The most important thing I learnt in 2014...

... is how to prepare for a pitch

Original posted date: 10 January 2015

Being able to communicate with others well and to explain an idea clearly are not always stated in software engineer's job description. But as socially awkward as some of us might be, communication, ranging from answering questions, seeking help, small talks or big presentations, is a big part of the job. Software engineers talking to each other about what they are working on is actually the easy part since we can relate to each other more easily.

The more difficult ones are where you need to help the non-tech crowd grasp what you are trying to say. I had a sudden realisation a while back that this side of my game really sucks when I was called into a meeting with an Ocado Tech head and a Morrisons exec to explain a bit of code that we got wrong (1) affecting multiple teams in the business and discuss what to do next. While I was mostly in that meeting as a point of reference to provide more technical insights on the problems, I completely misunderstood what was really relevant.

So I decided I need a gear shift, and came up with my own quick mental checklist of things I need to prepare for pitching my ideas


1. Water:

Drink lots. I am a quiet guy mostly, I never knew speaking for a long while would dry up my poor throat that much :P

2. Eye contact:

Don't actively avoid them. Dominate them. They want to hear what you have to say, bring it to them.

3. Phone off, please

Ah, not if you need to demonstrate your app. In that case, keep that shiny little thing on.

4. Anticipate the audience

Wrote that awesome code and wanna go all geeky about it? Think twice, and don't torture the audience with something they neither know about nor want to hear. Remember when marketing people bore you with the PR stuff? It goes either way.

5. Keep it short, highlight keywords

Most pitches I have are somewhat on the casual side, random and lasts at most 5 minutes (2). So I tend to go straight to the point.

Besides, buzzwords != keywords, repeatedly say "cloud computing" over and over again without the reason just because it sounds cool does not earn you points. However, explaining that you want to use a synchronised cache system so that new nodes can catch up quickly to minimise downtime, improve scalability and cut maintenance costs sounds awesome to both your team lead and business users. Epic win in one sentence.

6. What about the questions?

Good, if I've got here that means people did not fall asleep. There are 2 kinds of questions: one where you need to explain everything you just said again (bad), the other builds on top of what you said (good).

There are times I deliberately leave out some small details to get people engaged later on (especially if I know somebody in the audience is an expert on that, I would be able to instantly spot if I get their attention). This tactic has worked in my favour many times so far.

7. Practice. A boatload of it.

I have heard quite a few in the IT crowd complain that their friends and family don't understand what they do for a living and it is frustrating to be amongst them and asked about their daily work. I had that same line of thinking too, and had a lot of awkward moments especially when visiting home (Vietnam). But then most just give up, and say they face a computer writing code 8 hours a day, and it is bad for both ends.

So I consult the most technophobic old person that I know of: my 80-year-old landlady. I speak to her about what I do at Ocado Technology, things I build for Esplorio, our investment pitches and even my garage Arduino builds as regularly as I can. I try to explain everything to her in the simplest way that I can find.

The end result is fantastic: both she and I feel more comfortable with talking about technology things. She starts asking the follow-up questions on our startup endeavours. She is now also fascinated about the Raspberry Pi - in fact I am going to build a stop-motion camera for her to watch her plants grow with a Pi B. She can now use Google and Gmail after a few tutorials with me, while I gain so much more confidence in my pitches to even the least tech-savvy people ever.

Wanna see how awesome she is? Here's proof

Anyway, I hope some of the rubbish above is useful to someone out there. Happy 2015, bitches pitches!

(1) That code had my name written all over it. I screwed up big time back then...

(2) Not to be confused with my love life