Conference speaking as a software vendor

While reviewing 100s of proposals for upcoming conferences (Velocity EU and PuppetConf) I tweeted the following, which seemed to get a few folks interest.

I should write a blog post on “conference talk submissions for vendors/consultants”. Rule one: own your bias

This reply in particular pushed me over the edge into actually writing this post:

Would love to hear advice, been told more than once a talk was rejected since I work for a vendor, even though my talk was not a pitch.

Writing something up felt like it might be useful to a few folks so here goes. This is but one persons opinion, but I at least have some relevant experience:

Some of the following advice is pretty general, if you’re interested in speaking at software conferences (at least those I’ve seen or spoken at) then hopefully much of this is relevant to you. But I also want to focus on people working for a software vendor. I think that’s particularly relevant as more and more traditional vendors court the open source community and software developers inparticular, and roles like developer evangelist see lots of people moving from more practioner roles to work vendor-side.

Learn to write a good proposal

My main experience with speaking at conferences, or helping currate content, is via a call-for-proposals. The conference will have some sort of theme or topic, set a date, and see what content is submitted. Their are a variety of oft-made points here about sponsoring to get a talk slot, or submitting early, or approaching the organisers, but in my experience the best bet is to write a really good proposal around a good idea. That’s obviously easier said that done, but it’s not as hard as you may think.

Unless you write a good proposal around an interesting idea you probably won’t be accepted whether you’re a software vendor or not. Try get feedback on your proposals, especially from folks who have previously spoken at the event you’re hoping to present at.

Appreciate you’re selling something

If you work for a software vendor your job is to sell software. Not everyone likes that idea, but I think at least for the purposes of this blog post it stands true. It doesn’t matter if you’re an evangelist reporting into Marketing, or a software developer in Engineering or anything else - you stand to gain directly or indirectly from people purchasing your product. From the point of view of a conference you are thoroughly compromised when it comes to talking about your product directly. This can be disheartening as you likely work at the vendor and want to talk at the conference because you’re genuinely interested, even evangelical, about the product. You need to own that bias - there really is no way around it.

If you work for a vendor, and the CFP committee even thinks the proposal is about that product, you’ll probably not be given the benefit of doubt.

And the answers is…

Probably the worst example of vendor talks that do sometimes get accepted go something like this:

I think for expo events or for sponsored slots this approach is totally valid, but for a CFP it bugs me:

Please don’t do this. It’s a easy trap to fall into, mainly because you hopefully genuinely believe in the product you’re talking about and the problem you’re solving. If you really want talks like this try and encourage your customers to give then - a real-world story version of this is much more interesting.

Talk about the expertise rather than the product

It’s not all doom for those working for software vendors and wanting to talk at conferences. The reality is that while you’re working on a discrete product you’re also likely spending a lot of time thinking about a specific domain. I spent a bunch of years using Puppet as a product, but I’ve spent more time while working at Puppet thinking about the nature of configuration, and about wildly heterogenuous systems. When I worked for the Government I interacted with a handful of departments and projects. At Puppet I’ve spoken with 100s of customers, and read trip reports on meetings with others. Working for a vendor gives you a different view of what’s going on, especially if you talk to people from other departments.

In my experience, some of the best talks from those working for software vendors can be quite meta, theoretical or future facing. You have the dual benefit of working in a singular domain (so you can do deep) and hopefully having access to lots customers (so you can go broad).

Talks as a product design tool

As someone working for a vendor, a big part of my job is designing and building new features or new products. I’ve regularly found giving talks (including the time taken to think about the topic and put together the demos and slides) to be a great design tool. Assuming you’re already doing research like this, even in the background, pitching a talk on the subject has a few advantages:

You can see this if you flick through talks I’ve given over the past few years. For instance What’s inside that container? and more recently Security and the self-contained unit of software provide some of the conceptual underpinnings for Lumogon. And The Dockerfile explosion - and the need for higher-level tools talk I gave at DockerCon led to the work on Puppet Image Build.

These talks all stand alone as (hopefully) useful and interesting presentations, but also serve a parallel internal purpose which importantly doesn’t excert the same bias on the content.

Some good examples

The above is hopefully useful theory, but I appreciate some people prefer examples. The following include a bunch of talks I’ve given at various conference, with a bit of a rationale. I’ve also picked out a few examples of talks by other folks I respect that work at software vendors and generally give excellent talks.

A great topic for most vendors to talk about at suitable conferences is how they approach building software. I spoke about In praise of slow (Continuous Delivery) at Pipeline conference recently, about how Puppet (and other vendors) approach techniques like feature flags, continuous delivery and versioning but for packaged software. That had novelty, as well as being relevant to anyone involved with an open source project.

Probably my favourite talk I’ve given in the last year, The Two Sides to Google Infrastructure for Everyone Else looks at SRE, and infrastructure from two different vantage points. This talk came directly from spending time with the container folks on one hand, and far more traditional IT customers on the other, and wondering if they meet in the middle.

Charity Majors is the CEO at Honeycomb and likes databases a lot more than I do. The talk Maslows Hierachy of Database Needs is just solid technical content from an expert on the subject. Closer to the Honeycomb product is this talk Observability and the Glorious Future, but even this avoids falling into the trap described above and stays focused on generally applicable areas to consider.

Jason Hand from VictorOps has given a number of talks about ChatOps, including this one entitled Infrastructure as Conversation. Note that some of the examples use VictorOps, but the specific tool isn’t the point of the talk. The abstract on the last slide is also a neat idea.

Bridget Kromhout works for Pivotal, the folks behind Cloud Foundry amongst other things. But she invariably delivers some of the best big picture operations talks around. Take a couple of recent examples I Volunteer as Tribute - the Future of Oncall and Ops in the Time of Serverless Containerized Webscale. Neither talk is about a specific product, instead both mix big picture transformation topics with hard-earned ops experience.

As a final point, all of those examples have interesting titles, which comes back to the first point above. Make content that people really want to listen to first, and if you’re a vendor own your biases.