Two days ago I got to present at PyCon Portugal 2023. This was relevant because it was my first tech presentation ever. Now, that doesn’t mean I haven’t done many presentations in the past. I did quite a few in the four years of Family Medicine Residency, from scientific studies to posters and literature reviews. At my current job, I also get to present our products and vision to international delegations, more times than I can easily remember during the last two years.

But it’s one thing to present a bunch of technologies or products, another to really talk about the inner workings of some aspect of programming and doing so not because you need to or been told to, but out of free will, a need to share with others or grow personally.

In my presentation, I made this silly remark:

Medical conferences are much more boring. Did you know you can fall into a coma from boredom at a medical conference and none of the people sleeping there would notice?

There is, however quite a lot of truth to this. Not that people sleep much at medical conferences (doctors feel guilty about sleeping anyway), but the boring aspect of them.

I should point out that I’m biased in my opinion. I did leave the medical field to pursue a career in tech, so if it wasn’t for the money (it wasn’t), it would only be natural that I’d find tech topics more interesting than medical ones. I believe, however, that this isn’t the reason. After all, I still find medical advances and clinical cases fascinating.

The problem with medical conferences is the whole professional aspect of scientific discovery in general. Presenting findings is always done with a great degree of seriousness, as if your specimens, be it humans in a trial or cells in a petri dish deserve the whole consideration of the Human Species, and making someone laugh would mean jeopardizing the message.

Contrast that to tech talks. The message can be quite boring. For example, one talk at PyCon could be translated into the following “medicalized” title:

“Inconsistencies and Atypical behaviours in the Python Programming Language”

This scientific talk could be presented by a person wearing a suit, denoting the serious concerns of scope leak of for loop variables, or the single evaluation of function parameters which is problematic for lists, dicts, etc, in a dry and overly eloquent language. But instead, you get a guy in a purple shirt, with some of the best public speaking talent I’ve ever seen live, with just the right amount of audience interaction and memes in the slides. He doesn’t care if the bytes in CPython are hurt by his softening of the message. His results are reproducible by anyone in the audience with a laptop, right there and there. And yet, no one does it because everyone is leaning in, thinking about what they are seeing and waiting for the next silly behaviour our BDFL & Friends graced us with.

Another example could be:

“Using geometric functions to draw in a bidimensional plane”

…just reading this title makes me sleepy. But instead, you get another guy that can program a pygame script that draws and animates figures using some formulas AND simultaneously explain the code to you. Me, my wife and her boss were commenting on how one would forget to breath or maintain muscle tone to stand and just die while trying to accomplish the task.

We also got to see someone show a project that detects leaked security tokens in PyPI and a bit of history on how he crossed and crashed GitHub for a while. All wrapped in the most wholesome message for anyone who wants to program as a hobby.

Just like in medical conferences, maintaining a high degree of attention for a whole tech conference day can be hard. I’d wager doctors actually have an edge in this task, as medical studying requires a lot of reading without the advantages of actually “doing”. But in the end, everyone will zone out if they aren’t engaged with either the content, the presenter or the presentation itself.

The difference is that it’s much more acceptable to be funny and engaging in tech talks. This may come from different aspects, like the fact that presentations in medical conferences actually impact your career in a much more pronounced way (they can mean a bigger score in your residency exam, or invitations to present on behalf of pharmaceutical companies), the legacy of centuries of following the scientific method, the average age of the audience (I may be wrong on this) or the fact that most research in the field equates to it’s impact in mortality or quality of life, which brings a much more sinister tone.

Maybe, it all boils down to the fact that us younglings (I’m 34 years old) can’t concentrate for more than 5 minutes without watching Tik Tok. But this straw man doesn’t hold up much when we’re talking about a room full of people who can stare at a black computer screen with some lines of text and actively refuse to stop looking until that text actually does what they mean it to do (for those who are from the medical field, it’s called debugging, and it boils down to finding the problem in your code, which can take hours or days sometimes and is the most frustrating and dopamine releasing activity).

The one thing I’ve seen done in medical presentations that can somewhat wake people up is adding some quizzes before some explanations. It’s a good tactic, but nothing beats using DJ Khaled’s famous “another one” picture to split a list of topics.

You know it's the best timeline when you can hear this picture

Plus, I believe older doctors are more comfortable with laughing about something on stage, which does enforce the hypothesis that the problem is an institutional “everything must be taken super seriously”, which isn’t an issue for people whose names are already household ones and don’t need to prove anything anymore.

Whatever the real reasons are, I’m glad I now get to make silly presentations with memes and jokes to help people absorb an important and meaningful message, instead of spouting vanilla powerpoint slides to get a better grade and hope no one snores too loudly and throws me off during my talk.

In conclusion, the contrast between medical and tech conferences reminds me of the Lonely Island’s 13 year old hit “Boom Box” before and after, and makes me feel about the same as I did when I first saw it, even the eventual slight cringe at the last part.

Will I speak again at a conference? If I can, absolutely! And if I’m asked to speak at a medical one, I’ll try to bring at least some, if not all of the excitement of tech talks!