Year 2020 in review - when tech conferences go virtual

[ reflection  ]

A reflection post on my second year of speaking, and how COVID-19 changed my conference-speaking experience

At the start of 2020, I set a goal to speak at 4 tech conferences including one in Europe. COVID-19 disrupted my plans completely, and I was forced to adapt to the new reality of virtual conferences. Here’s my journey from regional to international speaker in the midst of a pandemic, and lessons learnt along the way.

Recap of Year 2020: Speaking

In year 2020, I have given a total of 10 talks, including an exclusive episode and my first invited keynote:

Facing Impostor Syndrome as a Tech Speaker

Before I got started with speaking at tech conferences and meetups, the question I asked myself was:

What would it take for me to be up on this stage as a speaker?

Throughout this year, the question I repeatedly asked myself was:

Am I good enough to become a successful speaker?

I struggle a lot with impostor syndrome as a developer and a tech speaker who has been doing most of my speaking for free.

Even after speaking at a higher-profile conference such as EuroPython, I still wonder if I am good enough to develop a good reputation as a developer and tech speaker.

In short, I’m not a natural when it comes to speaking in front of an audience. I still get nervous about what could go wrong, whether giving a bad talk would affect my ROI on speaking at a conference.

When I reflect upon my reasons for speaking at tech events:

  1. Build my personal brand and raise my profile in the local tech community
  2. Gain experience in public speaking
  3. Pay it forward to the local tech community

I wonder if these reasons still hold true amidst a global pandemic when:

  1. The local tech community is getting a bit more muted due to absence of in-person meetups and networking opportunities
  2. I end up having to either speak one-way to a screen or pre-record my talk during a virtual conference, without much audience interaction
  3. I find myself struggling to keep myself relevant in the local tech community while juggling my speaking and career goals, thinking of how to prepare for upcoming Call for Proposals and what to speak about in my next speaking opportunity

For year 2021, I will be focusing more on quality over quantity of conference talks - in order to dedicate more time towards my personal learning and career goals.

Speaking in-person at a Conference amidst a Pandemic

Where: FOSSASIA Summit 2020

When: 20 March 2020

Talk: Speed Up Your Data Processing: Parallel and Asynchronous Programming in Python

I was really looking forward to attending FOSSASIA Summit since 2019, as it is one of the largest gatherings of open-source enthusiasts - it could even be considered a headliner event for the open-source community. In fact, I was really looking forward to meet Eriol Fox again and bring them around Singapore for meatless food.

Alas, travel restrictions due to COVID-19 all but prevented most of the overseas speakers and attendees from attending in-person. Even the FOSSASIA organizers could not make it to the venue in person due to COVID-19 restrictions - they flew in from Europe.

Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, the organizers decided to proceed with the event with a mix of offline and online talks with live streaming and chats. I could still proceed with giving my talk, and I ended up speaking to a room of less than 10 people and a livestream audience of I-have-no-idea-how-many.

It was a strange experience attending a conference with so few people. I originally designed this talk to be interactive and audience-driven, with the pace of the talk driven by casual “coffee shop” banters with the audience. While having less than 10 people in the audience does make for a more “intimate” experience, a part of me wished that I could interact with more people as per normal.

Then again, is anything normal in a pandemic?

As it turns out, this was my first and last in-person conference speaking of 2020.

My First Time Speaking at a Conference outside of Asia

Where: EuroPython 2020

Talk: Speed Up Your Data Processing: Parallel and Asynchronous Programming in Data Science

One of my speaking goals in 2020 is to speak at a tech conference outside of Asia, and this talk was intended for my European speaking debut.

COVID-19 rendered me unable to travel to speak. However, COVID-19 also led to conferences being moved online and I was able to speak at a European conference “virtually” for the first time.

I came in without much expectations on audience interest since my talk wasn’t part of the list of talks selected by popular vote - in fact, I was just happy to be given a chance to speak at EuroPython with an impressive lineup of high-profile Pythonistas! Hence, I was pleasantly surprised that my talk at EuroPython managed to make a pretty good impression - and might have opened a few more doors for me.

