular moment, while you are trying to convey something to me, how have you come to be in it, to be looking at it, and what are you going to relate back to me? So I put way more emphasis on that than I do on sort of what your credentials were coming into it. Or even if I’m already familiar with your work from other things. Because this could be a brand new topic for you. I know you’re a great speaker from other things that I’ve seen on stage, or on YouTube, or whatever, but on this thing you could be a brand new – this concept could be brand new for you. Let’s talk about this thing specifically. I don’t want you to rest on your laurels past.
[42:05] For sure. Credentials are really not always important to prove if you should be speaking about this or not. But your connection, what got you to this, and what is the effort that you’ve put into that - was this a work project? Was it something you were just hacking on? Were you just reading about this? This is – a) it makes that personal connection, which is a fun, interesting segue from the self-introduction to the actual content, but it also helps me accept diving into that, into the talk.
And I think sometimes people don’t do that, and then the talk starts with “Hi, my name, I work at… It’s nice to be here.” So memory profiling, and it’s kind of – I also like sometimes segmenting and kind of doing those jumps, but I think you’re adding that one thing of “So I had this problem at work, and I looked into that, and this is what I’ve found” is doing the talk so much better.
Yeah, I feel like something people who haven’t given talks before might not understand is that pretty much all talks are all storytelling; even if your storytelling about something that’s very, fact-based and whatnot, you’re still weaving a narrative. And you need to remember, you need to follow the kind of syntax and structure of the narrative to kind of guide your audience. And I think building that context is a very important part of telling that story. So yeah, you need to have that building the initial set of criteria for the world you’re in, you need to explain that for a bit, and then you can have the rising action, and the inciting incident, and all of the other parts of storytelling.
The “all is lost” moment…
Yeah. But I also think that helps too with the overall structure of your talk, and getting your audience to take away more, is by actually following a storytelling arc or narrative arc… Because it’s very important to – especially if you’re not really just telling a story, a nonfiction specifically narrative… Like, don’t foreshadow, unless you really need to foreshadow. Just tell people upfront what you’re going to tell them. That puts them in the right mindset to learn something, of like “Hey, I’m gonna teach you this.” And then you teach them the thing. And then you say, “And, in review, I’ve taught you this thing.” So you can kind of bookend things well. Because when I say story, I think some people might be like “Oh, well, I’ve gotta have all these foreshadowing, and all this withholding of information…” It’s like, it’s not like a fiction narrative.
But I think that the context setting that you were talking about, Natalie - I think that’s a very important part of it. You’ve got to build the story. You can’t just jump into the middle of it, because the audience is going to be confused. Maybe when you’re a more advanced storyteller/speaker and you know how to kind of navigate that well, you can try that. But if you’re a first-time speaker, I would suggest not trying to jump straight into the “Let’s just jump into the middle of the story and hope that I can build the context around it enough that my audience doesn’t walk away confused.”
So those are a lot of 00 I think those are a lot of good tips, tricks, and… Not tricks; tips, and – are they tricks? I don’t know if they’re –
Yeah, practices. That sounds better than trick. “Trick the audience into liking my talk.” [laughter]
Show this occasional slide of “You like this talk”, and quickly switch. [laughter]
Just subliminal messaging… [laughter] “You like this talk, you like this talk…” I’m wondering if there are some unconventional, maybe even unpopular opinions around sort of the art of giving a talk, the art of acing a talk.
I like not starting with my self-introduction, but a little bit diving into the topic. And after a couple of slides, introducing myself, and then kind of “This is a topic you are here to listen about, and then this is my connection to it, and this is my kind of next segue to actually my experience with it.” And then. So kind of introducing two things: a) the topic, b) myself, and then the connection.
I like that. I’ve done that as well. Yeah, I like that.
