There comes a time in almost every engineer’s career where they may need to communicate with a customer, train a teammate, pitch a project, or prove they are credible to a potential client.
Poornima Vijayashanker was the founding engineer of Mint.com where she launched v1 of the ubiquitous personal finance platform. She went on to Found Femgineer, an education firm that trains technologists on presentation, public speaking, and communication skills.
In this episode I sit down with Poornima to hear tips and tricks that make her students successful.
Ledge: Poornima, it’s really cool to have you on. Thanks so much for joining us.
Poornima: Thanks for having me, Ledge.
Ledge: Can you give a two- or three-minute background if your résumé fits in there. I know you’ve done some impressive things but I want the audience to know who we’re talking to today.
Poornima: Totally! I got lured into startup land pretty early in my career a couple years out of college. I was the founding engineer of Mint.com, the personal finance app which is, thankfully, still around. After Mint, I decided to start on my own. I started BizeeBee which was a CRM solution for fitness businesses. Ultimately, I had to shut it down in 2012 and then transitioned to working on Femgineer which originally began as a blog back in 2007 when I was at Mint and transitioned that into an education company where we teach techies how to build products and companies and level up in their careers.
After doing a lot of experimenting, my focus area in Femgineer has really been communication ─ teaching folks who are technical how to better communicate either one on one or through presentation skills. And this has really been valuable for their careers, their companies, and their communities.
In addition to that, I’ve self-published a couple of books. One is called
“How to Transform Your Ideas Into Software Products” and the other is a book on public speaking called
“Present!” I’ve been an entrepreneur-in-residence at 500 Startups and Techstars and I’ve had a brief stint as a lecturer at Duke University.
That is my background.
Ledge: Really cool! You get approached by technology people or people in business around technology asking, “Why should I even care about getting out of my desk? I code all the time. This is great. I like my work. What’s on the other side of this idea of speaking, presenting, and evangelism? Why even do that? I don’t need to. I’m in high demand.”
Poornima: I would push back and say that the best folks ─ meaning, the ones who make the most money or are the most in demand ─ are the ones who have very strong communication skills. The reason is because they need to be able to recruit other folks in the industry. Recruiting is huge especially given how hard it is.
The second is they need to be able to communicate what’s going to get built ─ and not just what’s going to get built but why it needs to get built or not built or maybe rebuilt based on your Legacy Code podcast.
The other piece is that there comes a time in everyone’s career ─ maybe it hasn’t happened to people in your audience so they’re super fortunate ─ where you have to vouch for yourself. You have to sell yourself, as dirty as a word that might be; and that could mean that you’re trying to get promoted or you have an idea that you want to pursue or you’re kind of frustrated by current practices within your organization and you want to do something about it.
And so, that means communicating. And no amount of technical skills no matter how badass you are or how great you are as a hacker is going to help you get through that moment.
That’s why I found that communication and public speaking, as age old as they are, are really powerful multivitamins for your career that you need to take everyday even in small doses. And the more often you do it, the more you end up benefiting.
Ledge: Good job! I have to tell you that you are absolutely echoing for anybody who doesn’t believe you yet. We ask or I ask on the podcast too many times, “What are your heuristics for great engineers?” because we’re interested in that topic.
Ninety percent of people say the first thing is about communication and being able to share ideas and being a better collaborator. We’re all on the same page with that and I do think the engineers who can’t do that or who are unwilling to make that shift are going to have a difficult time.
I remember the days of engineering in the basement sitting in the dark sort of a bunch of drones in front of screens and don’t ever let them near the customer. It’s just not the reality anymore.
Talk to be about some major questions you get asked and some of the things that you’re tackling ─ let’s say, two or three of those.
Poornima: Yes. The first one that I’ve noticed especially in the last six to twelve months has been “How can I engage to mixed audiences?”
When I dug in a little bit deeper, I was curious what they meant by “mixed.” Do they mean within their company whether it’s a designer or a product manager that they’re trying to interface with so people have a slightly different technical background or does it have to deal with customers because, a lot of times, customers can be of varying degrees of knowledge in terms of the product or is it stakeholders?
