Summer’s over. Everyone’s back in learning and mingling mode before we shift gears again, into party territory. This fortnight I’m doubling my 2019 conference tally.
In fact, my all-time conference tally. I attended my first tech conference in May this year.
Going to a tech conference (or, I guess, any conference) is a bit like your first day at high school or university. You might have had some choice in where to go, or were just sent there. You might know a few people, or you might be new to the local community and know a couple of folks, or no-one at all. Either way, you feel like everyone else is there with their mates.
You’ve got some sessions with everyone, but there are some you have to choose and navigate to. You’ve brought your laptop in case you need it and now you’re cursing the fact you have to lug it around all day.
There are some bits you’re excited about, other parts where you have to make some hard decisions and certain points of the day where you’re just going to be bored. Everyone’s in a different place relative to their comfort zone when they go to any type of industry event.
It’s no surprise that some people feel very anxious at the mere thought of going. If, like me, you’re introverted, this can add to the sense of trepidation.
Also, conferences come in all different flavours and formats. It can be hard to know which ones to choose and how to make the most of your time there.
So, what can you do and what can you expect from a tech conference?
Decide what you want
Figure out what you want to gain from attending. For example:
- Gain deeper knowledge of a certain technical discipline.
- Get more familiar with a specific product or tool.
- Discover more about tools you’ve heard about (eg you’re a React web developer and want to learn about Vue).
- Learn about brand new tools, developments or product features (conferences are often where these are announced for the first time).
- Get hands-on with a technology you want to learn about.
- Meet other people in the industry.
- Develop your career.
- Find new employment opportunities.
- Obtain help with a project you are working on or want to start.
This will help you decide what kind of conference to look for.
Find your tribe
For your first couple of conferences, especially if you are new to the industry, shy or introverted, I recommend choosing events where you’ll find people who are like you. That way, once you get there you can relax a bit more knowing that there are people there who understand your experience. That gives you the space to become accustomed to the whole setup.
If you are part of an underrepresented group and you attend a conference designed specifically for your community or underrepresented groups in general, you’ll find the environment is warm and welcoming. I went to the brilliant margins conference back in June and literally everyone - staff, speakers and delegates - was smiling all day. They were genuinely glad to be there and see everyone.
Look for the event conference code of conduct on conference websites. If there isn’t one, or there is but it doesn’t contain information about how to report concerns, then these are red flags. The code of conduct is there to protect attendees from abuse and harassment. By having a clear set of standards and a reporting mechanism, the organisers are showing that they care about your welfare and experience.
Find your level
There are different types of tech conference. For example:
Company- or product-specific (eg I went to the MongoDB conference last week). These tend to focus on product/feature launches, demos and customer case studies. Sometimes they include a career development/people track. They usually have company experts available to discuss problems or needs you have regarding their products.
Technology-specific (for example JAMstack, which I attended in July). These often cover a range of related tools, technologies and techniques. Sometimes there’s a people track.
Community-specific (like Hopperx1, which I was lucky enough to go to in June). These generally focus on project- or people-based talks across a range of technical disciplines and industries.
Study the conference schedule to get a feel for the breadth and depth of topics that will be covered. Lots of conferences, even if they have very technical content, also have talks on career development and diversity so you get a good mix.
Also, some conferences have workshops either as part of the talk schedule, or on the day before or after the talks. If the latter, expect each day’s tickets to be sold separately.
Get your ticket
Once you’ve found your event of choice, have a look at the pricing structure. Many conferences sell a chunk of their tickets at an early bird rate. You may also find that some of them offer free tickets for members of underrepresented groups. Check out the Diversity Tickets website, which is where a lot of these are awarded via an application process.
Some conferences offer a group rate, usually if there are four or more of you attending from the same company.
If the cost of attending is prohibitive (either for the ticket or travel, eg the event isn’t near where you live) and you don’t qualify for a scholarship ticket, find out if the organisers will be recording and publishing videos of the talks after the event. These are normally free of charge to view on YouTube and you can watch them at your leisure.
If you’re a member of any relevant tech groups (eg on Slack or Meetup.com), why not post a message there asking who else is going? If you’re shy about walking into the event alone, then others will be too and maybe you can find someone to meet up with outside. I actually wrote an app for this when I was on my coding bootcamp.