Does this fall to the territory of tricks because it’s a little bit of sorcery? [laughs]
[46:12] I don’t think it’s a trick. I think when you start out with the topic – because I think people are sort of trained to… The typical way, people are like “Hey, this is who I am, this is who I work for etc.” When you don’t start off that way, you kind of catch people off guard a little bit, and they’re like “Oh, okay, that’s interesting.” Usually, at this point, the – I remember, I think I’ve even done it once… I gave an entire talk, and then I realized – it wasn’t on purpose. I realized, “Oh, crap, I didn’t actually introduce myself.” And as sort of the very last thing…
“One more thing…”
“By the way, I’m Johnny.” Yeah, exactly. “I’m Johnny, and I happen to be doing this.” But it was completely by accident. And guess what - nobody cared. Nobody, nobody cared. They got what they came to get from the talk, and… That’s the thing - most of the time, people just want the knowledge. And I’ll admit this, I don’t remember the names of - not even the first names of all those speakers that go on stage at a conference. Like I can’t – like, I’m already in the middle of a ton of people. I’m meeting and shaking hands with a bunch of people, some of whom I might be aware of online, I might know their Twitter handle or something, but I don’t know their real names… And I keep hearing names all day throughout the day, for multiple days at times… I can’t remember the name of every speaker that goes on stage. But I will remember a memorable talk. Like, a funny talk, or like a very insightful, or even like a hard, technically dense talk. I might remember bits and pieces of that stuff, and knowing that I can always go back on YouTube when things are released, and sort of rewatch it. I will remember those things. I’m much more likely to remember a talk and its topic than I am to remember the speaker… A speaker’s name, or where they work at, or anything of that nature. To me, that’s less important. If these things are important enough to me, that’s because I’m trying to find you. I’m like, “Oh, yeah… Like, I didn’t that person work at – what is it? The so-and-so company, whatever it is… Their talk was specifically about this.” And then that gives me an idea, I can go on YouTube, find the talk, find the description, whatever it is, and find who gave it. I’m only looking up a person when I actually need to get in touch with them, or I need to actually point them or point somebody else in their direction… Like, “Hey, yeah, so-and-so give a talk at GopherCon on this particular topic, specifically. You will find that interesting, you will find that useful. Here’s a link, here’s the person, whatever it is. Find them on Twitter if you have questions”, or something like that. That is the only time I care about sort of a speaker’s bio or name.
Yeah, I think too – at most conferences, I think there’s an MC who will introduce the speakers as well. So you don’t necessarily have to do it in your talk, because someone has just done it for you as well.
Exactly. But you’d be surprised; people show up, slide one, it’s about them. [laughs]
No, I’ve done that. And it’s such an awkward thing too, because you’re just like “Oh, this person just spent like 30 seconds talking about me, and my bio, and everything”, and then I’m like “Hi, I’m Kris. Yeah, just as this other person has said…” And they’re like “Oh, crap…” So I like the way that you kind of rearrange things, Natalie, because then the audience heard what they said, but you get to kind of reinforce it later. So it’s like a reinforcing action, where it’s like “Okay, I’ve gotten introduced by the MC, I talk a little bit about my talk, and then “Oh, remember, this is who I am”, and then continue with your talk. I like that structure.
[49:42] Also, in the bio you’re a little bit kind of convincing people on why should they listen to a talk by you about this, or you mention more your job title, whatever; if you’re an open source contributor, or something like this… And in the talk itself, it’s more like “So this isn’t I in connection to this specific thing.” And it’s more like “No, I’m not a software engineer, but I worked on this project.” So it’s like also introduction, but that leeway.
So do you write on your slides your Twitter handle? I’m gonna guess yes. So do you write the conference handle, or hashtag, or socials from the conference?
I’ve never done that… I put my Twitter handle, but not…
Yeah, just Twitter handle.
So I’m doing that for the reason that I encourage people to take pictures and retweet, and then also wearing the hat of an organizer, I know that it’s a lot easier for me to look who either tagged the conference handle, or maybe using the hashtag, and then retweet that… Rather than searching for the Twitter, who tagged the current speaker, and so on. That’s too much. And then as an attendee, I don’t remember the conference handle, but if I see it in front of my face, it’s easy for me to use that.
