On Conference Preparation Time…

Jokes aside, I don’t prepare my conference talks the night before.  I took a week off of work to prepare my linux.conf.au talk this year (two weeks before the conference, and I still spent a couple of work days in the week after completing it).  That kind of spontaneity takes preparation!

Here’s a rough calculator of preparation time for an LCA-style talk.  Make sure you finish at least a week before, to allow slippage!

Preparation Time for Standard Talk (~45 minutes)

If you have given it before:

  • If you were happy with it and not changing it: 15 minutes to re-check, change conference name and date.
  • If you were happy with it and changing it slightly: +1 hour for a complete run-through.
  • If you were a little unhappy with it, but content will not change: +5 hours for reviewing previous video and googling for feedback and taking notes, then running through changed sections twice and complete run-through once.

Prior work:

  • If you’re not the world expert on what you’re talking about, allow at least a week of research time.
  • If the topic is vague allow at least a month of mulling time, where the topic sits in your brain.  For longer periods I recommend jotting down your ideas.  (I did this for an entire year before my OLS keynote, and I knitted a theme from the contents of that text file full of thoughts and examples).
  • One hour to a day to plan your talk structure: what are your main points, what’s the extra magic?

Writing the talk:

  • 10 minutes per basic slide.  Usually I’d expect 25 slides, so say 4 hours.
  • 30 minutes per diagram (five minutes of this will be trying to figure out if you really need a diagram: you probably do!).  I’d expect five to ten diagrams, so say 5 hours.
  • Five hours per demo.  Not just setting it up in the first place, but making it robust and repeatable and practicing switching to and from your presentation adds time.
  • Two hours per run-through (since you tend to stop and mod the first few times).  You’ll want at least one more of these than you have time for, but I’d expect 8 hours for this.

Additional overheads:

  • Using new software: +4 hours if you’re on your own, +1 hour if you have an expert available.
  • Any project work where you have to document the steps for your talk: double your normal project time for the overhead, to ensure it’s comprehensible and maximally useful to the audience (vs. works).
  • Any new presentation technique you haven’t used before, add 4 hours for two additional run-throughs.

Preparation Time for A Tutorial (~1.5 hours)

Similar calculations, but you’ll have many more demos so it’ll be more than twice as long.  The real killer is that you have to practice timings with real people who are similar to your target audience.  This means in addition to everything else, you’ll want to give it for some local group at least twice, because there’s no way you can know what the timing will be like until you’ve done that.  Say +2 hours to organize the practice sessions, and +6 hours to run them (this includes transport, setup, testing and time overruns for each one).

Testing Time

Testing time happens standing in the venue, at the podium with your setup ready to go.  I allow 5 minutes for video setup.  If you’ve not presented on the laptop before, +15 minutes.  If you’re not always running 1024×768, +10 minutes.  If you want audio, +5 minutes. If you have a video to show, +5 minutes. If you have an interactive demo, +5 minutes to find a practice volunteer, +20 minutes to run through the demo with them.

In general, allow half your testing time the day before (ie. you’ll need to access the venue), the rest in the space before your talk.

An Example

So, this gives a preparation time for my LCA 2011 talk as:

  • 1 day planning.
  • 6 hours for 35 basic slides.
  • 2 hours for 4 diagrams.
  • 15 hours for 3 demos.
  • 8 hours for run-throughs.
  • 4 hours for messing with svgslides, even though I didn’t really use it in the end.
  • 3 days for coding up the example project, and documenting that code.
  • 4 hours for additional run-throughs because I hadn’t presented using a side-bar and emacs before.

Giving a total time of of 71 hours (assuming 8 hour days).  That’s probably about right.  And the required 30+ minutes of testing time explains why I didn’t end up having people telnet into my laptop for the demos; if I’d tested that the day before, we might have been able to organize something.

Summary of “Advanced C Coding For Fun!”

Perhaps there was too much fun, and not enough advanced C coding, as one attendee implied.  My original intent is to walk through a real implementation in the order I coded it, warts and all, but over 50% got cut for time.  After all, it took me 15 minutes in my BoF session just to run through the implementation of ccan/foreach.  (Hi to the three people who attended!).

