Two weekends back I bought this adorable necklace of a rain cloud and since then I’ve gotten so many comments on it! It’s so cute and seemed appropriate given I organize an event called Thundercloud.

The necklace is made of laser cut perspex/acrylic and comes with a 22″ silver plated chain. You can get it for £24.95 at Little Moose.


The store where I got this only had that one necklace, but turns out Little Moose has so many other cute designs and I kind of want them all! Here are my favourites:

Jurassica – £24.95


Space Unicorn – £24.95


Panda Family – £44.95


Cheshire Cat – £34.95


Alpaca – £34.95


To check out more designs from Little Moose, head to their website.

How To Brainstorm Talk Ideas

November 21st, 2016

I’ve been doing a lot of talks lately in which I encourage people to share with the wider community what they do (see my Employee Evangelism post). Be it through blog posts or talks or workshops, I believe everyone should be finding a way to teach others the things that they’ve learnt or they’ve done.

One of the most common things that I hear from people though is that they’d love to do more of this, but that they don’t have anything worth talking about.

Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 08.57.03

And that’s absolutely not true.

Everyone has something that’s worth sharing with others. Every person knows something that others don’t. It’s very easy to undervalue the things that we know, and that we assume are common knowledge. You might not be the “number one expert” in something, but honestly you don’t have to be to be the one talking about it. In some areas actually being a non-expert might give you a different and perhaps a more relatable perspective, allowing other non-experts to easier understand the topic.

But how do you discover what you should be talking about?

I thought I’d share some tips and tricks of how I approach coming up with my talk (and blog post) ideas and turn it into an exercise of sorts that anyone can start with.

A framework for thinking about talk ideas

Now the way my brain works is that I like having structures and frameworks in place for me to interpret and think about information better. So before we jump into ways of brainstorming ideas, I want you to consider this:


I think with every talk you do, you need to consider and balance these three elements: the Location, the Format and the Topic. Here’s what I mean with each of them:

Location: where are you doing this talk? Is it at a specific conference or meetup? Is it internally at work? Who is your audience? What is their background? What do they know already?

Format: how long is the talk? Is it a lightning talk or a longer talk? Are you live coding or demoing something?

Topic: what is the talk about? What message do you want people to take away from it?

Each of these elements need to be in equilibrium with other, making sure that all three matchup. For instance, a lightning talk about dinosaurs might not be appropriate for a specific technical conference, or an in-depth talk about encoding might not work as a lightning talk.

When it comes to brainstorming talk ideas, I find that using the above structure allows you to approach the problem of finding a topic in two different ways: start on either the Location side or the Topic side and make your way across. Neither direction is right or wrong, but it allows you to focus your brainstorming. If you have a specific location in mind, it can help you come up with what type of topic is appropriate for it. Likewise if you don’t have a location in mind, you can be more unconstrained in coming up with ideas, and figure out later where you’ll do the talk.

Getting into the right mindset

Next we want to generate as many ideas as possible. The key thing about this though is going into this with the right mindset. A couple of things to keep in mind here:

1. There are no stupid ideas.

Write down every single idea that you can think of, no matter how stupid or boring or uninteresting you think it is for other people. As I said above, we often forget the things that we know and we’ll disregard ideas that we think no one else will care about. When I did this exercise with people at work, people were often surprised that others wanted to hear about some of the “silly” ideas they came up with.

2. Keep track of your ideas.

Use this as the time to start a list of all the ideas you have. Even if some of them don’t feel quite right right now, add them to a list or a doc: somewhere that you can keep track of them. This isn’t about creating a huge list, picking one and throwing the rest away. It’s about creating a repository of all the ideas you have that you one day might want to talk about and revisit. I’ve done talks based on talk ideas that I initially came up with 2 years ago – some talks need time to simmer and evolve.

3. Develop the “that-would-make-a-good-talk” voice in your mind.

Most of the exercise questions below are about developing what I call the “that would make a good talk” voice in your head. Rather than having these specific brainstorming sessions, I tend to always have these type of questions in the back of my mind whenever I’m working on a project or having conversations with people. My natural instinct now is to always consider whether there’s a story hidden within anything that I’m doing (and pointing it out for others when I see they’re doing something). I’m hoping that some of these things will become more natural for you by doing these exercises.

4. Don’t get stuck on the title.

The following exercises are about coming up with ideas for your talks, not the title. I’ve noticed people trying to come up with variations of what to call their talk, which at this point doesn’t really matter yet. You can figure out later what title works and is catchy. Right now it’s about the content – focus on that!

5. Get help from others.

If you know you struggle with coming up with ideas, try to get a group of friends or colleagues together and help each other with these exercises. Discussing and explaining some of these questions with others and having other people to bounce ideas off can help a lot: you might discover ideas that you wouldn’t have alone.