Right. Yeah, I think if the conference can tell you – because I think sometimes the organizers don’t tell you what the Twitter handle they’re gonna use is, so you don’t know to put it in your slides… But if they tell you, then I think I would probably include them, like “Oh yeah, here’s my Twitter handle”, and hashtag whatever conference it is. And I think too it’s fine if organizers request that you put it on your slides, as long as it’s not like a demand. As long as it’s just like “Hey, if you’re putting social media info, here’s the hashtag to include, or like the account to add along with your account”, or whatever. I think that would also make it more uniform across all of them for the people running the social media side of things.
What I definitely don’t like is receiving a template from a conference.
Yeah, no. Absolutely not.
It happens less and less…
Oh, I do not like – oh, you know what’s worse than that? Being forced to use a template from the company you work for.
Oh, God, no.
Luckily, that never happened to me…
Oh, I cringe. I cringe. I would rather not give a talk, than be forced to do that. Like, I don’t mind mentioning who I work for at any given point in time. We all work for somebody, even if it’s for ourselves at some point, whatever it is… It’s okay to mention who you work for right now, or whatever it is. But I’ve even started not including sort of employee information in like bios or things of that nature… Because every once in a while I’ll see or read something, or listen to something, and they mention “Oh yeah, Johnny Boursiquot is blah-blah-blah”, at some company that I worked for like five years ago. I’m like “Ugh. That’s not accurate.” So I’ve began sort of omitting that stuff from bios, and introductions, and things, because it doesn’t matter… Again, nobody cares. It doesn’t matter. Unless somebody is looking at where you work as sort of the corroborating evidence that you might know what you need to know, that you might know what you say you know, like your credentials… If you say, “Hey, I worked at Google. I worked for FAANG”, or whatever. If somebody cares about those kinds of credentials, first of all, that’s great for you; I don’t put a whole lot of stock into things like that. But if that’s what they need, and you feel like that’s gonna give the edge - fine. Do it. But to me, I care way more about you, the person, and not all the extra stuff, the embellishment, the plumage that you’re trying to show off. I don’t care about that stuff. Let’s get to the content, let’s get to the meat of things.
I will add two little bits of nuance to that. I think for the conference, like the employer slides, I think if you’re giving a talk at an employer conference, then it’s okay for them to hand you like a “Here’s the slide template that you should use.” Like, okay, this is clearly a thing for work. You want all the speakers from the company to have slides that look the same.
You’re working. Literally, you’re working.
[53:54] Yeah. So I’m like “Okay, that’s fine.” And I think for your credentials, like if you’re giving a talk that’s like “Oh, this is about how we built this thing at Company X”, I sure hope you worked at Company X. So I’d like to know that you did, in fact, work at Company X. So I think for those types of talks, it is kind of important to put “Yes, I did in fact work at this place.” Or “I currently work at this place.” But yeah, in general, I’m just like “No, no, no. I want to use my own slides.” Especially since I think my slides, I tend to just – they’re just something for the audience to look at most of the time. I do not like when people just put things on their slide that they’re gonna say. You should reserve that for the things you really want to bury into the minds of your audience with that reinforcement, and that only works if it’s only a selection of the things you say, that you just want to really hammer home. Because if it’s literally everything you say, is just being read off slides. They’re not going to hear, because they’re going to be trying to read while listening at the same time, and those are not going to be in sync, so that’s not going to be great.
So I think that’s something as a first-time speaker I was super-nervous about, was just like “My slides… I don’t even know if these makes sense.” And it’s just like, that’s okay. Your slides don’t gotta make sense. They should be loosely related. But you could just put some nice imagery up there for people to look at while they hear what you say.
