How to Attend a Conference

Posted on September 28, 2012

I wrote earlier that I attended 360iDev a couple weeks ago. I also got a chance to attend SecondConf in Chicago last weekend, where I had the opportunity to speak. SecondConf was a lot of fun, but I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of people weren’t getting as much out of the conference as they could have. I just wanted to walk up and say, “You’re doing it wrong!” I resisted that temptation, but in a spirit of helpfulness, I thought that I’d share with the world a few tips that I’ve discovered to help make your conference experience more enjoyable and valuable. So without further ado…

Attend Sessions

Every technical conference that I know of has sessions that you can attend. Do that. The conference organizer has gone to great lengths to select a line-up that includes experts in different topics. It would be silly to not take advantage of that resource. And when you attend a session, take notes. Take out your developer notebook (You do have a developer notebook, don’t you?) and jot down the the session name, the speaker’s name and his contact information. Then jot down anything that sounds interesting or that you might want to follow up on. This isn’t high school, and there isn’t going to be a test, so there’s no need to go crazy with the notes. Just jot down things that you didn’t know about before. Future you will be glad that you did.

Choose Wisely

If you’re attending a multi-track conference, you might get to choose which sessions to attend. But a choice is both a blessing and a curse. What if you choose wrong? What if you sit through a "meh" session only to later discover that the session right next door was incredible? How can you avoid disappointment? Well, there’s no sure-fire way to make sure you get into the best sessions, but one trick I’ve found is to choose which session to attend based on the speaker, not the topic. Choose a speaker who has a reputation for being outgoing and entertaining. In my experience, a great speaker can make even the most bland of topics interesting and memorable. Also, be wary of overly technical talks. No matter how important the technology, there’s nothing worse that sitting through slide after slide of code. When it comes to these types of code-intensive presentations, you’re probably better off buying the session video after the conference. Then at least you can rewind as needed.

Mix It Up

Sessions are great, but most of the value of attending a conference comes from the people you’ll meet. Meeting new people and strengthening existing relationships are the best use of your time while you’re there. Introduce yourself to others. Go out of your way to sit with people you don’t already know – maybe even ask a table of strangers if you can join them for lunch. Avoid only hanging out with people that you already know. Mix a little. Whatever you do, don’t hole up in your room working on code. Don’t like to "network"? Then don’t call it that. Call it "making new friends". Because that’s all you’re doing.

Leverage Social Media

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to devolve into some sort of SEO presentation on how to increase your Klout score. My point is, you probably already know people on Twitter that are attending your conference, so go out of your way to meet them. My new friend Matt Klosterman (@IfMatt) had a great shirt at 360iDev that read, “Hi! I’m @IfMatt. We should talk.” And you know what? It worked! It helped me recognize him, and sparked a conversation. But you don’t need a special t-shirt to hook up with your online friends. Get on Twitter and put the word out that you’re at the conference and would love to meet your followers. Or, better yet, organize a group to go out and get dinner. It’s one thing to follow someone online, but it’s quite another to have shaken their hand, and maybe shared a meal.

Be Memorable

I had the chance to hear Dave Wiskus (@dwiskus) speak at a conference recently, where he gave a talk entitled "Subjective C". His talk included a collection of stories and anecdotes about non-technical skills, and one of his slides was titled "Be Memorable". And you know what? When it comes to conferences, that’s really good advice. Meeting lots of people is great, but you want the relationships that you form to last beyond the conference. So how do you become memorable? Good question. Being memorable doesn’t have to mean being the life of the party. (Although it can, if that’s your thing.) What it really means is going out of your way to make an impact on someone else. Engage people in meaningful conversation. Introduce the people that you’re with to others. Thank the author of that open source code that you’re using in your project. The most important thing is to be authentic.

Have a Winning Strategy

For the more introverted among you, mingling at a conference and engaging a stranger in converstaion sounds like torture, I’m sure. So let me offer a surefire strategy. No matter how uncomfortable you feel in large social gatherings, there’s always someone more uncomfortable than you. Your job is to find them. So during the social hour (or between sessions), scan the crowd. Look for that one guy standing by himself with a drink in his hand and looking slightly uncomfortable. That’s your target. Walk up and introduce yourself. Ask him where he’s from and what projects he’s working on. That’s it. That’s your conversation starter. Talk for a few minutes, and then move on to the next wallflower. The best thing about this strategy is that you’re not imposing on anyone. Rather, you’re rescuing them! The people you’re approaching are just as uncomfortable as you are, but now they feel included. You’re the hero. And congratulations, you’ve just become memorable.