Monday, January 3, 2011

Ruminations on Rejection

A few months ago, I attended a Montreal Geek Girl Dinner about "Women in technology".  I was hoping to meet like-minded women and maybe some men, but I was surprised that the majority of attendant were what I consider technology users, rather than technology producers.  These are women who use technology to provide content, who mange technology production, who sell it, who bring it to all of us, making our lives easier, more interesting, or more fun.  I was glad I came, even tho it wasn't what I had expected.

At one point, the issue of the few women speakers at conferences came up.  One of the the organizers of ConFoo (one of the brave men in attendance) asked for ways to get more speakers, because very few women step up.  I thought about it, and I think maybe I'm one of those women who just do not step up to be heard. I want to do it, but..  surely, there's someone better than me out there, surely there's nothing special I can bring to a crowd... I'm just a developer - a good one, but why me?  What would make me step up?

I'm not exactly shy.  Well, okay, maybe a little, but when I see a need, I step up.  I  usually let others lead, but when I know I can do better, I speak up, and guide the situation the way I think will work best.  So what would make me volunteer as a speaker? a void; a need.  I went to the organizer of ConFoo, and told him that maybe, instead of sending out vague requests for speakers, they should suggest specific topic to specific women, showing them the need.  Which he promptly turned around on me, and suggested I do a Grails talk at ConFoo.

I considered it for some time, trying to convince myself I could do it.  I know Groovy and Grails well, I like it, and I think I can communicate my enthusiasm to other developers.  I took a deep breath, and proposed the talk.  And felt all giddy.  And started thinking about how I'd do the presentation.  Then I realized I'm also pretty good at SQL, from a programmer's perspective.  How you can't tune a database on it's own, but you have to look at it in the context of the application; sometimes you have to change the logic in your program instead of tossing another index at the problem.  How sometimes, it's better if a process takes longer, if it's less intrusive on the other users of the system.  And how to write and rewrite queries until they do what you want, and how you want.  After the rush of the first proposal (and a few words of encouragement) I proposed a session on SQL for programmers.

Finally, I had most recently started working with Scala and Lift, and I could see the potential.  I submitted a session for this too, because I thought it should be presented, but I was hoping I wouldn't get selected - I have so little experience with it, and none in a proper "work" context, that I thought it was pushing it a little.  Still, no better way to learn than when thinking "and how do I explain that to someone else?"

So I submitted three talks, and waited.  I started writing notes about how I wanted to design each presentation, what aspects I particularly didn't want to forget, etc.  Just in case I was selected.  They did say they wanted a session on Grails, and they did say they wanted more women.  I wasn't expecting to get a session due to my gender alone, but I thought my chances were pretty good.  But I also knew very well I had no experience to show for, no visible accomplishment.  And I was worried that I would get selected! Would I have enough time to prepare as well as I'd like?

And then, the decision came.  The list of speakers was published, and I couldn't find my name on it.  I looked and looked and.. nope! nothing.  Not for the Scala talk, not for the Grails talk, not for the SQL talk.

I was surprised at how disappointed I was.  It's not like I was promised anything.  There were quite a number of proposals, many by professional speakers, or by people directly involved in the making of the technology discussed.  I was able to confirm later that there will be a talk on Grails, and at least a talk on SQL (by someone whose blog I've consulted on many occasions, so he's a lot more of an authority than I am, let's face it).  I didn't see anything about Scala/Lift, but I may have missed it.  And it's very new, and definitely a serious paradigm shift for anyone doing Java or PHP, and even Python.

So, why was I so disappointed?

Probably because in order to even dare proposing a session, I had to convince myself that it was needed, and that I was the only one who could do it.  I wasn't.  I don't like taking chances, I don't like selling myself.  People should just realize how awesome I am, without me ever having to brag.  Yeah, that's not how it works..  I have done very well for myself with that philosophy, but I have also not done anything particularly visible, cool, amazing...  Oh, I've done some really impressive stuff.  I wrote one of the first CMS (but you wouldn't know it) and I worked one some pretty cool sites (like - but you probably don't remember it).  I wrote one of the first applets that kept track of who was on-line - well before anyone spoke of "Web 2.0".  Well, if I want to be seen, be recognized by my peers, I'll have to do a lot more than wait for someone to offer me a session at a conference.

What now?

Now that I've tasted the thrill of proposing sessions at a conference, and now that I know that rejection sucks, but you survive, dust yourself off, put a band-aid on the bruised ego and move on... now, I've decided that working alone in my office and gathering knowledge and skills is not enough.  I want more.  I will be more.  I will take risks, and put myself out there.  I will not stop at "what I'm supposed to do".  I will also listen to what I want to do.  And I will try to share what I know, as best I can.  And there are plenty of other conferences.  And there's next year.

