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    Speaking = sponsoring

    Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

    Following Remy Sharp’s excellent You’re paying to speak post about conferences not paying speakers I thought it might be interesting to share some of my experiences.

    I’ve been on the road now for almost three years constantly presenting at conferences, running workshops, giving brownbags and the like. I am also part of the group in Mozilla that sifts through all the event requests we get (around 30-40 a month right now).

    Frontend United London 2013

    A labour of love

    I love speaking. I love the rush of writing a talk, organising my thoughts and trying to distill the few points I want the audience to take away to impress their peers with. I do it out of passion, not because I get paid. If I were to do it to get paid, I’d quit my job and ask for payment for my talks and run much more workshops. This is where real money comes in for speakers. As it is now, all I ask for is to be put up in a hotel, and – if possible – get my flights or travel expenses paid.

    Drowning in mediocrity

    That’s why I get annoyed when conference organisers see speakers as a commodity. In the last year I had a few incidences that made me wonder why I bother putting effort into my work instead of writing one or two talks a year and keep repeating them (which works, I see people do it):

    • I had a few events where the organisers flat out didn’t want to put me up in a hotel.
    • I had events where the organisers got me a flight and a hotel – just not at the same dates, so I had to get a last minute room for myself without being reimbursed
    • I had a few events where I arrived in time for my talk just to see that the speaker before me was still speaking and my talk time was half of what I planned for.
    • I had an event where the room planning was all askew and people couldn’t find my talk which meant I presented for 10 people who were lucky enough to already having been in the room (2 of which trying to find another talk)
    • I even had an event where I had perfectly set up my computer (including already running screen recording) only to have a “sponsored pitch” speaker disconnect my laptop and give a five minute intro I wasn’t told about before my keynote.

    And here comes the kicker: every single one of these bad examples happened in the United States – most in San Francisco. The place where everybody dreams of speaking, the place where all the cool kids are and where apparently everything happens that rocks our web world.

    The happy incidences

    On the flipside of this, almost every conference in Europe and Asia I’ve been to was an amazing experience. Organisers know you are what makes a conference and they make you feel welcome. A few outstanding ones:

    • When I lost my credit card in Romania, the organisers of the Internet and Mobile World Romania came by the hotel, organised with the local restaurant that I could eat for free, got me some money to spend and took me out for an amazing evening to get my mind off the dilemma. That on top of a flawless pickup from the airport, great hotel to stay in and transport to and from the venue.
    • The Login conference in Lithuania had dedicated helpers for each speaker to help you get around and pick you up at the airport. Instead of chancing us using the expensive room service in the hotel or organise one huge dinner, they cut deals with all the restaurants around the hotel to have ledgers for speakers to eat whatever we wanted paid by the organisers afterwards
    • Marc Thiele’s Beyond Tellerand conference in Germany is all about a cozy atmosphere encouraging speakers and attendees to mingle. He even had music artists sample the talks into songs live at the event.
    • The Smashing Conf had flawless travel organisation and a super nice welcome basket in the hotel room for speakers with tourism info how to get around town for partners the speakers might have brought

    Keep the talent happy

    I am not saying I expect all of these things, I am saying that organisers outside the US seem to understand one thing others have forgotten and Remy mentioned as well: without good speakers putting effort in, there is no conference.

    Remy had an excellent point, namely that having speakers and taking care of them should be part of the budget of every conference:

    That’s what a budget is for – which comes from ticket sales and sponsorship agreements. It is part of their budget because without a speaker, they have no content to sell.

    Good talks make a conference

    Of course there is more to a conference than just the presentations: there are booths, there is networking during breaks and at the afterparties. But you don’t need a conference for that – you could just attend a meetup. A conference is about good presentations and workshops. And this is where I get very angry when I see corners being cut when it comes to speakers.

    Yes, running a conference is expensive. And running one in San Francisco even more so. But why add cuts at the core content? Maybe spend less on the afterparty in a loud club with lots of drinks leading to socially inept people behaving like cavemen and creating the next “conference incident”. Maybe don’t move into the bigger location and instead allow your event to retain its soul? Conferences like dconstruct, Full Frontal and Edge Conf show that this works.

