Speaking at GopherconUK

For several years, I had an ambition to speak at some kind of Gopher conference event, especially to talk about testing, which is a subject that is so misunderstood. I've been doing the whole testing thing for quite a long time now, and I still find lots to learn. So, I get irritated when developers of 2 years experience tell me, so full of confidence, that "no-one does TDD in the real world".

A few years ago, to work toward this goal, I set myself a shorter-term goal of speaking at London Gophers. It went pretty well, I was proud of the talk and how it went. However, when I went on to apply at various call-for-papers for Gophercons around the world, well, I didn't get anywhere. My rational brain knows it was very competitive and was pretty natural to not get any responses at all, but I still took the failure a bit personally and gave up on the idea.

So, I was pretty thrilled to get the opportunity to speak at GopherconUK and even more excited that I roped Riya Dattani in to speaking with me.

I won't go too much into the material, watch the video on YouTube.

But I will say it's a combination of many thoughts I've had in general with testing, from reading things like Continuous Delivery, GOOS and even everyone's favourite novel; The Phoenix Project.

Testing has a profound effect on your ability to ship software effectively, without toil, and it even has an influence on how your team works and how it solves problems. It's a far bigger subject than merely preventing bugs.

Reflections on the experience

I definitely have a new-found respect for good conference speakers. It is hard work. We worked really hard on it, for almost 2 months (not to mention the years of studying, experience and reflection beforehand!).

The first month was "just" making the slides, which was actually harder work than I thought it would be. Trying to come up with a talk that had to be around 40 minutes but still have a coherent narrative and flow is tough.

We had a lot of support from friends and colleagues, which helped a ton.

On the day, we were obviously nervous, but once we were on the stage it was honestly straightforward. It was like we had done it 100 times before because we had.


Before committing to doing a talk at a conference, know that it will suck up your life for 6-8 weeks if you're going to do it properly.

I remember saying to Riya:

I don't want us to not try hard enough and then use that as an excuse if we don't do well. Let's stick our necks out a bit, and take advantage of this opportunity and do a good job.

Other side-projects and things will probably need to be paused for a while. The effort on preparation will pay dividends, though. It's not that we did it perfectly, but it went as well as I hoped it would, and I enjoyed the experience.

I'm not a prolific public speaker, I've only done it a few times, so take the following with a pinch of salt. However, Lara Hogan has an excellent free book - Demystifying Public Speaking which is definitely worth a look.

Maybe there are naturally gifted speakers who can just wing some slides on the plane, for the rest of us though, this is what I'd recommend.

Practicing effectively

  • I committed to practicing my part of the talk at least 2 times a day. I wanted to avoid relying on presentation notes too much, and I wanted to be fluent at what I wished to communicate on every slide. Perhaps that's over the top, but it gave me confidence when I was on the stage.
  • Practice out-loud. Reading your slides is not practicing what you're going to do on the day.
  • Practice your talk standing up. Your posture, breathing e.t.c. is just different compared to sitting, and you want it to be as close to the real thing as possible.
  • Try mixing it up, so you practice each section effectively. For instance, practicing doing slides X to Y a few times over, rather than the whole thing.
  • If you're inexperienced with public speaking, you might want to start by speaking with your colleagues first. At my previous and current job, we've set up a lightning talks initiative where people regularly do short talks to the rest of the group to share knowledge and practice communicating effectively. With a healthy feedback culture, your team/company can get better at sharing ideas, and it can set you up for public speaking.
  • Record yourself, and listen to it.
  • Get feedback from your friends/colleagues early, don't be afraid to show something rough.

Preparing the talk

  • Start early. You'll never regret being over-prepared.
  • Try to identify a central narrative first. Think about what the audience will specifically take away from the talk. Ask yourself what an engaged audience member would do when they get back to the office.
  • Find time to keep researching for ideas and perspectives. Even though I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted us to convey, by reading some other books whilst writing the talk I learned some different ideas and incorporated them into the talk.
  • People like stories and anecdotes, try to weave them in to your talk. I think Riya's experiences of how BDD helped her as a junior dev in particular were a different and interesting take on the material that I hadn't heard before.

On the day

  • Remind yourself that you've done this 100 times before.
  • Remind yourself that people want to hear a good talk. You're not in high-school any more, people won't taunt you for messing up.
  • It doesn't need to be perfect, it doesn't matter if you briefly lose your way, or misspeak.
  • Your talk won't be for everyone. Some people won't like it, and that's ok.
  • You're going to get to talk about something you're passionate about to a captive audience, this is cool and a real privilege.
  • Try to enjoy it, you'll probably find yourself nervous for the first few minutes, then you'll get into your rhythm, and it'll be over before you know it.