Last week was the UK VMUG Usercon event in Leicester. This was the first in person VMUG event I had attended since the same Usercon event that occured in November 2019. This time I was attending in person and co-presenting a session around automation with my VMware colleague Sam McGeown. As the event was in a hybrid format we had a small audience in the room and some additional attendees online.
Sitting in the bar the night before the event, I was talking to one of the London VMUG leaders Linda Smith, who I had connected with a few colleagues to help fill the speaker roster for the event. During the conversation we were talking about the fact it was good to be running at least a hybrid event and how this was going to be my first time presenting in person. It led to us discussing how the past few years had been really good for me, and that a big catalyst was my first VMUG presentation at the virtual London VMUG event in April 2020.
With the call for content going out on Social Media for the London VMUG and UK Usercon events in 2022 (virtual or in person still to be determined) I decided to listen to Linda and share my own story on the power of VMUG, and demonstrate why you should submit an idea for the call for content.
How did I get started
In 2019 at the UK VMUG Usercon I made a verbal promise to a VMUG leader that I would present at one of the London VMUG events in 2020. At this point I had attended a few of the London events however, I had never presented at any of the VMUG events, never presented at an internal or external event in person or even submitted a session idea for VMUG. I didn’t do podcasts or webinars, I wasn’t a vExpert and I had only been blogging for about 18 months.More on the reasons behind my lack of presenting experience later on.
Fast forward to 2021 and I’ve presented or co-presented on at least nine VMUG sessions across the UK, US and Canada. My first VMUG session was also accepted for VMworld 2020. Add to that list a Runecast Uptime conference, VMware Empower events for Partners and some internal events including podcasts and I’ve easily delivered 20+ sessions since that first VMUG. I’ve caught the bug for public speaking and none of the sessions were as nerve racking as my thoughts of what it would be like delivering that first one.
So how did I get started?
Well for me it was a case of peer pressure. That verbal promise combined with a few colleagues dropping my name in as a suggested speaker before convincing me that I should do it and keeping me committed so I didn’t back out. When asked what I wanted to present on I chose to take the community slot and present on something unrelated to VMware technology, I chose Professional Development and decided to share a personal story. When I originally signed up it was going to be an in person event, however as we all know by now, 2020 had different ideas and the UK was already in lockdown by the time the London VMUG took place in April 2020.
What did I learn?
Well along the way I learnt about different approaches to building presentations, things like how to format your slides with full slide images that connect with your verbal commentary or leaving white space to draw viewers attention to the key information on a slide. I also discovered how my brain works best if I map out a presentation. I use a mind map to capture my random thoughts on a topic first, then decide on the key takeaways from those thoughts. It is about deciding on what is the key theme I want to go through all parts of my presentation and what are the key takeaways I want the session to highlight. Then I start to storyboard the presentation before I even open PowerPoint. This makes creating the slides much easier for me, even if it does mean crafting a presentation can take a long time. I also learnt:
- That I have a bad habit of starting sentences with the word so and that I’m not someone who says err or erm very often when presenting.
- That practising in front of a mirror is painful, and also useful for me. As is recording your audio and playing it back when you are out walking for example to reinforce my memory and remove my dependency on detailed slide notes.
- That the thought of presenting is worse than the actual delivery, once you get started you relax and the time flies past before you know it.
- That the VMUG community can encourage and support you to reach new goals.
It also taught me more about myself, that I am not just capable of public speaking, I actually enjoy it. I get a buzz from presenting and interacting with the audience.
Having my session accepted for VMworld gave my personal brand a huge boost. It saw my name appear on the VMworld website as a featured speaker alongside a number of VMware executives and in VMware blogs about the event. A number of people in the community also highlighted my session as one of their top picks, and the feedback from people who watched my session was fantastic both of which I am eternally grateful for. I even had follow up conversations with a few people about the topics I had covered and made so many new connections with individuals inside and outside of VMware as a result.
Looking back, why did it take me so long (3.5 years as a VMware employee and over 10 years as a VMware customer prior to that) before I presented at a VMUG? Let me share some of the hurdles I put in front of myself. Notice that I say I put these hurdles there, for me it was a huge mental battle to get to my first VMUG session.
Who would want to listen to me, I’m not an expert
This is a phrase I often used when asked about submitting for events like VMUGs. I have a fear of what other people might say about me if I take a risk to do something and it doesn’t work out. It is something I’m working hard at to expand my comfort zone to include new things. This held me back significantly in the past and convinced me that I wasn’t the kind of person who should be presenting at VMUGs. I’m also very understated about my own abilities and experiences, I simply didn’t see myself the same way others did and so I thought there isn’t anything I could present on that other people didn’t already know about so why would anyone want to listen to me if I’m not an expert. I wasn’t that person who everyone knew about from their blog, or as a top poster on the community sites. I simply didn’t think people would even recognise my name so would be asking who is she if they saw my name on a VMUG agenda.
In reality, people don’t care who you are and what your job title is, it often doesn’t mean anything outside of your company. I’m a Staff Consultant, if you don’t work at VMware or work directly with our Professional Services team would you know what my role involves and how it is different from a Senior Consultant or a Staff Consulting Architect? would you really care if I’m presenting and had one of those job titles instead?
