GitHub's Public Speaking Culture

January 13, 2014 holman

Somewhere between a third and a half of GitHub’s 240 employees gave a talk in 2013.

Encouraging your employees to give talks at a conference or meetup is generally perceived as a good thing. For GitHub in particular, it’s good advertising: it’s not like we’re going to start spending money on banner ads any time soon, and talking directly to our customers is some of the most effective marketing we can do. On the same token, it’s good for recruiting, too. We’ve never had a shortage of resumes.

Management usually focus on these two areas — advertising and recruiting — as the main business motivation for employee talks. That’s not the whole story, though. Support your employees, encourage them to talk publicly about their experiences, and you’ll start to take advantage of all of these benefits every other company misses out on entirely.

Employees as teachers

You don’t truly know something until you’ve taught it to others. That’s a nice phrase people claim, and it’s true, but you don’t honestly understand the phrase until you’re up on stage and you hit the what the fuck moment deep in your stomach when you realize you have to convey a concept to a few hundred strangers.

Building a slide deck and a narrative to deliver to beginners is completely daunting and, in order to be successful, necessitates that you really know your shit. That typically means reading documentation you haven’t read before, rewiring your brain to account for perspectives you hadn’t considered before, and becoming far more familiar with the concept than you had been previously.

Re-read that last sentence again. You’re practically churning out better, more competent employees this way.

Public speaking is public documentation

I like to talk about how GitHub works together as a company: our development practices, our communication tools, and our internal policies.

Until recently, I never really realized how important this was for our internal company culture. The benefit is twofold: new employees already have a rough idea about how things are done before they start, but most importantly all of our talks and blog posts are documentation that we can fall back on internally. By being so open about how we operate, we have something more tangible on hand when we discuss and evolve culture internally. You can leverage the same consistent terminology amongst everyone. When someone mentions asynchronous workflow in the company, for example, we all have a foundational understanding of what it means and what it doesn’t mean.

It’s subtle, but it’s pretty powerful. Company culture is hard to get right and to maintain as you grow.

Community leadership

All too often, speakers are looked at like some kind of elite group, that they have some sort of innate knowledge that the average person doesn’t have. It’s total bullshit, but there admittedly is a reality that speakers are in a good position to meet others in the community.

As a business, you want this. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve relied upon people external to the company to help us get through difficult problems. Many, many of those times we’re able to tap into those people because someone met one of them through conferences or mutual friends. I’m not sure you know this, but computers are stupid, and they’re going to give you some really shitty bugs from time to time. Getting your employees out meeting people can save you thousands of dollars and person hours down the line.

More importantly, you want to to be there for other companies, too. Form those relationships with others so that you can be there for them when they’re facing those hard problems. Fuck the business reasons; be good stewards of your community. There aren’t many things that can make you happier than helping someone else get through a rough patch.

It’s different

We have a lot of happy employees at GitHub. What’s more, since we can dogfood our own product, we’re typically in love with what we’re building. But even the most interesting project can be infuriating, from time to time. Programming can be really draining, and taking some steps back to refresh can keep your mind in the right place.

Building and delivering talks is very different from plopping down and coding all day. It’s a different form of problem solving. It works a different part of the brain. This respite from day-in, day-out work can be extremely good for overall mental state. What’s more, if you’re giving a talk somewhere else in the world, you can experience a change in literal scenery. Sometimes just getting outside of the grind can be really meaningful.

It keeps your employees feeling fresh, and when they get back they’ll be ready to tackle the hard problems.

It’s worth the expense

As a GitHub employee, if any of your talk proposals are accepted at a conference, GitHub will pick up the tab to send you and a travel buddy coworker to that conference. It’s a pretty cool perk, and our employees take advantage of this.

It’s a nontrivial expense. Each company is going to have to determine what level of support they’re willing to fork out for, but at GitHub this has proven to be worth the expense. This isn’t just a policy for programmers; we have people giving talks in our support, human resources, and marketing teams as well. Everyone can benefit from sharing experiences.

We’re fortunate enough to have resources to put towards this goal, but even smaller companies can take advantage of it, as most conferences will pay speaker expenses. Really what it comes down to is time: companies have to be willing to allow employees a little time off to do something a little different.

Doing something a little different is what keeps your people creative, fresh, and happy. So try it.