25 Jul

How to be a speaker if you don’t have any experience

I recently did a presentation for the Intuit Girls Who Code class – it was the first of many presentations I hope to give throughout my career. Some people seem to feel that public speaking is one of those fears that is even greater than death. I’m not a big fan of being put on the spot either, but with enough preparation (and maybe a friendly starting audience), it can actually be a pretty enjoyable experience. Now, I don’t claim to know it all from just one presentation, but these were the things I used to get started.

The Start

In the beginning, the first two hurdles I saw were:

  1. Opportunity
  2. Topic

Opportunities are actually a lot easier to come by than most people think. Presentations aren’t necessarily shown to hundreds of people at a time. In fact, that’s probably the worst way to get started as a speaker. There are plenty of opportunities around in unexpected places. Here’s some examples:

  • You have a new coworker that doesn’t know how to use Git. Create a presentation and teach them all about the wonders of this versioning tool. (1 on 1)
  • You have a group of summer interns that need to come up to speed on the best coding standards for your team. Grab all that information and create a presentation that’s way more interesting than the boring wiki you normally tell new team members to read. (1 on 5)
  • Worked with some interesting new technology that not everyone on your team knows about? Present all your findings during a lunchtime/staff meeting. (1 on 10-20)
  • Go back to your alma mater and teach your 21 year old self how to do something that’s not pulling all-nighters and partying too hard. (1 on 50-100+)

You can scale your talks accordingly. Start small with friendly people that will give you great feedback…then work your way up to a larger and more intimidating audience. Once you master the few, working your way up won’t seem too bad.

Topics on the other hand…this is one that I struggled with more than finding opportunities. Especially when you’re early in your career, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what would be an interesting topic to teach others about. Topics can be too basic, too complex, too narrow, too generic…the list goes on and there’s extremes at either end.

This one is more personal – what works for some may not work for others. I took some advice from Zach Holman, who has an amazing resource on speaking. In particular, he states that anyone can be an expert on most things if they focus and narrow in on something that they’re passionate about. Even if you’re not a complete expert in that particular area, it’s really about “making your audience reconsider their own perspectives. You don’t have to be smarter than them or even be more correct than them to do that.”

Generally, chosen topics are about something that you have done or experienced personally. However,  another way to think about it is that the best way to learn something is to teach it. If there’s a particular area that you’re interested in learning more about, the best way to thoroughly understand that area is to teach it to someone else. You can’t teach what you don’t know.

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16 May

Are you a bad (software) engineer if you don’t do side projects?

This is a question that recently came up on Quora and something that I’ve personally struggled with during and after college. It’s been especially hard for me ever since I started doing recruiting for Intuit, as one of the things that we look out for in promising candidates (at least at a university recruiting level) is that these students are self starters that have side projects listed on their resume. When students ask me what they can improve about their resume, one of the first things I recommend is that they work on a meaningful side project or get involved in extracurriculars to help bulk up their resume.

For me though, I feel a bit like a hypocrite because spending time on side projects is not something I do on my own time. Working as a full time iOS engineer fulfills my need to build, create, problem solve…etc. – I prefer to spend my time engaged in other meaningful learnings that aren’t as explored in my day job.

That being said, there’s definitely other ways that you can gain knowledge and continue learning without having to do side projects – they can even be your day job! I have a very similar perspective to Tracy Chou’s opinion on the matter – snippet below:

I don’t do side projects and I don’t identify as a hacker, but I do read technical documentation, articles, and books; I do attend (and give) technical talks; and perhaps most importantly, I pick my day job based on learning and growth opportunities: which company I’m working at, which team I’m on, and which projects I take on. I stumbled onto this a little bit by accident, but I discovered that responsibilities in your day job that require you to learn are a great forcing function for learning. 

Aside from these things, I’d also recommend joining Meetup groups and attending technical events/conferences. There’s nothing better than learning first hand from experts on the subject matter, and being able to discuss it with them (networking isn’t a bad idea either). What matters most is that you find what you’re passionate about and make sure that the world knows about it, side projects or not.

****One caveat to this though is that if you are currently a student, side projects are definitely one of the easiest ways to make yourself stand out among the rest of the candidates. I’ll add though, I personally didn’t do that many large side projects in school. I did, however, participate in hackathons and was greatly involved in student leadership. These were the things that made me stand out.

13 Aug

Don’t underestimate the power of passion

A person can succeed at almost anything for which they have unlimited enthusiasm.

Charles M. Schwab

I had the good fortune of being selected as one of the engineers to go to the 2012 Grace Hopper conference on behalf of Intuit. It’s really quite strange being on the other side of the table after having been a college student for five years. Suddenly, everything everyone ever told me made perfect sense. Now that recruiting season is almost upon us again, I wanted to bring up something that I noticed at last year’s conference.

After speaking with the endless amount of amazing talent at GHC, it became clear to me one thing that seemed to be lacking in even some of the most qualified candidates. Aside from the general advice everyone gives to technical candidates (study your data structures, brush up on those algorithms…etc.), there’s one specific thing that can make even the most inexperienced person someone that every company wants.

Are you ready for it?

Really ready for it?

Ok. Here it goes.

PASSION.

It’s as simple as that.

The best candidates are the ones that can barely hold back a wide grin when they talk about their favorite classes or the awesome project that they worked on. They’re the ones with the spark in their eyes when they describe what it was like to be involved in a student organization. They’re the ones with the delight in their voice as they describe the first time they wrote a simple mobile app that, by all means, isn’t the most technologically advanced thing most engineers will ever see, but it’ll sound like they’re describing how they discovered the cure for cancer. Those are the memorable ones.

Technical skills can always be developed. There’s no question about that. But, if the passion for problem solving and delivering something that can potentially revolutionize the world isn’t there, then it’ll never be there. That’s something that can’t be taught. You can fill your resume with amazing projects and a ridiculous number of technical skills that would make any recruiter drool, but if you don’t have any passion for the things you worked on, then people won’t be excited about you and what you can bring to the team. You’ll fade into the background, lost in the endless sea of resumes that get collected at these conferences and career fairs. Trust me, that’s the last thing you want to do.