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Behind the scenes of preparing for a major technology conference

2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology

One professional milestone for developers as they get more experience is to present at a major technical conference. To evolve from passionate conference attendee to conference session presenter is a huge step that not only requires technical chops, but also important soft skills like public presentation, writing, and communications. We sat down with two mid-career developers, Megan Kostick and Cindy Lu as they were preparing for the upcoming, Grace Hopper Celebration in the fall of 2020. Here’s a quick peek into the whats, whys, hows and lessons learned in presenting at a major technical conference!

Cindy (second from left), Megan (second from right)

2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology

Q1: What’s the Grace Hopper Celebration like for an attendee and why is it so special?

Megan: My first time at the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) was a very magical experience. You cannot believe the sheer number of attendees and the sense of excitement at the keynotes and throughout the expansive exhibition floor. Walking around meeting new people, collecting swag, and learning from experts in various fields fills your days. My first year attending I did not have a presentation, but worked at our booth advocating for the Call for Code challenge and demoing our Watson technologies along with Cindy. It was fun networking and connecting with people from all over and I even made a few new friends a long the way. You get to see such creative uses of technology, like latte art that is a portrait of you, or emoji sentiment analysis based on your facial expression as you walk by a booth. The vibe is so positive and it’s awesome to see so many women interested in tech, all in one place!

Cindy: The Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) is the largest women in tech conference in the world. There were 25,000 attendees in 2019 and the tickets typically sell out in under 30 minutes! I had no clue how amazing an experience it was going to be when I went in 2018. But I started to notice the grand scale of the event when I saw lots of women on the airplane to Houston, at the ride-share pick up area outside the airport, and when the hotel receptionist told me everything in the area was booked. I was really excited! Our organization got to do IBM booth duty to showcase some of our IBM Developer content – Call for Code Challenges and Watson applications in VR; as well as answer any questions anyone had about products, job opportunities, etc. It’s a rare, incredible, empowering experience to be surrounded by so many brilliant women who share a passion for technology and everyone was so kind and friendly. It helped me feel revitalized in my work. There’s also a massive career fair where there are hundreds of companies showing off their latest and greatest technologies, providing networking opportunities, and giving away some cool swag. The sheer amount of things to see can overwhelm a person (in a good way). My only regret was that because we were at the booth, we didn’t get a chance to go to any of the sessions.

Lines at 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology

Q2: What made you decide to submit to the Call for Presentations (CFP) at the Grace Hopper Celebration in 2020? What was the process like? Were you nervous about getting your submission accepted?

Megan: After attending GHC for the first time in 2018, it has been a dream of mine to get a talk accepted. And who better to submit with than my co-worker and friend, Cindy? Due to popularity, it is extremely hard to get a talk accepted at GHC, they get so many proposals and have to narrow them down quite a bit. The speaker acceptance rate this year was only 9%, down from last year’s 15%. The GHC committee stressed that this was due to wanting a very, high quality virtual experience so they had to be more selective.

We submitted two proposals but only one was accepted. I never expected our talk to get accepted, so it was a great surprise to get one accepted for GHC. Due to the pandemic this year, they extended the Call for Presentations deadline a bit. We finalized our submission by March 31st and waited patiently until June 30th to find out the decision. It was interesting that we were tentatively accepted in hopes we could integrate some of the pandemic or racial injustice issues going on throughout the world into our talk. We were able to do that by discussing how COVID-19 has affected the traditionally travel-heavy role of a developer advocate.

Cindy and Megan as latte art

Cindy: We’ve been reminiscing for two years and really wanted a chance to go back to attend some sessions and share some of our experience in the industry. We started brainstorming earlier this year. You can only submit one talk to each category, so we decided to submit one technical hands-on workshop and one presentation. I personally really like technical workshops because it gives people a sense of accomplishment when they leave the room – I built something I can show off to my friends! So we decided to bring the 90s back with a nostalgic idea, but it’s top secret as we will be trying to submit it again! (Shhhh…)

We heard back from GHC on June 30th that the presentation had been accepted. It was bittersweet. Happy we got accepted but sad we won’t be able to see each other at a cool location. Megan lives in Seattle and I live in San Jose. I always look forward to the times we get to see each other in person.

The GHC review process is more transparent than many other tech events. They gave us some feedback about why it was or wasn’t accepted. This information will really help us prepare for future submissions or rethink what could be misunderstood or what was not communicated clearly. This is definitely something other conferences could factor into the acceptance process.

Megan and Cindy at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration

Q3: Why did you choose the presentation topic – Adapt, Grow, and Pollinate: The Journey to Becoming an Effective Developer Advocate?

