Being a speaker at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing

I have just returned from a very hectic week at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing which was held this year, in Portland, OR, and I am still on a high from being a speaker there.

As a first time conference speaker, I was honored that they accepted my proposal for a birds of a feather session “What if… we could alter the perception of the “Software Developer”?”.  More on how I submitted in a later blogpost. I found out that I had been accepted back in May, actually on my birthday! When I read the “Congratulations, you have been accepted…” email, I was so excited and proud of myself, I was literally jumping around my hotel room, whilst my boyfriend watched on waiting for my to realize what I had signed myself up for. Sure enough within minutes I was succumbed by dread. Now I have to actually write this thing, stand up in front of hundreds of people and not make an idiot of myself, I thought out loud.

What definitely helped was the couple of practice runs I did beforehand. The first one I did on my client site, I was pretty nervous. The audience was mixed, some developers as well as other members of the team. I thought it went well. Got a couple of good pieces of useful feedback like “Anne that whole section where you talk about yourself breaks up the flow of the talk”. Noted. Swiftly removed.

Two weeks before GHC I then did another practice talk but this time in my home ThoughtWorks office in Chicago. We had a bunch of candidates in that day and it was a Friday so there was a pretty large crowd. I knew they would be a supportive crowd so I definitely had a little less of the nerves. The new format worked well and it was the first time I got to really practice the fishbowl section of my talk.

The format of my talk was 15min of me introducing the topic and then 35-40mins of facilitated brainstorming. I invited members of the audience to come out to the front to discuss and share, always leaving 1 of the 6 chairs open so that someone else could join the conversation, causing someone else then to leave. My aim was for this to be a “safer” environment than just asking question at the microphone, also for an ever-changing panel.

I got some great feedback that the talk was fun, and interesting and also that I should remember to breathe. What normally took me 15mins to talk though I was done in under 10. Noted. Get one of the TWers in the audience to give me a secret signal when I’m going to fast.

I won’t lie I was nervous and very quiet (very unusual for me) for the whole of GHC leading up to my talk, which was the last session of the whole thing. Thoughts of “Does anyone even feel the same way?”, “Am I imagining that this is a topic that people are interested in”, “What if no one gets up to talk?”, “What if no one comes?” “What if thousands of people come?!” were definitely rattling round in my head.

While I was telling people about my talk whilst in Portland, I was amazed that people responded with “Ah yes, I had that one circled to go to!”. Blimy.

I was even freaking out about what to wear. (Such a girl…) Advice….Power dress.

Time for my session. I left the previous one where our CTO Rebecca was talking. She always does such a great job. Always blown away by how what she says makes complete and utter sense. At this point I won’t lie, I was petrified.

I have to mention the amazing support I had from my co-workers. In particular Cassie, a great friend of mine. She visited the room I would be speaking in earlier in the week with me. My co-workers were prepared to get up on the stage and get the conversation started, they were trying to keep my calm… they had great words of encouragement and were smiling up at me as I got onto the stage.

At this point something weird happened. I was overcome by a sense of complete calmness, no shaking, no nerves, nothing. I’m guessing my years at school in choirs and in drama on stage helped. I looked out at the 112 people watching me. Here goes I thought.

I was blown away by the response to my talk. You know how they say, you should find someone in the audience who you can keep looking back to for reassurance, well there was a lovely lady that I didn’t know sat a few rows back that was that person for me. As I looked out at the crowd they were laughing, they were leaning forward in their chairs, engaged and enthusiastic. No one left…. In my head I was thinking “Oh wow this is working….”. When time came for audience participation people were literally running to get up on stage. Amazing.

I wish I could put into words the feeling I had after getting down of that stage. People were waiting to talk to me. To tell me that I had inspired them, that I was a great speaker and it was great topic. I had a strange moment where I was hugging everyone who came up to talk to me. I was inundated with Twitter messages from people I had never met. My normal self-deprecating self was gone for a good few hours, infact it may still be gone. It was a HUGE adrenalin rush, and I’m so glad I did it. My friends I think were just as relieved as I was about how well it went.

So. I tell you this ‘warts and all’ story, and no doubt am revealing too many trade secrets, in a hope that next year, you too are brave enough to submit something and hopefully get accepted to GHC 2012. The experience was unforgettable.

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