Series 1: Speaking

Ep 3: Going Viral - Ashley Williams

What happens when one of your talk gets really popular ? Ashley Williams (@ag_dubs) shares her experience of becoming a popular speaker.

Show Notes


[0:00] (Mariko) elcome to toast, the talk on a small thing, where I interview guests about one single topic. You are listening to the first series which is all about speaking at conferences and meet-ups.

[0:18] (Mariko) This week, I met up with Ashley Williams. Ashley works for NPM and she travels around the world giving workshops and talks. Ashley and I both had our first big conference talk at JSConf 2015. Her talk, "If You Wish to Learn ES6 From Scratch, You Must First Invent the Universe", was a smash hit, everybody loved it. She moved on to giving it at many, many more conferences. I chat with her about how that talk came about, and what it was like to go viral after first conference talk.

[0:56] (Ashley) Really, the first time I started giving real tech talks, I'd say it was JSConf 2015. Though the talk that I gave there was a talk that I originally kind of designed for this little speaking engagement that I had at the University of Amsterdam while I was speaking for a week, but it was very casual. It was just speaking to some of the professors and students. It was not really a tech conference, it was not really even supposed to be a tech talk. It was a special program that the university of Amsterdam is doing called Coding the Humanities. Where it was like a summer program for humanities students that wanted an intro to programming kind of situation. The original was just called "How to Train your Programmer". I ended up talking about, when you are teaching programmers, what you are teaching is abstraction. Then it morphed into that ridiculous Space Cow ES6 shenanigans.

[1:59] (Mariko) The Space Cow ES6 talk is an amazing talk on how to think about programming language. If it was not supposed to be a tech talk then why did you decide to submit to JSConf 2015?

[2:12] (Ashley) I had never been to a JavaScript conference, and I had just joined Bocoup at the time, and my friend Jenn Schiffer, kind of like at the very last minute, I'd broken up with my boyfriend, I was really bummed. She was like, "Do you want to sleep on my floor in my hotel room? I'm speaking at JSConf 2014." I was like, "Okay, let's do this." I went, and it was just a really conference, I had a really good time, I met so many people. I really wanted to go but I knew I couldn't afford it. I was like, if I get invited to speak, then I can afford to go to this conference. I think that was pretty much my thinking.

I actually found out I got accepted to JSConf on the Amtrak, on the way to Boston. I was so excited. It was ridiculous. Funny enough though, I was so nervous about speaking at it that basically once I got accepted I just started falling into this pattern of thought like I'm going to die. On May 30th when I give this talk, my life doesn't continue after this basically. I was so anxious. I was really scared, but then everybody seemed to really like it. I did have a small posse in the front that liked all my jokes, which I think really helped.

[3:29] (Mariko) People really liked her talk at the conference. From outside, it seems like she had this overnight success and her life changed with speaking invitation to travel around the world.

[3:42] (Ashley) The tricky thing here is that it looks, I definitely did go viral but it happened a little bit later because what happened is, put all this work into the conference. Then I was like, "I already did this work. Why don't I just submit it to all these other conferences?" Because I figured that my odds were very low of getting in. I was like, "Maybe if I submit to these ten conferences, I'll get into one." Then I got into all of them which was completely unexpected and then I was like, "No, now I have to do this." I think particularly I was really nervous about the JSConf talk because if I couldn't do well there, then I was going to bomb everywhere.

The trick is that that one talk got accepted at a bunch of places. I gave it at JSConf, and then I already had lined up for a bunch of other places. What was interesting is after that, people saw this talk, it was very popular on Youtube. I continued, it was funny because I made this hashtag because there was a website that my students made me called Clap for Ashley. Every once in a while I'll do a twitter search on it, and random people will be watching the video, and they'll use that hashtag. It's a great way for me to find out who is watching it, but I didn't even know that conferences invited speakers. I thought just everyone applied. Then I started getting these emails being like, "We'd like to have you come talk, come give this talk." I just didn't even know that was a thing, and the emails just started coming in.

When I think about why this happened, one of the key things that I think made this talk particularly successful is that it's a bate and switch. People think the talk is about ES6, and it's not at all. People think it's a talk that's going to summarize what the ES6 features and how to use them and stuff. The talk has one slide with code on it, and it's like Ruby code. It's definitely not what people want but I think maybe sometimes people think it's an ES6 talk, and as they are building a conference lineup they are like, "Let's get an ES6 talk." It fits in a bunch.