Of course, the resounding response was all of the above.
And I’m noticing that people are getting pooled, like you said, into sales meetings or customer meetings. They’re asked to speak at events or they’re just asked to do “lunch and learns” or training sessions within their companies.
And so, on a day-to-day basis, they get put in front of an audience that is either of varying levels in terms of their technical prowess or in terms of their knowledge of the product or whatever it is that the product entails.
Given this, their concern is “Well, I don’t want to bore people or I don’t want to give them so much information that I inundate them. So what’s a good balance here?”
I actually kind of push back and say that one way to take this approach of dealing with mixed audience is before you even do your presentation, take a little bit of time and do what I like to call a “pre-meeting.” So you meet with them before you give a presentation and ask them, “Hey, here’s the topic that I want to talk about. I want to talk about, let’s say, dockerization” because that seems to be a buzzword these days. Tell me what you already know about dockerization.
And some people will be honest and some people will say, “I don’t know the first thing about it.”
And so, “What do you want to know?”
An engineer, maybe somebody who is new or just getting started will say, “What the heck is it? What is it going to do and how is it better than what’s out there today?”
Someone who is a leader might ask, “Do we even need this thing in our organization? What’s going to be the key benefit?”
A customer might ask, “Is this going to help me in some way to further my business or my day to day? How is it going to help me?”
These are some general questions. And as you solicit the questions, you’ll start to see kind of a Venn diagram appear and, in that center, are the questions that are top of mind for everyone that you want to address in your presentation.
In that way, when you are in this mixed audience, you’re not stuck getting way too much in the technical weeds or sounding way too salesy or something else.
The first tactic I tell people is to go out and solicit these questions because, chances are, they’re going to come up in your Q&A. And it’s better that you ask ahead of time than have somebody try to stomp you in that Q&A section.
That’s one way to engage an audience that is mixed.
Another way is to really think about ─ if you’re in a conference and there’s a certain theme ─ how your topic is going to appeal to that theme and if you can get some background from the organizer around what people’s skill level is because, a lot of times, we might think an audience is mixed but they’re skewed toward one direction or another.
I’m sure some people in the audience have gone to talks where a presenter will say, “How many of you are X?” and you raise your hand and “How many of you are Y? Raise your hand.”
After they do that, you’re like,
okay, that was a great exercise and I spent five calories raising my hand but they don’t change their talk at all. Why did you bother asking me that?
So if you’re going to do something like that, you’ve got to change your talk on the fly or, preferably, think about it from the beginning. So the point of asking that question is maybe you would want to calibrate for your audience and if you see that ninety percent are beginners, maybe you emphasize certain points in your talk that beginners would care about; or if you find that they’re more advanced, you might say, “You know, I think a lot of you already know this stuff. Let’s get ahead to the meat of the topic.”
Those are things that you would want to follow through when you ask somebody a question. Follow through on why you’re asking them that.
Ledge: It feels a lot like customer discovery in startup land. Know your audience, right?
Ledge: What are their particular needs? Do you often advise folks to make a larger deck or sort of a richer experience they can jump around in? I see speakers do that a lot where they are adjusting in real time; the good speakers do it. Is that a tactic that you would employ?
Poornima: Yes. We have kind of a controversial approach that initially people are like,
I can’t believe she’s making me do this.
What we recommend is you start with an outline. Forget your deck because, chances are, you are going to hate it. It’s going to evolve. As you’ve said, it’s going to be long or short. But just start with a simple outline that you can iterate from kind of like a pseudocode, and speak from that. Speak for either as long or as little as you like to notice where there are some gaps or drop-off points.
But, that way, you get comfortable with the content and see if it makes sense; and also, that way, if you need to make it longer, you know you can add some more stories or you can add some more data or an example. And if you need to make it shorter, you then know what to cut out.
