Thursday, January 28, 2016

Shame in not becoming a speaker

This post is somewhat personal. It talks about my feelings of shame and ways I've recognized I used to deal with shame: self-delusion. It touches on my experience of being more responsible for home and kids, and how hard it can be to be away, always balancing. And it talks about a complaint I've never made even in private for conference organizers. If you're fine with this, read on. 

I need to tell you a bit of personal history on how I got started on speaking. I share this to help others make more informed decisions. And I offer a view that while I overcame all my obstacles so far, these obstacles and that they exist may be preventing the emergence of many other great, diverse speakers. Diverse as in women: having to balance the perception of financial responsibility for home vs. running the conference pipeline. And diverse as in people who are not consultants or from organizations selling to testers or recruiting testers. 

In hindsight, how I became an international speaker

In 2001 I was a researcher at university - a job I took as a safe environment to learn about testing in the world and to learn to overcome my speaking phobia. Poor students had a shaking nervous teacher, with a lot of commitment on sharing stuff on something she was super excited about: software testing. I was a bad speaker, but I started practicing - a lot. I used every chance I could find to deliver talks. I found my style of what I was comfortable with. And teaching turned into learning, a habit. 

In hindsight I recognize that 2005 was a major milestone in what set my future in speaking. I quit a consulting job that had, just like the research work earlier, paid for me to speak. I had more practice  of speaking under my belt, and back then thought I knew more of testing than I know I know now. With a long list of companies I couldn't work for as they were customers of mine in the consultancy, I landed a job on one of those companies. The contract was a 6-month period, just to match the time my hands were tied. It turned into 3 joyful years. But since it was short and my intention was becoming independent, my contract was created so that I could start my business on the side. I've been training through my side business for 10 years now. It was a major milestone because the side business would later turn out to be the main vehicle to enable me to speak at conferences. 

Let's talk about money 

Local conferences are easy to go to: just go, speak. They rarely pay even travel, but then again, travel within your own city is a non-issue. International conferences are a different deal.

My first international conferences was EuroSTAR. I prepared for my talk for weeks. I got a free conference pass to a super-expensive conference, and was ecstatic. My organization back then paid my flights and hotel, telling me it would be just this one I could do for quite some time. I never realized it was wrong that I had to pay to speak - there was nothing in it for my company, other than making me happy. 

Doing this a few times and paying with my own money (from my side business) as not all companies will pay for me, I started realizing there were better conferences, ones that paid for travel + stay. They were rare though. I started prioritizing showing up in these conferences with my best possible content. 

The year 2015 was really a turning point in how I would view this. I did a total of 33 talks, and traveled to a lot of places on two continents. I was working with a company that was generous to allow me to use 5 days of invoiced time into trainings per year. That is 37.5 hours in which I would not lose money to be out of office. The personal investment grew, and awareness with the experience. So if I would be out of office for conference time, it would cut away my base salary. But at least I had the side business and a deal from my lessons in 2005 that allowed me to continue to do trainings / conferences on the side. Without it, there's no way I could afford this!

None of the conferences I spoke at paid for my time on being away or preparing for the track sessions. Some of the conferences paid travel + hotel. Some paid just hotel. Some paid just part of travel + hotel. But many had me pay my own travel too. One of the conferences organized an on-the-side paid training, and I can't say enough positive words about Rosie Sherry and TestBashes on enabling things financially. 

So it's expensive. How much did you want to invest in this if your company does not do it for you? This is not just becoming a speaker, but becoming a great speaker. It means practice. Reflection. Trial and error. 

And the shame comes in... 

Conferences that pay for travel and expenses have all operated on the idea that you get your money back after the conference. It means that when you speak, you become a personal loan office for the conference. Your money can be tied in typically from 3 - 9 months. And when you have many of these, the amounts accrue. Multiply that by the number of conferences, and you'll figure out that there must a bit of financial flexibility.

When I realized the money I need, I was lucky to build the flexibility through delivering a paid testing training. I understand that is not an option for everyone. Introspectively, I see I could have easily stayed at home to avoid mom-guilt and just tell myself that I did not really want to do it anyway. It's not a part of my job. My job does not benefit from it, or need it, directly at least. Time is limited and I don't want the other kind of job, perhaps I should take what comes with this (I LOVE product development!). When you miss out on an opportunity, self-delusion helps keep you sane. I recognize I have a lot of that. 

I've only recently started voicing out my concern on this and the reason for not doing this is shame. It's hugely embarrassing to have to tell an unknown conference organizer that I'm out of cash because of this approach. Even worse, to tell them that since I have not had gigs on my side job, the money I'm tying into this is what I'm supposed to run my family with. 

