The dev@ was in the details, and in my delivery

Big Data Evangelist, IBM

I do a lot of public speaking in my job. Now, I won’t claim that I’m the best speaker, the most photogenic big data geek or even the tallest IBMer you’ll ever see wagging his tongue up at the microphone. If anything, my physical appearance and demeanor peg me as the typical over caffeinated brainiac.

I'm known for injecting lots of energy (and perhaps way too much detail) into my public speaking gigs; case in point, my speaking engagement at the Ignite dev@ event that IBM held on the Sunday evening at Insight 2014 in Las Vegas. This is exceptionally painful for me to watch, and it’s not out of false modesty—I have spoken at many large public events in the past, such as this “keep it small, stupid” talk at Strata in 2011, in which I think I handled myself really well. But the dev@Insight talk wasn’t one of them.

I think the issue is the strictly compressed time format of the dev@ events, which suits some presenters quite well, but not me. If you’ve never been to such an event, I should note that it involves exactly 20 presentation slides auto-advancing every 15 seconds until a hard stop at the 5-minute mark. What that means is that the presenter has to race through their talk and tell their story crisply and clearly without excessive elaboration. Some of the other presenters at the event did a sensational job, because their talks were, to varying degrees, perhaps simpler and less text-intensive than mine.

I knew all of this coming into the event, but I thought (perhaps foolishly) that I could pull it off anyway. My topic was quite challenging to present in such a format, or even if I’d had an hour or more to deliver it in all its complexity. What I discussed was a perspective that I’d originally presented in a LinkedIn post and then expanded into a blog here on the IBM Big Data and Analytics Hub: “Data science is not a magic wand for diagnosing global warming.” Dig in there for more details and please do leave a comment; if you’d like, I’ll send you the slides I developed for the dev@Insight event—my PowerPoint is designed to be a keeper.

So, what exactly did I not like about my delivery at the Insight event?


Look at me. I could not have been more nervous. My microphone hand was shaking wildly while I spoke. Not just that, but I was tripping over my words and speaking faster, louder and harsher than I normally do. Also, I had absolutely no sense for whether the audience was following my remarks, or whether, in fact, it was even possible to follow at the speed I was moving.

I was guilty of my usual verbosity overload, but it was all literally “in your face,” as opposed to simply in your browser. So what you saw up there was essentially a man lifting heavy barbells of the mind while doing intellectual calisthenics at top speed. All of this was going on while I was blasting high-volume conceptual techno to an audience that was lounging on a Sunday evening in beanbag chairs drinking scotch and soda and chatting amongst themselves.

Contrast this to my Strata performance, in which I had more time, spoke more slowly, hadn't crammed every last detail into my presentation and even occasionally breathed and paused.

Nevertheless, some people in the dev@Insight audience came up to me afterward and said they enjoyed my talk. Which only goes to show that I’m my own severest critic. As befits somebody who is most comfortable at a keyboard in blissful isolation, I’m not a very good judge of how I do in live speaking contexts. I just wing it all in the moment and hope I don’t embarrass myself.

Yes, I joined them in the beanbags and libations right after coming down from the stage at the Insight event. And I enjoyed the other speakers, so I’m sure that the event as a whole struck a responsive chord with the audience.

Pull up a beanbag chair

I understand that there will be another dev@ event like this later this month at IBM InterConnect 2015, also in Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on the opening Sunday night of the conference. I also noticed that the delightfully effervescent Katie Linendoll will host this one as well. All power to them—I can’t attend this year (hard personal conflict), but I would if I could.

Perhaps one of these days I’ll throw myself back into a dev@ event. I promise to keep it simple, stupid. Oops, pardon, I’m addressing the word “stupid” to myself, not you my audience, of course. I can’t help being a hyper-brainiac, and I think my detail-rich cerebral observations are key to my appeal.

But I like to think I’ve learned my lesson, regarding my much-too-much delivery style.