No you wouldn’t, it doesn’t make a difference to what I will be talking about for 99% of the topics I could choose, the 1% being the strategy and forward looking topics where perhaps you might look at the speakers job title to see what credibility it lends to the session.
There are some folks in our community who can draw an audience to their session based on their name alone, and that’s fine. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that, it just that they are often the exception, that’s why we all recognise their name so don’t think you have to be just like them in order to be able to present at a VMUG.
Tip 1 – It’s not about who you are, it’s about what you have done
When thinking about submitting to the call for content, leave your job title and accomplishments at the door and consider what knowledge you have that you can share. You don’t need to be an expert with multiple VCDX certifications or years of experience with a product. You could have only been working with a product for six months, you still have something to share with other people, and your views could be even more important to the audience as you are approaching things in new ways rather than having multiple years of adapting your approach from previous versions of a product or similar technology.
What would I talk about
I didn’t have any cutting edge technology examples to share, I didn’t have anything really cool to showcase or a really unique customer project to describe. I just thought I did the same job as my colleagues. I really struggled to think about what I could use as a session topic. I don’t run a home lab, and haven’t since I joined VMware since I have access to internal lab environments when needed. So I wasn’t going to be the person who is running the latest beta in their lab and can do some crazy demo of it.
What I’ve since realised is that people who attend VMUGs aren’t there just for the cool cutting edge technology. For some people that is a distant dream in their current organisation, and in some cases they are still fighting to use anything more than vSphere. What they want to hear is a story that they can relate to. They want to hear from their peers about overcoming similar struggles with technology, people and processes and maybe learn about some of the adjacent technologies they might be able to play with.
New products are great, let’s mix them up with some sessions on the mainstream solutions so we can still share knowledge with people who aren’t ready for the new solutions just yet.
Tip 2 – It’s not all about the technology
My first VMUG session has been my most successful so far I would suggest. The topic I spoke about? Professional Development, in particular my own journey across two years of changing my mindset from something very negative to being more open and positive about new opportunities. Why was it so successful? I like to think its because I told a story, I was open and honest in sharing the struggles I had and how I worked to overcome them. People could identify with what I was talking about from their own experiences and it sparked an interest for some to look into the areas I spoke about.
My point here is that you don’t have to just talk about technology to present at a VMUG, you can talk about Professional Development topics, Mental Health experiences, studying for Certifications, or as Ed Hoppitt did in the closing keynote at the Usercon last week you can talk about your hobby of building robots.
People will listen to you no matter the topic, there will be something they can identify with in your presentation.
I’ve only got a rough session idea, I don’t have a full presentation
This is one that I think puts people off submitting to the call for content. Before presenting I didn’t really appreciate that you only need to have everything completed and ready to go in order to submit on the call for content. You don’t need to have the complete session mapped out, slides created and a video recorded of the session before you submit. For my first VMUG I didn’t even have a title and abstract for the session until a week or two before the event. My session title changed multiple times, until I found something that I thought just fitted perfectly with what I was talking about. The final title actually came after multiple practice runs of the session.
All you need for your submission is an idea of what you want to talk about and the ability to explain it in a few sentences, nothing more. You don’t have to decide on a final title, you don’t have to mention if you will do a demo during the session etc. All of that can come later.
Tip 3 – There are people and resources available to help you
If you want to present and can’t think of a subject, or only have a rough idea based on your area of expertise help is available. The VMUG leaders can help you if you know you want to present, for example perhaps there is a product you are familiar with and would like to cover and can’t think of what to talk about. The community can also help you, a quick post on social media, or reaching out to your peers directly can lead to a spark of inspiration or a connection to someone to help you develop a session. Something that isn’t widely known is that there is an initiative within VMware’s Office of the CTO (OCTO) Global Field and Industry Program which creates one pagers for VMUG sessions. These one pagers describe an idea for a session, the high level talking points, what equipment is needed to deliver the session and who could deliver it (VMware employee, VMUG leader, customer). These one pagers are shared with all VMUG leaders world wide to help provide them with content that could be used to fill speaking slots at their events. While they are only accessible to VMUG leaders and not the general public, the leaders can help pair you with a one pager if you need some assistance formulating a session on a particular product or topic. Some of the one pagers even have the presentation slides ready for use. As each one pager is submitted by a VMware employee there is help available if you want to use one of the session ideas and need some assistance to turn it into a full session.
An example of using this resource is a session delivered by my colleague Sajal Debnath for a US based VMUG, and then later as a VMware Code session for VMworld 2021. I submitted a one pager around vRO. When a US VMUG contacted me about it and asked if I could deliver the session for their VMUG chapter I couldn’t commit the time needed, so used my connections to source a replacement presenter. Sajal took my one pager and created his own session from that idea. The content in the session is all his own work, and he submitted for VMworld off the back of the VMUG session.
I’ve never presented at an event before
Everyone has to start somewhere, and VMUGs are the perfect platform.