Way better. Way better. A few words, a sentence at best… I love to see slides like that, when it’s just focused on imagery. Heck, I’ll take a meme over a wall of text any day; it’s like, the imagery, if you can pull it off… Ashley McNamara does an incredible job in her talks, because she’s an artist, so she hand-draws her stuff, and incorporates it as part of her presentations… But if you don’t have that kind of skill, but you want to use imagery, try to find some open source freely available stuff. I don’t know, the cool kids these days are using maybe some GPT trained something to produce images, I don’t know… But things of that nature. Because you’re there to convey content, not through a wall of text, but through a handful of maybe some bullet points, a sentence here and there, lots of imagery, please… And that’s it. You are going to be speaking – you don’t want me to be trying to listen to you while you’re explaining something and for me to be trying to read what you’ve got up there on the slides. I can only do one of those things well, and I’d rather be listening to you rather than be reading on your slides.
So you mentioned the AI, and that’s kind of my replacement for unpopular opinion for this episode…
Hm, let’s get into it.
So instead of asking what is your unpopular opinion, I would ask “Would you/Have you used AI for your slides?”
So let me just make the sound of an unpopular opinion, because that’s the closest thing…
So your AI opinion… Kris, would you/have you used AI for your talks?2
I’m gonna go with no. I feel like I put in more effort trying to like craft the right prompt to get it to spit out something for the slides that I want that it would be for to me to just put the slides together. And if I want it to be something that’s like really in-depth, I think I’d rather just do that research myself and figure out, and just think of how I want the talk to flow, rather than trying to get an AI to do it for me. I also tend to be a pretty imaginative person. I’m a writer at heart, so it’s this is the type of stuff I like to do. So I could see where someone who isn’t that might want to lean on something that’s just like “Let’s go use the AI.” So I think at the end of the day, if you make your own slides, from your own mind - yeah, there’s gonna be a lot of stuff that you’ve seen incorporated, but I feel like I still see AI as this giant statistical model… So it’s just kind of like “Yeah, what do popular slides look like?” and that’s what your slides are gonna wind up looking like.
[58:21] I have not… What I will say is that I’m perfectly okay doing a ton of research using these tools, and I may ask it to sort of distill a very complicated topic or sentence or explanation into some succinct version, something that is sort of understandable by a middle-schooler, or something, just so I can see how it conveys, how it simplifies complex ideas. Again, I’m trying to learn from it, because it has so much experience. Much more experience than I could possibly acquire in a lifetime. So surely, there’s a simpler way to explain this very difficult concept or topic that I’m trying to convey to my audience… Why don’t I let the computer take a crack at it? And 9 times out of 10 it doesn’t spit it back out the way I want to convey it back to my audience, so I take it and I make it mine. Because oftentimes - again, I’m not on stage to regurgitate facts, I’m on stage to tell a story. I’m on stage to tell my story, my experience of a particular thing. So I’ll see what it gives me and say “Oh, okay, that’s one way to look at it. That’s great. Now I’ll incorporate that into my own storytelling.”
That is one thing that even though you have those GPT models able to generate stories for you, and generate imagery, and all these things, and that’s all well and good, I think there’s a certain aspect – even if these things end up getting so good that their output is indistinguishable from some of the best writers and the best creative minds in the world, which I’m sure they will if they haven’t already, given enough money and compute power and data, at the end of the day, I want to feel like I’m the one who produced this work. There’s a human aspect of this I want to retain, no matter how good I get at using the prompt engineering… Which, by the way, I use quite heavily in my day to day work now. It’s almost like googling around. Google-driven development - that’s not a thing for me anymore. I literally, basically have a ChatGPT tab open, like pinned as part of my workflow, and whenever I have any questions that I would normally go to Google for about coding or examples, or whatever it is, I just ask it and it does a good enough job that’s now my go-to tool.
Can I recommend for this purpose the tool that’s called Find, with a P-H-I-N-D?
