Freelancing Pro Interview: Matthew Heusser
Matthew Heusser, a technologist hailing from Allegan, Michigan, got his roots in computer programming. But what he did with that knowledge—mixing in tons of risk-taking and determination—has made him a prominent speaker in his field as well.
I talked to Matthew, 32, to find out how he leveraged his job in programming to become an expert in the industry, how he gets paid to talk about it—and how you can do the same.
Tell us a little bit about all that you do—software testing, writing and teaching. How did you get your start?
I graduated college able to get a job in programming computers. It was 1997—if you could breathe, you could get a programming gig. But making sure the software was fit for use was something else entirely different. So I went back to school at night, got a master’s, and got into software engineering and testing.
That taught me the discipline of putting time in my evenings and weekends into my career. When I graduated, I kept doing it through user groups and guest lectures. That eventually built up to paying gigs and teaching.
One of the things that you’ve excelled at is speaking. Many freelancers would like to leverage their expertise to create presentations and become experts in their field. How did you get into this particular aspect of your career?
As a teenager I was a cadet in Civil Air Patrol, which gave me a lot of confidence in speaking in public. I like to say that I was “too dumb to know I was supposed to be afraid.” After college, I found out about Perl mongers—the national Perl user’s group—and didn’t find one in my area, so I started one. When we needed speakers, I made stuff up.
Fast-forward a few years and we have to constantly write and present papers and materials in Graduate School. For our capstone project, our professor, Dr. Paul Leidig, insisted that we write a journal-quality paper and apply to speak at a conference. That was the ABIT Conference in Philadelphia during 2003. That summer, my office sent me out to the O’Reilly Open Source Conference, where I gave a lightning talk (five-minute presentation) on test-driven development.
After OSCon, I was hooked. Danny Faught, a colleague I met at OSCon, recommended STAREast, a software testing conference. The rest is history.
As for becoming an expert, please take this in the right spirit. If you read three books on a subject, apply and synthesize the ideas, you probably know enough to do a short presentation on it. The challenge isn’t the content; it’s knowing about the right venue and having the presentation skills to pull it off.
Do freelancers need to build up their platform as business before they think of speaking? Why or why not?
I believe the two work well together. You can start speaking at your local chapter of the Rotarians with no expertise at all—you can talk about your holiday in Greece if you’d like. Likewise, even if all you have is a day job, you can probably find an audience that is interested. You’ve got the PMI for Project Managers, guest speak at a local college in your discipline, Rotarians, Optimists, amateur photography club; you name it, there’s a club. If there isn’t, you can create one.
You can generally use those lower, unpaid gigs as references, to build your network, and to get feedback, just like you would for pro bono writing to get to the next level up. If you are freelancing full-time, then you want to invest your time and attention into things with a high return. You typically have to get several rungs up the ladder in order to make significant money from speaking.
What is your biggest piece of advice for anyone looking to break into the speaking world?
Well, if you want to have a speaking business, start with market research. Alan Weiss has a decent book on the subject called “Money Talks.” You’ll want to learn the business side as well as the presentation side. I always suggest being a contrarian; any fool with PowerPoint can stand up and read a bunch of bullet points.
Next, you’ll want to find venues that align with your expertise. You can start with user groups. If your industry has trade magazines, look at the conferences for your field. You can also look for the trade magazines that your potential customers are reading – for example, if you provide services to small business, look in Inc. or Entrepreneur for events. If you can find an event in your area that’s cheap, go. Take notes about format: the abstract, title, PowerPoint or not, etc.
Then, you’ll submit to be a speaker. Remember, “The content monster must be fed” and every program chair has a bunch of slots to fill. That means that what he thinks is a terrible idea this month might seem a lot more appealing in two months when the cutoff date for the mailing is going out and he desperately needs a name and an abstract. So get used to rejection, then improve your abstract and submit again.
Finally, there are strong arguments that talks shouldn’t be compensated because they are service to the community or build your reputation. Many program chairs will believe that by offering you a talk, they are doing you a favor in boosting your reputation. There may be some truth to that. Are they potential buyers of your service or are they your peers? If you are a graphic designer, speaking at a conference for marketing executives might be a good choice.
This is the same argument that people make about writing gigs. In my experience, the best reputation-boosting writing gigs (the Wall Street Journal) are also the best paying. Isn’t it funny how that works?
How exactly do you land speaking gigs? Give us some insider tips on how to land gigs and what the perks are!
Speaking is very similar to writing. There is probably a community within your expertise. There are a few hundred people who all read the same forums, go to the same conferences, and read the same blogs. If you get involved, read their blogs, go to their conferences, subscribe to their Yahoo! groups, and pay attention, eventually you’ll notice the little “be a speaker” link on the web page. Fill it out. See what happens.
You asked about paid gigs, though, and the easiest way to get paid at the beginning is to offer training. A one-hour speech might boost your reputation, but a three-hour tutorial (or six, or two or three days) is work, plain and simple, and most program chairs will compensate you for that.
The hourly rate on training can seem high, but you have to factor in your preparation and possibly travel time. Think about this long enough, and you’ll say to yourself “Ah! But if I give the talk 20 times in 20 different cities, I only have to create the material once and revise it a bit!” Then all of a sudden you are living out of a suitcase, and have to consider if that’s the life you want to live. So be careful with you goals, or they might end up owning you.
Like anything else in life, the more risk you take, the better the possible reward. You can always rent a room at the local conference center, do your own publicity, have people register with credit card using PayPal, and keep 90% of the revenue. That can get you into the speaking world today. Working with a program chair (or a college) means they guarantee you a certain amount of money, which is much less than your potential as a lone wolf. If you want to make a living as a trainer, you’ll probably be either teaching at a college, living out of a suitcase, having a day job (training for IBM), or running your own training company.
What ideas do you have for freelancers to diversify their business if they don’t think speaking is right for them?
Writing in your field is one possibility, and working as a conference/event organizer is another. You can build a reputation as an event organizer, and, under the right conditions, it’s possible to be paid. You usually can’t get both. I also review book proposals for a publisher, and get a modest compensation for that. It’s beer and pizza money, but it’s also a very good opportunity to rub elbows with some serious up-and-coming people in your field, and keep up with new ideas.
I know some people who have had success with Google AdSense, running a website and getting advertising revenue. And there’s always the possibility of creating a product (like stock photography or designs) that you can sell over and over and over again. Alan Weiss has another book, “The Million Dollar Consultant”, that goes into some detail on that. The key idea is how to build a million dollar a year consultancy with a single consultant, instead of forming a consulting company. For freelancers, it’s a goldmine.
You work in Michigan for a company in California. How’d you score that gig? Tell us a little bit about your day job.
Sure. I work for a start-up, Venture Funded Company called Socialtext. Switching from a corporate environment to telecommuting, I have to be much more careful with my time and have less time to freelance. In my day job, I test software and create test automation, and landed the gig mostly through a lark.
In 2007, I gave a talk at the Google Test Automation Conference, for travel benefits only, but they put the talk up on YouTube. One of the guys in the audience worked for Socialtext. When he put up an ad on a discussion board advertising testers, I replied privately—as a lark—”Only if they offer telecommute.”
He wrote back that the whole dang company was organized as a globally distributed work from home project team, and he’d be pleased to recommend me.
So, how’d that happen?
- I was heavily involved in my community of practice,
- I took a free-ish speaking gig that offered real potential to build my reputation,
- I was willing to explore the implausible because, hey, you never know.