I feel shame because I should save up and have the money available. But I haven't.  Just before Christmas, I was waiting on several conferences to come back with payments of thousands of euros for conferences some months before the time. I had gone so low on my flexibility that all I could do is to tell myself that it's better that kids get their presents after Christmas on the sales, and deliver just great promises as presents.

Sometimes I wonder who would want to take that extra load? Why do I take that extra load? And on those occasions, I need recognition that what I do is worth something to someone - that I've helped.  I need someone to remind me that I speak to change the world. World of testing. World of conferences. Together with my communities. 

Money extends to organizing homelife

If you have kids, taking them with you or leaving them behind is a lot of organizing - money makes that easier. Do I really always need to choose between family at home and a conference away, or could conferences make it financially easier to deal with this? 

I rarely talk about my kids in the professional circles. Even less I mention for years I was running this all in a single-parent setting. There's a lot to orchestrate. Kids make a great excuse, should I want one. I could just do less. 

And the diverse speakers then? 

The world of conferences needs to change. In addition to support we're giving through great mentoring initiatives like Speak Easy, the conferences need to start paying for the people who deliver the talks. I did not mention this much before. Perhaps others too, like me, are ashamed of having to reveal that the finances stop them, to a point where they resolve in self-delusion telling they don't want it, they can't do it and no one cares what they could share anyway. 

I want diversity. I want to enable women to travel. I want to enable people who work in companies without a will to pay for them to travel. I want to hear more from people like me (in product development) and less from those who have become independent consults. 

Some professionals travel easier because keeping themselves visible keeps their companies visible. A majority of people - with great stories and experiences - are not in that position. Thus I believe the world of conferences must change and we need to: 
  1. Pay the speakers, not just travel
  2. Pay costs as soon as they incur
These ideas and experiences are just one of the reasons I'm organizing European Testing Conference as a platform where I can change the world of conferences one conference at a time. 


  1. Thanks for posting this. Generosity in serving others is no cause for shame. I suspect that most conference goers think little if at all about the economics outside of "is it worth XXX for me to attend", and certainly not about the speakers, organizers, and staff. If shedding light on this "dirty little secret" encourages a broader base of presenters, the profession as a whole will benefit.

  2. Dear Maaret,

    I fully understand what you are saying. I have spoken on many conferences in the last couple of years I have regularly found myself asking the question
    "How much do I want to invest in going to this conference?".
    The obvious investments like having a subject, writing an abstract and creating the presentation I took more or less for granted. Although in hindsight this added up to hundreds of hours of work per year next to my regular job. Additionally there was the time, plus travel, at the conference that almost always came out of my own pocket and next to that the costs of travel and lodging. What conferences paid differed hugely but almost always resulted in me having to pay part of it myself (sometimes hundreds of euros). For some conferences that is easier to bear than others. For instance Peer Conferences are relatively low cost with a high yield in learning and conferring. So the immaterial 'payment' is enough for me. But some conferences have less of these elements and therefore feel, and are much more costly. Especially some large conferences only offer a free ticket while asking top dollar from the delegates. This is even more so with tutorials which I have developed a preference to do. A conference may earn thousands of euros for a tutorial while either paying me a small fee or sometimes even nothing. Lately I have started to avoid these conferences even if I can get a paid ticket and expenses for them.
    Luckily there is a growing number of conferences that understand that next to their organization it is the speakers that make the conference and that happy and motivated speakers deliver the best presentations or tutorials and are more willing to continuously invest in the quality of their product to the benefit of the attending delegates and the conference.
    I understand that conferences deliver a lot of work through organizing, selecting content, entertaining delegates and that they need to make money and even profit and I have no problem with that. Even so I think they need to understand that speakers deliver the bulk of the content of their conference and that they are a reason that delegates come to their conference and take home new ideas and inspiration. And they deserve a fair financial reward for that. After all many of them do not have an organization behind them that can look at this as advertising and hope to make money out of it eventually.
    I applaud your effort to change the conference world starting with your own conference as a start.



  3. Yeah - I don't know really what's going on in the world of testing over this.

    My father used to be highly in demand as a speaker on a range of tribology issues, where he was a world expert. But it was "all taken care of" for him. Part the organisation, part his company wanting to be seen.

    He literally turned up, the ticket was sorted for him, the hotel, everything.

    I know myself from my limited experience, that feeling of "make things simple" is missing - and I've been really fretful trying to get things sorted. It just makes me wonder "why is it harder for me in the modern internet age than it was for my dad in the 80s?".

    1. This trend is also going on at the office. We used to have assistants. Now we get to scan our own expense receipts into a system...