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Conference Speaking Isn’t Good for Your Career Until You Make it Good

I like watching developer talks, live and recorded.  For my money (or free, depending on the venue), it doesn’t get any better than listening to Bob Martin work his way into a talk on software design by talking first about astronomy.  He and so many other speakers are engaging, charismatic, and informative.

So we strive to be like them.  We should put our names out there, give talks, and build our brand.

The Benefits of Conference Speaking

“Build our brand” is a little wishy-washy, though, so let’s get specific.  How does speaking at conferences help you?  I have my own opinion on this, but I went out in search of others’ to see.  In broad strokes, here are some specific things that I saw.

  • Make yourself better at public speaking.  It’s like Toastmasters, but in your domain.
  • Speaking at conferences means attending conferences, and that helps you “network.”
  • Give back.  Do your part in advancement of the general cause of programming knowledge.
  • Teaching something is a great way to learn, so speaking at conferences forces you to up your game and improve your chops.

I found some blog posts on the subject offering specifics.  Scott Davis says, “the knowledge that I’ve gained from teaching workshops has been invaluable and I don’t believe that I would have been as successful with out it.”  Heidi Waterhouse says, among other things, “I also do it because I want to show up and be technical and expert and pink-haired in the world.”

That last statement, in particular, I think summarizes up the common speaker experience in the development world (though Heidi, herself, is apparently not a software developer, per se.)  Public speaking on a topic helps you acquire a lot of skills associated with speaking publicly about that topic.  And it helps you “show up in the world.”

What’s less clear is how, exactly, that benefits you in your career.

Getting Specific about Your Career and the Benefits

Now let me say something up front.  If you’re speaking at conferences for the love of the game or to generally become a better rounded person, then what I’m telling in the rest of the post will either be passive food for thought or else not entirely applicable.  For the rest of this post, I’m addressing people who are speaking at conferences to help their careers, with the idea of offering advice on how to make it help your career much more efficiently.

When listening to people tout the career benefits of conference speaking for software developers, it generally takes on this iconic form.

  1. Speak at conferences.
  2. ….
  3. Profit!

I mean, it doesn’t actually go that way.  People don’t actually say, verbatim, “you should speak at conferences and then stuff happens and then your career takes off!”  Instead, they just say that speaking at conferences is good for your career.

How so?  Well, it “builds your brand.”  Okay.  And what does “building your brand” do for you as a senior software engineer or a freelance app dev pro?  Ah, well, it’s about marketing yourself!  Better job opportunities.  Advancement.  You know, … profit!

But let’s look at what, exactly, we’re saying will arise out of conference speaking.  And also what, exactly, people put into it.

Preparing Talks is SERIOUS Work

Most of the content I create comes to you in written form or else on Youtube or Pluralsight.  I do the occasional talk, both in public venues and for pay as a consultant inside of companies.  But I’m admittedly not a conference speaking circuit regular and thus probably not optimized and proficient in economical talk preparation.

From what I recall, the last few talks I’ve prepared probably took something like 20-40 hours of my life.  Let’s call it 40 so that we can put the opportunity cost into perspective.  Here’s what might happen in 40 hours of time that you spend on that, instead of something else.

  • A typical, 100K per year software developer would earn $2,000 in salary.
  • That same developer, moonlighting could earn $4,000.
  • Someone with a well established consulting practice could earn $8,000.
  • I personally could write 20-40 DaedTech posts and probably about 20% of a book.
  • One could probably make a Pluralsight course and earn thousands.

So let’s be clear about something.  Conference talking is a loss leader vis a vis your career.  Instead of doing something profitable, you’re deferring financial gain now in the hopes of a bigger future payday.  That can be a solid strategy, depending on investment and return.  But it can also represent a form of carnival cash if you don’t bother to pay attention to and quantify investment and return.

Let’s say for reference sake that speaking at a conference costs you $4,000.  How do people recoup that?  Do people recoup that?

The Senior Software Engineer Conference Speaker and Job Prospects

Let’s say that your’re a workaday senior software engineer, contemplating giving your career a boost via the conference circuit.  How does that $4,000 make its way back to you?

Probably not like this.

You: I see that this job offer is for $105,000 per year.  Perhaps you didn’t notice, but I’ve given three talks recently on topics related to responsive client-side development technologies.

Hiring authority:  Oh, our mistake!  Let’s just get you a new offer letter for $117,000 per year!

In fact, speaking at conferences probably gives you almost zero salary negotiation leverage.  True, it adds a nice impressive bullet point to your resume, but so do other things.

  • Leading lunch and learns.
  • Receiving recognition for excellence in 1 on 1 mentoring.
  • Writing a technical book or producing a Pluralsight course.
  • Delivering a feature ahead of schedule.

And, none of these have the $4,000 opportunity cost because someone pays you to do all of them.  So, really, the career benefit has little to do with the hiring process.  No matter how many of these impressive things appear on your resume, you still start with a phone screen like everybody else.  And your employer isn’t going to randomly give you more money for giving talks.

