The speaker interviews – Damian Conway

Damian wow-ed the Webstock crowd last year and he’s back again, this time to close the conference out. He’s also conducting a workshop called Presentation Aikido. Patently stung by his loss in Powerpoint Karaoke Idol last year to home-town hero Nat Torkington, Damian has spent the last year studying presentation skills and is here to share those at his workshop.

We caught up with Damian for a few questions.

Webstock: You’ve apparently got something to do with Perl! What is Perl? What does it do? Why is it important?

Damian: Perl is a general purpose programming language with roots in the C programming language and the Unix shell and utilities. It’s often called “the duct tape of the Internet” because sysadmins and web developers have been using it for the past twenty years to solve all those tricky “in between” problems (of patching together incompatible system components, of coordinating them, and of interconverting data amongst them); tasks for which C is too tedious and shell scripts too cumbersome.

Quite a few useful web technologies nowadays rely on Perl, including Slash, Bugzilla, RT, TWiki, ACT, Majordomo, SATAN, and Movable Type. It’s also at the core of many major businesses and projects, such as the BBC, Amazon, LiveJournal, Ticketmaster, Slashdot, Craigslist, eBay, the Human Genome Project, NASA, The Oxford dictionary, and IMDb. The PHP language grew out of a set of Perl scripts that Rasmus Lerdorf had been using to manage his personal home page. Likewise, Yukihiro Matsumoto originally developed the Ruby language as an evolution of Perl.

Perl’s major strengths are its high-level programming power, its flexibility and adaptability, and the very strong developer community it has gathered. It also comes with a huge on-line library (known as “CPAN”), which provides nearly 15,000 open source software modules ready-made to solve a vast array of real-world problems.

Webstock: What sort of “mindset” makes for the best programmers? Can anyone become a good coder with enough work?

Damian: Sure. In fact, the only way you can become a good coder is with enough work. The problem, though, is that “enough work” isn’t by itself enough. You also have to have a fundamental aptitude for–and an innate pleasure in–the art and craft of programming. That is, unless you actually enjoy spending your time in the (often-tedious) activity of software development, you’ll never have the incentive or motivation to put in the “enough work” needed to become good at it.

That’s the only mindset necessary, but it’s an uncommon and self-contradictory one. You need the passion and unreasoning optimism requisite to any act of creation, combined with the practicality, patience, and dogged attention-to-detail necessary to convert your grand vision into a set of accurate instructions. You need to be at once in love with the notion of magicking useful tools out of nothing more than clever arrangements of language, and at the same time be dedicated, persistent, and sceptical enough to arrange that language with sufficient care and precision so that it actually works.

It’s that all-too-rare combination–of romantic and pragmatist, of wizard and engineer–that makes for the very best programmers.

Webstock: When the list of great presenters is made, it would be fair the say that computer scientists and programmers are not going to be over-represented. And yet, here you are doing a workshop on “Presentation Aikido”. What’s been your journey? How have you become a great presenter?

Damian: Hmmmmmmmmm. I’m pretty sure that the single most important thing is never to believe anyone who tells you you’ve become a great presenter. That’s instantly fatal. Because, as soon as you sit back and think you’re there, you’ll stop giving the 100% effort that it takes to create and deliver a truly great presentation.

In other words, the way that you become a great presenter is the same way you become a great programmer, or a great sportsperson, or a great artist, or a great almost anything else: you start with some predilection for the particular activity, and perhaps a little natural ability, and then you work like fury for the rest of your life, gradually gaining the experience and honing the skills and refining the style you need to excel.

Unfortunately, being a great presenter is exactly as Edison described every other kind of creative act: 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Of course, when you do it for a living, you eventually discover most of the short-cuts and tricks that allow you to perspire more productively, and you develop a routine and a set of techniques that help the inspiration flow as well. And it’s those short-cuts and techniques that I’m planning to share in my “Presentation Aikido” workshop at Webstock.

Webstock: Who is going to benefit most from your workshop? And what should they expect from it?

First of all, this isn’t a workshop for those who “have to” give better presentations; this is a workshop for those who “want to” give better presentations…but who are uncertain how to do that, or who lack confidence in their abilities, or who are just downright scared of public speaking. In other words, you don’t have to be a good speaker already, or even an average speaker already, to benefit from this class, but you do have to genuinely aspire to be better. As long as someone has the will, this workshop can help them find the way.

What they should expect is a lot of practical help: that I will walk them through an effective process for designing good presentations; give them numerous tips, suggestions, and insights drawn from real
experience; sprinkle in a few cautionary war-stories; show them plenty of demonstrations and examples; and offer them lots of opportunities to ask the questions that matter to them, as well as to get one-to-one feedback from me on their own presentations and skills.

Oh, they should definitely also expect to have fun: if I’m talking about giving great presentations, you can be sure that I’m going to work extra hard to ensure that that presentation is itself great.

Webstock: What do you see yourself doing in 5 years time? More of the same, or have you got some new plans?

Damian: I still love what I’m doing now, so I intend to keep on teaching, and training, and speaking, and writing as long as people still want to hear from me. Of course, what I’ll be teaching in five years time will likely be very different from what I’m teaching now.

For example, with an entirely new version of Perl (Perl 6) likely to be released later this year, there is a whole new universe of programming concepts and techniques that I’m looking forward to sharing with the wider technical community.

But I’m equally sure that in five years time the Web will continue to be so full of bad design, poor usability, and general oppression of the ordinary user that I’ll still have plenty of targets and plenty of ammunition for those scathing Webstock keynotes I so enjoy delivering.

Webstock: Thanks Damian! And if anyone is thinking about signing up for Damian’s workshop, don’t hesitate – it will truly be a worthwhile investment.