Speaking, for developers

08 May, 2019

So I’m writing to you from Toronto, where I’m currently part of Cohort 22 of HackerYou’s front-end web development bootcamp. One of the things that make HackerYou’s program so effective is that, in addition to solid technical skills, grads walk out with a lot of what are often called ‘soft skills’ (a term that I dislike, more on which later). This includes speaking in front of a group — something a great many people have a terror of. Myself included! I am legit afraid of getting up in front of people.

Imagine my surprise, then, now that it’s week three of our program and I’ve given three brief presentations, to find that: a) I have not died from fright or mortification, and b) I’ve received really positive feedback. This is extremely strange to hear. I’ve lived with low-key anxiety for as long as I can remember. It’s always in the background, like a low hum from an HVAC system. (When my doctor checks my blood pressure he has to leave the room because if anyone’s around it skews the results. Like that.) And yet, people are now telling me I’m… good at speaking? Really?

I’m not saying this as a boast — like I said, it’s kind of baffling — but rather to say that if I can do this, you probably can too. One thing that’s become apparent, even this early in my dev career, is how common ‘impostor syndrome’ is. (You know: being convinced that everyone else has their act together in a way that we ourselves never, ever will. Friends, that’s a lie.) Chatting with my fellow students, I found most of them have been dreading having to speak in a crowd, and some were surprised (and reassured) to hear that I was scared of it as well. Which got me to thinking — maybe if we can be honest about our worries, we can see how common they are, we can share strategies for overcoming them, and we can defuse them.

To that end, here are some things that have helped me when speaking in front of a group. This is only what works for me, but maybe it’ll help someone else out too:

  • Know what you’re going to say and why. A lot of people think they can just wing it, but being able to extemporize is a whole skill of its own, and it’s one that I absolutely do not have. I have to know what points I want to make, in what order, and with what connective tissue between them. That means writing it down, then making an outline, then cutting that down to notes.
  • Speaking of notes: have notes! Not the whole speech, because then you’re just going to read it, which is not fun for anyone. Just point-form notes. You’re going to be nervous, so make sure the notes are easy to read and can lead you from point to point in case you get flustered.
  • Speaking of being nervous: you are going to be nervous. Especially at the start. This may never go away. I’ve found, rather than try to not be nervous, it helps me more to try and be okay with being nervous. (This is something I learned from running races: every single time I line up at the start, no matter how prepared I am, I get butterflies. It goes away as soon as I start running, but beforehand? Woof.) It’s OK. You’re about to do something that’s outside your comfort zone, but is well within your capabilities, and nerves just mean you care about the outcome.
  • Practice at home. Like, really practice. Stand up. If you have slides, run through them like you would. Say the actual words out loud. Don’t mumble, speak to the back of the room. I guarantee that you will feel incredibly foolish. It really helps. I promise.
  • When you’re practicing, use a stopwatch or timer, especially if you know you’re only going to have a certain amount of time (but really, use one anyway). Don’t rush (in fact, practice taking your time!) but just let it run in the background while you talk in your empty room. When I’m speaking, my sense of time does weird things. Have I been up here for thirty seconds? For ten years? WHO KNOWS. But if I’ve practiced several times and it always comes out around nine or ten minutes, then that’s about how long it’s going to take on the actual day. It’s one less thing to worry about.
  • Remember we talked about impostor syndrome? It happens because we never know what’s happening in someone else’s head — we think everyone else has it together, even though they’re all just making it up as they go along too. But it works in the other direction too: nobody knows how nervous you are. From where they’re sitting, you know exactly what you want to say, you’ve practiced, and you’re killing it.

Ugh I just want to type at a computer for a living whyyyy

I’m just starting out on the path as a developer; I come from a design background. In design school, we had something called crit — after every project, we had to present our work to our peers and explain not only what we did, but why. Because, out of school, you have to sell your work to clients, most of whom have no design training. You have to learn to translate, not from one language to another, but from one profession to another.

Coming into this new career, I’m finding that so much of development is translating. We, as devs, translate human instructions into JavaScript to make programs, or we translate a Photoshop mockup into semantic markup to make a webpage. But we don’t do this alone: software is too complicated for one person to develop it alone, so we have to translate our work into clear comments and docs so we can collaborate with other developers, and we have to be able to speak clearly in stand-ups with our peers. And we’re sometimes managed by people who don’t have our level of technical expertise, so we have to translate what we do into layperson’s terms, and we have to speak about that in meetings and client pitches.

And once we’re in senior roles, we need to do what others did for us when we were just starting out: translate our experience into terms new devs can relate to and use — that means speaking at conferences, or mentoring, or volunteering — all of which are necessary to keep this industry healthy. And at all points of our careers we need to advocate for what’s right, whether that’s making sure accessibility is a core part of everything we make, or making sure the projects we work on are ethical and safe, or reaching out to and loudly supporting diverse devs, so our industry doesn’t continue to be dominated, like it currently is, by a narrow, non-representative range of voices.

Doing all that means learning how to speak effectively. Back at the start of this piece, I referred to speaking as a ‘soft skill’, but I’ve never been fond of that term: it implies that speaking is not hard, or it’s optional, when it’s neither of those things. For a lot of us, it doesn’t come naturally at all. But it will come, with practice, and it’s absolutely necessary.