I came across that, and I’ve started playing around with it literally this week. I’m like “This is kind of like good. I have to do less prompt engineering.” It’s kind of already primed for the kinds of things I want to look for. Yeah, indeed, indeed. But yeah, that’s where I’m coming from with the whole AI thing. Again, regardless of what it is, whether it’s for – I will lean on it for very specific, technical bits of knowledge and things, and do fact-check it when it spits out things, because it’s wrong a few times… But beyond that, use it as a starting point for anything and everything, honestly. Use that as a starting point, see what it says, do some fact-checking, and then even if it’s correct, take that and make it your own… Because I can’t see myself sort of completely copying and pasting and let’s go. I don’t know, maybe we all will get there at some point, because this is the age of AI and whatnot, if you listen to everybody out there… But there’s something about it that I still want to feel like I’m creating something out of my own being, I’m creating something, producing something out of my own mind.
It’s like in the Eurovision, you have to use your own voice… [laughs] With all the state of music these days.
We can auto-tune it…? [laughs]
No, in the Eurovision, you can do very little audio magic. You still have to use your own song, your own voice, your own – if you want to do this echo effect, you have to echo effect yourself.
What about you, Natalie? Would you use AI to generate your slides?
[01:02:04.29] I have used, and I am using, and I will be using… Probably one of the first times I used it was last year when I was teaching an introductory course on DevOps. So it was very basic, it was for university students in their second year, and this was kind of “This is the monitoring. This is testing. This is why you need it”, and so on. So I asked for it to give me the bullet points, kind of “Give me on this topic the most important five things”, and then it just gave me like monitoring, testing etc. And then instead of me having to think about this, which if I would not have AI, what I would do is probably google the 10 basic concepts, and then take like 10 lists, 10 results, cross them, and see what I find the most important… So from those five, it kind of just did that for me, and I’d take the three that I find most important… Going back to that rule of three; I agree with that.
It gives me a good draft to start with, especially for this… Because I also don’t like text-heavy slides. And other places I would use it for slides would be when I try to kind of look at a slide and think what I want to say there. Because some slides I want to have not a script, but one or two lines that I know I say, and I know that if I will ask AI for help, it will sound more polished than if I would say that. And I know that even if I memorize it, I will change it in the end, because I forget how to pronounce something, or something like this. So this is English not being my first language comes in, and I find it as a useful tool kind of to help me sound balanced between more better, in whatever that means, less simple, but also still my voice…
Yeah, I think those are the two main use cases that I have AI for. Obviously, for generating images, and so on. But I do find that if it’s something basic, if it’s like an introductory-level something, it’s easier to use AI, but because sometimes I like going and speaking about specific niches and so on, it cannot do my work right now. Even the browsing model.
Yeah, I feel like – maybe this is an unpopular opinion in itself, but part of the reason I dislike a lot of the hype that exists around AI and all of this is because I feel like it’s being kind of presented as like “This will eliminate the need for all of your other tools that you use”, or “This will replace people”, or something like that. And it feels like this is just – this is another tool… And a useful tool, but like any tool, you have to understand how to use it well, and where it’s appropriate to use… And just because it’s a tool for somebody else doesn’t mean it’s a tool for you. I’ve kind of been wondering myself, “Why don’t I like AI that much?” And I realized that I love going down rabbit holes, and doing deep research on things, and kind of spelunking around. Part of the fun of it is in that kind of going around weird parts of the internet and acquiring information, and all of that, and going on these adventures. And you can’t do that as easily with AI. It’s kind of like you just get the shortcut. It’s like “Oh, I’d like to know this.” “Okay, here’s the answer.”
So I think for me, that’s why I enjoy doing research in the way that I’ve kind of always done, and I kind of lean more toward that. But that also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have AI tools. I think it’s just okay if you don’t want to use the AI. And no, the AI will not be replacing you tomorrow, or perhaps ever. But it’s still a useful thing to have, in general. But we’re not going to be out of jobs.
