Five Years of Public Speaking

It has been five years since I started with public speaking. I wanted to share my journey into public speaking. My highs and my lows. Maybe my experience as a shy, introverted person can help others.

Me at CodeMotion Milan 2018

People who know me know I am a rather reserved, shy and introverted person. I do not like the attention or being in the spotlights. I prefer the intimate conversations with a few familiar people and the hallway conversations at conferences.

Speaking at a conference, on a stage in front of a room full of people is my worst nightmare.

At the start of my public speaking journey, I used to start every presentation saying something along the lines of:

Look, I am shy and introverted. What I am doing here is kind of demanding. Please, be patient with me.

Having said that, allowed me to get rid of some of the anxiety and stress. It allowed me to deliver my presentation with a bit more confidence. I have to say, that helped me a lot.

Nowadays, after five years, I do not dare to say that any more. I am afraid people would think: “Yeah, right. It’s been five years he’s speaking. Shouldn’t he get used to it?”. Well no. I do not get used to this. I am still worried, nervous and distressed before every session. When rehearsing, I am already breaking out in cold sweat. I feel horrible, so little and very insignificant. Many times I am wondering “Why am I doing this?”.

If it is such a pain, why am I persevering in doing this?

Good question. Although, I do not like the spotlights. I do like the attention afterwards. The questions, the congrats, the mentions on Twitter, the requests for advice. This is all very gratifying and enjoyable. It gives self-esteem and confidence.

There is, however, another far more important reason why I continue this endeavour. In my experience, when you are shy and introverted, people tend to look over you. They tend to treat you as less knowledgeable. Public speaking helped me to become recognised for my knowledge. Unfortunately, I am still a stranger to Belgian organisations 😒 though I am somehow known outside of Belgium.

It all started in 2015. At the time, I was helping a team of 10 people improving their software engineering skills. Stefan De Moerloose, the team manager, was concerned I never wanted to present the achievements of the team to the organisation. Stefan wanted me to also take credit. I preferred to stay that “émince grise” in the comfy shadow and have the other team members take the honours.

Stefan kept nudging me in that direction. Finally, it triggered something. On one night, in all my craziness, I submitted two proposals at two Belgian agile conferences. One proposal per conference. Two different topics.

Big mistake. Big. Huge.

– Vivian, Pretty Woman

Little side note on time to prepare a presentation:

Preparing a presentation is time-consuming. From the metrics I have, it takes approximately 50 hours for a 40-45 min session. That is about 40 slides.

Experienced speakers confirmed this to me.

And then you have not yet taken into account the additional time spent rehearsing before every conference.

You can imagine the work I was facing when sending in two different topics and having absolutely no prior speaking experience. Doh 🤦

Both proposals got selected. The journey is about to start.

Agile Tour Brussels 2015: Facts and Fallacies of Continuous Delivery

1-hour timeslot. Massive failure.

I was so stressed I did not sleep the night before.

Far too many slides: 100+. Too much content. I was unable to keep the content in my head. Eventually, I ended up reading my slides. Such an embarrassing experience.

Side note on starting with public speaking:

At many open spaces the question gets asked: How do I start with public speaking.

Many times the same advice is given: “Start small. Start at a local user group or a meetup”.

It looks like I have done it the other way around. First the conference, then the meetups. Well, it also works like that. However, I would advise following the above advice: start to speak at a meetup. It will be less stressful.

Although it felt like a failure, it was the start of many new encounters.

First, I discovered about PIPELINE Conference, a conference on Continuous Delivery, during an interview with Steve Smith titled More Feature Branching Means Less Continuous Integration.

2015 was also the year I decided to focus on advising organisations in the adoption of Continuous Delivery. Later, I extended this to Continuous Integration. It appears there is still plenty of work to be done in that area. Therefore, it was clear I had to attend the next PIPELINE Conference.

And also, I wanted to submit something to PIPELINE Conference. But I could not propose Facts and Fallacies of Continuous Delivery. Too long. Too much linked with failure. But it had compelling content. So, I distilled Continuous Delivery is more than just Tooling, It’s a Mindset from that.

Side note on writing an abstract:

When you have never written an abstract before, it can be a daunting task. At least it was for me. Luckily, there is this lovely online community of speakers willing to help you with that.

Have a look at HelpMeAbstract.

Attending PIPELINE Conference 2016

In the end, I was not selected to speak at PIPELINE Conference 2016. In fact, I have never been selected for PIPELINE Conference. I tried three times. Each time the proposal narrowly missed out. That is not bad at all, though not being able to speak at PIPELINE Conference when Continuous Delivery is your business focus feels a bit disappointing.

I still attended PIPELINE Conference. It was a blast. I was blown away by the quality and the high standard of the topics. From then on I attended every edition of PIPELINE Conference till it ended after the 2018 edition. That made me very sad. PIPELINE Conference was my little nugget. I was the only Belgian attending. It was the one conference that stood out and where I got my knowledge. Luckily, in the meantime, I discovered Lean Agile Scotland. They apply similar high standards to the content.

