When I stepped into the world of technology, I never imagined I would see this day so early in my career. Since I’m a fairly recent addition to the Cisco family, the opportunity to attend Cisco Live i… Read more on Cisco Blogs

When I stepped into the world of technology, I never imagined I would see this day so early in my career. Since I’m a fairly recent addition to the Cisco family, the opportunity to attend Cisco Live in Las Vegas was already momentous. Little did I know this experience would surpass all expectations. I found myself embracing a role I never anticipated: Speaker!

I don’t know if you can imagine my initial shockwaves when I received an unexpected invitation to assist a seasoned expert with a 4-hour lab session. I wasn’t just excited. I was humbled to know someone recognized my potential and trusted me with such responsibility.

I am going to take you behind the scenes of Cisco Live for a glimpse into what speakers experience. You’ll view the other side of the speaker curtain, see what it’s like to prepare, and even find some humor in my first-time story.

“The audience is not against you; they’re rooting for you,” he said.

“They’re there to learn something.”

First impressions of Cisco Live Las Vegas

Akhila Pamukuntla takes the Cisco. U Theater stage to present.

When I arrived in the vibrant city of Las Vegas for Cisco Live, I was struck by the grandeur and scale of Cisco Live. The excitement in the air was visible as attendees and exhibitors from all corners of the globe flooded the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

Standing in the middle of the busy convention halls, I saw teams diligently setting up booths and displays. I felt nervous yet exhilarated.

My first session on Jupyter Notebook was also the opener for the Cisco U. Theater. Before taking the stage, I was apprehensive at the thought of addressing such a large audience, but I felt confident. I drew strength in knowing I was well-prepared and passionate about the topic. Plus, I had supportive mentors around me.

With a deep breath, I took the stage. I was ready—ready to deliver the session that would set the tone for an incredible week of learning.

In November 2022, Hank Preston, Principal Engineer, asked me to assist him with his four-hour, instructor-led lab session. I was pretty excited because I didn’t think many Cisconians got to go to Cisco Live this quickly in their career. But I was also nervous because it was Hank, a celebrity in the networking field. I didn’t know how I would be able to present. But of course, I said yes, and we started putting the lab together.

Cisco U. had recently been introduced to the world. So the Cisco U. Theater was set up at the Learning & Certifications (L&C) booth, and they asked speakers from L&C to present on any topic they wanted to in the Cisco U. Theater. I chose Jupyter Notebook (a sort of command line interface [CLI] for Python) because I had used it a lot in college, and it was different than what everyone else would present.

How I became a Cisco Live speaker

Akhila Pamukuntla and Hank Preston practice their Cisco Live sessions.

It all began in November 2022 when Hank Preston, Principal Engineer, asked me to assist him with his 4-hour, instructor-led lab session. I was pretty excited. After all, I didn’t think the chance to attend Cisco Live was all that common for people like me—those so early in their Cisco career, that is.

But I was also nervous. This was Hank Preston. Hank is pretty much a celebrity in the networking field. At the thought of pairing up with him, I wondered how I would be able to present. But of course, I said yes. And we started putting the lab—our lab— together.

Just when I thought Hank’s lab session was my only focus for Cisco Live Las Vegas, I was invited to speak at the Cisco U. Theater!

About the Cisco U. Theater

We recently introduced the world to Cisco U., a new digital learning experience that offers modular, bite-sized learning in your moment of need. The Cisco U. Theater is an iteration of this concept, offering short lightning talks on specific tech topics. One of the best parts of the theater is Cisco Live attendees can drop in at a moment’s notice as they visit the Learning and Certifications Booth in the World of Solutions.

So when the team offered me the chance to present on my choice of topic, I chose Jupyter Notebook. Jupyter Notebook is a sort of command line interface (CLI) for Python. I had used it a lot in college, and it was different from what everyone else would present in the Cisco U. Theater.

Akhila Pamukuntla and Raymond Viscaina present, “What Happens When I Click Start Lab?”

So here I was thinking I was there to help with a lab session, but then I was asked to speak at the Cisco U. Theater! Not long after, my manager, Raymond Viscaina, Engineering Leader, asked me to assist him with his theater session, What Happens When I Click Start Lab. I couldn’t believe it. Now I had to prep for two theater sessions and a lab session. What a bonus!

Getting through prep sessions

Akhila Pamukuntla and Hank Preston prepare before Akhila’s Cisco U. Theater Session.

Surreal. It’s the only word I can think of to describe the prep for the lab session with Hank. However, as for my solo session in the theater, I was too focused on my presentation to think about almost anything else.

