Confessions of a first time international speaker

I am writing this from the waiting area at McCarran airport in Las Vegas. It’s around 106 degrees outside and I am waiting 7 hours for a flight. My defcon and BlackHat badges are tucked up in my carry-on bag. It’s time to go home.

Twelve months ago I made a pretty substantial life change, I left a very well paid job, started a business and jumped into the void.

At about the same time, I started to think more about how I communicate as a security person and how I could improve.

I decided to set myself a challenge. I would try to speak at an international conference within 12 months.

This is the story of that challenge, where it took me and what I learned.

Notes from an airport waiting room

Speaking at large events is a strange experience. This year, massive audiences have surrounded me; I have answered questions from and shaken hands with leaders of some of the largest companies on the planet. I have also felt more alone in a crowded room that I ever have before.

But we’ve skipped a step… let’s rewind.

From one to many

So I wanted to speak internationally? Awesome…. so how does this work?

There is a slight logistical issue when you live in New Zealand. Namely that international always means very far away. I could find lists of conferences that looked interesting but that didn’t mean I could go speak at them.

As a new speaker I didn’t have a resume of talks to show or a proven track record. I was an unknown.

To add further complication, as a small business owner, I also didn’t have any money. Travel and accommodation for conferences is not cheap. I needed to find conferences that would provide some financial support.

It turns out this was my first big challenge.

Getting support can be challenging

I didn’t want to apply to conferences that couldn’t provide assistance as I knew that it was impossible for me to self-fund if an offer was made. I guess you might think this is greedy, but from my perspective the speakers at a conference are the product, it seems reasonable for global profit generating events to provide some help to get their speakers to and from the event. You would pay to ship a product after-all.

Very few conferences are transparent about their funding. This makes it very hard for new speakers or self-funding speakers like me to apply to speak. Even when asked directly, most conferences won’t be specific about the support available, often only providing some idea after a talk is accepted.

Combining all of this with a tiny dose of self doubt led me to applying to 3 international conferences that all had some form of finacial support available(BlackHat, Velocity and OSCON)…. 3 different talks, 3 different audiences and 3 different USA locations.

“I’ll be lucky if I get one but I’ll hedge my bets”, I thought, submitted my applications and promptly forgot all about them.

My year in numbers

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Pre-talk prep for BlackHat 2015

· I presented 16 talks at 14 events.

· My smallest audience size was 20 people.

· My largest audience 1300 people plus livestream (Velocity, Santa Clara).

· My longest talk was 50 minutes (BlackHat).

· My shortest talk was 7 minutes (ANZTB lightning talk).

· My strangest talk length to distance travelled was speaking for 18 minutes (keynote at Velocity, Santa Clara) for which I travelled 10,498 km.

· The furthest distance I travelled to speak was Brooklyn (Etsy Code-as-craft) which was 14,189 km from home.

· My longest slide deck was 92 slides long, my shortest just 7 slides.

· During this period I visited 3 countries and took over 20 flights coming close to 100,000 km travelled. International speaking it seems is pretty awful for the environment :(

Things I wish I’d known

So what did I learn? What do I wish I had known when I started down this road?

Presenting on a big stage can be pretty amazing

1. You learn to appreciate that you have a unique communication style and a message all of your own and that it’s great to embrace that. (Even when your style is very different from those presenting around you.)

2. Your ability to connect with people from different cultures and backgrounds improves. You get to see parts of the world that your life may not naturally bring you to..

3. Speaking at conferences opens doors to jobs and other opportunities such as side projects, books and other events.. You meet the most amazing people in the strangest places — on sofas, at airports, at parties. Sometimes you don’t even realize that they are famous or influential at the time.

4. People ask great questions if you connect with them. The best questions often come from quiet people after a talk and you have to make yourself available to those people in a way that works for them. You learn to understand why people ask questions and try to encourage the good questions and discussion. You learn the difference between the need to be heard and the need to ask a question.

5. Successful presentations are engaging stories that connect with the audience… the technical detail has to be moderated carefully. You learn that it’s ok to be a technical speaker with a non-technical slide deck. You don’t have to show your engineering prowess in code form to teach.

Presenting on a big stage is hard work

1. The excess of conferences is exhausting. Meeting people, learning new things and exploring new places is hard. Parties and social events compound this. You learn to pace yourself and to say No. You also learn that sometimes you need to go recharge somewhere in the day. As a speaker you will go from terrified to exhilarated and back over the course of the day, this can leave you drained.

2. The more conferences you attend, the less you attend the talks. Some talks you see repeated a lot and sometimes you are just too tired from travel to figure it out. You will often choose underdog talks and wait for the videos for the big high profile talks.

3. Vendors give away too much junk at conferences and the waste you see is depressing.

4. Being away from family (I have a husband and 2 year old daughter) is really hard and means that every talk I do needs to have value beyond a travel adventure. The more tired you get the harder it gets to deal with being so far from home. More than once I ended up in tears somewhere in a strange hotel when the exhaustion and isolation kicked in. Related to this, the bigger the conference, the lonelier it can be.

5. It can be expensive. Even with financial assistance, there is food to buy, airports to transit and there is always something that you forget or break. Nobody can cover theses costs but you and you have to be prepared for the unexpected.

Where next?

It’s been a strange sort of year. I know I have come out changed and have learned a lot about myself and about conferences.

I think I will continue to attend and speak at events but probably at a slower rate. I would also like to help other women stepping out into this space for the first time if I can. Perhaps this will be mentoring and support, or perhaps we need to look at making financial support more transparent….

But for now I have a plane to catch and a family to return to. Conference season is over and it’s time to go home.

One last thing

If you want to see any of my talks for the last 12 months you can find my slides at https://speakerdeck.com/ladynerd. You can also see some of my videos on http://safestack.io/research.html.

I have been known to tweet as @lady_nerd and I like meeting new people (especially new female speakers) so come say hello.