    As people who buy tickets, you deserve to get a good show. You deserve to be challenged, to learn something new. Of course, most of you do not pay for the tickets – your companies do – but that doesn’t make a difference. If organisers don’t value their speakers and instead pad their events with lots of tracks with just slightly veiled sales pitches you shouldn’t make jokes about this and have a coffee instead – you should ask for your money back.

    Nicholas Zakas also covered this in The Problem with Tech Conference talks lately.

    Too many conferences

    The hype we experience in our market also leads to a massive overload of events. Not all are needed – by a long shot. Some have been around so long they’ve become a spoof of themselves. It is time to ask for better quality.

    In the US, this is a tradition thing: tech conferences have been around for ages and there are a lot of terrible “this is how it always worked” shortcuts being taken. IT conferences have become cookie-cutter. Not only do you see the same booths, the same catering and the same companies, you also see the same kind of talks over and over again.

    As a company owner, I’d frankly not set up a budget for conference attendance any longer. It is not part of training when you don’t learn something new or get in-depth insight into something you already should know. And there is really no shortage of online content or even meetups where you can get the same information. The job of a speaker is to bring this content to life, to explain the why instead of the how or bring a new angle to the subject matter. This doesn’t happen if conference talks are limited to local speakers who are in the same echo chamber.

    Show us the money so you can talk?

    Which brings me to sponsoring. Mozilla’s and my policy is that we don’t sponsor events to get speaking slots. We want Mozillians to attend an event and have one speaker even before we consider sponsorship. Giving talks and giving money to the event are disconnected. I wished every company did that. There is far too much “pay to play” going on and that leads to boring sales pitches that are lucrative for organisers and insulting to the audience and, frankly, painful to watch.

    Having insight into the numbers around events is another thing that keeps amazing me. I can not tell them here, but let’s say sponsoring a coffee break in a San Francisco conference for 200 people easily pays for sponsoring a whole venue in Poland, India or Romania – including the posters and branding.

    So here’s my view: when I speak at your conference, I already sponsor it. I attach my name to it, I dedicate time to make it worth while for your audience to listen to me and you can add your branding to the video of my talk. I will not pay to “get a better speaking slot” and I will not sponsor to “get another talk for Mozilla” in.

    I am happy to be at an event that values what I do. I will stop going to those that feel like I am just a name to attract people without really being challenged to give a good talk. As a speaker, I am a sponsor. Not with money, but with my reputation and my time and effort. That should get rewarded, much like any other sponsorship gets placement and mentioning.

    Comment on Google+ or Facebook or Twitter if you are so inclined.

    Translating marketing texts for speaking – an experiment

    Thursday, March 6th, 2014


    As part of the workweek I am currently at I set a goal to give a brownbag on “writing for speaking”. The reasons is that some of the training materials for the Mobile World Congress I recorded were great marketing/press materials but quite a pain to speak into a camera reading them from a teleprompter.

    For the record: the original text is a good press release or marketing article. It is succinct, it is full of great soundbites and it brings the message across. It is just not easy to deliver. To show the issues and explain what that kind of wording can come across as I took the script apart. I explained paragraph by paragraph what the problems are and proposed a replacement that is more developer communication friendly. You can see the result on GitHub:



    The result is an easier to deliver text with less confusion. Here’s a recording of it to compare.

    I will follow this up with some more materials on simpler communication for speaking soon.

    Too easy – didn’t learn – my keynote at jQuery Europe 2014

    Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

    Update: The full video of my talk is now available:

    christian heilmann at jQuery Europe 2014

    I am right now on the plane back to England after my quick stint at Vienna giving the keynote at jQuery Europe 2014. True to my ongoing task to challenge myself as a speaker (and as announced here before) I made a bit of a bet by giving a talk that is not in itself technical, but analytical of what we do as developers. The talk was filmed and if you can’t wait, I made the slides available and recorded a screencast (with low sound, sorry).

    There is also a audio recording on SoundCloud and on archive.org.