I was lucky enough to have Engineering Leader Joe Rinehart assigned as my mentor a few weeks before the event. As I practiced my solo session with Joe, some of the tips he gave included: “Practice often, practice in front of a mirror, and space matters.

He said I should find a space like an empty room or theater, which is a lot different than practicing in your bedroom. So, I went to my local library and asked for an empty room. With me, pre-event blueprints of the theater and a map of the booth layout. I even had a photo of Cisco Live Amsterdam’s crowd at the Cisco U. Theater to prepare me for the volume of attendees in Las Vegas, despite hearing Las Vegas would be much greater in scale.

About two weeks before I left, I was using every tool in my arsenal to visualize the event, mentally preparing myself. And that’s when I realized my session was the opening session—the very first Cisco U. Theater session of the week.

Until that moment, I didn’t even know what time or day I was presenting; I just kept practicing. But when I saw the date was Monday at 10 a.m. Pacific Time, I realized no other speaker was scheduled before me. Well, you can imagine my reaction.

I was terrified.

Presenting on the big day

Akhila Pamukuntla presents in front of a full theater.

Not only was I the first speaker to present in the theater, but the Learning and Certifications Booth was the first sight for attendees upon entering the World of Solutions. The WoS also opened at the exact same time as my session, and attendees were ready and waiting. I became a bundle of nerves when I saw the onslaught of people.

Before we started, we had to test my microphone. First, they put it on my T-shirt. That didn’t sound right. So, then they gave me a headset. That didn’t work out, either. My head is kind of small, so we had to work a little harder to get it to fit.

“Speak louder,” they said. They kept telling me, repeatedly, to speak louder during the mic test. I felt like I was yelling. I soon realized I had to speak louder because more people would be entering the World of Solutions during the presentation. No pressure, I thought.

When I finally started speaking to the crowd, I saw Joe, my pre-Cisco-Live prep mentor. I immediately recalled something important he said during those sessions.

“The audience is not against you; they’re rooting for you,” he said. “They’re there to learn something.”

My session was streaming live on the Cisco Training and Certification LinkedIn page and on the Cisco U. by Learning and Certifications YouTube Channel. My family was watching. No pressure.

When I first started my presentation, I could feel my voice shaking. Maybe three to five minutes into it, though, I realized it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I tried to make eye contact with as many people as I could. I was still a bit scared. What if they didn’t react?

But with every head nod, I felt my confidence grow. I was making sense to them. And that kept me going.

During my talk, I asked the audience questions. “How many of you are familiar with Jupyter and have used it before?” My goal was to get them engaged. That was one of Hank’s tips. You need to know if they’re with you. (And yes, a few people had heard of Jupyter and had even used it before.)

An engaged crowd at the Cisco U. Theater.

Next up, a demo. I was actually showing them Jupyter Notebook live, in real time. The lines of code were already written, with me executing and explaining each step as I went through it. I noticed people typing along, taking notes as I continued.

Finally, I had made it through. And what a relief! After that, my other presentations fell into place; the Cisco U. Theater session with my manager, plus the 4-hour lab session with Hank. Ironically, although I was in a smaller room, I was more nervous there. And the one part I had practiced the most was the part I slightly stumbled over! I got through that as well, though. I must say, looking back at my experience, I learned a lot about presenting from being a speaker at Cisco Live. But the thing that I will always remember is how I got there: my mentors.

Mentors make all the difference

When I reflect on the whole Cisco Live experience, I realize I went through quite a transformation. Initially, the fear of presenting in front of a crowd and being surrounded by professionals overwhelmed me. However, looking back now, I realize it was the incredible individuals I encountered and the meaningful conversations we shared that made my experience truly unforgettable.

It wasn’t just the colleagues and peers around me. It was also those whom I presented to. It was every unexpected message I received on LinkedIn, asking to learn more about the topic of my session. It was when I was singled out and stopped by attendees on the aisles of Cisco Live to express their appreciation for my theater session.

The support and encouragement I received after my theater session reassured me. I had made a positive impact. But that’s not all. Speaking at Cisco Live sparked newfound confidence within me. It has taught me that it’s the people and the connections we form that ultimately make any experience meaningful and memorable. And I can’t wait to do it again.

Thanks for reading! I invite you to watch my first session as a Cisco Live Speaker below.

Watch “Jupyter Notebooks,” by Akhila Pumukuntla, presented in the Cisco U. Theater at Cisco Live 2023 Las Vegas.

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