Words I hope to regret someday: 'I'm glad that I didn't give a technical talk.'

March 18, 2014 | confs, talks

When I decided to speak at my first conference, I picked a topic that I knew would be safe. I picked something not threatening, not overly opinionated, and not technical. In short, I picked something I didn’t think I would get aggressive questions about. I picked something feminine: I talked about teaching kids how to program.

I gave my talk yesterday, and it doesn’t sit well with me to say what I’m about to say. But someone has to say it, and since I was the only woman speaking yesterday it’s likely that no one else will.

I’m glad that I didn’t give a technical talk.

Before last night, I never felt like an impostor, just unwelcome every now and then. I genuinely think that my love of what I do and my utter joy about being an engineer overpowered any feelings I had related to being an impostor. I felt lucky to have found something that made me so happy and challenged me intellectually everyday, and I surrounded myself with a community of wonderful people to offset the times I felt unwelcome.

I went to dinner last night with about 20 other conference attendees. I have a predisposition to yell loudly to cover up the fact that I’m so nervous that all I can worry about is filling the space with sound so no one can hear my heart thumping in my chest. I sat with friends and had a great evening chatting about mostly topics not related to programming. It was a great brain break after listening to so many technical talks in one day.

Even though I was having a nice time with my co-workers, I couldn’t help but overhear another conversation happening a few seats down from me. It was a verbal sparring match about JavaScript, about as friendly as any talk can be when your professional reputation is on the line (which is to say: not at all). This debate wasn’t friendly it was an aggressive, opinionated conversation between two people determined to steam roll each other. While I’m sure either could have exited the conversation at any point, their defensive postures and tones indicated that there was no exit strategy appropriate for the situation.

That was when I felt like a fraud, that was when I felt like an impostor, and that was when I realized I didn’t want to give a technical talk. I realized that I would never be smart enough, or good enough, or well-educated enough to have a conversation like that without being badgered into a corner. Not because I don’t see myself that way, but because I’m not a real programmer in the eyes of many. I went to Dev Bootcamp, I don’t have a Computer Science degree, and I love writing CSS as much as I love Ruby. I’m vocal on Twitter, prone to feminist rants, and I don’t make OSS contributions outside of my job. I’m a happy, friendly person. In the words of many a cruel Hacker News commenters, I am nothing more than a marketer who claims to be an engineer.

If you have ever in your life wanted to make someone feel like total, complete, utter shit, that’s how you do it: you tell them that thing that they worked so hard for, the thing that they love to do, isn’t good enough and that they’re not really that thing, just someone who likes to talk about that thing.

I don’t speak because I want to convince other people that I’m right about something, or because I want to prove myself as an expert. I speak because I want to share what I know, maybe make people laugh a little, and help them remember why we do what we do everyday. I speak because I love what I do and I want to help other people love it too.

No matter who you are, it is absolutely terrifying to stand in front of a room of 200 strangers and talk to them for 30 minutes.

I don’t speak because I want to get into verbal sparring matches about my talk. I don’t speak because I want to gain prestige or power. I don’t understand the aggression associated with discussions surrounding technical topics at conferences, and I don’t participate in them because I am genuinely afraid of being made to look like an idiot in front of a group of people who could potentially hold sway over my career. A career that I love, and would only abandon if offered the chance to get paid millions to roll around in a field of puppies all day.

But I am not a defeatist person; I am an eternal optimist. While I don’t feel comfortable giving a technical talk today, I’ve only been doing this for 8 months. This time last year, I was writing my very first lines of code. I love what I do, and I want to help other people find out if this is what they might love, too. It won’t be long before I become the dev with one-too-many slides covered in code, not-so-humble bragging about something I’ve done.

I’m not going anywhere. I’m more stubborn and determined than I’ve led you to believe with my cheerful demeanor, friendly disposition, and love of GIFs. I am the sword in the stone, and the only person who can pull me out of it is myself.

I’ll do my absolutely best make this a better place for everybody–and that’s a promise you can hold me to.