But I think starting from that outline, it’s just a really good scratch pad rather than diving into the deck. And if you need to do that deck, great! That’s kind of the last thing that we recommend because, at the end of the day, we consider a deck to be sprinkles on your presentation like a nice visual that people see but, really, they’re focused on you.
And we get that. A lot of times, people want that deck because it’s really like the doc of record. So have two. Have the doc with all the text that people can skim through after your presentation, and then give them the nice visuals during the presentation.
Ledge: It’s sounds like a lot of work. People are coming in willingly wanting to do this. Are you shocking them at the beginning on how much work it is?
Poornima: We know that people are super busy. We have been there. We’ve been in the trenches. Karen is my partner in teaching a lot of this stuff. She was a VP at Adobe. So we are not people who have a lot of free time and we’re both moms.
Our promise is having been through the trenches, having tested a lot of our methods, we expect a one- to two-hour commitment a week to get this done.
Also, you come up with something that is sort of your go-to talk so that you’re not having to come up with a new one over and over again that, as you’ve said, you can shrink or expand depending on how much time you have allotted.
We think that within an hour to two hours a week, you can, over the course of several weeks, nail this down and it should not take you multiple hours. I think, too often, people feel like the more time they invest, the better off, and it’s just not true. They often end up spinning their wheels. They end up practising over and over again by themselves which is actually not valuable because you are your own worst critic. But if you’re not watching yourself, how can you even be your worst critic?
It’s giving them some strategies around “Here’s how you can save time and here’s what you need to be looking for and here’s how you can get other people to give you feedback.” That’s kind of the promise that we make knowing that people are busy professionals.
Ledge: So what has surprised you, kind of blown you away in the process? Tell us some stories of successes or speed bumps or massive failures that rose from the ashes.
Poornima: One surprise: Last year, there was a woman who had ─ mind you, we kind of push people to do lighting talks as their first talk because it’s just a nice way to get started.
Yes, it’s actually a little bit more work than doing a three-minute talk but it’s a good way to get started and, often, it ends up being the kind of thing where people are like, “Oh, it’s over before it started. Yay!” so it’s not too much of a time commitment.
But I remember that a lot of our students were like, “Oh my gosh, how am I going to get all this content into five minutes!” And I had one, in particular, who was like, “Ugh, it’s eight minutes. How am I going to shave off three minutes?”
We did a lot where everybody just in class said, “Okay, we’re going to help this person shave off three minutes.” I gave them some strategies ahead of time and it was awesome to see the transformation in the end where not only did she shave off time but everybody else in the class did as well.
Those are some of the moments where a light bulb goes off and people feel amazing at the end because they can watch themselves and be like,
wow, I did this. And that transformation is huge.
We’ve also had people who are non-native speakers come to us and say, “My accent is really heavy” or “I don’t know if I’m coming across clearly.” And so, it’s giving them a little bit of mindset change but it’s also getting them into the habit of speaking and then suggesting small tweaks like “Hey, if there’s a word that you don’t know how to pronounce, don’t bother. Find an easier word. In fact, your audience is going to enjoy that.” It’s giving them some reassurance like “People think accents are cool so just embrace it.” People need that.
And we’ve also had some folks who were shy and introverted who didn’t think that they could do it or thought that they weren’t experts or they were truly veterans but they felt as if they didn’t have any expertise.
So it’s great to see people come out and start at ground zero and then, by the end, they just feel really good because they can see the results.
A lot of times, they’ll do their presentations and they say, “I didn’t feel so great” and I’ll say, “Go back and watch it.” They go and watch and “Whow!”and because they’ve been recording all along, they can see the transformation. And that’s really powerful.
Ledge: Going back to the replay tape is probably fun. You can even pull them all together into one transformative event. I have to say that once in a while, we ambush regular old engineers who certainly don’t have your training and they say, “Why do you want to interview me? I’m just a regular engineer. You wrote this blog. You’re doing brilliant stuff.”
