What I Learned At BostonPHP

January 28, 2013

On December 12, 2012, I had the honor and fortune to speak to the Boston PHP user group. Boston PHP is an extremely active and large (over 3,000 members) user group that has members from around the country and the world (I’m now technically a member). I believe that my presentation, “How to Become a Web Developer“, went well, and I had a wonderful time on the trip. And, as with all good experiences, I learned a few things, which I thought I’d share with you (in no particular order).

First, it really needs to be said that Microsoft does not get enough credit for how much they support the open source community. Yes, Microsoft. It’s been quite a while since my own days of (partially unjustified) Microsoft bashing, and certainly things have changed on Microsoft’s side as well, but just two examples I’ve seen in the past three months:

As far as I know, these are free uses of the space. I believe Microsoft also let the Northeast PHP Conference use its facilities, too. The free availability of professional and large spaces makes these events possible. Microsoft is also a frequent sponsor of PHP and other conferences around the world (although I gather they request a session on Windows Azure in return).

One thing we should all keep in mind when we think of Microsoft today is how much they do for open source communities.

Second, you ought to join a user group if you can. In fact, go ahead and join Boston PHP to start. You can join them online and still get lots of benefits from the experience, even if you’ll never get to Boston in your life. When you’re just learning, it’s hard to get those kinds of opportunities in isolation. And even once you’re well established, you’ll still be better off if you have other people to interact with.

Boston PHP isn’t just about regular meetings to chitchat, they also have regular speakers (such as myself), they organize online study processes, such as PHP Percolate!, and they branch off into other groups, like the new Reverse Startup. So find out what’s available for user groups near you. If there isn’t one, create one. If there is one, but it’s not what you think it could be, then get involved and help it become better (nicely).

A good user group is an undeniable wealth of resources, join one today. Also, treat the group organizer well!

Third, and incidentally, everyone in Boston was part of, is part of, or is planning, a startup. I’ve spent plenty of time in the San Francisco bay area, and most people there (that I’ve met and interacted with) are working for established companies by now. Or maybe this is an issue of nomenclature, as Stripe, for example, is already successful enough that I would no longer consider it a “start up”. Clearly there are plenty of people in SF involved in startups. I’ve seen the same in Washington, DC, New York, and Toronto. But from what I could tell, everyone in Boston was part of a startup. Technical people. Marketing people. General business people. Everyone. Was in a startup. Is in a startup. Planning a startup. They’ve even turned the act of creating a startup to be its own startup: the Reverse Startup.

Fourth and finally, I learned something about myself that is so obvious that I feel stupid: you can get better at things by working at it. Obvious, right? But let’s delve a bit further…

Specifically, I’ve always dreaded public speaking. Dreaded. Speech class in high school, speech class in college, giving the toast at my best friend’s wedding: I’d be nervous, nauseous, and strive to avoid such circumstances if at all possible. This was the case until 2012, when I ended up giving three different presentations:

If you’re uncomfortable with public speaking, then standing before 200+ true business leaders in Turkey will probably send you over the edge. The same goes for speaking to 200+ members of a friendly user group that have come just to see you. Both situations present a lot of pressure. But both presentations (and the one at True North PHP) went well, I believe (and from the feedback I’ve received), and here’s why: I worked not just on the presentations but also on public speaking. Again, it seems obvious, but often what’s obvious to you about others is surprisingly opaque when applied to yourself.

In started with the Istanbul speech. I really wanted it to go well, in part because I was being paid well. I had the good fortunate of encountering Scott Berkun‘s very good and useful “Confessions of a Public Speaker“. In it, Berkun points out that most people don’t like public speaking and consequently do the worst possible thing: try to avoid working on the speech. If you do the smart thing–work hard on it, then the actual act of public speaking will be that much less onerous. A simple idea that should be painfully obvious, but for me it was not. I learned a lot from that book.

Just before heading to Boston, I read another good book: “100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People“. I learned a few tricks there, mostly about the psychology of people and how that should affect your presentation. And, of course, I practiced my full 90 minute presentation several times before actually giving it. The end result is that not only did I give (i.e., did they get to see) a good presentation, but the feedback I received suggested that people thought of me as being a good public speaker. As a person that’s been dreadfully uncomfortable with public speaking my entire life, that’s a revelation. In one year I went from a nervous, stumbling, and probably average public speaker to one that’s more confident and much, much better (and still a bit nervous). And now, I look forward to doing more speaking engagements in 2013 and beyond.

There are few things in life that you can’t get better at through work: reading, learning, practicing, trying, and, above all, caring that you do it well.

Again, this should have been obvious to me as it’s the kind of thing I would tell anyone new to, and frustrated by, programming, and yet it was not obvious. But I’m glad I learned it now, and I again thank Boston PHP for that opportunity.