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Potential Speaking Topics for 2018

Garth Henson
18 Jan 2018

What Should I Talk About?

I recently saw a post by Sarah Dutkiewicz outlining her speaking topics for 2018, and taking a bit of inspiration from her, I decided to share a few topics that I’m currently rolling around in my head as well. While hers seemed a bit more concrete, these ideas are still very nebulous but feasible to turn into talks for this calendar year. Having focused so heavily on technical talks in the past couple years, this year’s topics are weighted more towards architecture and soft skills. I welcome any feedback either on the topics themselves or on forums for which they may be appropriate to present.

Automated Email Testing with Docker and POSTFIX

Starting with the most technical of them all, this talk has actually been somewhat in the works for almost three years now. It started with a business problem I helped solve, turned into a proof-of-concept tool that people started using (isn’t that always the way?), and finally migrated into a repository that allows for spinning up ephemeral email receipt servers for testing on demand. ConFoo actually had asked me to finalize this talk and present it this past December, but due to our cross-country move, I sadly had to bow out. This is a very heavily technical talk and would be fantastic as a workshop or hands-on demo. My biggest challenge is knowing what audience to target, since its application is a case-by-case basis.

What Should I Learn Next?

This is a topic that has been on my mind for a couple years, though I’ve done nothing with it yet. Whenever I have the opportunity to mentor people in technical roles, it is a seeming requirement that I will be asked this titular question. When I first started answering the question, I tried to come with a list of technologies that were at the top of my personal To Learn list; however, my perspective on this has changed. My goal for this talk would be much more approaching the question at a meta level and helping people break out their purposes behind the telltale question. With sufficient guidance and encouragement, I believe this is an answer to which each individual must arrive on their own. Learning how to ask the right questions is really the key here… hey, that would be a great talk topic, too!

Where Did All My Servers Go?

It comes as no surprise that cloud migration and micro-service architectures are all the rage right now. In fact, some of the most fun I get to have is spinning infrastructure up and down, analyzing and figuring out how to get all the pieces of service layers to play nicely together in the cloud. When we dig a little deeper, we unearth the need for cloud-native application design – where your service not only resides in the cloud, but thrives because it was designed to live there. Push just a little further, and we start delving into the world of serverless architecture: an entire application stack running on nothing but hosted cloud services. This model allows us to build fully scalable services that don’t require manual provisioning or maintenance.

I would love to do a talk on a real-life serverless application on AWS. By using API Gateway, Lambda, S3, DynamoDB and SQS, we can build an extremely robust application without having to provision a single EC2 instance. Walking through the gotchas and concerns from launching a couple production services this way will hopefully keep people from running into the same mistakes. Additionally, depending on time, we could touch on wrapping it all up with a bow by deploying the entire stack via Cloud Formation.

Degree or No Degree: That is the Question

This one is most definitely something that resurfaces in my contemplations from time to time. I am an example of someone who was not classically trained in Computer Science but has somehow managed to do well in the industry. Of course, there are varying schools of thought (no pun intended) as to where the pendulum now swings with regards to requiring a CS degree for new hires, but it would be fun to turn the entire discussion inside-out and examine the pros and cons of both sides of the degree coin – from the perspective of the engineer. I have faced innumerable hurdles through my career that would have been easier with a degree; however, my liberal arts degree paved the way for my success in other areas that a typical CS degree would not. While I may not ever get to a final word on the matter, I believe I could bring some very interesting points of consideration to the table in a talk like this.

You Said What???

Lack of soft skills in our highly technical departments is a gaping hole that causes far more distrust and turmoil than is necessary. Sadly, I can count on one hand the number of engineers and technical engineering managers who would place in the rank of communication connoisseur. With the growing numbers of Developer Evangelists roles and social media presence, we see the best of the best in technical communication. How did they get where they are? How do they always know the right things to say? Keeping in mind that there is much more to soft skills and relationship building than simply word-smithing, I would like to focus on just a handful of helpful tips that aren’t always taught in school (degree or not). I will be looking to interview and compile stories from well-known technologists who have shared in our pain of the proverbial foot-in-mouth situations. Perhaps the best takeaway from a talk like this is the realization that we are all human. After all, to err is human, to forgive divine.

What Kind of Mentor are You?

I would love to give a talk on this topic at both ends of the engineering spectrum: both the entry level new-hires (and interns) at their first gig to the 30 year veteran who’s literally seen it all.  The question remains the same. If you are working in the industry, you should be mentoring someone – intentionally. Far too often, I meet people in my field over a cup of coffee for the first time and hear a tremendous wealth of experience and insight that is not being tapped. This is on all of us. To you, the newbie cutting your teeth on your first REST API, how are you communicating your learnings? How are you approaching your problems, and – as you figure out the solution – how are you sharing with the guy hired two weeks behind you? To you, the ancient oracle who is so lofty as to no longer be approachable, how are you bringing up the next generation of engineers? Have you lost visibility into the trenches from which you have risen?

Like it or not, someone is watching you – passively or actively looking to you for guidance. Whether or not you acknowledge this and give those observers something worth taking away is up to you. These are the types of thoughts and questions that surface when I ask myself that loaded question: what kind of mentor are you?

In the End…

What it really comes down to is whether or not I can speak to a topic from my heart. If something is going to be worth saying, I need to be able to put passion behind it (along with experience and accuracy, of course). This short list gives you a little insight into where I live and breath in the day-to-day.

If you have any interest in me preparing one of these presentations for your event, please feel free to reach out to me. If you are an engineer or event organizer that recognizes one of these topics as something your community would benefit from, let me know, and I’ll be happy to discuss opportunities with you.

Whether or not these talks all see the light of day in 2018 remains to be seen, but hopefully this post will stir up some imaginative discussion.

Garth Henson
Garth is as a lead engineer at The Walt Disney Company, specializing in JavaScript applications.

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