Exercises for talk idea brainstorming

So time to write down some ideas! If you’ve got some things in mind already, that’s awesome, write them down. If you’re unsure where to start, I’ve created a list of questions that you can use as inspiration, grouped by Topic, Format and Location. Start with the questions of the area that you want to focus on first:


  • Write down all the topics you’re interested in and you know about. It doesn’t matter how obscure – add it to the list!
  • Think back to what you’ve done the past month. What problems did you come across that were challenging to deal with? What things did you work on that you’re proud of? What did you spend a lot of time on that maybe could have gone quicker if you knew something you do now?
  • Can you remember any long emails, slack messages, git commits, pull requests, internal docs or long conversations recently, where you’ve explained something to someone? Would someone else benefit from learning that?
  • What’s one thing you wish everyone knew or was taught? Why?
  • Think about recent conversations and discussions with friends or colleagues. What topic could you easily talk hours and hours with them about? What excites you? What infuriates you?
  • What’s something that you wish you could know more about? Are there any questions you have that you wish you knew the answer to? Coming up with a talk will give you a push to dive into that topic.
  • Think about your favourite books, music, movies, museums, restaurants, sports teams, famous (or nonfamous) people, cars, anecdotes, countries, food, animals, games.
  • Take a look at talks or speakers that inspire you. What do they have in common? What would your take on it be?
  • Think back when you started your career – are there any topics that you think could have helped you if you had heard about it earlier?
  • What processes/work/things do you do that make your life easier? If other people did it too, would it make their lives easier?


  • Write down what types of talks you’re interested in. Examples: lightning talk, internal work presentation, small meetup, conference talk.
  • Do you want to do demos? Or live coding? Or making the talk interactive in some way? Think about the type of talk that you would enjoy participating in. Think about the type of talk that you would enjoy giving.


  • Write down specific conferences or meetups that you’d like to talk at. Does the event have a theme? What type of audience attends? What’s their background?
  • Look at the event’s past talks or their call for papers. Are there specific topics or problems that they are interested in?
  • Look at the event’s past speakers and their talks – do you agree or disagree with any their opinions? What area would you like to see more of? What questions do you have that you‘d like answered?
  • If you were at that event, what talk would you want to see? What talk would be on your must-watch-don’t-miss list?

What next?

Hopefully the above exercises will have given you some inspiration and you will have ended up with a nice list of talk ideas that you’re interested in. The exercise questions obviously aren’t exhaustive and I’m curious to hear what other questions get your mind thinking about potential ideas. I’d also love to hear if these exercises help you, so feel free to email, comment or tweet me about this!

Once you have this ideas list, the next steps are deciding which idea to develop further, figuring out what events are out there and how to create talk proposals for them. In the upcoming weeks I’ll be writing blog posts for each of these topics, so stay tuned!

Great talk from Lena Reinhard, comparing being in tech with being in space.

This Kenzo World ad has been making the social media rounds the last few weeks and I can’t stop watching it! It’s directed by Spike Jonze and the first thing that did come to my mind when seeing it the first time was how similar it felt to Jonze’s previously directed Weapon of Choice for Fatboy Slim.

Of course within a couple of days a mashup appeared of the two videos:

Two weeks ago I gave a talk at The Lead Developer called How To Succeed at Hiring Without Really Trying. This is pretty much the blog post version of my script/speaker’s notes for it! Check out the full slides or watch the video.

Imagine: you’re shopping for groceries and need to buy strawberries. You have two options. The first one comes in this completely closed off box – you can’t look into it, there’s no pictures on the packaging – you have no idea how the strawberries actually look like. The second option: a transparent plastic box with some handy labels on it: you know immediately what the nutritional value is, where the strawberries are grown and you even get some a nice recipe for strawberry pie to try. And you can exactly see what strawberries you get.

Which box do you choose?

Now of course choosing what company to work at isn’t on the same level as choosing which strawberries to buy. But in the same way, we should be thinking about how we expose and promote our teams as places where people want to work. Not doing anything and remaining a black box that no one can look into doesn’t help at all. So how can we be those strawberries that everyone wants to choose?

For the past 2 years, I’ve taken a lead within FutureLearn to do exactly this type of stuff – I’ve been responsible for trying to raise awareness about our company within the tech and design community.


How to define what I do?

In the past I’ve always struggled trying to explain what it exactly is that I do and finding the right phrase or word or title that encompasses it. Developer evangelism. Developer outreach. Developer relations. Developer advocacy. All these terms are used within our industry to describe these roles that are much more outward facing, but none of them felt quite right to describe what we were trying to do here.

The way I see it this area typically is about creating a relationship between your company and potential customers – you have a product, be it a platform, apis, tooling – it’s something that you want developers to use. There’s a good overview from Phil Leggetter about the different goals and approaches within developer relations, but in the end all of them are about shaping that space, so you can have conversations with those outside of your company about your product.

