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Hanselminutes on 9 - The Death of the Professional Conference Speaker

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Scott's in Norway this week at NDC. He's chatting with Ted Neward and Scott Bellware about what Ted calls "the death of the professional conference speaker." Are smaller code camps destroying the large conference? Do we even need large developer conferences?

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  • It's an interesting point of view and I can see where it's based on. But aren't smaller code camps a good thing for those who would like to make more out of their speaker sessions? How else would you gain a true experience in becoming a good speaker?

    I can't see any reason why the two (large and small) couldn't exist side by side. Regional smaller events are a little less formal and give great opportunities to get a little more personal on the sessions, while the larger ones will probably give a lot more to talk about, but in a more pre-defined "protocol", if you will.

    But I do believe that small events are a great way for beginner speakers to practice their routines, and to grow into a pro speaker for the bigger events.

  • Jeff KlawiterJeff Klawiter try { something; } fault { nothing; } catch { everything; } finally { succeed; }

    In the Twin Cities we are about to have our 7th code camp. It has turned into a wonderful conference with many in depth talks. Our local MS office is stepping up as well and have started a local Techmasters group. The entire focus is doing public speaking with a tech focus. We also have many user groups where people have many chances to hone their speaking skills in front of more forgiving audiences. I currently attend the local XNA UG, Languages UG, Developers Guild, .NET UG, Mysql UG and Silverlight UG. My work hosts the Mysql UG and the Python UG.

    One thing I've noticed lately is the quality of the the larger local/travelling conferences has been declining. The last few, that I actually paid for, I was quite dissappointed in the materials presented and how in depth they went. I go to Code Camp and the local user groups to get into how you actually get things done instead of "here's an overview of the new features and little code/implementation".  When I go to an event that the speaker is getting paid for and I'm paying for it, I expect some good content. This may be the fault of the organizers or the speakers themselves.

    I've recently begun speaking at Code Camp and user groups. I've been giving internal tech presentations at work for a few years now. Having the chance to do a free event where money isn't on the line is a big plus. I'm able to get more experience and do something that I enjoy. One day I hope I can travel and give talks. Whether or not I get paid for them is the big question.

    I think there will be a place for speakers getting paid in the larger conferences but the days of a professional speaker that is not getting paid by their main employer may be over. I think it's more than the competition of the code camps. I think the explosion of sites like Channel 9 and other tech related webcast sites in recent years. You can find both general overview and in depth videos without having to look to far or leave your couch.

    <shameless_plug>I will (probably)be doing a talk on Visual Studio 2010 Extensions at the Twin Cities Code Camp 7 this October. The session list isn't finalized yet. I'm also checking into doing that talk at the Developers Guild or possibly a talk on SQL CLR</shameless_plug>.

  • Chris BrandsmaChris Brandsma Chris Brandsma

    I am sort of with Scott Belware on this one.  I have been to quite a few large conferences, and I have often been underwelmed by about half of the speakers there.  That said, the other half were often very good.  But, I think that Code Camps will ultimately help the large conferences rather than hurt them.

    The nice thing about code camps is the low barior of entry, I hope that some of the guys speaking at them rise to the top and make their way to the bigger conferences.  This could quickly increase the quality of the speakers, and thus drive up attendance again.

  • Scott, your comments were awesome. It sounded like you were getting a little annoyed there too. Good on ya man,

     Ted your comments are pretty elitist sounding. So, only "professional speakers" know how to modulate their voices and elicit feedback from an audience. Weak, pass. Getting past the sheer condescension of those statements, let's consider these events like US Baseball Leagues.

    In US Baseball we have the Minor and the Major Leagues (basically). Community Events are like the Minor League, mostly made up of individuals and smaller companies who might not have enough pull to compete with larger companies or haven’t the experience yet to warrant getting a podium at larger events. Usually they do it because they want to. They have a desire to participate, or would like to take a shot at presenting for a variety of possible reasons. Just like a Minor League game the cost of entry is low to free, depending on the venue. Also, the events are usually more geographically focused and are intended to draw local attendance, with little to no budget for advertising. Most professional speakers wouldn’t even consider speaking at one of these events.

    The larger, paid (hoboy are they paid, tickets at $3500 for 3 days, WTF) conferences are the big leagues. These are the realm of the Big Name Speakers who can demand high salaries but draw large audiences with deep pockets. They are usually the best of the best in their field (at least the best talkers) and are the superstars of their industry.

    So my question is does the presence of a minor league negatively impact the major league? No. Minor League audiences are often two types: the type who can’t afford Major League events and those who go to both. If as a professional speaker you wish to quash the community and diminish the efforts of the individuals who are passionate about their industry and desire to share their knowledge and enthusiasm then you obviously need a better perspective. Maybe you’re afraid of competition? I don’t know, but there will be talented individuals coming out of these community events and moving up to the big leagues, even if they’re still having a little trouble with modulating their voices right now.

