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There and back again – How an omnivert scrum master became an international speaker

♫ Now this is a story all about how... My life got flipped turned upside down... And I'd like to take a minute, just sit right there... I'll tell you how I became an international agile speaker ♫
Date
24 April 2020
Author
Carmen Guerra Jurado
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I’ve been meaning to write this blog for over a month now. But, you know, Covid-19 happened. 

I too, like many of us, got dragged along in the chaos that ensued when our country went on a social distancing lock-down. Although, I prefer the term ‘physical distancing’, because especially during these trying times social connections are important, even if it is an online variant of it. I highly recommend doing video calls with your family and friends!

But I digress. It took a while but I’ve finally had the time and mental space to write down my adventures on how I became an international speaker.

Now, before I dive into it, I realise there are different types of readers. Some who enjoy a lengthy blog and some who just want the gist of it. Seeing as I aim to please, I’ve done both.

 

This next part is for the readers who just want a short recap of my experience

The story that goes with it is the following:

  • I submitted my pitch in December
  • My pitch got selected the beginning of January
  • Over the course of February I wrote my talk with the help of my mentor Allison Pollard
  • On the 7th of March I flew to New York City
  • On the 10th of March I did my talk
  • On the 11th of March I flew back to the Netherlands

The end.

Now, this next part is for you readers who want a story with a bit more body to it.

My colleague Michiel is to blame for all of this. 

I had been stuck writing my blog ‘How to turn your biggest agile skeptics into fans’ since October 2019. It was pretty far along, about two thirds done, but I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it. Life kept getting in the way, I told myself. In all honesty, I was procrastinating.

I consider myself an ‘omnivert’. An ‘omnivert’ is a person that displays classic traits of both introverts and extroverts, in specific situations. For example, situations where I’m the centre of attention make me feel a bit awkward and I tend to be more introverted. But the extroverted side of me is eager to try new things, like submitting a pitch to be a public speaker.  

Anywho, like I was saying, this is all my colleague’s fault. He had been bugging me (in the best kind of way, don’t get me wrong) to finish the blog for some time. When he saw that the Women in Agile conference in New York was looking for first time speakers, he very subtly brought it to my attention.

Figuring I had nothing to lose, I submitted my pitch and didn’t really think about it again. Now you can imagine my surprise when I saw that my submission had been accepted, while casually checking my work email during my holiday in Spain.

I promptly send a message to my colleagues with the news:

Who all enthusiastically apped me back:

General translation: So cool!

I promise the rest of the story will not contain this many details, but I have some amazing colleagues and I just wanted to share that with you. 

Having my pitch accepted was the extra nudge I needed to finish my blog, which I did not long after getting the acceptance email.

So this is how it all began. After some more emails sent back and forth between Jenny Tarwater, Director Launching New Voices, and myself, the day of the kick-off arrived.

January 25th, Kick-off day Women in Agile Launching New Voices

During the Kick-off, Jenny introduced us to the Women in Agile, Launching New Voices programme and how their mission is “to help provide mentoring, templates for submissions, and opportunities to help new speakers and writers get noticed”.

I met my fellow “first time speakers” Jen Willems and Amy Jackson and some more lovely members of the Women in Agile organisation. 

This was also when I learned who my mentor was going to be. Allison Pollard, agile coach, consultant and experienced speaker would help and guide me during the process of writing my talk for the conference. I admit, I can’t really say much about the other mentors, not having interacted with them at all, but in my completely unbiased opinion, Allison is the best mentor a new speaker could have. 

Our first meeting was on the 30th of January, during which we discussed the subject of my talk. I had emailed her the link to my blog beforehand and she told me it was a good, compelling story; I merely had to distill the essence of it so it would fit inside an 8 minute talk. Sure, no problem, I thought, I can do that. Obviously, the first thing I did was read the blog out loud just to see how long that would take me. Alas… 15-ish minutes. So over the course of the weeks following our first conversation I worked on my talk. I made a Powerpoint presentation with as little text as possible. (I’m a big fan of the Tedtalk ‘How to avoid death by powerpoint’.) During our meetups Allison would share some great advice like ‘if you’re feeling nervous when you begin your talk, use that nervousness within your introduction. This nervousness might be what people feel when they have to talk to their “Julia”’. 

About a week before I was due to fly to New York, I had finished the presentation and the talk was pretty much clear in my head (even though it was still a few minutes too long). At that time Covid-19 was also making an entrance in the Netherlands and it was still up in the air if I was actually going to be able to go to New York. I consider myself lucky for several reasons, but one of them is that I was able to make my trip to New York and back without a hitch and in good health. 

New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of

“Have you been to Italy, Iran or China in the last 2 weeks?’’ “I have not.” I got a little sticker on my passport for my trouble before boarding my plane at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. Sure, there were some people wearing masks at the airport, but the gravity of the situation would still take some time to set in. 

Meanwhile, here I was flying to New York alone for the first time. I’d been in New York twice before, once in 2008 and the second time in 2018. So I’d done a lot of the touristy things. But this was the first time I was flying there on my own. Actually, it was the first time flying anywhere outside of Spain on my own. And I’m not too big a person to admit I was feeling a bit of trepidation. Not about travelling by myself or exploring the city by myself, but about having dinner alone. I know, it seems silly but that was something I just wasn’t accustomed to and was not looking forward to either. Fortunately, I got some great advice from my friends and colleagues; just bring a book and read at the table if you’re feeling awkward about being alone. In the end, I didn’t need the book because I had found a buddy with whom I spent the next two days exploring New York with. 