And that doesn’t quite work here for 2 reasons: 1) it’s not the product we’re trying to evangelize, it’s our team, and 2) we’re actually not just targeting developers, we’re targeting the wider product team, so also designers, UX researchers, product managers. It’s about more than just developers.

So the phrase I’ve started using recently to capture this is employee evangelism. In the same way that developer evangelism is about creating that conversation between your company and the outside world, employee evangelism is about creating that conversation between your employees and the potential employees outside the company. It is about raising awareness about the team – and comes from the team directly.

Rather than having a single person be the employee evangelist, you want the entire team to contribute to this evangelism, making sure that this loop is constantly happening:


Now we have other people on the team who take care of the hiring process, and I like to think that everyone on our team does awesome stuff, so my focus tends to be on getting people to share that awesomeness with the community. I’ve always seen this as a team role: I’m not the only person in the company going out and talking at all the events, I’m not the only person writing all the blog posts. This has been very much about supporting our entire team to do all this, helping them learn the skills they need for this and helping create the type of environment where everyone feels encouraged to contribute.

How to encourage your team?

So having defined this idea of employee evangelism, what can you do to encourage and support your team to practice this?

A couple months back I read Badass: Making Users Awesome from Kathy Sierra and in it she explains how the best way to get your product being used by people, is understanding that it’s not necessarily about your product, it’s about making your users awesome. If they feel they are being badass, when using your product, they’ll be more passionate and motivated to share what they can do with your product.

Kathy goes on to create a framework of sorts to help your users become badass. And I realised that most of what she describes in there can be adapted to how we can encourage our teams. How we can make our teams badass.

Using her book as a base I’ve adapted it specifically for getting your team to share more, but I think it can applied to a lot of other ways of making our teams better. I want to focus on 4 areas, and I think all of these combined can help you encourage your team:


Give them a compelling context

This is about creating that right type of environment where people feel like they can share. Start with the company culture first. Now let’s go back to our strawberry example.

Remember the packaging of the transparent box?  The retailer could have put anything they wanted on it – nutritional benefits, the claim that they’re the best strawberries in the world, adorable recipes. In the end though the main thing that matters: whether or not they are good and tasty strawberries. Whether or not they’re the type of strawberries a person would buy again. Whether or not they’re the type of strawberries a person would tell their friends to go buy.

So: be great. The first thing about getting your team, writing or talking about your company is having something that’s worth sharing, something that’s worth getting excited about. If you want potential employees to see what a great company it is to work at, then it does need to be a great company or at least have elements of greatness within it. If there isn’t a single thing that you can think of that is great, that is worth sharing with others, then most probably your focus should be on fixing that first.

The second thing is to be authentic. The stories that your team will tell need to come from them – you can’t give them a script or a brief and tell them to go and evangelise. It needs to have that human voice.

“On their deathbed, nobody will say: If only I’d engaged more with brands.” – Kathy Sierra

Remember this is about employees starting conversations with potential employees. It’s not The Brand having those conversations, it’s actual humans.

Third, be open. Be willing to share information and stories and data about your company. Not every company will be able to share everything – but get a good understanding of what things your team can talk about and share, and make sure they’re aware that they can.

Give them a compelling reason

The second area we need to look at is giving each person a compelling reason. With this I mean look at the personal motivations for each team member. What will drive each of them to share what they do with others? I’ll give a couple examples of what I think are the most common motivations.

Helping others – these are the people that share what they know, cause it will directly help someone else. They might not necessarily want to stand in the spotlight, but they know that if they do, they can make someone’s life easier.

Building confidence in communication – in most of our day-to-day work we rely on communication to others . Doing a blog post or giving a talk or workshop are extreme examples on that spectrum, but becoming a better speaker or writer will help people in their job, and for some this is the main reason why they will want to get better at it.

Building personal reputation – these are the people that want to stand in the spotlight and have the focus on them. A variant of this are the people that want to be experts in a specific thing – they want to show that they have mastered a specific topic.  

These aren’t the only motivations that people have, but I think these are the most popular 3 especially when it comes to getting your team to share what they do. Understanding which of these apply to each team member ties in with helping them actually build the skills they need and understanding what types of stories and problems they want to share.

Help them keep wanting to

Now that we know what each team member’s goal is how do you encourage them to keep working on this? I think there are 2 sides to this:

First: what makes them stop? You need to understand what each person’s fears and blockers are. I often hear things like I’m not an expert, I can’t write, nothing I do is worth sharing. They’re all valid fears and reasons why someone will stop or will never get started. But once you know what their fears and blockers are, you can help them come up with a plan to overcome them.

The flip side of this is: what pulls them forward? Make them set a goal, like speak at a conference in a year’s time or write a full length blog post in 2 months time and help them break this big goal into more manageable chunks. I haven’t quite done this with my team yet, but am in the process of creating some progression paths for writing, speaking and workshops, so that people can pick and choose from these when setting their personal goals with their line managers.

