Following on from my post about the ACE program, Yuri from Pythian asked what I get out of presenting that makes it worthwhile. In this post I will tell a few little stories to explain why I think writing and presenting are important skills for people, regardless of their ambitions.
I mentioned in the previous post that I was originally scared of public speaking. There are only two reactions to that. You either avoid it, or face it head-on. In my case I chose the latter and it worked for me. I’m now really comfortable speaking to large groups of people. It’s always a bit nervy, but in a good way. At UKOUG last year I got up on stage and I could see my hands were shaking, so I pointed it out to the crowd and laughed at myself. Once I acknowledged the fear, I felt pretty calm and got on with it. The confidence to accept this sort of thing only comes if you put yourself through the ringer a few times. Preparation makes life alot easier, but no amount of practicing in your house can truly prepare you for the first time you get on stage.
If you do your preparation well, you will learn a lot more about your subject area. I spend a lot of time looking at what I am presenting and trying to think about the questions people are likely to ask me. If I come across anything I can’t answer in a convincing manner, I hit the books to find out what the answer is. There are always a few surprises, but you can incorporate those into your presentations to improve them over time.
In a similar vein, learning how to explain things to other people teaches you a lot about your subject. When you have to think of multiple approaches to explain a subject, you often gain more clarity yourself.
“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.” – Aristotle
There are pivotal moments in your life when being able to communicate clearly and calmly can have a big impact. I was speaking to some University students a few months back and asked how many of them had done formal presentations. The answer was pretty much zero. So then I posed the question, how do you think you are going to cope in a job interview if you’ve never actually put yourself under that sort of pressure before? I’m not saying presenting in front of your peers or at a conference will make you an interview demon, but these skills are transferable and they will help.
Likewise, when you are in a meeting and you have to present your arguments for following a specific route, if you babble inanely I doubt you will get the result you want. Communicating your thoughts and ideas in a clear manner is a skill everyone needs. Being able to communicate with people of differing technical backgrounds is a great skill too. It allows you to be the glue that binds the teams together. There is nothing worse than working in a company where all the teams are cool, but the interfaces between them are broken.
Above all, when you’ve done a good presentation you are on such a high. You feel like skipping out of the room.
I think everyone should write. Not just technical people, but everyone. I never kept a diary as a kid, but on reflection I wish I had. You don’t need to write fancy prose. Not every article has to been 50 pages long. It’s about ordering your thoughts. You don’t have to make them available on the internet, but I think it helps if you do.
I remember the first time I answered a question on a forum. It was dbasupport.com. I must have reread my answer about 20 times. I read the relevant pages in the documentation several times, making sure I’d not made a mistake. I hit submit and then refreshed the page every few seconds waiting to see if someone would criticise my answer. It was terrifying. The point is, putting your content out for public consumption opens you up to criticism, so you try a bit harder. I recently got one of my colleagues to start blogging. He kept his notes as word documents on a memory stick. In transferring stuff to his blog he commented on how scrappy some of his notes were and how putting them on his blog was forcing him to neaten things up. How many times have to looked back at scrappy notes and found them pretty much useless?
I’ve got 12+ years of notes to fall back on. You ask me to do anything, chances are the first thing I will do is read my article on that subject as a refresher. If it doesn’t fill in all the gaps, I’ll add to it. The fact I can rely on my notes is a big confidence boost for me. Without them I would be winging through the manuals desperately hoping I can find the right bit before I make a fool of myself.
If career progression is your thing, ask yourself this question. If you were an employer and you were faced with two candidates of equal ability and one maintained a blog with regular posts of a technical nature and the other didn’t, which would you pick? I would pick the blogger, just because they showed an extra level of enthusiasm for the subject. I would find that an attractive quality in a candidate.
I don’t think your career should be your main motive though. Most of my employers, including my current one, haven’t had a clue about my website when I’ve been hired. My colleagues tend to catch on over time when I follow up every answer to a question with a link to oracle-base.com.
OK. So it’s a bit of a raggedy post, but it gives you some idea of why I think presenting and writing are important and what I get out of them. The fact that occasionally people will give you good feedback or make you part of a community program is a nice bonus.