It’s always surprising to me that there is this “I just want to stay here and write code” and I’m like, “Well, you are putting yourself out there but the medium is different.”
But speaking is definitely a different thing. I think it doesn’t give you that anonymity. You’re out there. You have a spotlight. People are really looking at you and maybe not as much of your craft.
How do you help people get over that?
Poornima: The spotlight effect is real and it’s one of the biggest reasons why even something as simple as asking a question can be nerve-racking. So even if you’re not the presenter and you want to ask a question, you just don’t because you’re like,
people are going to think it’s a dumb question or
my voice is going to crack or
the presenter is going to think I’m stupid.
And one of the first things we tell people is “You know, people don’t really care as much as you think they do.”
You might be like,
oh my gosh, I have this stain on my blouse or
I didn’t do my hair the best today. Honestly, most of the time, what people are listening to and looking for is “How does this information or how does this question apply to me?”
When you reframe it that way, what you realize is,
oh, so I don’t need to be feeling so awkward or feeling so aware of everything I’m doing and saying and that people aren’t going to be scrutinizing every single one of my actions.
And that’s the reality. They are listening because they want to hear something that’s going to apply to them. And, a lot of times, those people end up leaving midway through your talk probably because they feel like they already knew it and they’re waiting for something new or they had to go to the bathroom; that’s fifty to ninety percent. Or, a lot of times, they feel like it’s not applicable to them and it’s applicable to somebody else.
Given that, you need to focus on people who are paying attention to you and are there to learn from you. Reframe it not as “I’m being scrutinized” but, instead, “People are coming here to learn from me.”
And that was a big hurdle I personally had to go through because, as you’ve said, you feel like you’re just a regular engineer and everyone else knows all this stuff. Why would somebody want to learn?
But, truthfully, there are a lot of people who want to learn from you because you have a certain approach or you’re really patient or you’re really good at explaining when you don’t think you are or feel that you do or you’re very approachable in person, and that makes people want to learn this new thing.
So I think that’s really valuable and people discount that or don’t realize that those are reasons why people are coming out to hear them speak and to learn from them.
Ledge: I think that’s absolutely right. One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s much more rewarding for the audience when someone who is not maybe appearance obsessed turns out to be an expert that is engaging and funny and it becomes a personal connection; and maybe this isn’t likely the person with the great clothes and the perfectly polished shoes and all the things that you think about appearance.
Great presenters come from somewhere inside and the ability to speak and present and to be charismatic and funny, are the ones that I, personally, as an audience member find much more engaging.
Surprise me a little bit. Break down those stereotypes that I might have about you from appearance and just crush that. I don’t know if that is part of your curriculum but I always found it exciting when someone does a thing that is not what they look like.
Poornima: Totally! And I think a lot of people get surprised when they go back and watch those videos because, a lot of times, they say, “I didn’t recognize myself in the final presentation.” So that’s pretty powerful.
To be fair, we tell people if you enjoy dressing up, whatever you feel comfortable in is what you want to leave with but don’t feel like you have to suddenly morph who you are. And, a lot of times, people can see through that. They can see that you’re putting on a voice or you’re putting on an act, and that’s not what they’re there to see. They’re not there to see a play. They’re usually there because they’re trying to learn something and glean some information from you.
Ledge: You have courses going on right now. Please give the information and we’ll make sure that we get that out to everybody.
Poornima: I teach a course once a year called the “Confident Communicator Course.” It’s six weeks. It’s online. It’s live and that means that both Karen, my partner, and I are there every step of the way. So this is not self-study. We are there to give you feedback and be with you and see through you this transformation.
It’s coming up in February. Usually, we teach it in February and March. If you’re interested, go to femgineer.com/confident-communicator-course and I’ll make sure to give you a link.
If you’re not ready for the course, that’s okay, too. We have a book,
Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking that might be a great entry point and I’m happy to give you a link to that as well.
Ledge: Poornima, it is a joy to have you on. Thank you so much. We really look forward to staying in the loop.
Poornima: Thank you for having me, Ledge.