    What I'd like to see is the professional speakers trying to cultivate their communities. From what I understand, although I don't often agree with his methods, Bellware is doing in the Austin area. From what I understand, he doesn't see minor league speakers as the enemy to be feared. Instead, we're a resource to be cultivated and a talent pool to draw upon.

  • @Just3Ws, I didn't get that from Ted's comments at all.  It sounded more to me like he was just saying that there is value in professional speakers/presenters and that free conferences like code camps may be cannibalizing paid for conferences.  However, he even stated explicitly at one point in the talk that the free conferences like code camps were a good thing.  It just sounded to me like he was observing a potential problem but didn't have a specific solution.  

    I agree that there's value in professional speakers.  I've seen first hand how a neophyte speaker at a code camp can ruin what was an interesting topic for people.  The code camp in question was great, free, and my friends and I had a great time there.  It was just unfortunate that the speaker for one of the talks we attended turned most of them off to a particular topic because he couldn't present it well.

    If Ted was advocating ending free conferences to save professional speakers then I'd definitely agree, but I don't think he was.  Even if they're cannibalizing those paid conferences that doesn't mean they're the enemy.  

    Increasing the quality of the paid for conferences sounds like the solution.  In the end, I don't think free conferences can ever totally displace paid for conferences.  The free conferences will just foster improvement in the paid ones through competition.  

     

    PS:  Thanks for the videos Scott.  Please post more if you have them.

  • @JBrechtel He may have thrown a bone to the code campers after Scott pressed him. But overall the vibe I got was definitely down on amateur speakers. I hope that I didn't sound like I was making a personal attack on Ted, I just adamantly disagree with his position and the attitude. I don't agree that small venue speakers have any noticeable negative effect on the professional speakers. The state of the economy, lack of interest, some other undefined changes may have affected attendance, but I doubt that user groups and code camps are to blame.

    Conversely, I do agree that unqualified speakers can have a negative impact. But, as with all things free or run by amateurs things will be bumpy for a while. Code Camps and User Groups have grown tremendously over the past few years and seem to still be growing in attendance, size and maturity. They are uniquely positioned to address the needs of their community. And as the community grows so will the quality of their presentations and speakers. So, despite some potential bumps in the road I believe the community developers will reap massive benefits from community events and speaking opportunities. And that benefit far outweights Ted's concerns about his sweet gig's and big paychecks from being curtailed. I'm as willing to give up my community as he is willing to give up his.

  • I think it's naive to mention that there are fewer attendees at $1000+ conferences this year than there were last year and the first thing you jump to isn't the worst global economy in HyperbolicNumber years, but that Codecamps are cannibalizing the attendance numbers.

    Sure, the professional speakers are often better speakers. And, putting them together in a $3000 conference makes for a roster of good speakers. Congratulations, you've built a luxury product. Guess how well ALL luxury products are doing in a down economy?

    If, somehow, it actually is the cheaper/free conferences are the reason for the erosion, it just means that your luxury product isn't nearly as luxurious compared to the competition as you think. That value that the company feels it was getting by sending someone is not there. The trick to selling a luxury product isn't to make it more like the cheaper product or blame the cheaper product for eroding sales. It's to make the luxury product so damned compelling that the price becomes irrelevant.

    I'm a full-time self-employed consultant in Minneapolis and have been doing consulting here for 10 years. I've never been to ANY of the conferences you all mentioned. I have been to a few local CodeCamp-like events and to the regional Heartland Developers Conference (which was something like $200). I've watched lots of the video from the big international conferences. Sure, I can see a difference in the public speaking ability and in the refinement of those skills.

    However, I can also see, in the more local conferences, that the presentations are often FAR more oriented to practical solutions to the problems people are facing on the ground. I tend to see more "case study" and "here's how we did it" kinds of presentations using real-life situations and fewer Northwind demos. Those presentations are often done by people who are available, should I want to buy them lunch and pick their brain.

    Sure, they may not have the smooth cadence and professionalism of a paid speaker. However, I'll take a relevant presentation by someone who stumbles a few times, but mentions that this design surface really gets to be unusable when you put 95 entities on it over a professional speaker who happily click through a scripted Northwind demo that gives me the impression I'm not going to run into difficulty when I try this for real in my project.

    And, I can go to those conferences without having to sit down with a spreadsheet and determine if it's really a good idea or not.

