My Failed Attempts at Soft Skills Talks

A photograph of chairs in a university lecture hall

During the Development Hell podcast recording at php[tek] (not yet released at the time of this writingavailable here), Chris and Ed discussed soft skills talks with Yitzchok Willroth (@coderabbi). Soft skills are those skills that aren’t necessarily technical in nature—things like interpersonal communication, time management, managing teams, leadership, etc. They’re critical to our jobs, but we often see them as secondary to our technical skills. In fact, they are not soft at all—they’re rather difficult to master, which is why it’s important that we talk about them at conferences and write about them on our blogs and in our trade journals.

At the podcast, I tried to elucidate a sentiment that’s been on my mind for some time, but it came out as rambling nonsense. I’m sorry. Here’s what I was trying to get at.

I’ve been a conference speaker for many years. For a few recent years, I ramped down my speaking and took some time off from conferences to focus on my work, and as I started to ramp things back up, I tried to assess my options and how I wanted to position myself. I assumed the next step for a seasoned speaker should be to start positioning myself for keynote opportunities.

I’ve always given very technical talks, and I’ve observed that keynotes are usually non-technical and focused on ideas, concepts, and soft skills, usually filled with personal anecdotes and inspirational stories. So, I set out to craft some talks that would help take me on a new direction in my speaking career.

In 2013, I made my comeback appearance at CoderFaire Atlanta, where I was invited to give the conference keynote. This was supposed to be my shining moment as a keynote speaker to elaborate on the “Debugging Zen” article I had written for Web Advent. The keynote was entitled “Developing Intuition: How to Think Like a Software Architect.” I shifted the focus away from debugging and told my story of how I came to be a software developer and the heavy role intuition has played in my career. I think the talk resonated for about half of the audience. The other half probably thought it was a bunch of hokey gibberish.

I spoke at php[tek] a little later that year, after having taken three years off from speaking there. I gave a presentation entitled “API First.” This was another soft talk (with a little bit of technical detail thrown in), building on my experiences developing and deploying APIs. In it, I talked about how to approach your managers and company leadership to convince them of taking an API-first approach to web application development. It was well-received and I saw a lot of great feedback, but it was not easy to prepare. I gave it again at ZendCon later that year. Again, I received high marks and good feedback, but it felt lacking in a certain kind of energy and levity. After the intuition talk at CoderFaire, I realized that I’m not good at telling stories or relating anecdotes, and that was evident here, as well.

That same year, Eli asked me to put together the closing talk for php[architect]’s PHP 5.5 Web Summit. He wanted me to talk about modern PHP development, so I decided to turn it into an observation of how best practices have arisen in the community over the years. I gave the talk many times over the following year, but it always had mixed reviews. On one side were the community old-timers with whom the historical look-back resonated. On the other hand were folks newer to the community who criticized the talk as a bunch of nostalgic navel-gazing and were expecting a different kind of talk.

I made one more attempt at a soft talk. Again, I refined my “Debugging Zen” article into its own talk, discussing the role intuition plays for me in the art of debugging and how others can tap into their own intuition to be better software developers. At the Madison PHP Conference, where I first presented it, I gave it to a crowded room and received many encouraging comments. However, each time I’ve given the talk since, I’ve heard mixed feedback and even negative comments.

I’m a very introspective person, which I think works well in written form but falls flat for me in spoken form. So, I’ve decided to retire these talks. I still feel they are important, but I’m not the best person to deliver them.

Now, back to the Development Hell podcast recording. Chris, Ed, and Yitz were discussing soft talks and it seemed to me the general sentiment was that all speakers should submit both soft skills and technical skills talks to tech conferences, and especially if you’re going to present a keynote, it needs to be heavily slanted to the soft side. Is this true?

At php[tek] this past week, I introduced two brand-new technical talks. I had a blast preparing and delivering them, and I felt they were among the best talks I’ve given in the last three years, so maybe I’ve finally hit my stride and found myself again as a speaker, after attempting for so long to go in a direction that doesn’t suit me well. I’ll spend a few more years honing my abilities as a technical speaker, and in the future, maybe I’ll be ready to work hard on practicing and delivering another soft talk.

Should every technical speaker have a soft talk included in their toolbox of talks? What about those who are much better at teaching technical skills than they are at motivating behavior? Is it possible to have a mostly technical keynote, or must keynotes always be soft? Observationally, it seems to me that PHP conferences used to be heavily technical and now they’re a mix of technical and life/professional skills talks. Is the mix just right, or is it skewed too much one way or the other?