How to make the most out of conferences
Some specific things you can do as a conference attendee
I spent the last week at React Rally in Salt Lake City. It was an awesome experience. It's easily my favorite conference. I've been to at least two dozen unique conferences. Here are some of the reasons React Rally is my favorite:
- Tons of time to meet other people
- The community Rocks
- Focus on meeting people and interaction
- Single track
- Less than 750 attendees (~550 I think)
- Lunch is "on your own" (they give you a gift-card and you pick the local restaurants)
- Less alcohol (none provided in this case), more board games, yummy desserts, and karaoke
- Top-notch speakers, new speakers, and diverse people and topics (as diverse of topics as you can get within the React ecosystem)
- Organizers are just super people
Things that could have made it better:
- Improved diversity in attendees. It's better than some conferences, but not as diverse as others
- The hotel venue is a pretty convenient location, but hotels in general are a little dull
- Put twitter/github avatars on attendee's badges. It will allow connections to happen much more easily!
- Pre-conference party would be great. Strange Loop has a very unique and amazing pre-conference party/venue. It allowed me to meet a bunch of people I was able to greet throughout the rest of the conference.
- Speaking toward the end of the conference makes the whole experience sub-optimal. But someone's gotta do it so I was happy to take one for the team 😅
So there's a little feedback from my perspective for the organizers and people evaluating the conference. Now, let me turn my attention to what I believe you can do to get the most out of your conference experience.
This seems pretty obvious, but I definitely fall into this trap myself on occasion. Sometimes you can't get away from work, but if you're scrolling through Twitter during a talk, you're missing out on the learning you could be experiencing. Sure, you can watch the talk later, but can you watch it before you meet the speaker in the hallway when it'd be the perfect time to ask them the question you'll have when you actually experience the talk?
Pay attention to the talks, and you'll have common ground with anyone with whom you'd like to discuss particulars and nuances of the subject, including the speaker themselves. Should you take notes? That's up to you (I don't normally take notes personally). A successful talk requires a speaker and an audience. What-E'er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part.
You'll be surprised what you can learn about the things you assume you already know very well. Beyond that, if you really do already know the content, watching someone else present it can help you learn new ways to teach the information, give you a new perspective you hadn't before considered, or potentially show you a different understanding or a misunderstanding in the community about that subject. Whatever the case, you will be better having listened and attended.
The "hallway track" at a conference is just a term that's been given to the impromptu conversations that naturally strike up during breaks/lunch/parties/etc. Take advantage of that time. You and many others there spent a lot of money and time to be there. Look for opportunities to make new connections and exchange contact info (or Twitter follows). I got my current job at PayPal because I met a few people during the breaks at React Rally a few years ago and connected with them on Twitter. You can also learn a lot. The speakers are not the only experts attending the conference. Ask people about their work. Leave room in your circle to be joined by others. Be as inviting as possible. You never know who might be your new best friend, your next mentee, or your future co-founder.
Conferences (especially of the multi-day variety) are exhausting. Drink plenty of water and eat well to give you the energy that your body and brain need. When you wake up in the morning, do some stretches (and air squats). And when you're feeling your body protest, listen to your body and find somewhere to sit, disengage and disconnect. Meditate, pray, whatever. You'll be glad that you took that time to take care of yourself. This is pretty good advice for daily living I think :)
This is a subject unto itself (I actually talked about it in last week's newsletter "Why and How I started public speaking"), but I would encourage you to get involved in speaking at conferences. This does add a whole new layer of stress to your experience, but there are a great deal of benefits as well. I definitely encourage speaking as a way to get to attend conferences you cannot otherwise afford as well!
When I speak, I often need some time to recharge. Definitely take care of yourself. Once you've taken care of yourself, remember that other people may want to talk with you about the content of your talk. Give them a chance to chat with you. It's a lot of fun :)
Most conferences make talk recordings available after the conference, so the focus of my conference going is building relationships and meeting people. Attending the talks help give you talking points and can introduce you to new concepts that you may not have thought to watch after the fact anyway. Good luck making the most of the conferences you're able to attend! It's truly a privilege to go.