Finally: lead by example. Make sure your team is not only aware of the things that you do, but also how you got there. For instance, when I started this 2 years back, I hadn’t ever spoken at a conference before. Even now I still get super nervous giving talks. So I know the types of fears my team were feeling – I’ve been there – but constantly sharing with them what my journey has been and how I deal with my fears and nerves, it shows my team that this is just as attainable for them as it was for me.


Help them actually get better

The final and largest area to look at is how to help your team actually get better. How do you help them improve their skills?

The first part of this is perpetual exposure. This is the idea that to become better at something, to become an expert at something, you need to be exposed to high quality examples of the things that you’re trying to get better at. In this case of getting people to share things make sure your team is exposed to good examples of other people sharing.

So to start: have a library. This doesn’t have to be just books, but also blog posts, articles, screencasts, videos, basically any content that is worth sharing with your team. What are good examples of content that other people have created? Besides that we’ve also got lists of recommended material to help people get started with public speaking and writing.

Another thing we organise is Talks We Love – in this we watch a recorded video of a talk together that one person on the team really enjoyed or found useful, followed by a discussion on things we might want to do ourselves.

Beyond highlighting external content, you also need to try to highlight existing good internal content. Our teams are already creating content: just think about good commit messages, or emails or slack messages explaining things. Most of the time it just requires someone pointing out to them ‘did you consider turning that into a blog post? Or a talk? Or a workshop?’. Be that voice that champions the work that they’re already doing.

The second part of helping your team get better – is giving them the time and space for deliberate practice. Rather than throwing them in the deep end – you need to allow them to build these skills gradually. I’ll give a few examples of how we support practice with speaking and writing. They’re not the only things we do, but it’s just to give you a sense of what types of activities and support you should be thinking of.

Lightning Talks: These happen every 4-6 weeks and anyone in the company can give a quick 5 minute talk about anything they want. This is a great way to get people to recognise that they have something worth talking about and it gives them the experience and confidence to do more talks.

Learning Hours: In these one person on the team, teaches something they think other people might find useful. These tend to be more hands-on and workshop like. And these can be about anything – past learning hours have been about command line tools, how to run retrospectives and understanding database indexes better. Rather than learning to speak in front of a larger audience – this allows people to practice these skills in front of a smaller group of people they’re already working with.


Conference Club:  This is an internal meetup for everyone that wants to speak at conferences to get together and help each other with everything that goes into creating a conference talk. So coming up with talk ideas, helping write proposals, giving feedback on practice runs. It’s making sure that people aren’t doing this completely by themselves.

Collaboration blog posts: We pick a specific topic, like women that inspire us or foreign words that we like, and ask for paragraph submissions. So rather than having to commit to a full length blog post, we get people started with writing small snippets.

Internal Blog: Another thing we have is our internal blog, for sharing problems or stories with the wider team. Again rather than having to publish something immediately for the entire world, we basically provide a stepping stone inbetween.

So give your team the time and space to practice these new skills. These won’t grow overnight and you need to create a supportive environment if you want to get everyone involved.

What was the effect on our team?

So what was the effect of all this on our team? Now when I started this role we barely had anyone from our product team writing blog posts or speaking at events. Here are some stats of where we got to now.

Not including the people that joined our team recently, about 35% of our team have now done an external talk. That percentage rises to 60% when we take into account the lightning talks and to 78% when we add the learning hours. With blog posts we’ve got 75% of our team that have written full length blog posts, and 89% when we include the collaboration posts. And the awesome thing is, if we combine this all, this means that everyone in our team is sharing their knowledge in some way.

Tying it back to the start of this post – from the last round of hiring, 50% of the interviewees explicitly mentioned having seen a talk or read a blog post. This wasn’t us asking them if they had – this is the percentage of people that brought it up themselves in their conversations with us. So the actual number might actually be higher.

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Final thoughts

If there’s one thing you take away from this blog post, let it be this: Every team can do this, but more importantly I think every team should do this.

While I think employee evangelism is great for your company, in the end it’s about making our community great. Embedding these type of practices within every company means that we get more people sharing what they do, and what they love. If we want to see more diverse speakers at events, if we want to see more diverse writers share their stories, we need to support everyone to learn these skills and as tech leads we are in positions to change this.

So I want you all to think about this – the next time you came across something that one of your colleagues have done that could help someone else, help them to share it with the world. And maybe next year thanks to you, they will be somewhere on a stage sharing that story and trying to make the community a better place.

Enjoyed this post and want more? You might like: Blogging tips: How to start writing , How I got into conference speaking and Imposter Syndrome: How we act and work together.

Curious about how we do more things at FutureLearn? Read our “Making FutureLearn” posts.

