Coding Conversations: First Time Presenting at a Technical Conference

October 18, 2018

Last month was the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Houston, Texas, and it’s known as the world's largest gathering of women technologists. I was lucky enough to attend this year’s event on behalf of LinkedIn.

On the second day of the conference, I was scheduled to give a talk about LinkedIn’s load testing and disaster recovery strategies in front of over 600 attendees. As a Site Reliability Engineer (SRE) at LinkedIn’s New York City office, I work as an embedded SRE with the News and Editorial Voice team to support new feature launches and ensure the stability and scalability of the existing infrastructure. While I was very excited about the opportunity to share my work, this was my first time speaking in front of such a large audience.

The talk proposal

The idea behind this talk came to mind when I joined LinkedIn over a year ago and saw first-hand how our Network Operations Center (NOC) team was shifting traffic away from a problematic data center to immediately mitigate a live production issue while it was being investigated and resolved by SREs.

First, this process takes a lot of pressure off of the engineers who may be debugging a complex issue in the middle of the night. Second, instead of being reactive in our disaster recovery approach or only testing these processes once per year, we have incorporated load testing and traffic shifts as a part of our daily operational work.

My first thought at the time was, “This is really neat!” I wanted to share how we do this with the rest of the industry, so that more people could implement it and make their day-to-day lives easier.

Also within my talk, it was a goal of mine to introduce the SRE role to those who may be unfamiliar with it and to present some of the challenges and problems that SREs at LinkedIn are trying to solve. Our primary goal as SREs at LinkedIn is to keep the site up and secure. We do this by working hand-in-hand with the other teams to design, build, and run large-scale systems that are reliable, efficient, and scalable. In a nutshell, we accept failure as inevitable and try to get ahead of it and plan for it by leveraging tooling and automation whenever possible.

Fear of public speaking

Speaking at a technical conference has been one of my career goals for some time now. However, being an introvert, this was a very terrifying prospect.

Over the last few years of my career, I’ve found that the fear of public speaking prevented me from taking risks to share my ideas, speak about my work, and present solutions to problems. I knew that stepping outside of my comfort zone was necessary in order to learn, grow, and accomplish things I didn't think I could.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

As with most things, experience helps build confidence over time. However, when you don’t have a lot of stage hours under your belt, you are more likely to experience a fear of public speaking. A public speaking appearance is the culmination of a thorough process of preparing and rehearsing your presentation. The more prepared you are, the less worried you will be about losing your train of thought, forgetting your lines, or looking nervous.

Having a strong support network and getting feedback from my colleagues was key in improving my performance. A few weeks before GHC, I gave a talk about the operational aspects of running and monitoring Video Stickers at SRE[in]Con, which is an annual internal conference for SREs and House Security at LinkedIn. This gave me a good idea of the overall process of preparing to give a talk while still being in a comfortable environment around my peers.

This year, GHC event organizers offered speakers a free training webinar with a professional speaker trainer. Melissa Marshall from Present Your Science shared information and best practices that could better prepare us for speaking at GHC 18 and other conferences. One of the tips Melissa gave was to use an emotional appeal to take the audience on a journey. Even though I was presenting technical information, it was important that I still try to tell a story to get the audience engaged. A typical technical talk might consist of 10% emotional appeal and 90% technical information; but Melissa suggested shifting that balance just a bit to 30% emotion, 70% fact.

As engineers, we tend to feel most comfortable going into long technical deep dives when explaining ideas or topics. However, at GHC, the technical level of attendees is extremely mixed, ranging from entry level technologists to top leaders in the field. Therefore, it was important that I adjust the talk to have a couple of “common ground” sentences. Melissa compared it to diving into the water (technical deep dive) and then coming back to the surface with check-ins like “this is why this matters,” “so what?” and “why are we talking about this?”. This makes the material more accessible to a less technical audience by tying it back to a big-picture theme or idea.

In addition to incorporating these tips, I also did a rehearsal of the talk in our NYC office and tried to simulate the conditions of a real conference as much as possible. This gave me the opportunity to receive feedback and advice from my colleagues and field some potential questions that I might get from the audience.

The big day

I’m happy to report that the day of the talk, everything ran smoothly. I presented on LinkedIn’s traffic tier architecture, which enables us to move live production traffic across data centers. I discussed the benefits of our daily load tests and how they help us improve our availability. Afterwards, I got a lot of questions from the audience, which helped me feel like they were really engaged and understood the topics I was presenting. For those interested, the slides from the talk can be found here.

While I’m very proud of myself for having overcome this professional milestone, I must admit that it was a huge relief when everything was over and I could finally relax and get back to my normal schedule. However, the positive outcomes from my experience made me glad that I had taken this leap. It can be easy in software engineering to limit your focus to the challenges at hand in your specific role, but I found that taking a step back and engaging with the broader community had tangible benefits.

Speaking at GHC was a great way to build my personal brand and grow my professional network. For instance, my LinkedIn profile views grew by over 2,000% from the previous week after I gave the talk. I was also approached to speak at another technical conference. I met some amazing people throughout the events and talks and re-connected with coworkers from my previous job.

I would highly recommend everyone in tech, especially engineers who might be hesitant to speak at public conferences, to at least give it a try. Sharing your expertise at these events is a very rewarding and humbling experience that will definitely enrich your personal and professional life. You might even enjoy it!

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I’d like to thank my colleagues who have helped and encouraged me throughout this journey: Michael Kehoe, Yilin Li, Chelsea Valentine, Xiao Li, Kunal Kandekar, Chris Ng, Siva Sooriyan, Henry Escobar, Logan Rosen, Kevin Krawez, Can Burak Cilingir, Pratheeksha Seetharama, Lingbing Wang, Sandya Ramu, Ankur Paul, Anne Trapasso, Cait Rogan, and Hannah Sills.