A speaking experience

TL;DR – Speaking is awesome, and JDD Kraków is the awesomest.

I sit in an orange chair at a table set with two forks and three knives. This hotel in central Warsaw has 31 stories and a lobbyful of teenagers chattering in Hebrew. I order krem grzebowy (cream of mushroom soup) and pierogi z grze… mushrooms.

This is a long way from St. Louis, MO. I’m a long way from the developer I was two years ago.

JDD brought me here to speak at a software developer conference in Kraków. JDD is a medium-size conference, about 450 attendees in three tracks. It is exceptional in hospitality. If you’ve ever wondered what speaking at conferences is good for, JDD is the answer.

The people barely fit into three rooms packed with chairs in the largest hotel conference center in Kraków  Yesterday when the hostess introduced my third talk, the audience clapped. This is not standard – normally clapping is only after the talk. They clapped for me, because they heard one of my earlier talks and were excited to hear me again.
I blushed and my eyes watered. “Thank you,” I said. “I love Poland. I love Kraków, a beautiful city and I love the people and the vodka and the pierogi. Thank you for having me.” Then I launched into Git Happens. Fifty minutes later the conference ended. People left the room better motivated and equipped to use distributed version control. Several approached me with more specific questions (I still owe some of you an email). Each thanked me for the talk. Ian, a speaker from Ireland, said I’m even more enthusiastic about git than Matthew McCollough – that’s saying something!
At least two people thought I was the best speaker of the conference. I made their experiences better. I helped them find new enthusiasm for git, or Android, or thinking about code in new ways. Maciej was thrilled that I retweeted him. With such a small thing, I made his day.

This is speaking at conferences: improving the lives of developers in a whole ‘nother part of the world, spreading my enthusiasm and receiving “thank you” and “I enjoyed your talk.”
And there is so much more. The experience of speaking takes place mostly outside of the conference.

It started this time with a trip to Europe, which JDD arranged. Karoline picked me up and the airport and escorted me in a taxi to the hotel. At the the Galaxy Hotel in Kraków one of the elevators plays birds chirping. In the room, you have to put the key in a slot by the door or else the lights don’t work.
I came in a few days early. The conference took care of all hotel, meals, tours of the city – not just transportation, but friendly escorts. Natalja (the Polish j makes a consonant y sound) rode with me in the taxi to the salt mine and helped me learn the three different ch sounds in Polish. The ć character, like at the end of cześć (hello), you have to pull your cheeks back and use your smile to get it right. Natalja is studying international relations, so she likes to practice her language skills with speakers.
I toured the salt mine with Andrew (dang, lost his last name) and Ron Broersma, two speakers at the PLNOG conference earlier in the week. Ron has been networking computers since 1976 — before I was born, before the PC existed. Did you know that IP (Internet Protocol) was invented because computers were scarce and expensive? Ron told me the story of TCP/IP, which includes railroads and the breakup of AT&T.
We finished that story over dinner. Sławek (short for Slawomir; pronounced “Swavek”) took us to the old Jewish quarter. I ate pieroszki, which is a diminutive pierogi. Sławek shared four different Polish liquors with us: a honey one, a cherry one, one made from grass that has been pissed on by a bison, and a hazelnut one.

Church inside the salt mine

At that dinner the conversation turned from networking to development, and I shared some of the inspiration for my Functional Principles talk. Not only did I converse with two deep experts in computers, but I contributed in the conversation. They were interested in what I had to say. Before speaking, before thinking and learning and organizing my thoughts about development, I could not have done that.
I met Joe Yoden, who lives a few hours’ drive from me and coined the “big ball of mud” antipattern. And Rebecca Wirfs-Brock, who started the “x Driven Design” meme — the first x was Responsibility.
From Hardy Ferentschik I learned that in Sweden there is great sailing, while in Australia they don’t have enough green plants. Hardy works on Hibernate for RedHat. He described his experiences working with a team scattered across the world that incorporates the work of open-source contributions.

a tall chamber in the Salt Mine

At the conference party, every time I got near the dance floor, someone different jumped up and danced with me. That was a blast! I made their days a little better, too.
I talked with Andrzej (Andre to English speakers), already a conference organizer at 26. He mentioned being an outcast as a kid and giving up on caring what people think. I suspect this is a source of innovation in our industry.

It is snowing in Warsaw. The people on the other side of the window have umbrellas. In the mall in Kraków  there are tons of coats and tights and sweaters and boots. Coat check rooms are prominent here.

It is not all fun. It’s the first time I’ve spoken without a close friend around to help practice, give me a hug, and tell me I could do it. I know I can do it, but I really could have used some hugs. Hours spent in my hotel room tweaking my talks because Slawomir took a risk inviting me, and I had to do well. Sightseeing and sessions skipped, alone and scared.

On the last night in Kraków, for the third speaker dinner, Sławek took us to a traditional Polish restaurant near the main market square. The first thing served: vodka. Andrzej and Pawel and Piotr claim that their generation doesn’t drink vodka with every supper. But Jarek does! Jarek and I connected in this way: every time we looked at each other, vodka appeared. Jarek told me about his experiencing building an architecture team around a legacy app that had none, and the differences between teams in various parts of the world vs teams with members spread across the world. (hint: the first is better.)
On the way to the main square we passed the castle. It is huge! brick, stone, many materials, blocks and blocks of walls and windows. Kraków was not destroyed in WWII like Warsaw was, but there were many battles in earlier times.
St. Louis has never had a war.

Tired from the heavy food, a handful of us set out for a bar anyway. The underground bar reeks of history. Those walls were shaped and patched before my country was born. People peeled off, abandoning their vodka. I took care of that.
And then, a dance club! Patricja lives in Warsaw and started her own company automating optimization of source code. (She should speak at StrangeLoop.) She does not care for vodka or śledż (a brined herring that I looooved), but she does like dancing! Four of us explored an industrial dance club with many rooms, all underground. Dim, smoky, loud thumping unfamiliar music. Excellent.
Around 4 we returned to the hotel. I woke up in the bathtub sometime after sunrise. Poland and I, we got along.
Speaking is about experiences. It is about forming connections through conversations with intelligent people who also love to learn. About taking these clues home and weaving them together into the next presentation to stimulate people at the next conference. Speaking is about making people’s day, and letting them make mine.

Not all conferences are like JDD. Most in the US don’t even pay travel expenses for speakers. I don’t know any that host the way Sławek and Justyne do. They arranged this hotel in Warsaw for me, because my flight to Amsterdam leaves at 6:20 a.m. tomorrow. The krem grzebewy is delicious.
When I was alone and in need of a hug before my presentations, that was scary. The accolades afterward make me forget. On departure, I received hugs from several new friends. Speaking is not easy, but it is rewarding.

Thank you to the JDD organizers, Sławek and Justyne and ProIdea. Thank you to the hostesses, Karoline and Natalya and the others. Thank you to all the people who listened to my talks, especially the ones who gave feedback. Thank you to the other speakers who talked to me, for their fascinating company. Thank you to everyone who helped me get here, and thank you to my friends back home who emailed and Skyped during the scary parts. Thank you to my husband, who is proud of me. Thank you to Kraków.

This is what if feels like to be alive.

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