[5:49] (Mariko) It seems like she is on the road all the time. I asked her how she picks which conference she says yes to.

[5:56] (Ashley) Basically at this point, because I get invited to so many things, I don't apply anymore because I already I'm traveling and speaking way too much. It feels really bad I think to a certain extent. I feel like it should be like, if I want to go talk somewhere I should have to submit. I've started being a lot more picky. I definitely like turn towards community conferences. There's been like a bunch of very professional conferences that have contacted and I just I'm not interested. I also fundamentally don't think that they would like my talks because my talks are, I don't know, they are weirdo talks. I want to go to where to there is a higher density of weirdos. The community conferences tend to have a higher density of weirdos, I like those. I definitely make sure that the conference has a code of conduct. I make sure that there is a diverse speaker lineup, and if the speakers aren't announced yet, I mention that. If I can be a forcing function, to make the conference better and more inclusive, then I'll take whatever small power I have as a speaker that they want to try and get that to happen.

[7:07] (Mariko) To make conference more inclusive, Ashley started asking conferences to try a new thing.

[7:13] (Ashley) Another thing that I've recently started doing, I have this inclusive education initiative called Node Together. Now I'm just like, "If you want me to come and speak at your conference, you've got to let me run this Node Together thing," because people who are allowed to Node Together, the application process selects for people who are underrepresented. I coordinate with the conference to be like, and these people get to go to the conference. So like our people who are going to the conference to make sure that the audience, it's very hard as someone who has also organized conferences. You can control your speaker lineup but it's hard to control your audience. It's often easier for people to get their work to pay for a conference if there is like, there is also a teaching thing involved and I'm going to learn some stuff. It's the focus on the community stuff, make sure that's an inclusive space, and now I'm making them let me throw my workshop there.

[8:08] (Mariko) Ashley and I live a few blocks away from each other, but she's always on the road. We recorded this episode in Stockholm where we were both speaking at a same conference. How does she balance her speaking engagements and her day job?

[8:23] (Ashley) It's definitely hard but as someone who is a remote worker, they do anticipate, I'm already on the East Coast and they are on the West Coast primarily, especially given that we are such a small team and we are really strapped for money. I've been asked to reduce how much I'm traveling so I can get be getting more stuff done for work. Which is complicated because part of my job is to kind of be an evangelist. I often find, especially as someone who is writing documentation and bits of information and stuff, I'm good at that because I talk to lots of people. I think that writing a documentation requires a ton of empathy. It's super had to empathize with people that you don't hang out with all the time. Sitting in my apartment I do not meet a lot of NPM users, but when I'm on the road and talking I certainly do. There's a weird tension there between getting the work done and making sure that I'm present to actually understand the people I'm talking to.

[9:18] (Mariko) When talking to your boss about travel, was there any difficulties?

[9:22] (Ashley) There wasn't a struggle but I think that's partially because, most of the places I got hired because people knew me from the Internet and my talks. That was kind of already part of who I was. I think that the employers kind of understood that, "This is what Ashley does. If we hire Ashley," like don't date someone thinking you can change them. They are just like, "We are going to hire Ashley, and then we are going to tell her not to ever do Ashley things." It's like kind of not cool. I've been lucky that at least those two places were like, as long as you get your stuff done. That means I work on the weekends and other times. Also both of the places I worked like Mozilla and NPM, they don't really have vacation days per se. You log them, so that they know that they don't owe you money but there is not like a limit. I've been very lucky. This is like, I'm very lucky. I remember when I was a public school teacher and it would be completely different. I have gotten super privileged in where I work and the bosses I have.

[10:26] (Mariko) Getting support from your team is really important doing any side project, but especially speaking engagements. If you have someone on your team who is starting out their speaking career, I hope you can support them, because as Ashley said, it's really scary to give a first talk. Thank you Ashley for sharing your experience.

[10:51] (Mariko) Toast is written, produced and edited by me. As I publish this episode, I'm getting on the plane to go to Colombia. I'll be interviewing Claudia Hernández, about her experience of being a speaker outside a big tech hub. As someone from non-US, non-European country, this is something I really care about. I hope you join us next week.