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Being a Keynote Speaker

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The following is an early morning ramble. Nothing particularly amazing and certainly not well-structured, but it’s been occupying my thoughts.

Opening Keynote

I am extremely humbled to have been asked to be the opening keynote speaker at The 2024 Perl and Raku Conference in Las Vegas This is the 25th anniversary of the YAPC/Perl Conference and the opening keynote, of course, should go to Larry Wall , but he’s not able to attend.

Damian Conway will also be giving a keynote (remotely). Here’s the first part of the description:

Retroemotions, statistical outliers, lunar excursions, climatology, Lorentz contraction, extrasolar planets, atomic clocks, lucky bullets, Greek mythology, political commentary, true crime, artificial intelligence, time travel, neofuturism, The Prince, British SF of the 1970s, dwimmery, poetry, Pride and Prejudice and Profit, English grammar, Perlish syntax, cleverness, satire, a better Turing test, keywords, really smart comments, getting what you mean by saying what you want, marionette etiquette roulette, welcoming our new robot overlords, object orientation, multiple dispatch ...

This, of course, is typical Conway and anything I say will pale in comparison.

For the 25th anniversary, a keynote needs to be big. Well, a keynote always needs to be “big,” but this is an important milestone and honestly, it’s intimidating. Usually when I give a presentation, I suggest a topic and the conference agrees. For keynotes, I usually ask them what topic they want and I agree. So my topic is a retrospective of the past 25 years.

This is not easy. There have been amazing moments, painful moments, and stretches where nothing much has happened. How do I put that into a talk?

As part of my research, I created a Google Map of the conferences over the past 25 years.

That was a huge amount of fun and in the spirit of open source, I’ve opened the map up for editing . It only has bare-bones information, it does not include O’Reilly events, workshops, summits, FOSDEM, or many other things which should be there. I’d be grateful if you can add them.

Creating a Keynote

But how do you create a keynote? It’s not easy. As a speaker at a tech conference, you have a topic and you talk about it. You might announce if your topic requires beginner, intermediate, or advanced knowledge, but that’s about it. Create your slides. Have fun.

For a keynote, you should go beyond the technical. Do you want to inform? Do you want to entertain? What’s the theme of your talk? The topic is what it’s about, but the theme is the spine that you build your talk on. It’s the central conceit, if you will. And to make matters worse, you often have to realize that many in your audience will have different skillsets, so a deeply technical talk might be painful. For example, if I were to give a talk about economics, I’d love to discuss the negative externalities of government regulation of illicit markets, vis-a-vis the cross-price elasticity of demand of imperfect substitutes.

Um, yeah. That won’t fly for most audiences. What would fly is this:

What happens when the government cracks down on cocaine? People switch to crack and a bad situation just got worse.

Same thing, but now people can understand it. That’s my job. Get up on stage and take complicated topics and make them understandable to everyone.

But how to summarize 25 years of conferences? How to make it interesting? I’ve been a regular public speaker for two decades now, but this is a daunting challenge. Read off the names and locations of all of the conferences? BORING! Read off the names of the attendees and who’s arrived and who’s left? BORING! Read off perldoc perlhist? BORING (and not really relevant).

I pride myself on good talks and I put a lot of energy into them, but I was stumped for a while. I was, to be honest, stressed? How can I make this interesting?

The breakthrough came, as they often do, via something completely unrelated. I was reading a series of articles about the Quantum-Bayesian (QBism) approach to quantum physics (as one does), when the epiphany hit. QBism is concerned with actors making measurements. Or more simply, “people looking at stuff.” People. Humans. That’s what my keynote is really about. Perl isn’t about the technology; it’s about the community; the language is the focal point, but not the main event. And like any community, we have fun, we have fights, we have friendships.

We don’t seem to have a lot of forgiveness, but I’m unsure that will make it into the keynote. We’ll see.

I can’t say it’s going to be a great keynote, but I think it will be an important one. All too often people see email or IRC/Discord/Slack messages and they forget there are people at the other end.

I now have the first draft of the keynote written. I suspect what I will deliver in Las Vegas won’t be the same as what I have now, but it’s been an interesting journey. But it should have been Larry.

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