Stavros Papadeas is the community leader of the Business Agility Institute in Amsterdam and he was in New York for the Business Agility conference which was set to take place on the 11th and 12th of March.

We had met a few weeks prior and, seeing as we both had “watch a NBA game” on our bucket list, we had agreed to meet-up on Sunday to go to a game: Brooklyn Nets versus the Chicago Bulls. I had a great time. It was amazing to actually see a basketball game in Brooklyn. I especially enjoyed the heckling comments the New Yorkers around us made. (Although they won, the Nets didn’t play a very good game.) 

Turns out, this was the first time Stavros was in New York, so I offered to play tour guide the next day. We had a great time being tourists in New York City. 

 

 

Why was I here again?

You would almost forget I was in New York to give my very first international talk at a conference, with all the tourist things I’d been doing. The morning of the 10th I was a bit nervous but also quite happy. I had been practicing my talk every night in my hotelroom before going to bed and this morning was the first time I finally got it exactly within the required 8 minutes. Talk about cutting it close! 

I met up with Allison for the first time in real life when we went for brunch and a walk in Central Park. It was great to finally meet the person who’d been helping me with my talk. As a small token of my appreciation, I’d brought her some stroopwafels (typical dutch cookies). 

We stopped by the location of the conference to have a look and see where I’d be doing my talk. Proper preparation prevents poor performance, as they say. (Now try saying that 5 times fast.) The conference didn’t start till 18:00, so it was time to go back to the hotel, practice some more, stress a bit, shower, change and off I went. 

 

Women in Agile conference

The amazing Marsha Shenk kicked-off the Women in Agile conference as the key-note speaker where she talked about ‘Dignity looping’, how ecosystems are composed by exchanges and what these exchanges entail. Unfortunately, my fellow first time speaker Amy Jackson was not able to join the conference, because of the Covid-19 threat, so it was just Jen Willems and me taking our first speaker steps today.

First up was Jen, who did an amazing job. Her talk was about knowing when to move on from your success (as an agile coach). Her talk was so well put together and her pauses and punchlines were perfect. You really couldn’t tell it was her first time being a speaker at a conference!

Then, it was my turn. Allison introduced me and I walked to the center of the room, put on the microfoon and started talking. I remember beginning my talk with the interacting bit with the audience and after that…blank. “It went ok?” was what I told my family, friends and colleagues. 

I honestly didn’t know how my talk really went until I saw the video the next day. (Suffice it to say it did, in fact, go quite well.) It just went by so fast, I didn’t really have a chance to savor it. (Kind of like my wedding day.) But I had done it! I gave my first international talk at an Agile conference. Stavros had taken some pictures during my talk, which he shared with me. Sidenote, I already knew I talked with my hands, but now there are pictures and a video to prove it!

The rest of the night was filled with meeting and talking to some of the amazing people behind Women in Agile organisation such as Beth Hatter and Nathalie Warnert, president of the Women in Agile organisation. 

A small group of us eventually ended up having drinks at a pub nearby. And I’ll be completely honest, I don’t know what the highlight of my day was: me doing my talk or listening to Carol McEwan share some of her amazing personal stories with us at that pub. Carol, if you read this, I’ll repeat what I said that night: you could fill several podcasts with just the stories you shared with us that night! And I would listen to them again, because they’re amazing, inspiring stories. You need to share them with the world! The night ended with lots of laughter and joy. 

Thinking back, it feels so surreal to compare the New York I experienced to the New York that’s suffering at this moment. It wasn’t until the next day, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic that I really started to feel the reality of the situation.

Almost home sweet home

My flight didn’t leave until 22:30. Stavros had very kindly procured a free ticket for me to the Business Agility conference, so I was very glad to be able to experience that first day before flying back. Keep in mind this was my first time at a big Agile conference. I saw some amazing talks and was happy to meet-up with some of the amazing people from the day before. 

In the afternoon, after all the speakers of that day were finished, I figured it was a good time to head over to the airport. So I said goodbye, grabbed my carry-on and off to the airport I went. Around that time Trump had issued a ban on flights entering the United States from European countries. Flying back to the Netherlands fortunately wasn’t an issue. Though that didn’t stop my mum from worrying about me. 

I passed security without any problems and spent my pre-boarding time wandering around the airport and chatting with an old colleague who was still awake. The plane ride back was thankfully uneventful. Eight hours later and I was back in my own country. 

And thus concludes my adventure. I had such an amazing time in New York, and I really enjoyed standing there at that conference and sharing my story. Also meeting so many awesome people from different countries made my first conference experience even more memorable. It was an amazing experience I hope I get to repeat again in the future. And this wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t been willing to try something new. Something that was outside of my comfort zone. If you, dear reader, have one take-away from this story, please let it be this: trying new things can definitely seem scary, but it can also lead you to amazing things you didn’t think possible. So, experiment!

All of this wouldn’t have been possible without the following people, so in no particular order I’d like to thank my Organize Agile teamies, Jenny, Allison, Nathalie, Beth, Jen, Stavros, Laura, Iris, Charlene and my media naranja. 

I hope you enjoyed reading this. 

Carmen Guerra Jurado