Also, check out the Twitter hashtags for the conference and get chatting on there beforehand.
Figure out your schedule
OK, so you studied the conference schedule before booking your ticket and now need to decide which sessions you are going to attend.
Some conferences are single-track, meaning there is only one session happening at a time. Others are multi-track, so there are two or more talks or workshops at once and you have to choose one. If you’re attending as a group, split up and attend different talks if it makes sense. That way, you can share knowledge afterwards and nobody misses out.
If you have a difficult choice between a talk and a workshop, go for the workshop. Some organisers record talks and publish them on YouTube in the weeks following the event, so you can catch up on what you missed. Speakers often share their slides via Twitter or the conference website too. It’s harder to replicate the workshop experience and access to the tutor.
Look out for e-mails ahead of the event, as the organisers may be using scheduling websites or apps where you can create and save your schedule. Some talks will have a very limited capacity so it will be necessary for you to book your seat at these well in advance.
Decide what to bring
Unless you’re attending a hands-on workshop, want to show your code to experts, need to do actual work or actually enjoy carrying it, don’t take your laptop. Personally, I favour paper and pen if I really need to take notes during the talks. Sometimes the rooms are darkened and your fellow delegates won’t thank you for illuminating the room with your laptop screen, or noisily tapping away on your keyboard.
If you like swag (like t-shirts, water bottles and notebooks) bring a bag - maybe a cotton tote you can bring folded up in your pocket. Some conference hosts and sponsors thrust promotional items at you at every turn and, if you want to accept them, you’ll need something to carry them in. Some companies give bags out, but lots are being more waste-conscious so there’s no guarantee.
Make sure you have easy access to your conference ticket on your phone, as registration desks are busy! Your ticket will likely be a PDF with a QR code on it, which you’ll use to get your conference badge.
Bring a phone charger. Some talks are subterranean. I always forget to switch my phone to airplane mode and find my battery drained.
Find your space
To make the most of the conference, arrive in good time. As I mentioned before, the registration desks get super busy. You want to be inside the event with your badge on, enjoying breakfast and coffee ASAP!
You should also get into the auditorium for the keynote speech sooner rather than later to get a good seat. I’m short, so I like to sit nearer the front so I can see everything. I feel the cold, so I prefer a warmer spot of the room etc… I also like to take pictures of the slides to refresh my memory later, so I position myself for that.
If, however, you arrive late, don’t worry. For company- or product-specific keynotes, they usually announce new features and sometimes this can feel like a big sales pitch. Also, there are usually deep dive sessions in the schedule so you can find out more then if you want to. Keep an eye on the Twitter hashtag so you can see what you’re missing. Keynote is also the most likely session to be video streamed so you can catch up later.
Take the time to walk the exhibition hall while it’s quiet and book time with the experts if you want to. Some conferences have a quiet room and/or prayer room - do a recce and find out where these are if you’re going to need them. Some events don’t provide a floor plan so you’ll be relying on signage (which sometimes isn’t extensive) or event staff.
Have realistic expectations
You’ll find that, sometimes, you’ll come away from a talk thinking “that wasn’t what I was expecting”. Sometimes that’s good, other times not so good! I’ve come away from events having loved some of the sessions and feeling disappointed with others, because I felt like they hadn’t covered any new ground for me personally.
Speakers can’t please everyone in the room and some folks will have been thrilled with the talk you weren’t keen on. If you didn’t get the answers you wanted, perhaps reach out to the speaker afterwards to ask what they think about the thing you were hoping to hear about. Or get chatting to the person next to you about it and see if they know. You might make a new friend!
Ask, don’t tell
There’s a time and a place for everything. A great way of finding out about someone and showing them you’re interested is by asking them questions. With any luck, they will reciprocate and that’s when you get to tell them stuff!
I say this mainly because some folks think it’s OK to put their hand up at the end of a talk, during the Q&A, and start saying to the presenter “this is more of a comment than a question…”. Don’t do this. The talk is the speaker’s moment, they spent hours preparing for it and by telling the room what you think it selfishly shifts the focus onto you and your opinions. How would you feel if someone did that to you?
