28 May 2015
In my early 20s, I was asked to speak at my first conference in 2007. I would have to figure out travel and accommodations, as it wasn’t offered to me. I also wasn’t sure what I would say that would be of interest. But I was excited to speak at my first conference, so I immediately asked my boss at Apple if I could go. Technically, I wasn’t supposed to be speaking at conferences without PR approval — and from what I’m told, PR approval is rejected almost immediately unless you were at the top of the org chart. But since I wasn’t going to be talking about my work at Apple, he gave me the okay and even approved my travel expenses. I’m super grateful and thankful to him for encouraging me at the beginning.
I still needed to figure out what to talk about. At that time, “listicles” were on the rise. Top 10 lists gained all the attention on Twitter & RSS feeds. So after talking to a few friends who had spoken at conferences before, I decided to give what I thought were top 10 tips for CSS workflow. Unfortunately, I took some very bad advice from a friend who had spoken at many conferences already. “Sex sells,” he said. So I designed my slides to look like a Cosmopolitan magazine cover, and mimicked how they have their usual sex tips. I called my talk, “Creating Sexy Stylesheets.”
This was almost a decade before Code of Conducts became prevalent. Looking back, I am embarrassed that I went for such a cheap, and easy approach. But I learned a lot from it and have grown a lot since then. But back to the story…
During the conference, I noticed all the guys wearing t-shirts and jeans, so I followed suit (no pun intended). As the only female speaker, I thought this would let me fit in with everyone else. Besides, this was basically what I wore all the time, no big deal. Plus, I wanted to sport my friend’s shirt for his website that he had designed. Unfortunately, I was not wearing a padded bra. That shouldn’t seem like much of a big deal, but it turns out that a regular un-padded bra sometimes doesn’t conceal enough combined with an American Apparel shirt, especially when bright lights are on.
I brought an Apple remote, which I found out is a terrible tool for presentations. As I walked around and spoke, I would then attempt to advance my slides and nothing would happen. I would try again, and still nothing. Then suddenly 20 slides would go by at once. What a disaster.
I learned that sometimes it is best to not check what people have written about you after you give a presentation. Some dude wrote a blog post and ranted for many paragraphs about how terrible he thought I was, and then went into detail about what I wore. He claimed I didn’t practice (which was not true — I was just really so nervous). He said I had dressed unprofessionally and was too revealing (mind you, it wasn’t skin he saw — it was just the shape that unpadded bras don’t do a good enough job of concealing). And he said I was the worst speaker at the conference.
Another dude wrote one short review:
“Notes: Nothing particularly new or interesting here if you’re proficient with CSS techniques and formatting.”
And more negative posts and tweets hit my feed. I was so humiliated. Granted, I don’t know how many people saw these posts. I only saw them because I was subscribed to my name on Google’s Blog Search service they had back then. But I was incredibly hurt and discouraged. I felt like a failure and an imposter. Why should I be on stage at all?
I thought that maybe speaking wasn’t for me.
I am very grateful for my friends and my fellow teammates I was working with at Apple at the time. They pushed me and encouraged me to keep going. I accepted my second speaking engagement at An Event Apart. I was so excited to meet Jeffrey Zeldman and I couldn’t believe he had invited me in the first place!
About 20 minutes before I went on, I was crouched in the corner, beet red, and shaking. I was approached by Jared Spool who was so nice and encouraging. He told me he had given over 200 talks (and this was still in 2007, so imagine how many he has done now!) and that he still gets nervous every time. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Even Jared gets nervous? He told me, “I just pound 2 red bulls, channel that energy into excitement!” He made me laugh.
I was to go on second, following Doug Bowman. Shortly before going on stage, Jeffrey came up to me to shake my hand. I admitted to him that I was very nervous, and that this was only my second time speaking. He immediately hugged me and told me, “Wow! I am so honored to be introducing you at the beginning of your speaking career!” This was exactly what I needed to hear and I will never forget that.
I decided to talk about graphic design principles applied to Interfaces. Admittedly, I still didn’t quite nail it this second time either, as I received some very harsh criticisms. “Jina should just stick to code, which is what she’s known for” (which was surprising to me as I went to Art School and was a designer by profession).
But personally, I felt I did much better that time than the first time, and I felt the rush of getting to share what I had learned with others. So I didn’t let that stop me. I kept going.
When I switched teams at Apple, I realized that speaking at conferences wasn’t going to be as easy. I did get to do a couple more, but eventually I was asked to stop. So I left. But I still am very grateful for the opportunities they gave me. I am even more grateful that every company I have worked at since then has encouraged me to get out there, to talk about my work, and to share what I know. Some even pay for it when the conference can’t do so.
Every talk I’ve given has pushed me to getting a little bit better than the last time. And I’ve learned a ton of lessons along the way. I do still get nervous. Very much so. And I still don’t think I nail it every time. But what matters is I keep getting better. And I dress a little better, too. ;)
Since my first talk, I’ve given 63 talks across at least 12 different countries and I have some gigs lined up for later this year. I am so glad I didn’t give up right at the beginning. I don’t say this to brag. I just want to tell my story to help those who might get discouraged early. Persist and keep going. Resist giving up due to negative feedback. It will be worth it.