Speaking Tips: Managing T&E

For many years, I’ve quietly mentored a few speakers in the industry. Nothing big, nothing formal, just periodically I’d find somebody that wanted to get in front of audiences and speak, and either they’d ask me some questions or I’d get the feeling that they were open to some suggestions, and things would sort of go from there. Now, as I start to wind down my speaking career (some), I thought I’d post some ideas and suggestions I’ve had over the years.

Recently I got an email from a blog reader, Krzysztof, asking me a question specific to speaking, so I figured I’d just use his question as the spine of the next Speaking Tips. Quoting him, he wrote:

I have also been presenting recently at several conferences and these were quite successful performances (very highly voted). I would like to continue that and I have beed invited already to several places. The concern I have are the cost of travel and accomodation. I feel strange asking my boss again and again to pay that for me. He has agreed every time up to now but I dont feel this is how it should work, especially if I plan to do it much more. If it is not a secrect, could you share some thoughts about it?

In some ways, there’s two questions here—one is the question of whether it’s acceptable to speak on your employers’ time, and the second is how to get conferences to cover your T&E (travel and expenses).

When work speaks

Whether a company should cover an employee’s T&E for a conference really has no universal answer, and frankly, I don’t think there should be one, either. On the one hand, certainly the company derives some direct and indirect benefits from an employee going out into the world and speaking at conferences; namely

  • Increased visibility. When you speak, if your title slide has your company name and website, you are implicitly saying “Hey, these folks are cool and if you want to work with cool kids like me, put in an application.” That’s definitely a good thing for them. Unfortunately, it’s also damnably hard to track the success factor here in any sort of reasonable quantitative way—so don’t expect that your company is going to even realize that they’re getting that additional mojo unless something really unusual (like your talk going viral) happens. This is doubly hard for companies that aren’t in the developer tools space.

  • Increased technical skills. The old adage states, “You never know a thing half as well until you try to teach it.” Even if you think you know a subject pretty well, trying to teach it—and trying to anticipate the questions you’ll get, not to mention the questions you never thought to anticipate and find yourself stumped by—will give you a much deeper skillset around that thing than you would ever have had just using it. This is sometimes directly obvious, but often management at work will attribute it to causes that may or may not be actual. (Let’s face it, it’s a hard sell to suggest that the only reason you got smarter on the subject is because you spoke on it, since you’re doing things every day that all could—and probably would—contribute to your comprehension of the subject, too.)

  • Increased communication. In addition to sharpening your technical skills, giving presentations also increases your communication skills, and that can have direct benefits to the company as well. Having a technical individual who can stand in front of customers and/or their IT staff can be the difference between closing the million-dollar deal and the Sales staff blaming the crappy documentation again and demanding better leads from Marketing. But again, this is hard to quantify, and if the rest of the company doesn’t know you’re giving these talks and utilizes you in these situations, again, there’s no direct way for them to see the benefit of your talks.

If you’re starting to get the impression that maybe your employer doesn’t really have a reason to encourage and support your speaking career, that’s not quite the message—the message here is that your employer will have a hard time realizing what those reasons are. That means it’s on you to make those reasons clear if you want your employer to be more active in supporting you to speak: Suggest that you could do “brown bag” sessions at lunch, suggest that you could bring a company recruiter with you to the events, and so on. Find a reason that makes it compelling for the company to not only “tolerate” your conference engagements, but actively “wins” when you do them.

That way, you’re not feeling so guilty about going out into the world and speaking.

When conferences call

But that’s actually not the main issue. While companies are sometimes willing to allow an employee some “working remote” time to go speak at a conference somewhere, ‘tis the rare company indeed that is willing to foot the bill for said employee to do the same thing.

The only notable exceptions to this rule, of course, are those employees who are paid to do this very thing: the various “developer evangelists”, “developer advocates”, “technical sales support” and the other titles we give to people working in the field of Developer Relations. If you have or want to have one of those jobs, the questin is already answered—the company hired you with the expectation that you were going to go out and speak, and all of your airfare, hotel, car, meals, and sometimes even your entertainment expenses fall under the large umbrella of “reimbursable expenses”, and your next step is to find out how your company’s expense reporting system works.

For everybody else who’s not a DE, it’s reasonable to assume that the company doesn’t want to cover your T&E. And, let’s be honest, neither do you—airfare and hotel and meals and all that can get really expensive, particularly on an individual developer’s salary. So how do you get conferences to cover for it?