Tags: Geeky

A couple of weeks back I got invited to share my blogging tips for the Women Hack for Non Profits monthly meetup. I couldn’t make the event, but since I’ve been helping friends and colleagues recently quite a bit with their blog posts, I thought it would be useful to write up some of the advice I found myself repeating quite a bit.

These tips aren’t really about how to get you blogging more often or how to set up your blog – rather, it’s about how to write a long form blog post/article. There’s also a lot of overlap here between how I approach creating my blog posts and my talks: you could easily apply a lot of these tips to creating a talk too!

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What story are you trying to tell?

Before writing anything, I try to sit down and think through all the different aspects of my blog post. For starters, who am I writing this post for? Are they other developers? Users of my product? Fans of a TV show? What’s their background, what do they know? Knowing who you’re writing for frames the entire article – for me, it makes it easier to understand and define the scope of what you’re attempting to write.

Once you know who you’re writing this post for, think about what story you’re telling them. What is it that you want them to take away from this post? What’s the key message? Are you trying to convince them of something? Are you sharing something that you did? Have an idea of what effect you want to have on your audience.

Create an outline

My process of writing typically begins with post-it notes. I’ll start with all the key points I want to make, including some of the answers I came up with to the questions in the previous section. Once I’ve got all those post-its I start grouping them and moving them around to create different sections. What I like about this method is that it allows me to play around with how I tell the story – it’s easier to move post-its around and come up with the structure that works best without being bogged down in paragraphs and paragraphs of text.

When done right, the groupings of post-it notes give me a good idea of the flow of my blog post. I’ll know what points I need to make in my intro and conclusion, plus the groupings will give me a rough idea of headings and their paragraphs. Of course, you might not necessarily have any post-its handy, but I think the main lesson is to think about the overall structure before diving in to write something.

Write the part that comes easiest to you

Once you know what to write, actually sitting down and writing can be quite tough. For me, it depends on the type of blog post, but often I’ll find that it’s the opening and intro I struggle the most with. In those cases: I initially just skip it and leave it for last. Start with whatever section is most clear in your mind and write it! There’s nothing stopping you from writing the post in the same order that somebody reads it.

Refactor and rewrite

It’s rare I’ll write something that I’m completely happy with in one go. Typically I’ll have an initial draft and go through it completely again – cutting parts, moving paragraphs around and turning it into a better story. Just like with refactoring code, you need to keep in mind that it’s all about making the end product better. Sometimes I’ll have written a sentence or paragraph that I completely love, but I know I need to cut, cause it just doesn’t work.

It will never be perfect

Finally, the main thing I’ve had to accept is that whatever I do none of my posts will ever be ‘perfect’. It’s sometimes super tricky to hit that publish button on something that you feel could be better, yet at the same time you can’t keep every single post in a drafted state forever.

Even now, just looking at this post, I feel as if maybe I’ve forgotten something, maybe there’s something else that should be included in this list. But it’s been hanging around in a draft state for about 2 weeks now and I haven’t made that many changes.

Waiting for perfection just gets in the way of sharing you know and helping others.

Tags: Geeky

This 10 minute talk by David Marquet got shared last week at work and I just love the ideas behind it. David tells his story of when he became captain of the USS Santa Fe, and started treating his crew as leaders, not followers:

Marquet has also written a book about this topic called ‘Turn The Ship Around!‘, which goes into more detail on how to apply Marquet’s approach to create a workplace where everyone takes responsibility for their actions. I’ve just started reading it and so far it’s great.

2016-03-02 18.11.07

Today it’s Time to Talk Day, a campaign to make people aware of mental health issues and to get people talking about them. I’ve dealt with a lot of anxiety in the past 15 years or so, but have to admit I’ve never talked to a professional about it or even really considered it a mental health “issue” I have. Looking back though I’m realising maybe I should have – maybe I could have made it easier for myself if I had. I guess part of me just thought that this is what being a grown-up means, that everyone experienced these things but I just wasn’t good enough at coping with them. And that in itself is why I’m writing this – if it helps only one single person out there, that alone means this post was worth writing.

This time she spotted me

Being “perfect” and Imposter syndrome

I think my anxiety started in the final years of high school. Before those final 2 years, I thought school was pretty easy. I’ve got an awesome short term memory, so memorising stuff for exams wasn’t very challenging, and I always considered myself in the top of the class. In those final years though, things changed – I still was getting high marks and performing well, but it took way more time and effort than it did before and I put a ton of pressure on myself to be that ‘perfect’ student again. I started feeling anxious and bad whenever I got a bad grade, leading to me putting even more pressure on myself, creating this continuous loop of pushing myself maybe a bit too hard.

And that only got worse when I went to university. I decided to study Computer Science without having programmed anything before in my life (well, except for my graphical calculator) and I was overwhelmed by the amount of stuff my peers already knew. Compared to them, I felt so inadequate – maybe I had made the wrong decision and I should have studied something else? Despite feeling like that, I kept pushing myself trying yet again to be that ‘perfect’ student even though I knew I could never be as good as my peers. And thanks to all my hard work, I did keep getting high marks for exams and assignments. I knew I wasn’t bad, but somehow I felt like it was just luck, that one day someone would expose me for the fraud I actually was.