For job prospects, the real savings comes from the “network” effect.  Speaking to your peers makes them remember you and might make some of them follow you.  So when you announce you’re looking for work, you’ll get more and better leads for interviews than you would without this network.

Is that valuable and time saving?  Sure, probably.  $4,000 worth?  Probably not.

The Hiring and Interview Factor

So far, speaking makes the top of your job seeking funnel somewhat wider and also perhaps better qualified.  You don’t have to filter through the recruiter babble as much since peers of yours that value your talks might pitch you on their companies.

But what about the hiring process?  How does that go?

Well, that’s really going to be a mixed bag.  As a hypothetical manager, here’s how I look at an applicant with a conference speaking history.

Pros:

  • Probably pretty good with people.
  • An effective presenter and communicator.
  • Probably good with mentoring.

Notice that I don’t mention tech chops as a pro.  I would, but remember that I have an entire interview process for evaluating this, and I’m going to trust that more than a line item on your resume.  I remember a client dev manager once told me about hiring someone who had written a book.  “It turns out he was really good at explaining software development, but not so good at doing it.”

Cons

  • Speaking at conferences smells like someone looking to job hop or go free agent.
  • This is a time consuming hobby that means you’re focusing on something other than working for me.
  • I worry you might not play nice with my existing folks, especially the expert beginners.

So in the end, when it comes to generalist app dev work, speaking probably makes it easier for you to get leads.  But it probably doesn’t matter very much in terms of negotiating better pay or getting more offers.

What about Other Jobs?

Okay, so if speaking isn’t going to provide much tangible help with getting jobs as a senior software engineer, where might it help?  Dev manager?  Architect?  Tech lead?  Nope, nope, and nope.

But all is not lost.  It probably will help you with roles like these.

Why?

Well, because roles like those ask you to do for money what you do for free at conferences.  Those roles ask you to teach people, to showcase technologies in the best light, to simplify things for others, and to demonstrate value more than just to execute.

In short, these are all roles with significant marketing components.

Conference Speaking is Marketing.  No, I Mean Real, Actual Marketing

The idea of conference speaking as marketing may not surprise you.  After all the wisdom about conference speaking is “you need to brand and market yourself.”  But, unfortunately, that advice comes with tragically little perspective on what marketing really is.  Let’s look at sentence one:

Marketing is the process of teaching consumers why they should choose your product or service over your competitors.

“That’s stupid,” you’re thinking.  “I don’t have a product, service or competitors.”

Yes, I know.  And that’s precisely the source of the disconnect.  You’re taking the advice to market yourself, but without really thinking through what you offer, to whom, and with whom you compete.  In a sense, you might as well dress up like a rooster and stand on a busy street corner with a spinning sign that says “I has teh codez!”

That is also marketing.  But it’s also probably not a high leverage play for helping you make money, unless a CIO wanders by and says “that’s just the sort of plucky quirkster we need in our app dev group to liven things up — I’m going to draft an offer letter!”

Understanding Yourself as a Product or Service

If you’re a software developer, you do have a product or service: generalist app dev.  You also have a price point: about $100K per year or, call it $200K per W2 relationship on average.  How about competitors?  Yep, all other generalist software developers.  And, finally, you do have a customer: a director or dev manager.

So with that in mind, let’s consider your marketing efforts at a conference.

  1. You speak at an event that none of your customers will attend.
  2. Then, you teach your competitors to do something.
  3. Finally, you hope that enough of your competitors are impressed enough to follow you, talk about you, and eventually recommend you to your prospective customers, who will then put you through a lengthy evaluation process (interviews).

Let’s re-imagine if Apple or Samsung behaved this way.

  1. A Samsung engineer attends an Apple event.
  2. That engineer teaches the Apple folks some cool tricks for making phones.
  3. Finally, the Samsung engineer hopes that the Apple folks will tell Apple customers how awesome Samsung is.

Is this a completely accurate parallel?  No, because there are far more providers of app dev labor than cell phones.  But it is my hope that the parallel will, nonetheless, jolt you into a different way of reasoning about this stuff.

The Core Problem with Conference Speaking for App Dev Prospecting

In the scenario I painted above, there’s one main problem that outshines the rest of them.  Specifically, you’re spending a lot of time showcasing your value proposition in a venue that your customers/buyers ignore.  As software developers, we uniquely love impressing our peers instead of speaking to our buyers (and I understand that myself — as I’ve said, showcasing knowledge and helping people are rewarding).

Remember how earlier I said that trainers, evangelists and coaches would do disproportionately well speaking at conferences?  Why is that?  Well, simply put, developer conferences will attract buyers of these services, but not buyers of commodity, generalist app dev.  Anyone wanting to hire a developer evangelist will probably want to evaluate how that person plays to a room, in a way that’s hard to simulate in the conference room when interviewing.

