Parseltongue: Tips for Speaking at Python Conferences

Harry Potter, boy wizard, has an innate ability to communicate with snakes–to speak Parseltongue. At first he isn’t aware that it is a special skill–he isn’t even aware that he can do it! But he figures it out and at a few points in JK Rowling’s stories, Harry uses this ability to achieve his goals.

I have good news and bad news. Good news is that you almost certainly can talk to snakes, or at least Pythonistas! Also good news–you can use this skills to achieve your goals! Speaking at a tech conference is a great way to expand your network, add to your resume, and build professional skills.

The bad news is that it most likely won’t be something that you can do naturally, right away. However, with some planning and effort, speaking at your first Python conference is an achievable goal and probably more useful in the Muggle World than speaking Parseltongue.

 

parselfingers
Light Roast Comics

I am going to share some of the things I learned from speaking at four Python-centric conferences in 2018 and getting acceptances at two Python-centric conferences already for 2019. Most of these thoughts will also be relevant for tech conference speaking in general.

This first post will cover how to get accepted as a speaker. An additional post will be coming within a month that will cover how to prepare and deliver your talk.

How Does this Work?

There are hundreds of tech conferences around the world and conference organizers are looking for content! Every event can be a little different, but in general, conference organizers will invite a few speakers that they know will have an interesting story or something important to say to their audience, but they will also have a number of speaking slots that they fill based on a “call for proposals” (cfp).

The organizers will advertise and spread the word about their cfp. They want people to apply, you just need to keep your ears up in the right places to hear about these opportunities.

When you hear about a conference that you are interested in, you will need to submit a proposal. Typically this happens through their website or a third party site specifically for cfps. When the cfp period closes, the organizers will review the proposals (oftentimes the first round is anonymous) and craft a schedule to suit their audience. They will send out acceptances first, then fill any empty slots in the schedule that might occur when people turn down slots. When the schedule is reasonable finalized, organizers send out rejections and announce the schedule to the public. (This process can vary a little, sometimes there are rolling acceptances, sometimes organizers will name alternates, etc).

Where can I hear about CFPs?
Here are a few options.

www.papercall.io
CallBackWomen
Mozilla Tech CFPs

Why Python?

OK, so the above applies to tech conferences in general, but why should someone consider applying to speak at Python conferences in particular?

There are LOTS of Opportunities

Pythonistas are all over the globe and their conferences are as well. There are events that range from fairly local, single track conferences that have a few dozen people to international, week long, multitrack conferences with thousands of Python users. When you want to try conference speaking, you don’t need to jump in to a very large conference right away. Many people get their start at a smaller conference, and if they like it shoot for speaking at a larger conference the next year.

You can find Python events here and here. Ocsasionally check back for updates!

Python is a Good First Language

You may have hear that Python is a good first language. It is very readable and it is comparatively easy to get something running. I think that this quality of the language is important when you consider python conference speaking. There are all sorts of Pythonistas, those who just got up and running last week to people who have been working in the industry and/or contributing to open source for decades.

A Python conference is going to want to appeal to the community. This means that organizers are going to craft their schedules so there is something to everyone! If you are nervous about speaking, just know that you don’t have to select the most technical topic.

Writing and delivering a talk in the context of a Python conference does not mean that you need to be an expert. You just have to have a handle on your subject and for your subject to be useful to some part of the community.

Python is Used for Awesome Things!

In addition to Python being used by developers of diverse experience levels, Python is used to build a bunch of interesting things. This means that talks on all sorts of topics are relevant for Python conferences. Data Science? Yes! Bio-informatics? Yes! Academic research? Yes! Web development! Education! Science! Art! Machine learning!

If you are using Python to do something interesting, even if it seems niche, you can share that with the community. We like variety and there are lots of smaller communities within the general Python community. You will find your people. This quality is part of what makes Python conferences fun.

Inclusion

In my experience, Python conferences are good at finding a diverse crowd of speakers. Obviously, it isn’t perfect but I appreciate a few things that many of the conferences do to help encourage diversity on their lineup.