PIPELINE Conference is the best thing that happened to me. I got enrolled in this remarkable Continuous Delivery community. I have met lovely, wonderful and knowledgeable people.

Continuous Lifecycle London 2016: Continuous Delivery is more than just Tooling, It’s a Mindset

At Continuous Lifecycle London 2016 Dave Farley was part of the program committee.

You can imagine how pleased I was hearing I was selected with Continuous Delivery is more than just Tooling, It’s a Mindset

3rd conference, 3rd topic in 6 months. Oh dear! 😱

The presentation went pretty well this time. I was well prepared. The room was filled. Speaking in front of a crowded room, even the smallest one, boosts your confidence. After my session, I got hijacked by Swiss people active in hearing devices (embedded software). They had lots of questions about applying Continuous Delivery in the embedded software world. That resulted in an email conversation on the topic that lasted for several months. That was an enlightening experience.

I reused my presentation for several other conferences in 2016. That is far more economical.

The high of that year was Agile Tour Brussels 2016. I was scheduled in the morning single track. My very first time presenting in front of 125 people. The whole Belgian agile big league was present. Afterwards, a kind lady gave me this fabulous feedback: You may be shy, nobody noticed. You did very well!

The low of that year was CD Summit & Jenkins Days Amsterdam 2016. I started speaking in front of 5 people. That increased by 100% during the presentation to … 10 people. One advice: avoid speaking at vendor conferences unless your topic is about the product of the vendor.

Continuous Delivery Conference NL 2016: Feature Branching is Evil

I like to say that feature branches are evil in order to get people’s attention. However in reality I lack the determination and confidence to be a zealot. So here is the non-soundbite version.

– Jez Humble, On DVCS, continuous integration, and feature branches

Let me fix that for you! Alright, this might have been a bit pretentious. To be fair, I had no idea what I was starting.

When Lanyrd was still a thing, I searched for Continuous Delivery conferences and discovered Continuous Delivery Conference NL.

I submitted two topics:

Continuous Delivery Conference NL reflected a rather “enterprisey” character. I was expecting, if I got selected, they would pick Continuous Delivery is more than just Tooling, It’s a Mindset. Well no! They went for the provocative topic. Look at that! The ball was about to start rolling.

One month before speaking at Continuous Delivery Conference NL, I attended the SoCraTes France 2016 open space conference for the very first time.

I gathered up my courage and proposed a Feature Branching is Evil session at SoCraTes France. You have to know, at the time, I did not have the confidence I have now to treat this subject. Besides, most attendees of such conference use feature branches. I was expecting some backfire. But the purpose of having this session was to gather as much feedback as possible from proponents of branching. The night before, I drafted in three hours a draft of the presentation. The session helped tremendously in organising my thoughts and producing the very first version for Continuous Delivery Conference NL.

At Continuous Delivery Conference NL, I was scheduled as the last session of the day. That was a pity. I have a hard time enjoying a conference when I still have to give my presentation. At last, the session went ok, I think.

The 3 realities of conference speaking:

Speakers: That was awful! I ran out of time, didn’t deliver at the right pace and I forgot a point

Audience: OMG! That was mind blowing, greatest talk I’ve heard in years

Actual: Decent talk. Good ideas, wasn’t delivered by Laurence Olivier

– Chris McDermott, Oct 8, 2019

That evening, I published my slides on Twitter. Something unexpected happened. A retweet storm occurred by the people I admire. 😳

XP Conference 2017

Continuous Delivery Conference NL and Twitter gave me the confidence to submit at XP Conference 2017. I have this irrational idea some conferences are just out of my reach. XP Conference is one of them, together with Agile20xx, Lean Agile Scotland and Agile India.

Did I mention imposter syndrome?

I asked for feedback about my proposal and received this constructive feedback on how to improve my proposal to turn it into an excellent proposal. Ever since, I use this same template for all my submissions.

Side note on the content of a proposal:

A good proposal contains obviously a title and an abstract. You are always limited in the number of words or characters for the abstract. Use the additional information to the organisers to provide extra content on top of the abstract. Also, add a timeline or at least an outline. Do not forget to mention learning outcomes for your session. It helps reviewers to make up an idea of how well the session will be delivered.

Some conferences ask for past speaking experience. Obviously, when you start with public speaking, you cannot provide this. You have to start somewhere. Conferences doing blind selections focus on the proposal quality and not so much on speaking experience.

In the end, I got selected for XP Conference 2017. I was thrilled.

On my way to XP Conference 2017, I improved the slides by adding the missing illustrations.

