January 2008 Archives

How to Tell Your Perl Story (at OSCON)

brian d foy is the author of Mastering Perl, now available in its second edition, as well as several other Perl books. As the founder of Perl mongers, he's been active in the Perl community for almost 20 years.

Ever wanted to tell the world about the cool things you're doing with Perl? O'Reilly Media recently announced the Call for Participation (CfP) for the 2008 Open Source Convention (OSCON), which includes the 12th Perl Conference. Although the conference takes place from July 21 to 25, the planning has already started. Now's your opportunity to tell the world about the work you're doing with Perl and the work Perl is doing for you, but you have to propose a presentation by February 4.

(Granted, OSCON's not the only place you can tell your Perl story, so this advice applies to a far wider audience than you might think. There are too many conferences and seminars and workshops in the world to mention, but for the sake of clarity, I'm focusing on OSCON for two important reasons. First, it's probably the largest Perl-friendly conference in the world. Second, I'm on the review committee for the Perl track at OSCON.)

OSCON comprises several different sorts of presentations and sessions. There are tutorials that take from half a day or more, keynote sessions in front of the assembled conference, "break out" sessions for particular subjects, five minute "lightning" talks, and after hours "Birds of a Feather" sessions. There's not only something for every attendee, but an opportunity for every sort of speaker. Anyone can present at OSCON, and the conference organizers encourage everyone to participate; OSCON wants your Perl story!

Finding the Good Stories

This year I'm part of the reviewing committee for the OSCON Perl track. I'm not officially a part of O'Reilly and I don't get to make any promises, but I do get to help find and develop presentation ideas; the OSCON organizers don't just announce the CfP and hope for the best. To get the best conference possible, they also solicit proposals from people who can make for an interesting conference and also benefit their subject's community. This year we're trying to do more to find the stories we don't know about: that might be yours.

The review committee goes over and helps the conference organizers create the final schedule of presentations, taking into consideration the expected attendee interest, availability of rooms, and breadth of topics. It's not just about attracting the best celebrities, but also finding the compelling Perl stories for that year's audience.

You might be intimidated by the celebrity status of the usual speakers, the cornerstone people who have their pictures on the posters and the web site, but you shouldn't be. Everyone has to start somewhere, and a compelling story is as good as a name that everyone sees. People also want to know how other people use Perl better to get work done. You don't have to be a Perl guru to have a better way to get things done or a good story about how Perl made your life better.

What's Your Story and What's Your Audience?

Perl is a big subject, and I break down presentations into four basic categories, each of which has a different sort of audience and requires a different sort of speaker. To figure out what sort of presentation you can give, you just have to figure out how your story fits into one of these categories:

  • The Perl language itself, and how it works
  • These are the sorts of talks that language designers and gurus such as Larry Wall, Damian Conway, and Mark Jason Dominus give, sometimes in the form of tutorials. The language features aren't necessarily applied to particular problems but the audience can figure out how to adapt them to their own work. You're probably a Perl language architect and your audience would walk barefoot through broken glass to hear the latest Perl developments.

    Examples from OSCON 2007:

  • Using other technologies from Perl
  • There are a lot of people out there experimenting with and building on the latest technologies, and they just happen to be using Perl to do it. These talks don't require extensive Perl knowledge so much as familiarity with the other technologies.

    Examples from OSCON 2007:

  • The process of using Perl to get work done
  • Most people just want to get work done, and the more Perl can help them do that the better. These talks focus on using technology to get real value at the end of the day.

    Examples from OSCON 2007:

Lightning Talks and Birds of a Feather

Maybe you aren't up to full 45 minute talk just yet. You can also present a lightning talk—a five minute mini-presentation. You may not think that you have much to say, but five minutes goes pretty quickly. It's a gentle way to start a career as a speaker. You don't need to develop a long talk; prepare a larger slide deck, and if you're terrified of public speaking, it's over pretty quickly. Everyone needs a place to start, so give this a try.

Birds of a Feather sessions are a bit different. They go on after the scheduled presentations each day. Although these are usually self-organized and decided by attendees while the conference is going on, you don't have to wait until the conference to start thinking about a session for a topic that interests you and talking to other people about it.

Discussion Panels

Perhaps you don't fancy yourself a speaker, but you're a subject matter expert and know all the key people in your field. Have you ever thought of moderating a panel? Pull together the right people and guide the discussion.

What to Do Next

Now it's up to you. Examine what you're doing with Perl, how you're using it, and how it makes your life better. Figure out how telling your Perl story can fit into OSCON and send us your proposal. If you need a little help or encouragement with your idea, just let me know. I'm here to help.

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