Saturday, 16 June 2012

Talks vary, especially mine

This week I had the opportunity to go to a couple of gatherings and deliver two python related talks. The first was at our local Django Bath and Bristol Users Group (#DBBUG). The second was at the Google Apps for EDU European User Group (GEUG12).

I don't do a talk that often, maybe 5 or 6 times a year, and I guess share some of the traits of the stereotyped geek that I am not a natural extrovert who wants to be up on stage. But at the same time, there is a bit of an adrenalin rush and subsequent good feeling (maybe just relief its over!) if a talk seems to go OK.

The first talk went well, although perhaps that was just from my perspective, having consumed a generous quantity of the free beer before hand, provided by the hosters, Potato . It was good to see a lot of new faces at the meeting, and hear about interesting projects from other speakers.
My talk was hardly rocket science, instead just a little session on the basics of python packaging and why its a good thing to do it. But it seemed to me it was pitched at about the right technical level for the newbies to get something from it, and the more experienced to contribute comments. It was paced about right and I pretty much followed the thread of the slides ie. from 'what is an egg' to C.I. and local PyPi, without slavishly reading out from them. The atmosphere was relaxed and people seemed interested. All in all a good session.

The second talk unfortunately did not go well, even though I spent more time preparing it - it even triggered me into upgrading my personal App Engine site (see previous blog posting) - which as described took a good few hours in itself - to make sure my App Engine knowledge was up to date. So what went wrong. Well maybe with the previous talk going well with little preparation and no rehearsal - I had started to get a bit blase. Hey look at me, I can fire off a talk no problem, don't worry about it. However to some extent the quality of any talk depends as much on the audience as the speaker - its an interactive process - and for a few reasons, I didn't feel that I had established that communication - and it threw me, I guess, to the point where I was really stumbling along at the end.

So I thought I would try and analyse some of the reasons, to try to avoid it happening again. These are all common sense and probably in any guide to public speaking - but I thought its worth writing it down - even if its only for my benefit!

The core reason was that I assumed that there was a disconnect between the audience, and what I was talking about. So I wasn't preaching the gospel to the humanist society - or zope at a django conference ;-) I was talking about how you can use App Engine as a CMS, to a group of University educational technology staff - managers, learning support and some developers.

So first mistake was that I had adapted a talk that I had delivered to a group of developers a year before. It had gone well before because the audience, like me, were not interested in using the tools - they were interested in building the tools, how these tools could be used to build others - and what implications that had for how we should approach building tools in the future.

Lesson 1: Try to get an idea of  your audience's background - then write the talk tailored for them from scratch (even if its a previous talk - unless you know the audience profile hasn't changed). Also if a previous demo and talk with questions had been an hour - and now it has to be done in 20 minutes - rewrite it - or at least delete half the slides - but don't expect to talk three times faster!

Lesson 2: If you do feel that you might of pitched a talk at the wrong technical level - and there is no time to rewrite or rethink it, its probably best to just deliver it as it stands. Moderating all the slides with 'sorry too techie' and rephrasing things in layman's terms on the fly - is probably going to be less coherent, and lose the thread of the talk anyhow - unless you are a well experienced teacher.

My first slide was entitled APIs in transition - hmmm that was a mistake, a few people immediately left the room.

Lesson 3: The most interesting initial thing to me coming back to my site, were all the changes that had occurred with the platform. However if you haven't used it before that is irrelevant. So remember don't focus on what you last found interesting about the topic - focus on the general picture for somebody new to it.

Lesson 4: Don't start a talk with the backend technology issues. Start it with an overview of the purpose of the technology and ideally a demo or slide of it in use. However backend your topic, its always best to start with an idea of it from the end user perspective - even when talking to a room full of developers.

When I got to the demo part I skipped it due to feeling time pressure - actually however this would of been best acting as the main initial element of the talk, with all the technical slides skipped and just referred to for those interested. Finishing with the wider implications regarding sites based around mash-ups, driven by a common integration framework. So ditching most of the technical details.

Lesson 5: Don't be scared to reorganise things at the last minute, before starting (see Lesson 2) - if that reorganisation is viable, eg. in terms of pruning and sequence.

There was a minor organisational issue in that I started 5 minutes before I was due to end a 20 minute talk, with no clock to keep track. So there was a feeling of having over run almost from the start, combine that with people leaving or even worse people staying but staring at you with a blank, 'You are really boring' look!

Lesson 6: Check what time you are really expected to end before you start and get your pace right based on this. Keep looking around the audience and try to just find a least some people who look vaguely interested! - ignore the rest - it is unlikely you can ever carry the whole audience's interest - unless you are a speaker god - but you need to feel you have established some communication with at least some members of it - to keep your thread going.

OK well I could go on about a number of other failings ... but hey, I have spent longer writing about it than I did delivering it. So that will do, improve by learning from my mistakes, and move on.

User groups vary too

As a footnote another difference was the nature of the two user groups.

The DBBUG group was established and is entirely organised by its members, like minded open source developers, who take turns organising the meetings, etc. Its really just an excuse for techies to go to the pub together on a regular basis - and not necessarily always chat about techie stuff. Its open to anyone and completely informal.

GEUG is also largely organised by its members taking turns, but was originally established by Google's  HE division for Europe and has a lot of input from their team, it requires attendees to be members of customer institutions. So essentially its a customer group and has much more of that feel. Members attend as a part of their job. Google's purpose is to use it to expand its uptake in HE - by generating a self supporting community that promotes the use of its products, and trials innovative use cases. To some extent feeding back into product development. With a keynote by Google and all other talks by the community members. Lots of coloured cubes, pens, sports jackets - and a perhaps, slightly rehearsed, informality. But interestingly quite open to talks that perhaps didn't praise their products or demonstrated questionable use cases, regarding the usual bugbear of data protection. Something that is a real sore spot within Europe apparently - the main blocker to cloud adoption in HE.

Having once attended a Microsoft user group event in Dublin at the end of the 90s, I would say that this was a long way removed from that. The Microsoft event was strictly controlled, no community speakers, nothing but full sales engineer style talks about 'faultless' products, there was no discussion  of flaws or even of approaches that could generate technical criticisms. Everybody wore suits - maybe that is just the way software sales were way back when Microsoft dominated the browser and desktop.

Where as now community is where it is at. Obviously GEUG felt slightly less genuinely community after DBBUG, but I would praise Google that they are significantly less controlling over shaping a faultless technical suited business face to HE, than some of their competitors. Unfortunately for them non-technical managers with their hands on the purse strings tend to be largely persuaded by the surface froth of suits and traditional commercial software sales - disguise flaws, rather than allow discussion of whether and how they may be addressed.

In essence the Google persona that is carefully crafted to sit more towards an open source one, but as a result may suffer from the same distrust that traditional non-technical clients have for open source over commercial systems. Having said that they are not doing too badly ... dominating cloud use in US HE. Maybe Europe HE is just a tougher old nut to crack.

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