There’s a couple of things to keep in mind:

First, you should never have to pay for the privilege of speaking. You are “paying” for it already in terms of your preparation time, your travel time, and the session delivery time. Not sure what that adds up to? Take your annual salary, divide it by 2000 (there are 2000 working hours in the year, assuming a 40-hour work week and 2 weeks of vacation), and now you have your hourly rate. Now add up all the time you spend thinking, slide-smithing, practicing, slide refactoring, demo coding, and so on.

This is a non-trivial expense on your part already, even without considering any other out-of-pocket expense.

However, having said that, you never get what you never ask for. Believe me, conferences are not unaware of the expenses involved in coming to their venue to speak, and in many cases, they will not be the one to raise the subject with you because if you don’t ask, well, it must not be something you need to worry about, right? wink You must be in one of those jobs that your company’s willing to pay for it, right? wink And, c’mon, developers get paid a lot of money, so you can cover it yourself, right? wink

All that winking starts to form a nervous habit after a while.

Don’t get me wrong, not all conferences will play this little passive-aggressive game. Many of them are very up-front and forthright about the subject, and will simply state their policy right away. Others, however, particularly the smaller/regional events, are operating on a shoestring budget and simply can’t afford to cover every speakers’ T&E.

(Side note: frankly, part of this is because conferences are often very stupid. Opt for a lower number of speakers, ask each speaker to do two or three talks instead of just one, and they would find that they would be amortizing the cost of each speaker across a higher number of talks, and thus overall reduce their expenses on this front. However, many conferences consider their show to be only partly professional event, the rest being a social event, and thus have rather idiotic policies like “one talk per speaker”, effectively maximizing the amount of expenses they have to cover per speaker. NDC London does this, for example. Yes, I understand that a conference might get several hundred speakers applying to speak, but there is no “rule” stating that it is a conference’s sworn mission in life to get as many people to visit London on the conference’s dime. Ask each speaker to do two sessions, instead of one, and you’ve effectively halved your T&E budget. If you really want to get a wide variety of people through the show, rotate the speakers around every year or so.)

Which then brings us to the next point: your chances of getting your T&E covered go up appreciably with every conference invite you get. In other words, if they want you, you’re in a much stronger negotiating position; if, on the other hand, you came to them with a proposal through their CFP process and they sent you an acceptance, asking them to cover your T&E is a pretty weak negotiating position.

Once you’re in the position of negotiating, however, now you’re in a slightly different realm, and there are numerous resources out there on how to negotiate well; I’ll leave it to you to find those. The key is to realize that if they invite you, you have more leverage than if you are asking them to let you speak. (Some of this is how you view it internally; as long as you see speaking as something that you would do for free because you love it so much, you’re never going to get your T&E covered. Start thinking about speaking as a professional commitment every bit as much as you think about writing code, and you’ll start thinking about it more as a business and less as a “passion”.)

Contrived example

Here’s a fictitious example of how it might go between myself and a conference:

Con: Dear Ted; we’ve enjoyed seeing you speak at other events, and we would like to invite you to come speak at our event CodeCon in Blarfeny, Oorah, in August of this year.

Ted: Dear Con; thanks for the praise! I’d love to speak at your event, but before I make any commitments one way or another, I’d like to know a few facts about your show. How many attendees did you draw last year, what’s the speaker stipend like, and what’s your T&E policy?

(Notice that I’m assuming the event has one; for me, as somebody who’s been speaking for close to two decades, any event that doesn’t at least cover my T&E is a non-starter. Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on what your personal goals are, but for me, this is a profession.)

Here’s a couple of possible responses:

Con: Hi Ted, great to hear of your interest! Unfortunately, we are a small conference as of yet, we drew about 500 attendees last year, and we can’t afford to cover all speakers’ T&E. However, we do offer a free conference pass to all speakers, and a great discounted rate at the hotel!

“Free conference pass” is table stakes—that shouldn’t even have to be said. If I’m speaking at your show, you’re damn right I get a free conference pass, otherwise how am I going to get in to the building to deliver the session? What’s more, if this is a conference of even a hundred attendees, they should be getting some deep discounts on rooms for the organizers, and they could include speakers in that block and cover the room themselves. This is a total “PASS”, and I will send a politely-worded “go jump off a cliff” message in return, at least until they get somebody running the show that’s familiar with how professional software development conferences are run.

(Fortunately, this response is very rare—less than 1% of the shows I’ve done have a policy like this; however, one of the shows that had this policy was CodeMash in Ohio, and they were drawing close to 2000 attendees and spending a ton of money on a bacon bar, yet not even covering speakers’ hotel rooms. Hence our little blog-feud of a few years ago. I don’t know their current policy.)

