Interview with Mike Brown, WebStock

By Miles Burke

The following is republished from The SitePoint Tribune #432.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Mike Brown, co-organizer of the well-renowned Webstock, New Zealand’s largest web conference. With only a few weeks to go before Webstock 2009, Mike took a few moments out of his busy schedule to reply to my questions.

Rumor has it you were a web developer before becoming an event organizer. How did you end up running events instead of cutting code?

The programmers I used to work with would laugh at the idea of me “cutting code,” but yes, I worked for around eight years doing HTML/CSS. Then I moved into information architecture and user experience. All of which I enjoyed a lot.

I was on the Web Standards Group mailing list and made the mistake of posting a few times there. Someone emailed me and suggested I think about setting up a Web Standards Group in Wellington. This was in 2004 and the idea was to have city-based meetings discussing web standards topics of the day. So I emailed everyone in Wellington that I knew and for our first meeting in early 2005, had around 75 people attending.

It grew from there as it became clear we were satisfying a need for people in the industry to meet, learn, network, and share.

The main impetus for Webstock is that we’re all total fanboys and fangirls at heart, and the only way we’d be able to meet people we really admired in the industry was to invite them ourselves! I blogged about the journey to Webstock in more detail on the Webstock blog.

There are obviously challenges to face when changing careers in such a big way—from building web sites to running conferences. What’s been the highlight of this change for you, personally?

Well, in a sense my life has been a series of career changes, often to the chagrin of my wife! I guess the highlight of this particular change is being able to do what I’m truly passionate about. Previously I was doing this outside of my work, so the chance to make my passion my work really feels like a privilege I’ve been handed.

It’s also a chance to work closely with Tash Hall, my main Webstock partner-in-crime who is one of the most inspiring people I know.

Finally, and more personally, it’s given me the chance to be a lot more flexible with my hours and consequently spend more quality time with my wife and kids. The week I quit my previous job I walked my kids to school for the first time ever — there was no longer a need to be at my desk by a certain time!

Lucky guy! If you could give one piece of advice for a web designer or developer who is considering selling products instead of services, what would it be?

I’m sure there are others better equipped at giving advice here! It seems to me, though, that a lot of success in this area almost comes about by accident. People build a product to solve a problem that’s bugging them (to scratch their own itch, so to speak); it’s only as they’re building it, or after it’s finished, that they think about selling it.

So I guess the advice is: concentrate on building a dynamite product. Solve real problems that you come across. Build it for yourself first. Then worry about selling it.

My area of expertise does lie elsewhere though, so follow any advice at your own risk.

As for web developers trying to break into the speaking circuit, what do you look for in a conference speaker?

Well, there are a couple of points here. Webstock probably is more for experienced speakers, rather than those trying to break into the speaking circuit. So I’ll talk first about what we look for at Webstock. Then I’ll offer some thoughts on how to become a (good) speaker.

For Webstock, first and foremost, they need to be a good, entertaining speaker. This example is a bit extreme to make a point, but in general I think it’s true that an entertaining speaker with shallow content trumps a boring speaker with great content. People are paying money to attend a conference; the presentations they see are a performance that should engage them.

The speakers we look for also need to know their stuff. We want attendees at Webstock to be inspired and pushed and challenged. And we want them to learn from people who are among the best in their fields. So we need speakers that have the knowledge to do that.

Also, and this is much more intangible, we want speakers that we’ll personally like as people. One of the bonuses for us is working with the speakers and hanging out with them a little, and it’s much nicer when we can feel a connection with them.

For someone trying to break into the speaking circuit, I’d offer three pieces of advice.

Speak as much as you can; present at work to small groups for short periods. You’ll suck at times, you’ll be nervous, but you’ll get better. Knowing how to present to audiences is a skill you canlearn.
Work at being better. Study other speakers at conferences you go to and by watching the TED talks, and learn from how they present. Read Garr Reynolds’ blog, Presentation Zen.
Respect your audience. It’s a privilege to be able to speak to a group of peers. They’re giving up their time to watch you. Put in the research time needed. Spend time crafting your slides. Rehearse your presentation. It will take longer than you think it should to prepare, but it’s worth it and it’s the minimum you should do.

Great tips, thanks. So, what are you most looking forward to during Webstock ’09?

As an organizer I most look forward to feeling that buzz a successful conference has; when you walk around and people are animated and smiling and blown away by what they’ve just heard. If we can create that atmosphere at Webstock, I’ll be very happy.

As an attendee it’s really hard for me to single out the speakers I’m most looking forward to seeing. I think Jasmina Tesanovic will be fascinating.

I’m really looking forward to Annalee Newitz and Matt Jones. Damian Conway is perhaps the most entertaining speaker I’ve seen. But if I had to pick one speaker I’m most looking forward to — Bruce Sterling. Speaking in Wellington. At Webstock. OMG!

Thanks for your time, Mike, and I look forward to attending Webstock and visiting New Zealand for the first time, later this month. I hope to catch up with any Tribune readers while I’m there too — trust I’ll see you there!



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