Speaking for the first time at linux.conf.au

I wasn’t a keynoter. Or even a regular presenter. I was just doing a talk at a miniconf. It was still an un-nerving enough experience that I went to see my doctor on the Thursday before I flew to Tullamarine to make sure the chest pains I was having weren’t the onset of a heart attack. It almost would have been a relief if they had been.

As you can see, I did make it, and I didn’t drop dead on stage.

Normally I’m pretty comfortable about speaking in front of people. To the point where, for example, last year I needed to double the time I’d been told I would be allocated, and spoke extemporaneously from the bullet-points I’d listed on a bit of paper, only looking at them once. Or, 4 years ago, spoke at a funeral after leaving my speech at home. Give me a run-up and I can usually stand up and talk about most anything I care about on short notice, and probably for longer than you envisaged when you asked.

So why so nervous? There’s a simple reason: the audience.

This is a sysadmin miniconf at one of the “big three” Linux conferences in the world. It’s the major one in Australasia. There will be no shortage of people who know their shit. Now, I know my shit, too, but it’s a question of degree. Normally I present to people who know as much or less than me in general, and I’m presenting because I’ve got specific knowledge they don’t. In this case, I’ve got an audience that could comprise everything from virtualisation n00bs through to people like, say, sarah Novotney who talks in terms of how many thousands of servers per admin she helps people run. There are people who work on a scale that simply doesn’t exist in Australia and New Zealand, and, regardless of whether the principles are the same, it’s hard not to be a little intimidated by that fact.

Linuxy and open sourcey audiences and groups tend to be pretty combative. The XFS and btrfs talks didn’t pull too many punches, especially the XFS one, and were happy to beat on poor old ext4. Had Ted T’so, the author of the ext4 filesystems been there, they would have taken the same tone. And so might he. And there I am, rubbishing a kernel design decision. For all I know, the person who made those decisions could be in the audience, which could make question time entertaining. And beyond that, people aren’t shy about expressing their disdain for talks they feel fall short. Hostile comments will appear on twitter and live-blogs. People will say how crap it was in the Q&A. Or, worst of all, they’ll simply walk out part way through. Possibly after loudly explaining shortcomings in the talk. I have seen this done.

And I have, in fact, been scathing about talks in the past. I’m not rude enough to flounce out rudely or disrupt Q&A, but I wasn’t shy at my previous linuxconf about noting when I felt that a couple of talks were totally sub-par: vague, presenter not apparently in command of their material, and angry or defensive in reaction to questions. I may even have said as a throwaway comment that one reason I was going to do a presentation on this topic because, ha-ha! I couldn’t do worse!

Sometimes I should keep these clever throwaway comments to myself.

If you’re a keynoter, you can, like Paul Fenwick, come up with wonderful, whimsical talks that tickle geek funny bones without necessarily being deeply technical. But for something like the sysadmin miniconf, I need enough hard detail that an audience—an audience of Linux-savvy folks—will feel it was worthwhile. But some of the audience probably don’t have environments that allow them to do proper stress testing. And some of them may not have jumped on the virtual bandwagon yet. Some of them are small shops. And some of them are Google or investment banks. Right-sizing the talks, getting enough high-level general stress concepts for Aneel’s section, and enough specific detail for my more technical area, was… worrisome. To put it mildly.

And how fluid would we be? I am suddenly appearing in the same venue as folks like the aforementioned Mr Fenwick, Rusty Russell, Josh Berkus, Selena Deckelman, Nat Torkington, and any number of other presenters I’ve enjoyed who are comfortable, fluent presenters. This is a higher bar.

And in the end… it didn’t go terribly. No, I didn’t do my more normal speak-with-nearly-no-notes. I was too nervous to make do without a script, and hadn’t rehearsed enough to remember it. But I spoke calmly. So did Aneel. We didn’t blunder on any of our points. Sure, we hid near my laptop, rather than roaming over the stage. And there wasn’t a great deal of witty back-and-forth that we might do on, well, any other occasion. But no-one walked out in boredom. People asked questions that suggested that they were interested in what we had to say. And the twitter comments were really positive. I stopped scratching my scalp so much it bled. My chest pains stopped. I didn’t drop dead of a heart attack.

So, you know, I’m already working on one for next year.