  • Jeffery Palermo's response from his blog. http://jeffreypalermo.com/blog/death-of-the-professional-speaker-will-never-happen/

  • At least in the mid-west some of the volunteer driven conferences are starting to get bigger because they are cheaper and aren't vendor focused.  Check out the CodeMash conference for instance.  It's put on by a complete volunteer crew.  At the 2009 conference they had a "Precompiler" day where you could learn about .NET, Python, Ruby, whatever from people that were very talented.  I think these are the types of conferences that Scott B. is referring to when he said non-vendor driven.  Note that these types of conferences DO exist in the U.S. already.

    Check out: devlink.net, codemash.org and codestock.org.  All three are conferences I'd recommend.  Oh, and Ted Neward, Richard Campbell, Scott Hanselman... those big names?  Yeah, they were at some of these too.  And unlike the PDC, I was able to sit at the bar and listen to Richard tell awesome stories.  I was able to see Ted sit in an Open Spaces session and give his opinion. 

    Personally, I think that instead of these massively large conferences, perhaps more frequent and much smaller (say 500 to 1,000 attendee) conferences that are not vendor linked are the  future.  Then it won't be the death of the professional speaker.  It will be the rise of the regional talent with some of the professionals in to add their experience.

  • Colin Angus MackayColin A Mackay What happened to my old account?

    Having been to both professional and community conferences I'd say that despite the lack of polish the community conferences are better. There are some good speakers in both conferences, but I find that the professional speakers tend not to show the enthusiasm or passion if that is all they do.

    Sure, the professional speaker can put on a good show, that's what draws the crowds. But then again, do I want a good show or do I want to be educated? Bottom line is that I'm there to learn stuff. I can learn much more from someone who is clearly passionate even although they may stumble a bit (because that passion rubs off) than I can from someone who is merely an entertainer.

    You may argue that the professional speaker will do a better job. But that's not necessarily the case. I saw a professional speaker, traveled transatlantic to be at the conference, 90 minutes presentation. 60 minutes of waffle about the history of the internet (not the topic), 25 minutes on the history of REST (getting closer), 5 minutes on a REST framework (on target at last), then 2 minutes over time he "discovered" he couldn't show the demo because he had not actually installed the relevant software. I was so angry at that because it was painfully obvious that he did know in advance and instead of giving us the opportunity to go to a different sesssion lied to us all. All the community speakers I've seen at least had the necessary software installed to show off their demos.

    Finally, in the interests of openness, I organised a codecamp style event called Developer Day Scotland (AKA DDD-Scotland) the last couple of years. Why? Becuase there are no developer conferences in Scotland for .NET developers. Community conferences fill a niche that the big conferences don't cover.

  • I have known you Ted for a while, and like you I have been in the speaking business since about 96. So your point is actually very very valid. It is completely insightful. However, it is just telling things as they will be progressing.

    From 98 to around 2001 I was the RD from Germany. And from one day to another I dropped being an RD because I had a midlevel meeting with the Visual Studio management and wanted to talk about Open Source. My point was that Open Source was going to eat into Microsoft's business. Open Source did not just eat into Microsoft's business, but EVERYBODY's business! This is not a Microsoft problem. But I realized it was going to change the industry from bottom up. End result it DID! What this means is that it is very very difficult for any company to sell software.

    At the time it did not hurt my speaking, training, or book authoring business. But then around 2003 or 2004 I saw a shift happening. I saw how Google was becoming a destination and not just search engine. And it was at that time I saw another shift. I wrote one of the first Ajax patterns book and the sales of that book just did not do as well as I was expecting. It made me wonder, and made me think. One possible answer was if the quality was good. Fair enough I am not a great book author (at least not like you Ted, and I mean that seriously), but for my expectations things did not go as planned.

    What I figured out was that I and many other people use Google to research and learn topics. And because there is so much free content on the Internet nobody really bothers to buy. Sure some do, but not the youngsters. That made me concerned and made me think.

    Then almost 4 years ago I made a decision to switch fields. Yes I would still do some speaking gigs (as I really like to be at the conferences), but decided I need a new revenue stream. It was the financial field, namely investment banking. In the past I had worked at other banks (usually wrote the mortgage algorithms) and liked this field. EVEN now with the market down the demand for my skills are UP! I have PLENTY of work, there is no lack of jobs! It is surprising how resilitant my business has been. I did not even do any advertisements and I got clients knocking on my door asking for my help.

    Why? Because I have good computing skills. It seems that the quants, and algo traders are good thinkers, but could not program themselves out of a wet paper bag. So now the banks and clients want skilled programmers who have knowledge of the business. And that's me.

    Summing it all up, I think you are right Ted, the death of the professional speaker is among us. Just as the death of CNN, (twitter),  mainstream media (bloggers), and as such the tech industry. It is changing and we "professional speakers" have to adapt, or die... I chose adapt and have not looked back... Maybe you need to as wel...

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