Con: Hi, Ted, great to hear of your interest! We are a small conference, last year we got about 500 attendees, so we can cover some speakers’ T&E, but we ask that if you have a company that will cover your expenses, you do that. We don’t do speaker stipends, but we will pick up your hotel regardless.

This is a much more common response; as a matter of fact, this and the next one are probably 75% of all responses. I probably will still turn them down, since, again, I am well too far into my profesional speaking career to be paying for the privilege to speak, but I will at least counter-offer by offering to do a handful of talks and/or a workshop if they can cover my complete T&E, and see what they say in response. If they agree, then we can start talking about other policies; if they really “don’t have the money”, then I regretfully turn them down and ask them to contact me when the show is on more solid financial footing.

Con: Hi, Ted, great to hear of your interest! We will cover all speakers’ T&E, including airfare and hotel, but we have no speaking stipend. We do, however, do a profit-sharing with workshops, so if you want to do an all-day workshop for us, we will split the revenues from the workshop by… (insert whatever policy here). How does this sound?

This is probably the most common response I get, particularly from conferences overseas (meaning, in Europe). Here, I’m still volunteering my time, but at least it’s not money out of my (or my employers’) pocket. The workshop angle is relatively new—I’ve had it floated past me several times in the last two years alone—but it’s not a bad angle for both parties, and worth exploring. In terms of decision-making for me, it often comes down to the conference’s location: is this in a city/country that I’ve never visisted (and presumably would like to), or is this in a place that I’d like to visit again? Case in point: Krakow (home of Devoxx Poland) is a flat-out gorgeous city, and as long as my airfare and hotel are covered, I am totally ready to go. London, Amsterdam, and a few other cities in Europe are on that short list, too. Or, if this is a city where I have friends or family nearby, sure, I’ll do it, since now I can usually carve out an extra day or two (paying for the extra day or two in the hotel myself of course, unless the conference wants to pick it up, in which case I’ll offer another session or something to try and reward their generous nature) and get essentially a free friends/family visit out of it.

The other thing I will sometimes do, if the conference is in a city that I know my wife would like to visit, is see if they will pick up her airfare to fly with me in exchange for doing a few more sessions or workshops. This often works out well for both sides, since conferences can sometimes write off speaker T&E as an expense against their tax bill (reducing their income footprint and overall tax burden), so picking up her airfare is actually much cheaper than offering me a stipend; it’s a double-win if they get a few more sessions out of it.

Con: Hi Ted, great to hear of your interest! We don’t cover T&E, but we offer every speaker a stipend of US$500/250/100/whatever to use against their expenses and airfare. We will provide you with X number of nights in the hotel.

This is the policy I’ve seen rarely, but it’s actually not a bad policy; they’re essentially suggesting that if you want to burn frequent-flier miles in order to maximize the money you make on the trip, that’s your choice. It’s also much simpler for them in terms of budgeting, since now they just assume a flat rate for each speaker. What they lose by doing this, however, is the opportunity to choose speakers locally (who will cost a lot less) and end up possibly not spending as much; it’s a kind of price speculation. (Depending on the rate that they’re offering, it’s also going to reduce the participation of speakers further away, since US$500 will not get you very far towards Europe from Seattle, for example; your money will run out somewhere over the Yukon in Canada, and it’s always awkward having to parachute out of the airplane when that happens.)

Con: Hi, Ted, great to hear of your interest. We cover speakers’ T&E, and our conference will be happy to book your air travel for you once we’ve determine your topics and such.

This is one that a few conferences will do, but I personally don’t like it; the motivations of the individual booking the travel are not necessarily lined up with my own. They will be looking to minimize the cost of the trip on whatever bargain airline ticket price they can find, rather than thinking of the speaker’s comfort or the airline’s reliability. I have backed out of speaking at a conference within the last few years over this. (They wanted me to fly Air Iceland through Reykjavik, in the middle of winter, because it was half the cost, as opposed to my usual Seattle-to-Amsterdam leg that puts me in Europe.) The thing I will often point out is that I have a travel agent, and he has all the information about me already in his system, and more importantly, if anything goes wrong with the trip, I can call him 247 and he will call airlines to find out the options and take action to get me either to the conference or home again. When I ask conferences if the person booking travel is offering to let me call them at 2AM to get a new booking through a different city so I can get to my destination—at no cost to me, of course—I usually get permission to use my own travel agent. As a policy in the abstract, this one seems like a reasonable one, but having tried it a few times, I simply won’t go for it.

