Scotch on the Rocks 2013 – a speaker’s perspective

This is incredibly belated as it’s now almost a month ago, but I wanted to share my experiences of speaking at the Scotch on the Rocks conference 2013, organised by Fuzzy Orange and held in Edinburgh.

Speaking

Speaking at Scotch was something that I’d wanted to do for a while. Back in 2011 I’d done a couple of user group talks, and remember having a few chats at the 2011 conference itself around whether I was the kind of person they’d ever give a slot to. The reason I was particularly keen was that having attended various iterations of Scotch (On the Road 2009, London 2010, Edinburgh 2011), I was starting to feel part of the community, and wanted to give something back to a group which had taught me a lot.

Fast forward to 2013 and I was doing a considerably different job, around considerably different technologies and approaches. I had spoken at a few events but still was nowhere near to considering myself a polished speaker. The talks I had done were varied, to a range of audiences, and on the whole I’d had some slight nerves about speaking but generally had coped pretty well. One session, at Adobe MAX in LA, was a massive personal achievement for me to to be involved in it, but there was a level of detachment. These were mainly people who I’d likely never see again, and if I didn’t want to hear what they had to say about me I’d just stay away from twitter for a while. Scotch was different. In the two weeks before it I frequently struggled to sleep, woke up in the night, and had various anxiety dreams about my presentation. I hadn’t been expecting this. I read the other speaker interviews with interest, but also dreaded seeing my name come up in the list of who other speakers were going to see. I realised that I wasn’t at all looking forward to the conference, which was something that made me incredibly sad. This was something I’d wanted to do for ages! So what was causing all this? Quite simply, the same thing that drove me to want to speak at Scotch, contributing to a little community that I really respected, was utterly terrifying. Whilst people in LA, or in London at Create the Web last October were numerous and faceless, these were people who I speak to regularly and whose opinion I really valued. It was the old dilemma about what’s more stressful – a huge arena gig, or sitting with your guitar in a tiny pub where you can see everyone’s expression. I just didn’t want to let anyone down. I didn’t want to suck. Which is a pretty bad benchmark to go into a conference with!

My talk was on technical planning, and things that you might want to research before you dive into development. It was an ok subject, but I had some concerns about how it would fit into the day itself. By its very nature it wasn’t hugely technical, and was more dealing with approaches, ways of working, and things to think about rather than strict technical architecture. This was the opposite to my concern about MAX, where the conference had been rebranded as “the Creativity Conference” and I was worried that it wouldn’t appeal at all to the attendees because of the technical associations!

In the end I made sure that I had a nice early night the night before (I am not good on no sleep) despite the free bar, and I think the session went pretty well. Overcoming my fear of speaking in front of people whose opinion actually mattered to me was a big relief, and whilst I’m sure it won’t be the last time that ever happens at least I know that I can do it! As I’ve found with every talk I’ve given to date, I learnt more about what works and what doesn’t, and I’ll apply that to talks in the future.

My slides are up on Slideshare if anyone wanted to grab them. The other session slides have also been collected on the SOTR blog. In terms of the mind map that I showed as an example of a sample resource, you can find that here.

Attending

I love Scotch. Just putting that out there. As I’ve already mentioned, the nature of the conference’s evolution has meant that familiar faces tend to gather at every event, which is something that I really enjoy. I get tired of superficial “I’m Sally, I do this, I’m interested in this” conversations, and would rather jump straight into catching up with proper chats. You might get the idea from this that Scotch is somehow an elitist, closed community, with newbies being shunned, however this is absolutely not the case. I believe that 75% of the speakers were new to SOTR this year, and I met a large amount of people who I’d never met and who had never attended before. It’s a great balance, and I hope that many of the new faces will return for future events as I’d love to catch up with them again.

The other thing (outside of the sessions, which I’ll come to shortly) is the sense of fun. Potentially due to the ice already being broken between a large amount of people, there are often certain amusing antics at SOTR and this year was no different. This year it all centred around Ben Nadel, a highly-respected and long-standing member of the ColdFusion community. Ben’s site features him with assorted people in the header image, which randomly displays a different image on every page load. Whenever Ben is present at an event, people flock to have their photo taken. He wasn’t able to attend SOTR this year, and, well… I’ll let David Boyer take up the story and show off the finished products! Wherever you went around the Hilton, people were laughing, and a lot of it was due to this. A simple, silly act led to a great bonding activity, and some rather creative output. This absolutely isn’t why I would go to a tech conference, but it’s a great bonus when you know that the people you’re surrounded with have such a great attitude to silliness. Special mentions go to James Allen and David, and I know I’ll remember our Friday night adventuring for a long time!

Ben Nadel 1

Ben Nadel 2

Get to the sessions already!

So we’ve covered everything but the important stuff! Ok, this is where it gets serious. Scotch has grown out of origins seeped in ColdFusion, although in recent times has grown to cater for all sorts of technologies and disciplines. This was really visible in the range of sessions offered, and to my real pleasure there wasn’t a single slot that I wanted to skip. It was actually to my annoyance in certain ways – with my presentation nerves I was hoping to have something easy I could ditch so I could slink off and do some prep work without feeling like I was missing things!