If you have better or different ideas, why not write a talk and apply to give it at a conference?
Make the most of the breaks/downtime
By all means check your phone, tweet about the event between talks etc but try not to do any actual work, especially if one of your key objectives is to meet people, find job opportunities or develop your career. If you’re on your phone or laptop this is a massive barrier to people approaching you to chat. Put down your devices (and charge them if needed) and speak to people during the breaks, especially lunch!
You might find that there are sections of the day where the talks aren’t your bag. Use the time to explore the conference space, meet people and perhaps speak to the folks at the sponsor booths. They are more than happy to chat!
Approach people you don’t know
This is the part that fills most people with dread when they are faced with going to a conference on their own. In some ways, attending a conference is much easier than going to a meetup because of the sheer scale. You can just blend in; nobody will notice you’re on your own. If you think about it, though, a big proportion of the other folks there won’t know anyone else in the entire building and they’re trying to blend in, too.
If you are going to the conference to find job opportunities or expand your network then you need to find ways of coping with the discomfort. Like most things, it gets easier with practice.
I mostly meet new people at conferences by looking for a friendly face and striking up a conversation. I’ve previously done this by just talking to the person sitting next to me before or after a talk. I look at their badge and make a mental note of their name and company and take it from there.
Some badges include people’s pronouns. This is super useful if someone else joins the conversation and you need to do introductions.
I tend to favour approaching people who are on their own, as opposed to with a group of friends or colleagues. This is purely because I am shy and more comfortable with starting a conversation with one person as opposed to trying to join a group in full flow.
However, if you are part of a group of people, please try and welcome new people in by standing in a Pac-Man formation. This means if you are standing in a circle, leave a space for someone else to join. When someone does join, open the circle to create space for another person and so on.
One time I initiated a conversation with a man who got his notebook and pen out at the exact same moment I did, while we were settling into our seats. I commented that I was glad to find someone else who wrote things down by hand. We had a great conversation and ended up sharing our lunch as we were only allowed chicken or fish and wanted to try both!
Over lunch we then got talking to a woman sitting on her own nearby, who turned out to have had an interesting career in data as well as software development. Then my friend arrived, so I introduced her and we all made at least two new contacts that day.
Another time I struck up a conversation with the person sitting next to me. I noticed from his badge that he worked at Government Digital Service and it turned out that he knew my friend who worked there. He told me that they are accepting job applications on a rolling basis and encouraged me to apply… Everyone you meet knows something you don’t.
As I mentioned earlier, you can reach out to other attendees before the event. Lots of people favour Twitter DMs for arranging to meet up, but use whatever works for both of you.
At a recent conference, I was approached by someone who had apparently been looking out for me. We hadn’t spoken before, but his boss (whom I had met at a meetup) had seen from my tweets that I was at the event and told him to go find me for a chat! So if you don’t feel comfortable about reaching out to others, advertise the fact you’ll be at a conference and maybe they’ll come to you.
Keep in touch
If you meet someone really great, ask if you can stay in touch. Don’t worry about people thinking you’re being creepy. If the conversation flowed and they looked interested, they will most likely be glad you asked. If they don’t want to, at least you had a nice few minutes of conversation and you can move on with your day.
For connecting with new contacts, I favour Twitter and LinkedIn. Ideally, get their Twitter handle, get your phone out and follow them there and then. That way, they know you’re genuinely interested and they can confirm that you’ve got the right person (this is really important if your new contact has a popular name or a handle you can’t guess). Hopefully, they’ll give you a follow back. If you’re feeling really organised, create a list for that conference/technology/product/city and add them to that so you can easily find them again.
If you don’t have time for this, ask to take a photo of their badge in case you forget their name and you can contact them later. Some badges include people’s Twitter handles too. Then follow them on Twitter that evening.
Above all, enjoy!
Conferences are a great way to learn about technologies you use or want to start using, while meeting lots of people you have at least one thing in common with. To get the most out of the experience, prepare beforehand and go with an open mind. No event will be 100% perfect for you but by making a few careful choices you will come away with new perspectives and a stronger professional network.
If you found this post useful, I’d love to hear from you. Send me a tweet!