I know that whenever we do something, we "practice" doing it - we get better at it, it becomes easier.  So it's time for me to start practicing risk taking.  At least a little.

Isn't it convenient that this is happening at the turning of the year?

Here's to 2011!


  1. Congratulations on submitting! I remember having to screw my courage up to submit to the first few conferences that I submitted to. It's difficult to imagine that I know more than anyone else in the room, so I go for the angle that I believe that I can explain it to 'normal' devs as I'm 'just a developer' too.

    I have to admit that not getting accepted to speak at a conference really knocks you back. However, there's always many more talks proposed that spaces available so it's inevitable that people will get rejected. It's hard to not take it personally though!



  2. Impressed by the transparency of this post

  3. I submitted to a number of conferences last year and was rejected from all of them. I was more than a little disappointed, and felt almost exactly as you describe in your post. It's funny how you can talk yourself into things going one way or another and set yourself up for a huge disappointment.

    After speaking with a number of conference organizers and people who help select topics, the keys lie in things that will help the conference sell more tickets. You have to have good experience in a subject that is in demand. If someone submits on the same topic and has demonstrated more *visible* experience than you (even if it's just they wrote more blog posts on it), they will often be selected over you, even if you have more experience in actuality (because outsiders have no way of knowing the depth of your experience!). Book authors have a trump card - "he wrote the book on it!", and anyone who is involved in a "successful" startup probably has an edge as well. It's all about visibility and demonstrated authority on the subject in question, and it always relates back to ticket sales.

    This year I have had better luck with my submissions (at least so far). I got accepted to give two talks at Confoo, and have not heard decisions on the others yet, though I am hopeful. I tend to think the reason I got in is because Confoo just added a brand new mobile track this year, and I submitted a mobile development talk on a fairly new platform (Titanium) I have recently had a lot of experience with and blogged about. I wish you good luck in your future submissions, and don't give up! Remember it's all about visibility. Make it a no-brainer for talk selectors to pick you (as an authority on the topics you submitted about), and you'll get accepted a lot more frequently.

  4. Thank you all for your comments. Yes, I realize that the people who get these speaker spots worked hard for them, and I don't begrudge them their success. Well, I'm a little jealous, but I'll be going to listen to them, and learn what I can.

    It was an enlightening experience, and I don't intend on letting it end here. This is, after all, something I had no idea I wanted to do just a few months ago. I never even thought this blog entry would get much readership, and I'm pleasantly surprised!

    Rob and Vance, congratulations on getting in.

  5. Hi Nancy,

    I will be presenting the session on Grails. I've been working with it for a few years now, deployed half a dozen applications in production with my team, and I thought I could give some feedback to the community on this experiment. Explain why you would choose this framework and what to watch out for. I have already spoken at a few conferences, mostly on Agile, but this will be a first as a purely technical presentation. As I want to make sure this is THE best presentation on Grails anyone could dream of, would you like to collaborate with me on building it? (You'll find me among your followers :-).

  6. Congratulations on getting started. There's nothing wrong with you when your submission is rejected but it sure can feel like it the first couple of times. By now you have probably discovered that there are usually several conferences who might be interested in broadly the same topic, albeit with a different slant. I hope you are already an accomplished speaker, but with determination like that you certainly will be before too long!

  7. Nancy, I'm glad that you followed my advice to submit a talk on Grails at ConFoo. Yes, being rejected is hard and beleive me, rejecting talk proposals is not easy either. Always keep in mind that we, conference organizers, are members of the community and that we do what we do because we want to bring something to the community. We want to give quality presentations to the community, but we also want to bring great speaking opportunities to the local crew.

    How we select speakers may seem a bit opaque but it's not because we have anything to hide, it's just that we are bad at being transparent. If you would like to know more on what we look for when we select a talk proposal, join me for a pint of quality craft beer; I'll be happy to share our side of the story. It should be fairly obvious in which events you can find me but if that does not work for you, drop me and email and we'll find some time to share ideas:

    Don't give up. We need people like you.

  8. Thank you, Yannick. And if there's any doubt - I'm not bitter at not having been selected, and I'm not arguing with your choices - there were quite a few valuable presentations at ConFoo. I'm glad I went; thank your for organizing it.

    As for next year... we'll see!

  9. I know rejection is always something to which we are feared off but that doesn't mean that we are not good. i think you need to keep rejection in mind, as this is the way to success only as it increases your strength to do something much better than what you have done before.