At its worse, it would come on as full-on episodes of anxiety – I’d be sitting in the computer lab with a ton of other students around me, reading through the latest practical assignment and just freeze, knowing I didn’t know how to solve this problem. My chest would go all tight, my face and neck would go all red and splotchy, and the sound of my way-too-loud beating heart would drown out all the noise around me.

I now know that this is what is called Imposter Syndrome, but at the time I thought I was the only one feeling like this. Realizing that most people I know, even those who are way more experienced than I am, have dealt with imposter syndrome was a huge eye-opener to me. Hearing how I wasn’t the only person that has this and talking to others about their own experiences has been the main thing that has helped me deal with this type of anxiety. Knowing that most of us are ‘imposters’ and just trying the best we can has taken away that feeling that I don’t belong.

Throughout the years it’s gotten a whole lot less, but I’ll still have days where I don’t feel good enough – that I’m not doing the best I can. I’ll get stuck in loops of self doubt and blame for not having done more. It’s not quite Imposter Syndrome, but it still is anxiety about how I assume I should be. Especially after a day that hasn’t gone quite as I thought it would, I’ll get easily stuck in thinking of all the other ways I could have done something, replaying events over and over in my head.

The Worst Case Scenario Thinker

Tied to that is that there’s always this part of my brain that for any situation will try to come up with all possible outcomes – going down every path, be it good or bad. I’ll imagine all the ways past conversations could have gone, or how future conversations might go and (from a code perspective) come up with most edge cases before it’s needed. It’s a great skill to have (especially for work and board games), but only when I can reign it in and actually turn it into something I can act on.

In the worst case scenario though my worst case scenario thinker will focus way too much on the negative, coming up with a ton of unlikely and bad scenarios, causing me to freeze up and get massive panic attacks based on ‘what might happen’. I’ve had lots of sleepless nights where my mind has gone down the rabbit hole of doom and dread, conjuring up the worst things I can think of.

Nowadays it mainly happens to me when I’m doing stuff not part of my routine, like when I’m going on holiday. I’ll get super anxious just thinking about all the things I’ll forget to pack, how I’m going to miss my flights, how the airline will lose my luggage, how my flat will be burgled while I’m away, how the pet sitter will forget to feed my cats, how I’ll get lost and not find my way back to my hotel, how my bag, passport and money will be stolen, how… etc etc. I know most of it is unlikely and won’t happen, but it’s so easy to get trapped in thinking of all the negative that ‘could’ occur.

Understanding, compartmentalising and reflecting

For me, there have been 3 things that have helped a lot with how I deal with anxiety. The first is understanding. Identifying when I’m having a panic attack and understanding why it’s happening and what has triggered it, means I can try to stop my mind from going down the rabbit hole. I find the psychology of emotions fascinating (my master’s thesis was on facial expression recognition), and being able to learn what our brains do when we experience anxiety has helped me a lot (I find a good place to start is Emotional Intelligence from Daniel Goleman).

The second thing is compartmentalising. I’ll always have these parts of my brain that will pipe up at completely the wrong moments and I’ve accepted that they will always be there. I’ve realised though that I don’t always have to listen to them at that moment: I’ll acknowledge they’re there, then mentally shove it in a box and put it aside to open up later. I’ll never completely forget about that box though, and I will always get around to dealing with those thoughts and issues, but I’ll do it at a time when it works for me (rather than say in the middle of the night when I’m trying to sleep).

The third is reflecting. I wrote an entire article about doing personal retrospectives for 12 Devs during Christmas, so won’t go into too much detail here. Reflection for me is sitting down and taking the time just to think about all the things I’ve done and what I could have done differently. It’s a time to open the box with all the thoughts I had and to go through them. The main thing is doing it when it feels right to me – when I feel I have the right type of mind to deal with the issues.

I know these are just the things that I do and I have no idea whether or not they will help anyone else, but it might help just hearing how other people deal with stuff. I also know my version of anxiety isn’t as extreme as it can be for others, yet it will be more than what most people typically encounter. Anxiety is something that I know I need to deal with on a regular basis, and I know it will never fully go away for me. But talking about it, however hard and embarrassing and weird it might be, does help.

I’ve had several conversations in the past few weeks, where people are surprised to find out that I’ve haven’t been doing conference talks for that long. For some reason, most of them assumed that I’d been doing these talks for years and years, and that I’m a massively ‘experienced’ conference speaker. Spoiler alert: I’m not.