So unless you’ve got buyers in the audience, you’re in a sense marketing to an empty room.  Could the effort bear fruit via word of mouth, weeks or months later?  Sure, anything’s possible.  But, as they say, hope isn’t a strategy.

You Need a Marketing Pipeline or Funnel

So how do you form a strategy?  How do you, as I advertised in the beginning, make conference speaking good for your career?  How do you make it less inefficient as a marketing tool?

Well, to do that, you have to trace a direct path from your talk to some actual, valuable outcome.  And that outcome has to be tangible and measurable.  It can’t be “raise my profile” or “build my brand.”  You have to work out what effect your talk will create, and how that effect will translate into some other effect, and so on down the line to profit.

And laying out this strategy will probably reveal that there are other things you ought to consider doing before just deciding you want to speak at conferences.

A Hypothetical Example of Using Conference Speaking to Your Benefit

Let’s look at how you might really reap some significant benefit from talking at conferences.  Say that you work as a software developer and, at a few companies now, you’ve helped your teams by setting up some pretty sophisticated CI automation.  In a sense, you’ve become an expert in efficient CI.  Maybe you don’t have any designs on going off on your own just yet (and specializing in this CI service delivery), but you’d like to leave the door open.

Here’s a sequence of activities that could tee things up pretty well for you.

  1. Put together a website with a blog, and make your blog’s mission about helping people reap the benefits of CI.
  2. Write a bunch of posts for the blog, and then polish and re-appropriate some of their content into a self-published book on the topic.
  3. Put together a detailed landing page about how to sell your boss on this stuff, and then give it a simple URL like yoursite/convinceyourboss
  4. Now, start answering CFPs for conferences and talk about your CI stuff when you speak, mentioning your landing page at the end.

Why is this preferable, and how do you benefit?  You have a clear sequence of calls to action, working buyers through your marketing funnel.

  1. People watch your talk, and they like it!  Good news, 20% of them bookmark your URL to check out.
  2. Of those 20%, another 10% are impressed by it and actually do show their bosses, while a somewhat intersecting set of 10% buy your book.  That’s actual revenue!
  3. For each conference, a handful of bosses call you up to talk about your service offerings.

Set an Actual, Tangible Goal for Your Speaking Efforts and Measure Them

Now, giving a talk has real, quantifiable benefits for you.  You can see how many book sales and leads each talk generates and tune accordingly.  And you can let these leads materialize into moonlighting opportunities and then let the success of that help you decide whether or not to pull the trigger on efficiencer nirvana.

Of course, you might not have a goal of leaving the world of app dev generalist for free agent status.  And that’s fine.  But if that’s the case, speaking at conferences, which is marketing for a significant cross section of your contemporaries, will probably be a hobby activity for you.  Will it help you acquire new skills?  Absolutely.  Will it help you meet new people?  Most definitely.  But will it help you market yourself to an absent buyer that hides behind a complex job interview process?  Nope.

So I’ll close with a generalized bit of wisdom.  If you want to improve the way that speaking improves your career prospects, then approach it in data-driven fashion.  Set a tangible goal for your speaking.  Something like new social media followers acquired, hits to a landing page, downloads of an app — something.  Trace that goal back to some measure of quantifiable economic success for your career, and then measure your progress against it.

Doing things that you think might help your career is certainly good.  But doing things that you know help it because you measure them is better.

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5 Comments on "Conference Speaking Isn’t Good for Your Career Until You Make it Good"

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Jose Gonzalez
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Hey Erik, I don’t know where to start other than by saying thank you! This year I started speaking at my local user group. You know, drink the “building your brand” kool-aid. I was hoping to get better job leads and skip the whole interview process (a man can dream!). I spent a good amount of my time (I didn’t track it) on doing a JavaScript presentation. Why? I wanted a JavaScript job (because everyone is doing it). It was a lot of hard work and sacrifice. The presentation itself went great and learned tons along the way. Here’s the… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest

Hey, thanks for the feedback! I’m sorry that you had to learn this stuff the hard way. But, if it’s any consolation, a lot of the cautionary sorts of tales I write about on the blog these days come from doing inefficient things myself, and learning the hard way. My hope is to help other people the way it would help a younger me from 10 years ago if I could go talk to him.

Anyway, glad you’re squared away with a new gig and looking at a more deliberate approach.

Olivier
Guest
Hi Erik, There are conferences and conferences. For instance there are the local user group meetings in your hometown and then there are the big conferences on some other continent that you have to fly to. I think your words of caution are spot on for the latter kind but networking through the local UGs and thus meeting people who you can easily keep up with in person between events can still be very useful for one purpose: finding co-founders. I am not personally very entrepreneurial but reading capsule entrepreneur bios I couldn’t help noticing how 1. almost nobody starts… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest

Wouldn’t that make a much stronger case for attending such events than for going through the effort of speaking at them?

Olivier
Guest

I don’t know… What better way to get noticed by all present and break the ice, so to speak, than to stand before them at the podium? Networking with other attendees one by one would take a lot longer.

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