    Quick keynote recap

    In the keynote, I tried to analyse the massive discrepancy between what we as web developers get and how happy we seem to be.

    We are an elite group in the job market: we are paid well, our work environment is high-tech and our perks make other people jealous. We even get the proverbial free lunches.

    And yet our image is that of unsatisfied, hard to work with people who need to be kept happy and are socially awkward. I was confused that a group with all the necessary creature comforts is not an example of how easy working together could be. Instead, we even seem to need codes of conduct for our events to remind people not to behave badly towards people of the other sex or cultural background. Are we spoiled? Are we just broken? Or is there more?

    I’ve found a few reasons why we can come across as unsatisfied and hard to handle and the biggest to me was that whilst we are getting pampered, we lack real recognition for what we do.

    When you get a lot, but you yourself feel you are not really doing much, you are stuck between feeling superior to others who struggle with things you consider easy and feeling like a fraud. Instead of trying to communicate out about what we do, how much work it involves and why we do things in a certain way we seem to flee into a world of blaming our tools and trying to impress one another.

    Initial Feedback

    I am very happy to report that the feedback I got at the event was very good. I had some criticism, which is great as it gives me something to think about. And I had some heartfelt remarks from people who said I’ve opened their eyes a bit as to why they behaved in a certain way and now know how to fix some issues and clashes they had.

    Want more?

    I don’t want to repeat it all here again – if wanted, I could write a larger article on the subject to be published somewhere with more eyeballs. Simply listen to the recording or wait for the video to be released.


    I couldn’t have done this without watching some other talks and reading some other posts, so here are links to the materials used:


    I want to thank the audience of jQuery Europe for listening and being open to something different. I also want to thank the organisers for taking the chance (and setting the speakers up in the most epic hotel I ever stayed in). I also want to point out that another talk at jQuery Europe 2014 – “A Web Beyond Touch” by Petro Salema was one of the most amazing first stage performances by a speaker I have seen. So keep your eyes open for this video.

    Photo by Douglas Neiner

    How I save money when traveling for work (San Francisco/Valley/US)

    Sunday, February 16th, 2014

    As we are currently re-evaluating our travel costs I thought it a good idea to share my travel tricks. Here are some of my “hacks” how to save money when traveling whilst adding status points and having a good time. I did 39 business trips worldwide last year and 42 the year before. I am Gold member with British Airways with over 420,000 Air miles. And I managed to stay sane – of sorts.

    plane taking off long exposure

    Being a person who was brought up to value every penny (as we didn’t have many) I always try to see what could be done to make things cheaper without losing value. Often high travel expenses are based either on taking the first available option, being scared of the unknown or just not knowing better. So here are some of my tricks:

    Don’t book late, don’t book one-way

    Book return flights in advance. I try to book at least 3 months beforehand. The reason is that flights are cheaper the earlier you book. Furthermore, the cheap first price doesn’t change much, even when things go wrong. Say you need to book another different flight back or to another destination. All you need to do is to book a cheap, short distance flight for the other trip and change the return date. This is much cheaper than going back one-way. In general a booking change of the return leg on British Airways is $200 for a transatlantic flight. Try to find that one-way. Even not taking the return leg and moving on to another itinerary is cheaper than a one-way flight. And there is no punishment for forfeiting the second leg.

    Layovers aren’t always bad

    If you plan to spend a bit more time, get a layover flight of a few hours. It is healthier as you don’t sit on your butt for 11 hours at a time, they tend to be cheaper and you get double the air miles. Layover flights make it much easier on One World Alliance to rack up enough tier points to reach the next stage. Sometimes airlines offer layover flights when you fly domestic in the USA - offer that you’d be OK with that if need be when checking in. I once spent an hour extra in LA, got $150 for my troubles and an upgrade to business (on United).

    Pack light – stay independent

    Try to only have hand luggage. First of all, a lot of airlines charge extra for luggage handling. You also won’t need to fight the crowd of people who are convinced that standing as close as possible to the conveyor belt and in other people’s way will make their luggage magically appear. There’ll be an extra section here on clothes and how to get by with the least amount at the end of this post.