Megan: IBM recently launched Developer Advocacy as its own career path and being part of the Developer Advocacy organization here at IBM, Cindy and I thought we could bring some light to this emerging role and give individuals of all technical levels a chance to learn about another career option that may not have been on their radar screen. GHC is traditionally a very big networking and hiring event for college students and just maybe our talk will get some future new hires interested in pursuing developer advocacy as a potential career. Or influence mid-level to senior-level developers that would like a change of pace. It’s always fun to share insider tips as well to help others be successful and grow.

Cindy: We felt that as mid-career ladies who have transitioned from open source to internal development, we’ve had a pretty cool work experience at IBM. And we wanted to share our tips and tricks for anyone who may interested in developer advocacy as a career path.

Recording equipment for Grace Hopper Celebration of Women

Q4: What has the presentation preparation been like leading up to the virtual Grace Hopper Convention event that kicks off on 9/29? Any surprises or changes to account for the pandemic?

Megan: Since our talk was focused on the career track, the formal abstract and proposal we submitted was a big starting point for our presentation. Cindy and I began building our presentation using the supplied template from GHC a few weeks before our scheduled talk. Due to the conference going virtual, we signed up for a recording session to do a live recording. In doing so they can minimize the possibility of technical issues the day of the conference. We were both sent a recording kit which included an Alienware laptop, Logi webcam, Blue Yeti USB microphone, mouse, and keyboard to ensure all hardware was up to a certain level of quality. This bumped up our preparation timeline and required us to record video on September 14th. But we will not have our session debut until October 3rd, the last day of GHC.

Instead of presenting live in a room full of attendees, we presented to our Media Producer and Video Tech in the comfort of our home offices. We also had a pre-recording prep call to go over our recording space, make sure we dressed appropriately, and understood the technologies being used. It was an impressive production and cool to see such a large conference pivot and adapt so quickly to going digital.

A great presentation would not be without its own set of technical difficulties. For our live recording session, we allocated two hours on our calendars. We spent the first 45 minutes getting all of the technical issues sorted out, including not having our audio come through, the Ethernet network giving out, and the browser using the wrong webcam. But once we got past these hurdles and prepped our digital hand-offs, we were off to the races and had a clean run through our recording. All you could see was yourself and the slide, so it was a strange feeling just talking out loud. The GHC Media Team was wonderful to work with and kept us up to date and prepped to create our best digital session possible. Thanks Adam for debugging our logistical issues!

Cindy: We really delved into the submission guidelines and looked at some other submissions from the past to see what kinds of things got accepted. We didn’t want to leave out anything out. We made sure to provide as much detail as we could. Luckily, we thought through that a lot so the actual preparation wasn’t that bad. We started to work on our Powerpoint presentation two weeks before the recording and practiced together on WebEx one week prior. We timed it to make sure it consistently stayed within the 20-25 minute allotted time frame.

After our talk was accepted, the conference did ask that we incorporate some of the current events we are facing today and change our title, which wasn’t very catchy. 🙂 We were surprised to hear the presentation wouldn’t be live, but it was very understandable given that a conference of this scale would want not want to leave anything up to chance (spotty network connections, poor speaker quality, technical incompatibility issues, etc).

We did incorporate some things into our developer advocacy talk about the social distancing effects on advocacy. It’s created the need to be present and communicative on social media, creating relevant, practical and meaningful content to address the current state of the world. Another fun tidbit we learned is to wear jewel tones (emerald, ruby, sapphire, etc…) because they show up better on camera.

We are looking forward to seeing our presentation go live and we’re are revved up for the live follow-up Q & A session. Tune in on Oct 3 to see how we do!

Fun at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology

Q5: Would you submit for another developer conference in the future and what advice would you give to other developers who want to submit a presentation to increase their likelihood of being accepted?

Megan: I will definitely continue to submit to future developer conferences. I enjoy sharing what I know and getting to meet new people and learn from them. I highly recommend drawing inspiration from talks that got accepted in the past. I enjoy trying to come up with fresh new ideas or ways of looking at things others may not have thought of before. Find ways to present about emerging technologies and bonus points for coming up with an intriguing title!

You can catch Megan and Cindy’s presentation, Adapt, Grow, and Pollinate: The Journey to Becoming an Effective Developer Advocate on October 3 at 10:00 AM PST if you’re already registered for the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Technology. Click on Attend, View Agenda and Search on “pollinate” or browse the Career track to find their session information. Don’t miss out on this exciting dive into the new and challenging career path now available at many major tech companies around the world. We’ll also be following up with Megan and Cindy after the virtual conference is over to hear about what actually happens in real life!