My unpop then is to counter what you say, and… [laughs] And to say that there is – so if we take a step back… And this feels oddly familiar to the conversation that actually the three of us might have had on the podcast before, a while back… If we think about how we engineers see tools, by some definition of tool, and how businesses and the rest of the world sees tool, we have a very narrow view, compared to the rest of the world. The rest of the world is thinking, “Okay, I’m a CEO at a Fortune 5 company, and you’re telling me that AI can help me cut my staff, my engineering staff by right now 25%, maybe in five years 75%. I want that technology. Because what I’ve wanted all along is not to have engineers; what I’ve wanted all along is to make money, is to sell a product or service, whatever it is. If I can do that, reduce my costs, and do that with fewer people, because there’s better tooling, that’s what I want, 9 times out of 10. I’m not in the business of employing engineers, I’m in the business of making money.”
[01:06:37.07] So we as the engineers have to always keep an eye on what the long-term, what the horizon looks like. And again, I think we’re better than most at sort of anticipating trends, because by virtue of being technologists, we see technology come and go all the time, and we know how to sort of keep our ear to the ground, see what the new trends are, what the new languages and new frameworks or whatever it is, and just, stay ahead of the game a little bit; that way we can remain employable, and sought after, and all that stuff. But for the first time, I think this is where this tool is unlike any other that I’ve seen in my 25 years in this industry, whereby this one literally, for the longest time, businesses have been trying to replace us, because we are the most expensive part of the operation. For the longest time, businesses have been trying to replace us, and now this seems like a viable option. It seems like a viable tool. All the tools that have come up to this point have been tools for us, by us. These tools, for the businesses - they’re literally saying, “Oh, this has me thinking I can literally hire fewer of you… Say oh yeah, yeah, definitely use your tool. Use your tool here. Here’s your ChatGPT, here’s your Phind, here’s your – whatever tool you want. I just need half of you now. I just need half of the staff now. A third of the staff now.” And I think don’t we’ve seen the extent to which this – and I’ve seen blog posts and things about how AI is gonna change the industry; not just my own, but lots of industries and things of that nature.
I think if we’re not careful, we’re gonna find ourselves like those farmers who fought the Industrial Revolution, with new machinery coming into the fore, and not adopting these things and being like “Ah, I’m we’re gonna do it the old-fashioned way.” I think we are a little in a different position, we are embracing those tools, but make no mistake, as soon as these tools can replace us, businesses and corporations are going to get those things instead of hiring people. So what do we do about that? I don’t know. I don’t have the answer. But it is something that I’m certainly thinking about. And I know Kris has a differing opinion…
I was just kind of thinking in my mind about – I feel like that’s a very… I see that view from like a VP, as VP of engineering, maybe CTO, but not from a business owner. I think the problem is I don’t think business owners think rationally, even about money. A prime example of this is why is there this huge rush to do return to office? Why are companies not just offloading all of their office space? It’s expensive, the past few years have proven that they can be extremely profitable, make more money than they were before by not having these offices, it makes their employees wind up working more hours, ironically… Like, it hits all of those things that are like, you know, “Money, money, money, money, ching, ching, ching, ching. I can make all of my things look good”, and yet they’re still like “No, you must come back to the office. We have to have it this way. We have to do things the way we were before.” And I think there’s a lot of nuance, and there’s a lot of stuff that goes into that. But I think it’s the same sort of thing with this, where there is this argument of “Well, we can just replace all the people with this AI.” But I also think, like, isn’t that just outsourcing again? Haven’t we done this before? We’ll just go replace all these expensive Americans with some other people, someplace else, and you forget… Yeah, you can do that, and it’ll be cheaper, but there’s a whole bunch of other logistics around that that you need to now handle and deal with. And do you have the ability to actually implement those logistics well?
[01:10:17.02]“I just need fewer of you to do it.” That’s all it is, “I just need fewer of you to do it.” Less costs.
