How to become involved in the machine learning community: Beginner's guide toward public speaking
It’s only February, and I already have 10+ events spoken at or booked since the year began. Compared to just over a year ago, my speaking acceptance rate has skyrocketed, with many panels or podcasts being inbound invitations instead of proactive applications, in both machine learning and game development fields. This wasn’t always the case, and I started out having no idea how to become involved in the tech community and speaking.
In the spirit of this blog, I’ve examined how I got involved in meetups and conferences, and how I first started speaking as a beginner. This is so you can take a look behind the scenes at some of the reproducible ways that worked for me, and tailor them to your own situation!
- Start as a consistent attendee
- Get started as a speaker
- Become an organizer
Start as a consistent attendee
When I was a master’s student in Economics at the University of Toronto, I started attending events in Toronto in person (years ago, pre-pandemic). I had the simple goal of speaking to one new person each event. I typically didn’t attend events with people I already knew, especially with game development events, since I literally didn’t know anyone in the field.
As I mention in another article, Why networking is an index fund, there were no immediate results toward anything, be it job search, becoming a committee member, or being invited to speak at those events. All benefits only appeared after compounding over months and months of going to events organized by the same group(s), and becoming a “regular”.
From an organizer’s point of view, how to be a “good” attendee
After I became an organizer or board member, be it in my undergraduate student union, or at a Toronto Machine Learning platform (that started as an in-person journal club), here’s what I have noticed from attendees that make a good impression. Note that the following tips might be easier to do at events with 1~3 talks per event only, e.g. a meetup and not a conference. Tips apply both in person or online.
- They attend consistently.
- They say hi, but can tell when I’m busy organizing (setting up the speakers, etc.), and pay attention to when I’m free again and loop back to chat after.
- They pay attention to the talks (if applicable) and can chat in depth about their thoughts on the talk.
- This depends on the goal of the meetup. From my perspective of an in-depth machine learning talk organizer, the goal is precisely for attendees to understand the topic from the talk, and not just obviously be attending to get LinkedIn connections. If it were a networking meetup, the opposite might be true.
Get started as a speaker
I started attending meetups and events while I was still a student/fresh grad, and didn’t feel that I had much to share in terms of giving a talk. However, following what I mentioned in the previous section, I had already been a “regular” for a while, and knew the organizers as well as other regular attendees. Due to this familiarity, I was accepted to speak at smaller, low stake events, such as lightning talks, panels, or show and tells (e.g. of data science projects).
From an organizer perspective, it’s hard to justify giving a slot to a random stranger with no prior speaking experience, since it could be a wildly hit or miss experience for their attendees, and organizers just want attendees to have a good time. Being a regular helps mitigate that risk.
I was quite ahead of my peers in this specific regard of getting accepted to talks. When I first started, I was often the presenter with the lowest job tenure (on paper) on the panel or roundtable.
Here are the reproducible steps that I took to become a speaker, despite being a new grad, summarized:
- Attend the events regularly. Over time, the organizers knew I have decent communication skills.
- Ask proactively for a spot starting with “low stake” presentations, e.g. lightning talks, show and tells.
- Do great at that presentation, and in turn be accepted to speak at solo, 1 hour talks.
Conference speaking and “keynoting” meetup events
After I had gathered some speaking experience in low-stake environments, I started applying to conferences, or headlining talks at meetup events. I had many rejections at that point, but once again, it was easier to be accepted to speak at events that I had been a regular attendee at.
Conference speaking seems like a mysterious process, but to reiterate, I believe that starting with smaller events, then working up to a large event and killing it, is an extremely repeatable way to succeed.
When I first started out in the speaking circuit, It took me a long time to prepare my slides (10+ hours for some solo talks) since it required content for ~1 hour. Then, I spent even more hours doing dry runs and getting feedback, because as a new speaker, I wanted to make a really good impression and be invited back (it paid off). Nowadays, many of my engagements are inbound invitations.
I think the career benefits, despite the large time commitment to perform well, are:
- Performing well at one large talk, can help with being accepted to subsequent, more high profile talks.
- Getting to know fellow speakers in the green room, which at large conferences include directors, VPs, and more.
- One major example for me was PyCon Canada - despite having <2 years of full time work experience at the time, I got to know very experienced folks that I’d say hi to at subsequent talks. Also, a recruiter mentioned having seen my talk and I was invited for interviews.
- Gaining public speaking skills, which are useful whether toward personal or professional goals. It’s just such a cheat code for life.
Become an organizer
Another way to become involved in the community, without going down the speaking route, is to become an organizer. Again, being a regular attendee is almost a prerequisite, unless you’re starting your own group from scratch. This is because, as a regular attendee, the organizers can be confident that you understand their mission and goals, as opposed to a stranger.
I think the perks of being an organizer are primarily for networking:
- Getting to know fellow organizers, and becoming lifelong friends.
- Getting to know speakers, who are likely to be accomplished in the field.
- Free leftover food (half kidding). But free tickets to other events through the organizer network are a perk for sure.
I hope that this post helps to give a behind the scenes look at how I started speaking at conferences and headlining meetup events. I truly believe that being consistent is the recurring theme here, which I hope can help if you are interested in becoming involved with the community in your own field!
Note that this is still a very non-linear process, and there will be many methods and tips out there from other professionals, which are valid. I share this in hopes to provide examples for you to tailor to your own situation. All the best to you!