Friday, January 16, 2015

RailsConf hangout with Sarah Mei

The conference proposal process is a bit of a mystery to most of us. What makes a good topic? How do people get picked? So when Sarah Mei offered to do a hangout, I asked her if she'd like to do one for Technically Speaking. And she did!

This is the first time we hosted a public hangout, and we had no idea how many people would come. We ended up hitting the hangout limit so a lot of folks were turned away. So sorry! The saving grace is that I took notes.

Q & A

(A = Answer from Sarah)

Q: What is your favorite talk from last year?
A: Sandi Metz gave an extremely technical talk. Usually it was very hard to keep the audience's attention to a wall of code, but Sandi pulled it off beautifully. There was another talk on the growing talent track that was interesting as well.

Q: Something I struggle with is how short the abstract is! What are the main suggestions for creating a compelling abstract when you have so few characters?
A: Phrase it from the point of the view of the audience. Instead of tell them what you did, think about what they can learn.

Q: How do you advise to find topics to talk about? Finding the inspiration in everyday work is hard.
A: Whenever I encounter something interesting, I jot it down on an index card. Not all of the ideas will turn into talks, but over time themes will emerge. Another great thing to do is to look at the schedule for previous RailsConf, RubyConf and other conferences.

Q: Can you advise anything regarding finding topics to people relatively new to Ruby/Rails?
A: One interesting topic will be, how to integrate junior devs into the team? How to bring them up to speed?

Q: My level of expertise tends to come from soft skills and I worry about the interest and appropriateness of that as a topic. Any guidelines on what you should or shouldn't use as a talk topic?
A: RailsConf 2015 has a culture track and soft skills is definitely appropriate.

Q: Why do you think it's important to speak? Can you say anything specific about how speaking affects your career or your work?
A: After I took a year off on maternity leave, I had difficulty getting back to the work place. Then I went to a conference, looked at the speakers and thought, these people don't have problem getting jobs. Put it another way, there are two ways to get job security: Work at a big company, or be internet famous. So speaking at conferences is how I provide for my family.

Q: I'm scared to do a more technical talk because I'm more comfortable with soft skills but did a talk last year at a conference about mentorship and don't want to get pigeon-holed as a soft-skill speaker. I'm toying with two ideas... one softer and one more technical. I have more expertise in the soft skills one, but feel like I should push myself to do something technical. Any opinions on that?
A: I used to be scared to give a technical talk, because of the questions at the end. But then I realized that nobody said I had to take questions on stage! Now I take up all the time for my talk, and ask people to come find me afterwards if they want to discuss more.

Other comments

Other people chimed in as well:

I think the trick for technical talks is to lower your expectations for yourself. A mistake a lot of new people make is to assume they need to know everything about the topic to speak on it. If you've just learned it your insight is often more valuable to your audience, as they're likely very new to your topic as well.

Totally. The best teacher is someone who is slightly ahead of you, coz they remember the pain points.


Our first hangout was jam-packed with information, and we want to host more! What would you like to discuss?


Inline coding questions will not be answsered. Instead, ask on StackOverflow and put the link in the comment.

  1. I'd like to discuss the fear and anxiety some women have for putting themselves out there on the internet more, with strong opinions. I want to encourage other women I know to give talks and get the recognition they deserve, but their fears aren't unfounded, and I'm not sure what to say to that at all.

    1. Great topic! We're working on that as the theme for our next hangout. Thanks!