I guess, in theory, there should be an overall reduction in the number of people that we have. But also, the other thing that we all know - how many people work at companies where there is a rather annoyingly large chunk of people who don’t do anything? And we all know that they don’t do anything. And it’s very well documented they don’t do anything. And yet they’re still there. So I very much understand, and to some degree agree with your view on this, Johnny, of like yeah, no, there will be some amount of reduction of engineers as a result of these AI tools. How much and when - because also, legal departments do not like this generative AI stuff. They do not want you to be anywhere near it. There are companies that are just like “You’re not allowed to use Copilot. If I find you using Copilot, you will be fired”, just because of all of the legal ramifications of “Can we actually say where this came from? Because if we can’t, and it happens to infringe on somebody’s copyright or trademark, ouch. That’s going to cost us.” So I think we’re gonna work through all of this stuff over time, for sure, and I do think that the end result will likely be we have fewer software engineers. But I think that over time anyway, that likely is going to be the result, no matter – it’s not AI is special; we have many fewer software engineers doing like assembly programming than we did 70 years ago; we have no software engineers that are doing it by hand-weaving, like we did for all the computers for the Moon mission, and for all of that other stuff.
So I think we will have an overall reduction in engineers, but I don’t know if it’s something that we need to worry about as people. It’s change. Change is always happening, change will always come… And that’s kind of what I – I dislike the idea; not what you’re saying, Johnny, but what the other people are saying, where it’s just like “There will be no more software engineers.” Or “There’ll be like a 10th of the software engineers”, and it’s just like, that feels impractical in the short-term. It feels a lot like “There will be no more humans driving. We’ll all have self-driving cars.” Or “The trucking industry will disappear, because we’ll have self-driving trucks.” It’s like, “Oh, okay, you’ve been saying that for about 14 years now.” So… Where? Where are my self-driving trucks? Not to say that that – I think trucking is a good illustrative example of that, because trucking as industry has issues that could maybe be better if people weren’t driving trucks; maybe it’d be better if that wasn’t an industry. But I don’t think the answer to that is – I don’t think the self-driving truck thing is going to be the way that we solve that, and I think the same is true for software engineering, where I don’t think that our end result is going to be this “We’re all prompt engineers now.” I don’t think that’s gonna – I think there’ll be plenty of people, I think there’ll be plenty of companies where yes, that’s a thing, but I think there will still be plenty, plenty of us doing what we do today in the future.
I share the thought that AI is another fancy abstraction layer on what we do, and we will not be doing exactly what we do now, but we will – those who want to keep doing tech will be still sought after; they will just be looking for other skills. I also like giving the example of assembly and punch cards, and so on, and I do think that this is – to me, that makes a lot of sense with the next abstraction layer of you just need to operate this tech differently.
Although I think assembly – not so much punch cards, but assembly is a cautionary tale for us in a way, where it’s sort of like, a lot of software engineers don’t know how computers work, and I think that’s becoming a problem. I think it’s been a problem. I think it’s becoming more of a problem. So it’d be nice if in this next move to this next abstraction, we find a way to make sure that we still have a large enough group of people who understand how things work. Because I think it’s the same problem with open source.
To build the next computers, yeah. We still need new, fancier computers, doing stronger things.
It’s the same thing with open source, where it’s like a large amount of open source, like a lot of crucial things are maintained by one human, or like two or three humans. Like, very, very small numbers of humans. And I think it’s the same thing with firmware, and all these other things, where it’s just like, we have no idea how these things work, and we just hope and pray that like the people that understand how these things work will still be around to make sure that they still function. So I hope in this transition that we’re about to have that we make an attempt to not make that same mistake. I’m not hopeful that we’ll do that, but…
Looking at some of the conference agendas this year, I didn’t see too many talks about the topic of AI, so I think maybe this year we’re kind of – I don’t know, maybe the current open call for papers like for GoLab in Italy, and Brazil GopherCon, and the Ireland GopherCon, I think these are the ones that are still open, so maybe there we’ll get to see some talks about AI… But I know that in the European, in the UK, and in the - I’m assuming also the not yet announced US GopherCons I didn’t see too much about that. So I guess we’re all still processing it, but I’m definitely sure that next year we’ll have a similar talk, but it will be more AI-heavy… And I hope you will join as well then. So thanks, everyone.
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