    Huddle up – groups make everything better

    Build groups instead of traveling alone. Whilst traveling in a group is a lot more work (the problems seem to multiply) it also has lots of benefits. You can have a chat about work, you get to know people in high stress situations you didn’t cause and you can share coffee and snack bills.

    You pool knowledge – most of the time one person of the group will be savvy about the public transport system or how a certain place works.

    If you travel at the same time as frequent travelers, you can take part in the status goodies we get. Dedicated check-in desks, fast track security and boarding lanes. Free food, drinks, shower facilities and magazines in the lounges. I am happy to sign a second in as a guest – I feel dirty getting all this just for myself.

    Taxis are a last resort and safety measure

    Taxis are only needed in dangerous destinations and if you get lost. In most cases, public transport is a much better option.

    In London, for example, the average speed of a car is 7MPH; trains run much faster and don’t get stuck in traffic. A taxi ride from San Francisco to the Valley and back costs more than getting a rental for the week. Traveling in San Francisco is easy by getting a clipper card, which works, on all the lines and buses. In London this is the Oyster card, in Hong Kong the Octopus card.

    If you have to take a taxi always go for the official taxi booth – never get a “deal” from some random driver. In NYC, for example there is a fixed price from airports into the city. In many other airports this is also possible. Try to share. I’ve saved many a dollar and time by asking people where they go in the taxi queue and thus cut the price in half. In some places, like Paris asking people can mean you do not queue for 1.5 hours in the rain.

    Rental tips

    If you rent a car, get it at the airport rather than the city. Comparing the rental car prices in Europe and the US is shocking. It is dirt-cheap to get a car in the US compared to Europe. Don’t get individual cars; instead share one as a group. You can take turns being the dedicated driver for the whole trip.

    Aside: if you are only staying in San Francisco, do not get a rental. Parking is terrible and parking spots expensive and boy do they love giving parking tickets. If you know how to park, there are quite a few spots in the Haight area. They need parallel parking in reverse up a hill, which means they are always free :).

    Be a good driver. Do not exceed the ridiculous speed limits in the US. Every state is broke and happy to fine you (and online traffic school is so not fun). Don’t drink and drive. I don’t care about the legal aspect of it – it just means you are an arse who is likely to hurt innocent people.

    Buy a full tank, return the car empty. Opt for the filled tank to pay for when you rent a car for a longer trip and bring the car back empty. Most airports in the US do not have petrol stations near the airport. If you do the “fill up” option you get charged much, much more for the half empty tank than for a full one.

    As a European, don’t expect anything resembling a car when you rent one. Most of the time you get things that could hold a small band with instruments but is not roomy with four people inside. Just nod and smile and don’t look at the petrol gauge with the sense of dread we have in the old world. For a deer-in-headlight experience, ask for a “stick shift” option.

    Most rental companies will offer you a GPS to rent per day. A lot of cars have them built-in, too, so that’s a rip-off. You can also use your phone with a local SIM (in the US T-Mobile has one for $3/day for traffic). It is illegal to use your phone as a GPS in California so don’t showcase it on the dashboard. Just listen to the lady trying to pronounce EXPWY instead.

    Avoid anything named “valet”

    Valet is a Medieval French word and its original meaning – avid worshiper of Beelzebub and drowner of kittens – changed thanks to good marketing. Valet parking is for show-offs and people who cannot plan anything.

    A great example is the Triton hotel in San Francisco. You pay $25 a day for overnight valet parking and they literally drive the cars round the corner into the parking garage that charges $10 a night. So, in essence, you pay $15 for the wait for your car in the morning.

    If you go to a restaurant as a group, drop the group off, find a nearby free space. For example, in Santana Row in San Jose this means you cross the road and park in the free shopping mall. Then come back to join them – they can sip waters and fondle free bread rolls until you come in. Some restaurants will not give you a table if the whole group isn’t there. In this case, you are a surprise last minute guest – wahey!