So I ended up doing a fair bit of waving at other code (yes, mainly in CCAN: if I have a useful trick, I tend to put it there).  Here’s the bullet-point version of my talk with links:

  • CCAN is a CPAN-wannabe project for snippets of C code.
  • Your headers should be a readable and complete reference on your API.
  • Code documentation should be human readable and machine processable (eg. kerneldoc), but extracting it is a waste of time.  See above.
  • Your headers should contain example code, and this should be compile tested and even executed (ccanlint does this).
  • Perl’s TAP (Test Anything Protocol) has a C implementation which is easy to use.
  • You can write a better ARRAY_SIZE(arr) macro than “sizeof(arr)/sizeof((arr)[0])”, using gcc extensions to warn if the argument is actually a pointer, not an array.
  • I got bitten by strcmp()’s usually-wrong return value after coding in C for ten years.  I suggest defining a streq() macro.
  • It is possible, though quite difficult, to implement a fixed-values iterator macro, aka. foreach.  It’s even efficient if you have C99.
  • Making functions return false rather than exit, even if the caller can’t really handle the failure, makes for easier testing.
  • Making your functions use errno is a bonus, though its semantic limitations are definitely a two-edged sword.
  • A common mistake is to call close, fclose, unlink or free in error paths, not realizing that they can alter errno even if they succeed.
  • Never think to write malloc-fail-proof code without testing it thoroughly, otherwise you haven’t written malloc-fail-proof code.
  • You can test such “never-happen” failure paths automatically by forking; make sure you give a nice way to get a debugger to the fail point though, and terminate failing tests as early as possible.
  • There are libraries to make option parsing easier than getopt; popt and ccan/opt are two.
  • You can use macros to provide typesafe callbacks rather than forcing callbacks to take void * and cast internally; the compiler will warn you if you change the type of the callback or callback parameter so they no longer match.
  • Do not rely on the user to provide zero’d terminators to tables: use a non-zero value so you’re much more likely to catch a missing terminator.
  • Use talloc for allocation.
  • Don’t return a void * as a handle, even if you have to make up a type.  Your callers’ code will be more typesafe that way.
  • Don’t use global variables in routines unless it’s clearly a global requirement: keep everything in the handle pointer.
  • Valgrind is awesome.  Valgrind with failtesting is invaluable for finding use-after-free and similar exit-path bugs.
  • Fixing a test doesn’t mean your program doesn’t suck.  I “fixed” a one-client-dies-while-another-is-talking-to-it by grabbing another client; that’s stupid, though my test now passes.
  • Don’t do anything in a signal hander; write to a nonblocking pipe and handle it in your event loop.
  • The best way to see why your program is getting larger over time is to use talloc_report() and see your allocation tree (you can use gdb if you need, a-la Carl Worth.
  • You might want to do something time-consuming like that in a child; remember to use _exit() in the child to avoid side-effects.
  • There are at least two tools which help you dump and restore C structures: genstruct and cdump (coming soon, it’s in the talk’s git tree for the moment).  Both are very limited, though cdump is still being developed.
  • You can use a dump/exec/restore pattern to live-upgrade processes; forking a child to test dump and restore is recommended here!
  • If your restore code is well-defined for restoring fields that weren’t dumped, you can make significant code modifications using this pattern.
  • You can use C as a scripting language with a little boilerplate.  Use “#if 0” as the first line, followed by the code to recompile and exec, then “#else” followed by  the actual code.  Make it executable, and the shell will do the right thing.
  • You can use gdb to do just about anything to a running program; script it if you can’t afford to have it stopped for long.
  • The best hash algorithm to use is the Jenkins lookup3 hash (there’s a ccan/hash convenient wrapper too).
  • The best map/variable array algorithm to use is Judy arrays (much nicer with the ccan/jmap wrapper).

That was all I had room for; there was none for questions, and even the last two points were squished onto the final “Questions?” slide.