Friday, January 1, 2016

Being Present

Sometimes we make decisions unconsciously, but we'll read an article or someone says something that makes us reflect on those decisions. I've recently come across one of those decisions, and I'm looking for ways to follow it consciously.

So this is not really a resolution, but it's more of a continued intention:
I will be present at every event.
What does this mean? As a speaker, I will be present for the entire event so that I have plenty of time for interaction with other people (and also time to learn new things from other speakers (and attendees)).

I started speaking back in January 2010. That first year, I spoke at 8 events and only 1 of those events was outside Southern California. In 2015, I spoke at 28 events, and 13 of those were outside So Cal. So I was on quite a few airplanes and away from home a bit more than usual.

During those 6 years, my interaction with other speakers has also changed. When I originally started, my circle included primarily local speakers -- folks who would speak at 2 or 3 events a year in their local development community. As time went on, my circle grew to include regional speakers and folks who travel to major events in the US. And in the last couple years, my circle has grown to include people who speak across the US and internationally, and they spend much more time on airplanes than I do.

I've noticed a few things this past year that helped me focus my priorities.

Before going any further, I want to put in a disclaimer. I've been thinking about this article for quite a while, and I've had trouble figuring out how to write it. One reason is that I'll be referring to behaviors of some other speakers. I don't want this to come across as disparaging of those behaviors. Everyone is different and has different priorities. I'm making my decisions based on my own priorities.

Not Available
One of the things I've run across several times this year are speakers who fly in, do their presentations, and then fly out.

I always go through the speaker list for any event that I'm speaking at, and I make notes of folks that I've wanted to meet and talk to. I figure that we'll be around the same conference for 3 or 4 (usually very long) days, so I should have a chance to meet at some point, even if just for a few minutes.

But then the only place I'll see that person is during their presentation. And I don't usually go up after presentations because I want to give other folks a chance to talk to the speaker -- I'll wait for another opportunity. Unfortunately, that opportunity doesn't come.

Now obviously, that's a bit selfish of me because I'm thinking about my own disappointment. But I compare that to my priorities and what I what kind of accessibility I want people to have to me.

The reasons for the inaccessibility are many. Some speakers are horrendously busy -- sometimes doing 2 events the same week. Some speakers want to minimize time away from home and family (which is an awesome priority). Some speakers are not comfortable talking to people when they're not on stage. Some speakers have time-sensitive work to do while they are at an event.

Again, I don't want to disparage these decisions or priorities. I'm just using them as a reference point for my own priorities.

Talking to Other Developers
I've made it a big priority to talk to other developers. It was difficult for me to do the first few times, but I've seen so many benefits that I push down my discomfort and shyness to talk to people whenever I'm at a developer event.

And I've been doing my best to encourage other developers to give it a try: Becoming A Social Developer: A Guide for Introverts (and the podcast, and the website).

Especially Important for Speakers
I think this concept is especially important for speakers. There's a tendency for conference attendees, especially at professional conferences, to think of the speakers as special or gurus or geniuses. I know that I used to think of speakers this way (when I was just an attendee).

But speakers are just people who share things that they know. And just because we talk intelligently or authoritatively on one topic doesn't mean that we can do the same thing with *any* topic -- and I think that's the major misconception.

Joe Guadagno (@jguadagno) wrote an article about this earlier this year: Speakers are not Idols. The vast majority of speakers that I know and interact with are like this. They are developers who like to share what's made them successful. But they aren't perfect, and they really aren't that much different from the majority of attendees.

As a speaker, I want to make sure that people are comfortable talking to me. And often, that involves me going up to talk to people in the hallway or lunch line.

Not Available at an Event
I didn't realize how important this was to me until earlier this year. I spoke at a corporate event, and I came in, did my presentation, and left. That was the organizer's choice; if it were up to me, I would have loved to hang around for lunch (which was right after my presentation) to have a chance to speak to the attendees. I didn't realize how much I missed that interaction until I was back at my car. Something just felt really incomplete.

Being Present
My intention is to be present at every event that I speak at:
  • I will be onsite for the duration of the event. 
  • I will make myself as available as possible. 
  • Even if I need to get work done in the speaker room, I will be out in the hallways during session breaks.
  • This also means that I will be available at the noisy, crowded receptions that clash with my introvert nature (although I reserve the right to find a small group of people to go have coffee with in a quieter location).

Tough Decisions
This means that I will have to make some tough choices. But I'm okay with that.

Missing Events
This past year, I missed the So Cal Code Camp in Los Angeles. The event was on a Saturday & Sunday, and I was flying to another event on Sunday morning. I thought about attending part of the event (just on Saturday). But I decided against it.

It was a tough decision. But I knew that if I went, I wouldn't really be "present". I would be thinking about my travel plans and packing and the next event. I could have "given my presentations and left", but that's not the impression I want to leave with people.

I wish I could have gone to the event, but I don't regret my decision.

Reduced Opportunities
One thing that helped me get some perspective was a tweet sent out by Cory House (@housecor) earlier this year. It's an article from 2009 from Derek Sivers, but it's still very relevant: No more yes. It's either HELL YEAH! or no.

After reading this article, I did start to change my behavior. Since I've started speaking, I've been trying to expand my reach (meaning, speaking at larger events in different parts of the country/world). Part of my strategy was to take the shotgun approach: send in proposals to as many conferences as I can and speak at any opportunity that comes up.

But I've since focused my approach:
Rather than applying to "any conference that will take me", I've narrowed it down to "conferences that I want to attend".
This makes things a bit harder. If you get rejected from a conference you really didn't want to go to, then it's not a big deal. But if you get rejected from a conference you really wanted to attend, then it's a heavy blow. But ultimately, this is better for me, and it's better for my potential audience.

Fewer Events
This also means that I may be at fewer events. Multi-day or week-long conferences take up more time and effort, so I may end up doing fewer of them. But at the same time, this gives me an opportunity to focus on the people who will get the most out of my presentations. So I'm looking for an overall positive outcome.

Awesome Experiences
In 2015, I had some really awesome experiences. Fortunately, every event I had a chance to go to was something I was excited about. And I did turn down an opportunity to speak that wasn't as exciting (turning down a speaking opportunity was something new to me).

Everything that I have on my calendar for this year is something I'm excited about. This month, I'm going to CodeMash. This is a conference that I've heard great things about, and I've wanted to go for several years. (It's hard to believe that it's next week.) And the week after, I'm headed to NDC in London. Again, NDC is a conference that I've heard really good things about, and I'm excited about getting the opportunity to speak and attend.

A Great Year of Being Present
I'm really looking forward to this year. There are a lot of events that I'm excited about. I won't get into all of them (and that will be a big disappointment). But for the events I do attend, I will be present -- available to talk to as many people as possible.

This isn't really a change in my behavior, just an intentional focus. It's always good to review what we've been doing, figure out where we want our priorities, and adjust as necessary.

Happy Coding!

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