It’s only midway 2014 when I told myself I’d try to do a year of not saying ‘no’ to things that scared me, that I started putting myself forward as a conference speaker and started submitting talks to CFPs. That conference “season” I ended up doing Electromagnetic Field, DDD East Anglia, Hackference and Future of Web Apps; those were my first proper conference talks. It’s not that I hadn’t given presentations before that (I had done a handful of lightning talks the year before), but this was the first year that I was speaking at events where people actually paid to attend and see me (among others) speak.


I realized that even though I hadn’t been doing conference talks before that, I’ve managed to do a ton of different things in the past years to slowly build the skills I now rely on. Public speaking is a BIG SCARY THING (for me it was at least) and if you had told me 10 years ago that I would be doing it on a regular basis and actually enjoy it, I would have called you crazy. So I thought I’d share my experiences about how I got to where I am today. This isn’t going to be a post with clear actions on what to do to become better at public speaking (there’s enough of those out there), rather it’s a collection of thoughts, memories and stuff from me about it all.

To make a cheesy analogy (cause all good posts need a cheesy analogy): giving a conference talk is like jumping off a diving board doing back flips into the pool. Sure, some people might have the guts to just jump off the board and see what happens. Others might do it and be immediately awesome at it. Me though? I had to learn the basics like how to swim not drown and how to dive. Plus I needed to psych myself up to climb that ladder and get on the board in the first place.

The Backstory

I hated public speaking. I knew that I couldn’t get away from giving presentations, but for years I always dreaded having to do them. I don’t remember the number of presentations I had to give at high school and university, but I do remember never liking them and only giving them when given no choice. Whenever we worked in groups, I was completely happy with letting someone else stand in the spotlight and talk about our work.

Everything about talks terrified me: having to speak in front of strangers, having to speak in front of a lot of people, coming up with what you are going to say, making sure what you say is sensible and delivering what you want to say in the best possible way. There are so many aspects to giving a good talk and all of them felt terrifying to me. I was the type of person that already felt uncomfortable with speaking to a random shop assistant when doing groceries, so giving a talk? Yeah. Not. My. Thing.

Attending meetups – how to talk to strangers

In 2007 Cristiano and I moved to London. We didn’t know that many people here, so we started going to meetups, conferences and other tech events. I still remember when I went to my first GirlGeekDinner and being so so awkward at it: standing in the corner, having no idea who to talk to and doubting whether anyone would even want to talk to me.

I’m a massive introvert, so networking, meeting new people, talking to strangers: it doesn’t come naturally to me at all. The more you do it though, the easier it gets. Even now I notice that when I haven’t done a meetup with new people for a few weeks, I need to get back into the right how-to-network mindset, like it’s a muscle I haven’t flexed for a while. Similarly if I’ve done too many events in too short a time, I’ll reach a certain point where I just don’t have the energy anymore to be social and deal with new people. And that’s okay. But you need to build it up, keep at it, and figure out what your own limits are.

BarCamp – you don’t need to be an expert

In that same year I got introduced to the idea of BarCamps, an unconference. Unlike normal conferences, where there are special speakers and a curated schedule announced before the day, with a BarCamp the schedule and sessions are created by all the attendees. Cristiano had been to BarCampLondon2 and we had both gotten tickets to BarCampBrighton later that year. At the time though I didn’t completely understand what a BarCamp was and what it meant I needed to do: only the day before did I realize that I HAD to do a session, which I interpreted as “give a talk” (later on I found out that “doing a session” could also be things like running a discussion or a show-and-tell; it didn’t necessarily have to be a presentation). I couldn’t deal with it: having to give a presentation with less than 24 hours notice? I broke down in tears and refused flat out to do it.

Despite that, the next day I still attended the BarCamp, fully expecting and dreading the disappointment of others when they found out I didn’t want to present. And then I actually went to some sessions… BarCamp is one of the most supportive and useful events that I’ve been to; it’s all about sharing what you know with others, no matter how knowledgeable you are on the subject. BarCamp taught me that everyone has something worth talking about: you don’t need to be an expert to talk about the things that interest you. Besides that, the informality of the event creates a relaxed and fun environment, meaning there’s no pressure to give the “perfect” talk.

From 2007 to 2010 I attended all the BarCamps that I could, attempting to do sessions at all of them. Most weren’t very good or that well prepared (case in point: this video), but despite that I know that people enjoyed them. Plus every single time, I got just that little bit better at speaking in front of people.

That first BarCamp I went to? I ended up making some slides during the overnight and gave a last minute talk on the second day.

Hackdays – how to present in front of a lot of people

The other type of event I started attending around the same time were hackdays (also known as hackathons, although I personally really prefer the term ‘hackday’, but that’s a post for another time). At these you form teams for an entire weekend/24 hours to hack something together. At the end of the 24 hours, everyone gets together to present what they’ve built. And depending on the type of hackday, there are various prizes people can win.