Speaking virtually at an in-person Conference amidst a Pandemic

Where: PyCon Taiwan 2020

When: 6 September 2020

Talk: Speed Up Your Data Processing: Parallel and Asynchronous Programming in Data Science

Speaking at PyCon Taiwan has been one of my key priorities in year 2020 even before the pandemic, as Taiwan was where I made my international debut on the conference-speaking circuit.

Alas, I couldn’t fly to Tainan for the in-person conference due to COVID-19.

Seeing live audience responses from the other end of the remote call while I presented my talk gives me hope about the future of tech conferences though - that one day we may be able to meet in-person again.

Pre-recording talk with “live” elements at my first PyData Conference

Where: PyData Global 2020

When: 15 November 2020

Talk: Speed Up Your Data Processing: Parallel and Asynchronous Programming in Data Science

By this time, I am getting a bit “sick” of writing reflection posts for virtual conferences. Moreover, this is a pre-recorded talk - no comments about audience response or speaking performance since the talk was not given live anyway.

Special mention to the folks who designed the virtual conference space on Gather to replicate the “in-person” conference experience as much as possible - it made PyData Global a slightly more engaging experience even when I was getting a bit “fatigued” by virtual conferences and Zoom calls.

When Murphy’s Law Struck Down The Internet and Mobile Network (and One of My Talks)

Where: PyJamas 2020

When: 6 December 2020

Talk #1: Is Rainfall Getting Heavier? Building a Weather Forecasting Pipeline with Singapore Weather Station Data

Talk #2: Seeing Data in Multiple Dimensions - Hierarchial Indexing and How to Visualize Them

For some reason, Murphy’s Law loves to strike when I unexpectedly get an opportunity to give conference talks on the first week of December.

The good news: Getting both talk proposals accepted via anonymous voting.

The bad news: Preparing two new talks, and having the Internet connection playing tantrums on my ambitious attempt to prepare two new talks in less than 24 hours.

Unfortuntely for me, Murphy’s Law won and struck down both my fibre broadband and mobile network by the time my second talk came around. Hence, Talk #1 lives and Talk #2 dies.

And, I ended up becoming so grumpy about my Internet woes until I ended up sleeping off my frustrations for the rest of the conference. Thanks goodness for YouTube replay.

I guess there’s a reason why I think giving two talks for a conference is not a good idea - and I resolve to refrain from doing that from now on. Quality over quantity. Sorry, community folks.

My first Keynote

Where: PyCode Conference 2020

When: 12 December 2020

Talk: Is Rainfall Getting Heavier? Building a Weather Forecasting Pipeline with Singapore Weather Station Data

I wasn’t really expecting to give any more talks after Pyjamas 2020, so this keynote invitation from the PyCode Conference organizing team came as a surprise.

My initial thought was: Why did they invite me to be their keynote speaker, when there are more well-known speakers in the Python community? Why me?

As I considered carefully on whether to accept the keynote invitation (I was asked to choose between Web and Data for the theme), I thought:

How do I make use of this opportunity to tell my story while setting the pitch of the event?

And that is how I decided to make my uniquely Singapore experience of “ponding” the centrepiece of my keynote speech - and tropical rainfall forecasting serves as the medium for me to explore the challenges faced by various experts in predicting rainfall amidst the backdrop of climate change.


After giving 7 talks within one year and most of them being virtual, I am starting to experience burnout and fatigue in some form.

Can I just emphasize once again that it feels kinda weird speaking to the webcam and you don’t know how many people are actually watching your talk? Imagine that happening for most of the year.

With the pandemic not showing any signs of abating, virtual conferences seem to be the “new normal” for aspiring conference speakers. That means I have to commit to making sure my speaking-related tech is in good condition and my speaking style is catered towards a virtual “on-demand” audience with little interaction.

While the temptation of giving as many talks as possible without the constraints of travel seems tempting, I found myself in a delicate balancing act between my speaking-related prep, my career, and my personal life all muddled into one in year 2020.

Hence, my goal in year 2021 is not to speak at even more conference compared to year 2020.

My goal in year 2021 is to focus on quality and deliver talks in 4 conferences locally and internationally, and I am starting 2021 with a tally of one.

Written on December 31, 2020