On my way to XP Conference 2017

your use of illustrations was very effective

– Jeff Sussna, May 24, 2017

For some mysterious reason, my XP Conference presentation received quite some attention on Twitter. It even got mentioned in Gareth Rushgrove’s DevOps Weekly.

A solid argument against feature branching, arguing that there are many ways of using a distributed version control system, not all of them are good.

– Gareth Rushgrove, DevOps Weekly #335

From a public speaking perspective, 2017 was becoming a very lean year. I was rejected from many conferences.

Then, out of the blue, without notice, I received this email from Mikalai Alimenkou having the subject: “XP Days Ukraine 2017 speaker invitation”. You can imagine my surprise.

We have found your talk about feature branches in XP 2017 conference program and decided it could be interesting for our community.

– Mikalai Alimenkou

As a bonus XP Days Ukraine recorded my session. My very first session recording. Woohoo! For some reason, it pops up now and then on Twitter. It almost reached 5.000 views. 🤷‍♂️

Looking back, XP Days Ukraine and XP Conference made my year and launched me as a speaker. I was so proud of this accomplishment.

By the end of 2017, Leena S N nudged me to submit at Agile India 2018. I did propose and was selected. A wonderful experience I am not going to forget soon.

CodeMotion Milan 2018

In 2017, I could only present Feature Branching is Evil at two conferences. I thought the world had to hear more about the evilness of feature branching. So I decided to continue to submit this presentation for another year.

2018 was a packed year. I spoke at 14 events. I even started getting paid speaker assignments at company events.

The highs of 2018 were speaking at Agile India, NCrafts and Lean Agile Scotland. But the absolute high was CodeMotion Milan 2018.

Finally, I managed to get “Feature Branching considered Evil” accepted at a pure developer-oriented conference. That will be the very first time!

I will be speaking end of November at #Codemotion Milan @CodemotionIT

– Thierry de Pauw, Sep 26, 2018

I have tried many times to submit “Feature Branching is Evil” at what I call pure developer-oriented conferences like NDC, OreDev, Devoxx, BuildStuff. In my humble opinion, it is this audience that needs to hear this. As opposed to agile, XP or software-crafts conferences where I have the impression to preach in front of the convinced. But, “Feature Branching is Evil” was always rejected. I do not know why. They never gave me any feedback.

I do not mind being rejected. I do mind not receiving any feedback because of the fallacy reason “we have received too many proposals”. I get it, it takes time to reply to every submitter. But that is the least you could do to show some respect for the time these people have put into crafting a proposal for your conference.

Speaking from experience, you either make the time to give feedback - or you lose proposers for the following year

– Steve Smith, Oct 17, 2017

Never mind, CodeMotion Milan was an outright success. They scheduled me in the smallest room. I remember thinking at the time: “I can imagine fewer people will be interested in this topic at such a conference”.

Thierry de Pauw live in very shortly at Room 3. Make sure to get down to the stages early as places fill up fast 🚀 🙋‍♀️ 🙋‍♂️ @CodemotionIT @tdpauw

– Codemotion, Nov 29, 2018

That room was jam-packed. People were sitting on the floor in front of the stage. Others were standing in the back! 😳 Afterwards, I learned the room had a capacity of 300 seats. 300 seats! 😳

Expand Conf 2019: Continuous Delivery for 15 teams and their single monolith

In 2019 I organised CITCON in my home town, Ghent.

Douglas Squirrel did a session on Agile War stories. One of the attendees mentioned the work I was doing at the agency he was working at. At the time, I was helping a federal public agency adopting Continuous Delivery for 15 teams all working on one single monolith. The agency achieved Continuous Delivery in less than four months.

Squirrel immediately grabbed me asking: “How did you manage their fear?”. He interviewed me. This became the “fear conversation” case in Agile Conversations, the book he was writing with Jeffrey Fredrick.

That helped to bring order in my thoughts and to craft this new presentation From bi-annual to fortnightly releases in 4 months for 15 teams and a single monolith for Expand Conf 2019.

Final Thoughts

Looking back, this was quite a journey. It unlocked experiences I would never have run into, had I never submitted my very first proposal in 2015 to Agile Tour Brussels.

During this journey, I made some warm-hearted friendships.

I have been invited to speak at several conferences. For an imposter, this is quite an experience. It does something with your self-esteem.

Over the past five years, I have been asked to review two books. One of my work experiences was mentioned as a case in a third book. And I was asked to be part of the reviewing committee for two conferences.

I have travelled a lot. Spoken with plenty of fascinating people. Seen many places.

Over these five years, I have spoken at 27 conferences and another 12 meetups and private company events. Though I have spoken so many times, I still do not get used to public speaking. But, it was worth the investment. I learned my knowledge has value for others.

I am delighted about my accomplishments. By the end of 2020, I was also exhausted. I had the plan of having a break. But after three months, I feel the urge to start again.


To Els, who made all of this possible. Thank you, my love!