  1. Anonymized CFP review. Most (all?) of the Python conferences that I spoke at this year had at least one round of CFP review be anonymized. Sometimes unblinding happens only at the very end to be sure that the resulting speaker line up is balanced.
  2. Codes of conduct. A code of conduct is an explanation of the agreed upon behavior to which all organizers, speakers, volunteers, and attendees must adhere. If someone acts in a way contrary to the code, there should be methods in place to rectify the situation–usually a code of conduct phone number to call or making sure attendees can identify staff to report the problem. Codes of conduct (when well written and enforced) can go a long way in ensuring the safety and experience of all attendees, and actively work against systemic problems. There is room to grow, but the Python community takes Codes of Conduct seriously, and they help make Python conferences nice places to speak.

Picking Topics

So now you know how to hear about open CFPs and why you might like to speak at a Python conference. You still need to decide on a topic for your proposal. This can be an intimidating step, but there are a few things that you can do to make it more approachable.

Brainstorm

Grab a pen and notepad and set aside a half hour. Then write down every talk topic that occurs to you. No editing! There are no bad ideas at this stage. Topics can range from a problem you recently solved, to a tool that you are excited about, to team dynamics, how to hire people, and much more.

Once the half hour is up, put down your pen and go do something else. Return to the list the next day and evaluate all the topics, making notes or writing down questions you may have about any of the topics.

Pick 2-3 topics that you really like for further development.

Write the Talk YOU Would Want to Hear

When you are a conference speaker, you are also a conference attendee. You are the kind of person (whatever your current role in tech) that organizers want to reach. When you pick your topics, I recommend selecting the talks you would want to hear. The proposal will be easier to write, the talk will be easier to put together, and you will be a more engaging speaker. Win, win, win.

Crafting Your Proposals

Now that you have your topics, it is time to craft your proposals.

Things to Keep in Mind

  1. Most conferences will let you submit more than one proposal. If you really want to speak and have the time to do so, submit multiple ideas. In my experience, it greatly increases your chances.
  2. You can submit the same topic to multiple conferences. You don’t need to have a fresh topic every time.

Read the Problem Statement

Conferences should have a page of information on their website or on something like papercall.io that describes what they are looking for in a proposal. That page may describe conference ‘tracks’ (a group of talks with a similar theme or purpose) that they are putting together. You increase your likelihood of acceptance if your talk fits well into one of these tracks.

They might want to know how much time you intend to spend on each point. They may want to know if you have ever given a talk before. They may need to know if you need any additional a/v equipment. If they have a direct ask, be sure that you include an answer. That way, the reviewers can select your talk without worry!

Read the instructions, follow them, and increase your chances.

Detailed Outline

Most conferences will want a detailed outline of your proposed talk. (There might be other things they ask for like a description or an abstract, but the outline will be the majority of the work).

Create an outline of your talk, focusing on the big pieces first, and then adding supporting details after you have an understanding of the general direction of the talk. Be sure to give reviewers an idea of how your talk will benefit the listeners. You aren’t writing an essay, but the outline should be detailed enough that you probably could.

Put yourself in the shoes of a reviewer. They want to have a great conference! A well detailed submission, with a well developed outline, shows the reviewer that you have put a lot of thought into your talk. This tells them that you would likely do the same if included in the program. You are selling the idea of your talk, but also your preparedness and desire to give the talk.

Use the Resources Available to You

Finally, I encourage you to use the resources available to you. Conference organizers want you to do well. Your success is their success.

Resources available to you may include:

  1. A proposal mentor. Sometimes this is organized officially by the conference–watch their twitter! Other times it can be less formal. Sometimes experienced speakers will offer help, especially to underrepresented people. Again, watch twitter for opportunities like this.
  2. Sometimes submitting early means organizers will have the chance to reach out to you with questions or concerns. Depending on your answers and changes this can be the difference between acceptances or rejections.
  3. Occasionally community groups will offer workshops for writing proposals. I went to such an event last year, and it helped a lot! Here is an example of such an event.

The End?

Well, of course not. If you weren’t accepted, I encourage you to resubmit to another conference. Events can be very competitive–a rejection doesn’t mean that your idea is bad or that it won’t be accepted elsewhere.

If you were accepted, this is just the beginning. Now you have to write and deliver your talk! This also doesn’t need to be scary, and I will be publishing another post soon addressing these issues.

I hope this was helpful. If you have any questions, feel free to send me a tweet www.twitter.com/hayleydenb

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