Day one

The conference kicked off with the Adobe keynote, which sadly underwhelmed me. Not that there probably was a brief considering Adobe’s status as Diamond sponsor, but if there was a brief I feel it was completely missed. Focussed almost exclusively on ColdFusion Builder, it had a heavy sales/marketing feel to it, and I personally don’t feel it stirred up any excitement. With the conference billing itself as an “annual gathering of web technologists” … “Focusing on development, best practices and human experience”, I felt this insistance on sticking to the historical CF focus was slightly jarring, and not in keeping with the rest of the conference.

In contrast, having grabbed a quick tea refresh, I settled back down in the largest room to hear Joe Roberts speak incredibly engagingly on “Service Oriented Architecture Vs Monolithasaurus“. Joe is someone that I have followed on twitter for a while, and it was great to finally meet him as well as hearing him speak. The session was very well organised, with some great illustrations to keep the mood light, but covered the subject matter in a very simple to grasp fashion.

Next led to my first conflict. I’d promised Mark Drew that I’d attend his session whilst in the bar the previous night, but realised that it was up against Kev McCabe’s talk on The Mikado Method. Having heard Kev speak before I know that he is excellent at presenting ideas about working best practices, and this was something that I didn’t want to miss. A simple idea; I know that myself and others came away kicking ourselves that something that obvious could be so effective!

After lunch came Quit your boring 9-5er by Kay Smoljak, something that I’m sure we all aspire to! As someone who has taken the leap to change the way I’m working I’ve found I’m now a lot more interested in varied income streams and finding ways to work which fit my life. Kay pointed out some great resources, and her situation certainly gave everyone something to aspire to.

My penultimate session of the day was The number one ingredient behind (technical) success: Team by John J Peebles. Kicking off with a motorsport-based analogy was a great start, instantly setting the scene for the underlying message. I really enjoyed this session and John’s presentation style, and came away from it with a number of ideas.

I’m ashamed to say that I ducked out of the next session, although I really wanted to attend How to be a good open source citizen by Curt Gratz. Sadly though, I was busy tweaking things and photoshopping Kev McCabe’s head onto Caprica Six’s body…

The final session, and by far my favourite of the conference was Bruce Lawson’s How To Destroy The Web. I won’t spoil this session for those of you who haven’t seen it, but needless to say that Bruce is a fantastic presenter, and this session prompted a lot of laughs (as well as some valuable takeaways on best practice).

Day two

I was feeling pretty smug this morning after my early night, as certain others were walking around with very sore heads. I kicked off with Ray Camden’s Brackets: An Open Source Code Editor For The Web. I love Brackets. I fully support what the project team and Adobe as backers are doing, and it’s the only editor I use at the moment, even for light server-side stuff. I’d seen much of the content of this presentation, but wanted to go because in Brackets-land things are changing so fast, and it was the recent build features that I was interested in hearing about first-hand. I’m very excited about the way this editor is going, and it was great to see others getting excited about it too. As an aside, I never managed to get a Brackets tshirt at MAX, so if anyone reading this can hook me up (girly M or men’s S) then you would make me a very happy girl indeed. Ok, enough blagging…

Another clash! Matt Gifford is someone who I’m always pleased to see at any kind of gathering, and on top of that is a fantastic speaker. Sadly though, I chose instead to attend a session by a new face, Tuuli Aalto-Nyyssönen, and her talk Using personas in service design – continuously. Tuuli gave a very charismatic talk that included “Rubber ducking” (not some kind of rhyming slang or perversion as may be expected from the Scotch audience…) and warned the audience of the dangers of “bullshit personas”. As someone who often works with UX consultants I’ve seen too many people fall into that trap, so it was great to see some ways that personas can be a valuable tool when looking at developments.

My nerves meant that part of me wanted to skip the session before mine, but as someone who has seen a range of agencies try and fail to become agile, Chris McDermott’s Don’t become Agile, strive for agility was something I felt I couldn’t really miss. Chris successfully used his own experiences to give context to agile practices, and I came away with a number of tricks that were new to me at least.

After my own talk I was absolutely shattered, and am afraid that I headed back to my room to flop in bed for a bit rather than catch the last talk, before slinking back in to watch the round-up by Andy Allan.

Summary

I said it in a tweet after I came home, but I genuinely believe that this was the best Scotch yet. I’m not just being nice with my praise for the sessions above. I genuinely didn’t see a single bad one. Everyone worked really hard, gave polished performances, and the content was great. As for a speaker’s perspective, the audience was incredibly polite, engaged, and I had some great follow-up chats with people in the bar afterwards. The attitude, both from organisers and attendees was incredibly supportive, which was very much appreciated considering how much of a hard time I give myself!

It was a pleasure and an honour to be involved in Scotch this year. I’m not sure if I’ll be lucky enough to be invited to be part of it in the future, but regardless of that I’ll hopefully be back next year.

 

Original version of header photo kindly provided by Cyril Hanquez.