If you’ve never done it before, you might be daunted by the idea of giving a conference talk. You know: the work involved, the butterflies, how to make it a good talk and not a boring one, the people who might judge you... And perhaps the hardest bit: choosing a topic others will find interesting.
[Updated for 2023]: For the 2nd year in a row, I'm the co-chair of a free and virtual developer conference called Citus Con: An Event for Postgres. Wearing my talk selection team hat, as I reached out to spread the word about the CFP for Citus Con, people would sometimes ask:
Why give a talk at a Postgres conference?
This post will walk you through the ways you, your team, your project—and especially the Postgres community—can benefit from a talk you give.
But what if this is your first conference talk? Or your first talk at a Postgres event? Or your first talk at a Microsoft-organized event?
Many talk selection committees—this is true for PostgreSQL CFPs (including Citus Con) and also loads of Python events—welcome, I mean they truly welcome, new speakers and new perspectives. So please don’t feel like what you have to say might not be interesting or good enough! It almost certainly is more than good enough, especially if you focus on giving your audience something useful that will help them do their jobs.
If you’re a first time speaker and deciding whether to submit to a CFP, I recommend you read this post by Julia Evans: You should give talks. They will be awesome. Here’s why!
Everyone gets rejected sometimes: When you submit into CFPs (Call for Proposals = Call for Papers, also sometimes called CfS = Call for Speakers) please know that even the most experienced speakers get rejected sometimes. Most conference speakers submit into many more CFPs than they get accepted into. So please don’t be discouraged!
Give the talk selection team background info about your skills: Even if you’ve never spoken at a conference, you may have given talks inside your team or even at university. Share that background with the talk selection team (aka program committee) as part of your CFP submission. Let them know what adjacent skills you have that you believe will make your conference talk a good one!
Sharing your knowledge and learnings about Postgres—or Postgres extensions like the Citus database extension—is a useful way to give back to the community. Your talk can help other teams & projects learn from your successes (and mistakes) with Postgres.
There are so many different types of Postgres talks, about things like:
Whether your talk falls into one of the buckets above or some other bucket, by sharing your hard-won learnings you are making the Postgres ecosystem stronger.
I like how Peter van Hardenberg calls Postgres “the people’s database” in his illustrated history of PostgreSQL. And “people’s database” rings true. After all, it’s a community of people who donate the “fuel” for the Postgres flywheel, it’s people who drive innovation, raise awareness, educate, and perhaps most importantly who welcome newcomers of all shapes and stripes. And since Postgres is not created nor owned by a single company, well, it’s up to all of us to populate the ecosystem with useful training materials—like your conference talk.
One nice side-effect of un-gated virtual events is the video is freely shared online, making your talk available around the planet1. Net net: your talk helps even more teams than those in the room at an in-person event. Often, the number of lifetime views you get on YouTube can easily be 2X or 3X or even 10X the number of people in the room at an in-person conference.
And if your skill set / interests are such that the most generous way for you to give back to the community is in ways beyond code, giving a conference talk is way #3 in this talk I gave at FOSDEM 2020 about Fibonacci spirals and ways to contribute to Postgres.
What might be “old hat” to you can be an eye-opening “wow I never thought of it that way” experience for your audience.
I was inspired the first time I heard Paul Ramsey talk about PostGIS in his Put some where in your WHERE clause keynote at PGConfEU. And Miroslav Šedivý’s talk about timezones changed the way I think about timezones: A Day Has Only 24±1 Hours.
If your talk is about something you would want new hires on your team to learn about—and if the talk is captured on video, then you’ve effectively created a learning module that future new hires can learn from. Just like many people write blog posts so they don’t have to keep answering the same question over and over again, a video of your talk will save future-you from having to walk through the same set of learnings over and over again.
Even if your talk is not recorded on video, sometimes your slides can be a useful learning tool instead. If it’s a good presentation, you might want to archive your slide decks on speakerdeck or slideshare, to make them available for folks inside and outside of our team.
Whenever I’m giving a talk at an in-person conference that is not being recorded, I usually ask a friend in the audience to write down all the questions. Feedback is gold. And with a virtual event, often there is a chat room where people can ask questions too. These questions can give your project insights/ideas that will improve your future approach to whatever your talk was about.
Most CFPs do a good job setting expectations about what types of talks they’re looking for. And while each conference is different, it’s fair to say many Postgres program committees do not accept sales-oriented talks that are all about promoting your product or service. Still, most talks include a short “bio” in the beginning and that gives you a short opportunity to explain what you do and where you work... which generates awareness for whatever thing you’re working on.
Depending on what your talk is about, your talk might help people discover whatever it is that you’re working on—and they might become customers.
