Sunday, March 29, 2015

How to Attend a Programming Conference

"Cannot induce you to attend my words"
-- Shakespeare, Othello
Act III, Scene III, Line 278

Tis that time of the year.  A time when a developer's thoughts turn to conferences.

The following is about how I attend conferences.  The most important thing to know first is that I attend conferences to learn.  If your goal in attending a conference is to party it up in a fun location then this post is not for you.

First, know what type of conference it is that you are attending.

  • Is it single track or multi track?
  • Is it local, regional, or global?
  • Is run for profit or is it sponsored?
  • Is it a single day or multi day?
  • ...

For the most part when you are attending a conference the only real difference is if it is multi track or single track.  The other questions are all around what type of travel plans you will need to make, how much will it cost, and what type of other activities it will have outside of the sessions.  As such I will just focus on the differences around the number of tracks for the rest of the post.

Single track conferences often have a theme which maybe language, technology, or topic based.  This is great if you want to get really in-depth.  You'll find lots of people who are interested in the same theme.  That being said when you go to this type of conference it will most likely be on you to make the most of it by getting out there and talking to other people.  I have two tips for meeting people at a conference like this:

  • Stand/sit at an empty table during breaks.
    Often people will come over and join you (even if just to find a place to rest their snack), this is a great chance to strike up a conversation.  Remember you have at least one thing in common, you have both just seen the exact same session.
  • Join a table during breaks.
    Some times you will strike out doing this and join a table of friends that will not talk to you much, no big deal just head over to a different table.  Remember you have the conference in common, so it should be easy to find things to talk about.
Multi track conferences are a great way to branch out and learn something completely new.  With a multi track conference you can often find sessions in areas that you only have a little bit of knowledge of.  That being said it is up to you to pick the sessions and make the conference your own. I have a few tips for a conference like this:
  • Everyday go to one session in which you have no knowledge of the topic.
    Multi track conferences are a great way to get a glimpse of another world.  If you are a backend developer, go to an UI design session; if you are a front-end developer go to a session on databases.  You have a great opportunity to learn what other people are dealing with and care about.
  • See "famous" speakers.
    Not all speakers have the same speaking style or are at the same level.  Go see a "famous" speaker even if they are talking about a topic you do not care about.  If the speaker is "famous" because they are good, you'll learn something and who knows you might be able to use that new knowledge latter on.
  • See a first-timer / newer speaker.
    Everyone has their first time that they are doing something.  Uncle Bob was not born an accomplish public speaker.  Go see someone that is new to the scene, they might not be as polished as a "famous" speaker but they might have more in-depth knowledge about their topic.
  • Make sure to ask questions at the sessions.
    There is almost always time at the end of the session to ask questions, do so.  Asking questions is a great way to make sure that you understand what you just saw, it is also a good way to get advise from an expert.
A bit of warning around sponsorship and conferences.  Beware at conferences of speakers that work for sponsors of the conference.  Some of these speakers get their spots based on their own merits and may even get their company to sponsor the conference because they believe in it and want to help even more, but there are times that speakers get their spots because they work for a sponsor, this is not to say that they are a bad speaker or that the session will be a sales pitch, just beware and know that you might be getting a sales pitch in your session.

I hope you find these tips useful and if you see me at a conference stop by and say hi.