Con: Hi, Ted. We offer speakers a US$(whatever) stipend plus full T&E, and if you are interested in a workshop we will pay you US$(whatever).

Jackpot, baby! These are the shows you really want to keep hold of, because they are pretty rare. Having said that, they also tend to be the most “professional” of the lot, run by people who are actual professional event organizers. Almost every show in this category has usually asked me for multiple sessions, and in some cases deliberately arranged their conferences in two different countries so that a speaker like myself coming from the US could speak at one, fly directly to the other, speak, and then fly home, in essence setting up a “two-for-one” in terms of speaking to expenses.

Your policy

Frankly, as a speaker, you need to decide what your T&E policy will be before you start talking to conferences about it. You may be new enough in your speaking career that you value the opportunities to practice speaking and/or the ability to put “Spoke at conference CodeCon in Oorah in Summer 2017” on your resume more than the cost of the flight to Oorah. That, my friend, is your call to make. My context and circumstances are different than yours, as are my feelings around travel and airports and so on.

I know of several different speakers’ policies, so let me sort of offer a few here:

  • “I love giving back to the community.” Usually this is the attitude of the brand-new speaker, who’s usually just speaking to local events that are within driving distance. That’s OK. Just understand that you’re probably going to get raked over the coals if you’re thinkig of speaking a few airplane flights away; at that point, you’re probably going to give up speaking at anything further than a car-ride away, or you’re going to change your policy on T&E.

  • “I refuse to pay for the privilege of speaking.” This is me, obviously, and even then, I will tack on the secondary clause that I will only speak “for free” in a city I want to visit or that has friends I want to see.

  • “I refuse to pay for the privilege of speaking; I’ll speak the first time at your show ‘for free’, but after that, you know what you’re getting and you should be prepared to pay my speaking fees.” One very well-known speaker/friend holds to this policy, and frankly I think it’s a great policy. The first time at a given conference, you can argue that speaking there is an “audition”, to see what the quality of the speaking product looks like, but if you invite hiim back again, it’s obvious that you liked what you saw, and you should be prepared to pay market-rates for it.

  • “I refuse to speak unless you cover my First-Class airfare, pay my speaking fees, and you will need to organize a class that I can teach the week before/after.” Yes, sir, right away, sir, three bags full, sir! Not a fan of this policy, not because I don’t like First Class accomodations when flying overseas, but because it definitely puts you out of the price range of most conferences that aren’t sponsored by major corporations (Microsoft, Oracle, Google, etc). What’s more, I don’t care for the “prima donna” attitude that comes with it. Yes, I’d love it if a conference would want to spend that kind of money on me, but seriously, I can live in Coach from Seattle to Amsterdam if it’s sitting the Economy Comfort section or there’s an empty seat next to me. (Actually, for the kind of money that a First-Class ticket would cost, I’d rather you just paid for my wife’s airfare to ride next to me in Coach—which would probably be cheaper anyway.)

You will often find things that really matter to you along the way that you want to include as part of your “travel package” as you get more experience and comfort speaking. For example, I’ve found that if I’m going to be at all comfortable with speaking in Europe, I really need an extra day on the ground before the conference. So if the show starts on the 10th, I’ll look to leave Seattle on the 7th, arrive on the 8th, and that way I have the 9th to get adjusted to local time before the show starts on the 10th. Most conferences have been willing to accomodate this, particularly when I point out that it gives us a little cushion in case something goes wrong with the flight on the 7th/8th.

Oh, and I don’t do red-eye flights anymore. I just can’t do that anymore.

Summary

It deserves to be said: Your mileage may vary. Just remember that T&E is a bit of a negotiation process, and that as in many negotiations, two sides are in a bit of a “win/lose” relationship—every dollar they spend on your T&E is a dollar they can’t spend elsewhere, or another dollar they have to raise through vendor sponsorships or ticket sales. Sometimes you can use this knowledge to your advantage as part of the negotiation, such as being willing to engage in some promotional activities for them (videos, etc), or by offering to talk to your company about sponsoring, or whatever else comes to mind.

But as with any negotiation, know what your “bottom line” is, and refuse to go below it. Mine is, as I’ve stated before, that full T&E is non-negotiable, and we go north from there. It means I’ve missed opportunities to speak in some really interesting locations (on the North Coast of Africa, for example), but it also means that I’ve never lost money on a show—only time.

Good luck!