I once interviewed a principal architect, Min Wei, who works on the team at Microsoft who manages all the Windows diagnostic metrics used to measure the quality of new software builds. In the interview, I asked Min Wei how he first discovered Citus as a way to distribute Postgres. Turns out Min was driving home from work one night and listened to a video recording of Marco Slot, who had given a talk about scaling out (Postgre)SQL at dotScale. Hearing Marco’s talk was enough to persuade Min to check out the Citus database extension. And the rest is history.
If you type in
writing is thinking twitter into your search box, you’ll get a bunch of super useful links to Twitter threads and blog posts that all amplify, agree, and applaud the point that writing helps you to clarify your thinking.
There are so many “writing is thinking” quotes that it’s hard to pick just one to include in this blog post. While many of the twitter threads are focused on communicating with people at work and in tech, I’m choosing a quote from Joan Didion, a beloved American writer who sadly passed away in 2021.
“I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” –Joan Didion
Turns out that for many of us, giving a conference talk involves some writing. You have to:
The act of creating all these components for the Postgres talk forces you to write down the lessons you’ve learned. And as you write down your learnings, you sometimes realize things that don’t quite make sense. So you clarify them. And you refine things further. Then you get feedback about part of the talk that is confusing: and you need to clarify that bit. And so on.
Sometimes the conclusions you end sharing in your talk are not exactly the ones you started out with. Bottom line, the act of creating the talk will influence what takeaways you carry forward—which can strengthen your ability to lead and architect future solutions.
Public speaking isn’t some talent you’re either born with or not. It’s a skill you can develop. If you’ve ever been impressed watching a brilliant speaker on stage, I can almost guarantee you that a lot of practice (and perhaps some less successful talks) preceded the successful storytelling you witnessed. Carol Dweck’s growth mindset can be an empowering way to think about building new muscles, like giving conference talks.
To become good, like most things, public speaking takes practice—and the best way to practice is to carpe diem and do it.
A conference talk gives you and your work exposure outside your immediate team. This type of “sunlight” on your skills can help your career growth and the opportunities you get. Once more people become aware of what you’re capable of, then more people are likely to invite you to contribute to their projects, join their teams, or ask for your advice.
If you work in a company that has job levels, where people get promoted, then you may already realize: promotions don’t just happen. Someone has to advocate for your promo. Usually it’s your manager who has to document the proof points to show you’re already contributing at the higher level—and then share this promotion case with a team of other managers.
A conference talk gives your boss an additional proof point when promoting you, as evidence of your technical leadership, your communication skills, and your willingness to share your expertise with others in the community.
Especially with in-person events, giving a conference talk affords you the opportunity to make new friends. To meet people who are often as interested in Postgres as you (or whatever the conference topic is.) If you’re lucky there will be a speaker dinner the night before a conference begins, giving you a chance to get to know the other speakers. And, after you’ve given your talk, often attendees will walk up to you in the hallways and introduce themselves, to ask a question. All because of your talk, you will meet some wonderful people.
Whether you’re presenting at a local Postgres meetup or traveling to a new city for a larger event like PGConf.EU, being in a new place and seeing new sights will get you out of your comfort zone. And while you might not love travel—some of you prefer virtual events because you get to give a talk from the comfort of your own desk, over video—for some of us, travel puts a spring in our step. Across the different projects I’ve worked on in my career, I feel truly lucky to have been able to travel the world—and conference talks are a big part of that.
Once you’ve developed the skills & gotten comfortable with public speaking, it can be exhilarating to get up on stage and help other people. It can be a lot of fun. I used to be fraught with butterflies and nerves before giving a talk—but now, finally, after many years of conference talks, I find myself looking forward to it!
Open source communities function as a result of people working together and contributing back. Some people contribute in their free time, others have sponsors, others are lucky enough to be paid to work on open source projects as part of their day job. Either way, I find that contributing to an open source project feels good.
In summary: giving a talk at a Postgres conference—or any kind of developer or open source conference—can benefit the community in addition to helping your team and helping you.
The next question is how to get started. Here you go:
Speaker resources are your friend, from tips on how to get your CFP proposal selected to advice on how to give a useful talk. Some of my favorites are in this speaker resources list.
Upcoming Postgres events can be found online on the PostgreSQL Upcoming Events page.
[Updated for 2023]: If you’re interested in submitting a talk proposal to Citus Con: An Event for Postgres 2023 before the CFP closes on 05 Feb 2023:
This post by Claire Giordano was originally published on the Citus Open Source Blog.
Big thank you to Aaron Wislang, Alicja Kucharczyk, Sarah Novotny, and Teresa Giacomini for their reviews and suggestions that have made this blog post oh so much better.
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