    Posh hotels expect people to spend more

    In the US, the higher the hotel class, the fewer things you get for free. Often a 3 star hotel will have free WiFi, a kitchen to cook things, coffee makers and free water while 5 star charge extra for these things. A lot of hotels charge for the WiFi, but have free wired connection. This also means the wired connection is much faster as everyone and their dog uses the WiFi. Bring an own router (I got one that is also a phone charger) and you have free WiFi.

    Anything edible or potable in your hotel room may be a trap

    Do not touch things in your hotel room if they are not marked as “free” or “complimentary”.

    There is always a free bible and a pen – you can highlight naughty phrases as your free evening entertainment and surprise for the next visitor – but I digress.

    Minibars are very, very bad for your expenses and a total rip-off to boot. If your hotel charges for water bottles, get one outside or take the one you get on the plane with you and keep refilling it in the gym of the hotel. Every gym has a water dispenser and most are open 24 hours.

    The San Francisco/Valley gap

    When in Northern California, everything is much, much more expensive in San Francisco. If you are most of the time in the valley, go and get a hotel there instead. You can spend the money you spend on a great hotel in Mountain View and a rental for a mediocre one in the city. The meals will be much, much, cheaper, too. You can drive into the city if you want or take the Caltrain for a night out – if you want to drink. If you take a Caltrain when there is a game on you will drink anyways – people keep giving you free beer cans on the train as you “have a cute accent”.

    Extra Tips: How to pack light

    Disclaimer: this only applies 100% as I am a man devoid of any fashion sense of what goes with what else. Shoes take a lot of space, I always wear one pair and bring foldable gym shoes. Some of this may not be applicable for the more fashionable traveler. But you can still apply some of this, I presume.

    You can get by with a smaller set of clothes if you dry-clean them where you go. You’ll have smaller luggage and you pack two week trips as one week ones. Do NOT use the dry-cleaner in hotels – they are super efficient but also much, much more expensive. Almost every hotel I stayed in had a dry cleaner in walking distance. Drop them off in the morning; pick them up some day after work – simple.

    When packing, space in your luggage is your enemy. Well-folded clothes, when packed tight, stay free of wrinkles and are a joy to behold. Strap that stuff in – do not let it bounce around.

    One of the best things I bought was this Eagle Creek package system. In it are instructions and a plastic sheet to fold shirts over, and you can fit about 10 shirts in a quarter of a hand-held roller. As there is no wriggle room, they won’t wrinkle at all.

    Layering is a big thing – you can wear a shirt for two days when you wear it with an undershirt on the first day. That way you cut your amount of clothes in half. Have a simple zip-up to go over it and you can survive in many temperatures. One rainproof outer layer is another good idea – especially in SF.

    Merino wool is one of the things evolution came up with to make the life of travelers easier. It is temperate – you don’t sweat or freeze in it. It doesn’t keep smell in it – just hanging it out of a window makes it good as new. You can wash it in a sink and dries in an hour over a radiator. Check out Icebreaker. I am not affiliated with them but it is the best travel gear I know.

    Want more?

    I got more to share, in case there is interest.

    Quick Note: Mozilla looking to survey Mobile App Developers in the Bay Area – tell us what you need

    Friday, February 14th, 2014

    The Mozilla User Experience Research team is looking for developer who have experience writing mobile Web apps in the Bay Area to participate in a paid research study that will have a significant impact on making our developer-focused efforts even better.

    To qualify for the study, please take this 10-minute survey.
    If you’re eligible, a member of our team will contact you to tell you a little more about the research and schedule time with you. Developers who qualify for and fully participate will receive an honorarium of $250.

    We’re looking for developers who are:

    • willing to participate in a 2-hour in-person interview at their workplace or home
    • available for the interview the week of March 10 to 14 (the weekend before / after may also be possible)

    The interview will be recorded, but all materials will be used for internal research purposes only.

    You DON’T have to use Mozilla products or be part of our community to participate (in fact, we’d like to hear your voice even more!).

    Your feedback has the potential to improve the experience of other Web app developers and influence the direction of our products and services, so we would love to get a chance to talk with you! Please feel free to share this opportunity widely with your own network as well.