Hackdays are a great place to try out new stuff and learn new skills. Just like with BarCamps, most people are extremely supportive and willing to help you learn. The first couple of hackdays I went to I ended up forming a team with friends and let them do the presenting. But as I went to more of them, I ended up having more ideas and hacks that I was did on my own. There were several early hackdays though where I didn’t end up presenting what I built, mainly cause I didn’t think my hacks were good enough. Why show how little I got done? Eventually though I realized that didn’t matter: you had an idea which you worked on for an entire weekended and you should show what you have done!

Doing these short pitches is one of the things that got me comfortable with speaking in front of lots of people. You typically only have a 1 or 2 minutes to talk through your idea, meaning you learn to focus on getting your point across quickly.

Writing blog posts – how to tell a story

I admit: not every blog post on this blog is of the highest storytelling quality, but doing this blog for the past 8 years has taught me a couple of things. Firstly, the ability to recognize what makes a good blog post. There’s a little voice in the back of my head constantly going “Wouldn’t that work as a post?” or “What would happen if you combine this idea with that one? New blog post!”. With almost everything I come across a part of me is thinking about how to turn it into a story. And the same applies when considering talks. Not every blog post works as a talk, and not every talk works as a post. But being able to identify there’s a story there that’s worth telling is the same in both cases.

The second thing is the ability of actually telling that story. Throughout the years I’ve slowly learnt what I like and look for in blog posts, and how to apply that to my own posts. The key things I’ve found is understanding who your audience is, why they should be reading your post and what are they taking away from it. From there, you can derive the main structure of your post, framing the story in the right way. I could do an entire post on storytelling alone, but being able to write blog posts and tell a good story has been super useful in creating talks.

The Future

I guess what I’m trying to get at with this post is this: right now you might feel like you’re never ever going to want to willingly give a presentation. There might be different reasons and fears keeping you from doing them. Figuring out exactly what fears you have though means that you can come up with smaller and easier ways to get over them. Scared of talking to people you don’t know? Start going to meetups with friends and try to talk to 1 new person. Scared of talking in front of a lot of people? Try to find something lowkey that allows you to talk in front of a big group.

We need more diverse speakers in our industry. But that also means we need more people and more events to help create those speakers.

So here’s my slightly belated New Year’s Resolution: I want my 2016 to be all about helping others get into public speaking. To start things off, I’m mentoring next Saturday at ScotlandJS’s Diversity Workshop at the FutureLearn offices. If you have a talk idea and what help developing it, sign up and come along! Even if you don’t have an idea or don’t feel like you’re ready to give a talk yet, feel free to come to the event – doing the workshop doesn’t mean you’re committing to giving a talk.

Besides that I’ll be organizing another BarCampLondon this year with Geeks of London. We don’t have a date, a venue or any sponsors yet, but I know how much BarCamp helped me in the past and I think it’s an event our community needs. I’ll also be organizing more Thunderclouds this year to get more people comfortable with and learning how to do lightning talks.

Finally I’d love to hear from all of you! What are the things that you want help with or have questions about? Feel free to reach out on Twitter, send me an email or reply here in the comments.

Giving a talk can be a big scary thing, but maybe if we all pitch in and help out, we can make it not that big and not that scary.

Tags: Events, Geeky

I love my collection of geeky earrings. I’ve been slowly adding to it over the past couple of years and they keep being noticed by people! Even though I’ve blogged about a couple of these in the past, I’ve been asked so often where I get my earrings from, so here’s a list of my favourites and where to get them.

Space Invaders

Starting off with some disappointing news: these are my absolute favourites, but I’m really sad to discover the etsy store doesn’t exist anymore. At the time they were available in gold or silver colour from etsy store DoubleBJewelry for £8.35/$12.50. This is also the same place I got my origami airplane earrings from. I’ve contacted the store owner to see what happened with the store, so fingers crossed that it still exists somewhere!

Space Invader Earrings

Paragon & Renegade

Want the Mass Effect equivalent of an angel and a devil sitting on your shoulder? You can get these earrings from for only $15.99.

mass effect paragon renegade studs

Pow & Bam

The earrings to wear when you’re off to see the latest Marvel or DC movie! You can get them from etsy store laonato for only £7.90. This store has sooo many other geeky earrings to choose from – I’ve also got the UFO and Robot set and the Rocket and Planet set, while I’ve just ordered three new ones too: the Lego blocks, the Balloons and the Zigzag which sort of looks like the FutureLearn logo. See that’s what happens when you end up writing a post about pretty earrings: more pretty earrings.


Twitter @ & #

My final favourite pair is actually the first geeky set that I ever got (thanks Betsy!): Twitter earrings! It’s mainly thanks to these that I realized geeky earrings were a thing and ended up collecting them. You can get them from etsy store DaliaShamirJewelry for £27.

So what are your favourite geeky earrings? Are there any that I really should get? Or do you know of others that I should blog about? Let me know on Twitter or in the comments.