Before my first session I didn’t know what people were going to think about my presentation. Was it going to be of interest to the audience since it wasn’t technology based and was related to training and work I had done within VMware. During the event itself the nerves were doubled when Duncan Epping presented his session before me and spoke about getting outside your comfort zone so you keep learning, a theme that was also part of my presentation. Just what you need for your first time presenting, a VMware legend talking about the same subject before you! luckily there wasn’t a massive overlap and both our sessions were unique.
Add to that the fact I hadn’t presented before at a VMUG so didn’t have a long list of speaking engagements or a large twitter following and I wondered if anyone would even stay on the zoom call to listen to me speak.
None of that was actually something to be concerned about. At the end of my first VMUG presentation not only had people stayed on the call, they had listened to my session and were relating to the subject I was talking about. The end result was that they gave me incredible feedback, and convinced me to submit the session I had just delivered for VMworld 2020. Some of the attendees even recommended me to other VMUGs as a speaker after watching my session. I would never have considered a VMworld submission if my peers hadn’t given me such a vote of confidence. I haven’t suffered that fear of what people will think of my session idea or presentation since I delivered my first VMUG, I’ve learnt to submit an idea and let people think whatever they want to about it. If it helps one person then it will be successful is my new outlook.
VMUGs can also give you the opportunity to test new content in a safe space, share sessions you have used internally, and get honest constructive feedback on opportunities to adapt your content before submitting to other events.
Tip 4 – VMUG audiences are really friendly and there is a community of people who can help you prepare
If you are a first time presenter help is available. There are plenty of people in the community, myself included as well as the VMUG leaders who would be willing to support you as you prepare your session. Dry runs of the presentation, reviewing slides, helping to shape an idea into a full session etc are all areas we can help with.
Remember that VMUGs are run by the community for the community. The people who attend the sessions are taking time out of their day jobs to attend because they want to be there. They are interested in expanding their network and meeting new people as well as hearing the presentations. No one is going to sit in the audience and heckle you throughout the entire session. If you aren’t comfortable dealing with questions as you present you can ask them to be saved until the end, and people will respect that request.
No one will be judging you or your presentation, lots of the audience will be admiring you for having the guts to do something they haven’t done by signing up to present and it’s perfectly natural to be feeling nervous.
Tip 5 – Co-presenting can help you get over your fears
Some of the sessions I have presented have been joint sessions. Co-presenting can give a session a really different dynamic, turning it into a conversation or show and tell rather than a formal presentation. You can bounce questions off your co-presenter to introduce topics, encouraging them to open up about a subject in a more natural way. It also allows you to divide the talking time and gives you someone to share the spotlight with which might help you feel more comfortable.
My colleague Dean Lewis is great at being a co-presenter and bringing others into a session. He has an ability and style where he can just sit back and drop hints in the form of questions to me during a session. By doing so he gives me an introduction to a concept or topic that I might have forgotten to mention, or that he knows I am comfortable talking about. When he asks the question my mind is distracted from worrying about my notes, or what is on the slides and is just drawn into explaining an answer to him which is much more like my job as a consultant dealing with customer queries. If I miss anything relevant he can add it on himself after I answer or follow up with another question asking me for confirmation on his understanding for example to close off the topic.
If you are feeling nervous about the idea of presenting consider if you could co-present with a colleague or friend. Sharing the stage and responsibility for a session might be what you need to get started, your partner might bring their creativity to turning the session abstract into a full slide deck, or they might be that calm presence who can keep you grounded during the presentation helping you to deliver your best performance.
Now it’s your turn
I’ve shared my experience of presenting, how it has helped me and some of the doubts I had before I even submitted an idea. Now it is your turn to get involved and make your debut, or perhaps your return as a VMUG presenter.
You might be thinking, all of that sounds great and I’m only a VMware customer, I don’t even work for a partner so it doesn’t really apply to me.
That’s simply not true.
Yes VMware will often be listed as a sponsor, and yes VMUG does stands for VMware User Group. As I said in the previous section, VMUGs are run by the community for the community, they only work if community members participate otherwise it would just be a marketing event for VMware. Your peers want to hear about your real world experiences and use cases, not just about the limited sample size that VMware employees can talk about. It only needs one person in the audience to relate to your presentation and it will have been a success, you have more to share than you realise.
If you are interested and have some doubts or what to discuss things first feel free to reach out to me, completely in confidence and I’d be happy to help you.
OK, You’ve convinced me, how do I submit an idea
Go to http://tinyurl.com/VMUG-CFP and submit your details for the London VMUG or UKVMUG Call for Content. It’s open all year round and if your session isn’t selected for the next round of events it will still be valid for the events after that.
For other VMUGs keep an eye on Twitter for the speaker requests for events such as Yorkshire, North West, South West, Scottish and Ireland VMUG chapters. You can always contact the leaders via their VMUG chapter twitter account and ask to be considered for future events if you don’t see a call for content. For the US and Canada VMUG chapters there is usually a scheduled call for content opened up once, sometimes twice a year, keep an eye on the VMUG website for more information. Remember that while events are still virtual or hybrid you can present remotely at any event with a suitable time zone without having to travel.