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 Monday, January 7, 2013
Thoughts on a CodeMash Gone By

A year ago today (roughly), I gave the opening keynote at CodeMash 2.0.1.2. For those of you who were there, I don't think I need to tell you what happened. For those of you who weren't there, you probably still heard about, thanks to the Twitterstream of comments and counter-comments that followed. I've more or less tried to keep quiet about it since that time, trying to just let the furor die down (and it did, pretty quickly, I thought) out of respect to the conference organizers.

But with the show starting up again this week, and there having been a few people over the last twelve months who've asked me about "what the f*ck were you thinking" (whether that was in deliberate pun/jest or not, I can't always tell), and most importantly, now that I know that Jim and I are square with each other (thanks to a Twitter conversation a few days ago), I figure it's time to come clean and tell my side of the story.

TL;DR: If I had the chance to do the keynote over again, I'd do it differently.

(By the way, the rest of this post does have a few profanities in it, so if you're offended by that sort of thing, this is a good place to stop reading. Or, as the movies would say, this post is rated PG-13 for adult language.)

As a speaker, I have always sought to create a "persona" on stage that allowed me the maximum freedom of expression and opportunity to get my point across. A long time ago, when I started teaching at DevelopMentor, I learned from some of the best--one of those best being, of course, Don Box, but another of those was Ted Pattison. It was he who taught me that "If you can make 'em laugh, you can do whatever you want to them" (meaning the audience). He demonstrated this quite graphically by guest-lecturing in one of my classes once, early in my tenure as a DM instructor, and promptly castrated one of the students who was constantly irritating the class (and me) with off-topic questions. It was an eye-opening experience. Later, Don mentioned in passing that what we did was "equal parts education and entertainment". Education because, yes, it's what we do, but entertainment, too, because if the room falls asleep, then they're not getting educated.

And folks, I've sat in those chairs, I know how boring talks can be sometimes. And that sometimes, despite your best efforts, no matter how interesting the material, it can just be sooooo easy to pop open the laptop and do some email. Or write some code. Or even let the ambient warmth of the room in a post-lunch talk just... make... eyes... so heavy.... I get it, really.

So I decided, quite consciously, to develop a speaking persona that was a little on the edge, a little outrageous, a little "over the top", because then that persona gave me the freedom to do some of the crazy things that would keep the crowd awake and on its toes. I stand people up from the audience and use them in my demos. I write code on the fly based on their questions, and I try to use examples that allow for a certain amount of "Wow, that was weird, so I'll remember it better" in the demo itself. Case in point: when writing code to demonstrate delegates and events in C#, I would use the idea of a "Rock Band" and its fan club which, of course, must include groupies.

Is it politically correct to talk about groupies in a professional programming classroom setting? Probably not. Did anybody complain? Never heard one, directly or indirectly. Part of that, I believe, was because they got the point of the demo, and that was the point. Not that I was advocating groupie-ism, or that rock bands were more interesting than programming, but that the domain was easy enough to grip in their heads, and that made the result (loose coupling between event generators and consumers, in the case of delegates and events) more easily understood.

Analogies, for me, are never gratuitous. I choose my analogies quite carefully, and try to be very clear about where and when they do break down, because all analogies break down eventually. Even my most famous analogy breaks down, as many people have pointed out: nobody has ever died from O/R-Ms. Yep. But your wife's eyes were never burning balls of superheated plasma billions of light years away, either.

Point is, I deliberately seek ways to keep you entertained. And you know what? Entertainment often comes, in the case, from making the room laugh, and humor most often derives from the unexpected. And what's more unexpected than a profanity dropped at the most unexpected moment?

You don't have to agree with that sentiment to realize that it's FUCKING true.

When I got up to speak at CodeMash, I wanted very badly for this to be the best damn keynote I'd ever done in my life up to that point. I wanted the room to rock. Buzzing. Yes, I wanted to succeed very, very badly. It was an early-morning keynote, first one of the show. People were still milling around, there was a lot of background noise. People were still eating breakfast and waking up. And when Keith Elder, just before he introduced me to the crowd, whispered (I'm paraphrasing here) "Put some energy into this crowd, would ya?", I said to myself, "Oh, yeah. I'm on it."

A little TOO on it, as it turns out. I went way overboard. Brian Prince counted 18 f-bombs that day. Others counted, as well; lowest total I heard was 13, highest was 23. Needless to say, it was a carpet bombing to rival anything we ever did to North Vietnam. Made Dresden look like a weenie roast. (There's probably a Hiroshima joke in there too somewhere, but you get the point.)

The interesting thing about profanity used like that, however, is that it loses its efficacy. They have to be spaced out, chosen carefully, or they lose their impact. Which was, of course, exactly what happened. It's not going to have the 'unexpected' effect if it's coming every other minute or so. No matter how hard you try.

The result? Kind of predictable. Not my best results. For which I am most heartily sorry. I so wanted that keynote to go off so well, and it didn't, and I'm sorry.

For three hours after the keynote was over, as the Twitterstream was dissecting me for all that, I lay on the couch in my hotel room, bordering on tears. Seriously.

Had I the chance to do the keynote over again, you'd better damn well believe that I'd do it differently. Would I cut out all the profanity entirely? Nope. That's a part of my speaking persona, and anyone who brings me to a conference that doesn't know that probably didn't do their homework about me as a speaker beforehand. (It's not like there aren't ample opportunities to see me speaking in person, or videos of the same.) But somebody suggested not too long ago that maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to warn people ahead of time, and yep, that's a great idea. Because (and for this, I am really even more sorry) sometimes kids are in the room, such as was the case for CodeMash, and they shouldn't have to hear it unless their parents are OK with it, and I didn't give their parents (or any attendees that felt the same way) an opportunity to "opt out" if they so chose.

I could, I suppose, hide behind the excuse that "We were all adults, we should be able to handle that kind of language", but in the case of the kids, that wasn't the case. Even then, in the case of the adults, you still should be given an opportunity to opt out.

More critically, if the message got lost because of the messenger's choice of words, then I failed as a speaker. And that, my friends, is where the real frustration for me lies--not with the words I used in of themselves, but in that the message--that we as an industry have to break out of our 'box-arrow-box-arrow-cylinder' habits and modes of thinking--got lost for so many people, That is how I failed most of all, and it is on those grounds that I say, once again, I am sorry.

To you, Jim, and to the rest of the CodeMash staff, I am particularly sorry. CodeMash is your baby, and I gave it a black eye.

To the attendees of CodeMash 2.0.1.2, I am sorry if my language offended you and distracted you from the message I was trying to deliver. I hope that you were able to get past it and enjoy the rest of the show. I think a lot of you did--many came up to me afterwards, but it was such a small fraction of the total I don't want to assume anything.

Enjoy CodeMash 2.0.1.3. With any luck, I'll see you there next year: hopefully a little wiser, but still just as FUCKING outrageous as I have always been, only this time, with an up-front disclaimer.

Flame away.