The word “conference” brings back fond memories. As a child I went to many of them, thanks to my dad. He’d attend atomic and molecular physics conferences across India and around the world quite frequently. For domestic conferences, Mom and I would travel with Dad. We’d go sightseeing on our own during the week, and on weekends we would join dad and his fellow attendees and their families. What fun to grow up traveling across that vast subcontinent as a child, meeting people from around the world and enriching my imagination!
A couple of decades later, I started my own career as a software engineer. I quickly realized I could follow in my father’s footsteps by going to conferences (in my case, those relevant to the software world). There are so many conferences all over the Bay Area and the world, yet only so much time to attend them.
So how could I make the most of these incredibly invigorating mind-melds? After the very first conference I attended, I walked out with a lengthy collection of notes. I left the most recent conference with seven keywords, a photo album of interesting slides, and some new contact cards and LinkedIn connections.
I’d like to share with you some tips and tricks I’ve discovered that will help you get the most out of every conference you go to. I’ll cover selecting the right talks, how to plan your time efficiently, what to do while you’re there and how to make sure you hold on to what you learn.
Finding the right conference
Finding the right conference for you is extremely important, as these events are a major investment of time, money and other resources in the form of travel, time off work, etc. Judicious selection comes down to a handful of things.
- Your interest: Is it in a specific ecosystem (such as Google I/O or Apple WWDC are all about Google or Apple ecosystems); a specific paradigm (such as the Reactive Summit for distributed reactive programming or LambdaConf for functional programming); interdisciplinary (such as Wisdom 2.0, which focuses on technology and well-being of the individual and society); or software development as a whole (such a QCon)?
- Reviews: Have past attendees reviewed this conference favorably?
- Other available conventions in the same year: What other events might you attend this year? Are you looking to go wide or deep in the next several months?
- Cost of attendance: Can your wallet stomach the registration fee (and cost of travel, if any)? If there’s a conference you regularly attend, add a note to your calendar for the date when early-bird registration opens so that you can take advantage of the lower fee. Don’t forget to block off your calendar for the actual conference dates, though! Book more-affordable flights and accommodations well ahead of time, if needed. It’s also a good idea to keep comfort in mind, lest you get too spartan.
- Length of the conference: While events spanning several days can seem like a nice getaway at first, learning new things uses more mental energy and tires us out more quickly. With a new place and new crowd thrown into the mix, energy and enthusiasm can wane even faster than you think. So, less may be more. Some organizers schedule a conference and a workshop back to back. Instead of signing up for both without thought, choose one and make 110% of that. As a hint, the conference will probably be recorded, but not necessarily the workshop.
Selecting the right sessions
Now that you’ve identified your next software conference, what are your goals for attending it? Conferences these days have several parallel tracks and formats to support multiple goals — learning about the problems and solutions of other companies in specific domains; gauging the success of a specific technology; getting into the weeds through workshops; networking with employees of other companies or other attendees in open spaces; connecting with recruiters or hiring managers; expert-led pair-coding sessions on brand-new languages or frameworks; learning about the latest innovations and gathering new startup ideas; honing soft skills, collecting swag, etc. Knowing what learning formats are available at each conference can help you structure your experience to get the most out of it.
By the end of my very first Google I/O conference, I realized I would’ve gotten a lot more out of it if I had attended more of the breakout sessions and 1:1 interactions with Google engineers instead of talks. Most conference organizers make their talks available for free on their website or YouTube for later perusal, whereas breakout and 1:1 sessions usually aren’t recorded. But if there is a code to access the video, make sure you write it down, in case the email with the code never makes it to your inbox or has the wrong code in it — both of which have happened to me.
It’s also good to keep in mind that most sessions at tech conferences fall into one of these buckets.
- How a company solved a certain problem
- A walk through of the latest technologies for a specific use case or problem
- Upcoming feature releases in an existing technology
- Food-for-thought talks that challenge you to think outside the box regarding a current issue or known problem
- Interdisciplinary talks that bring computer science and other fields together
- New-product pitches by new and well-established companies alike
Selecting sessions by abstract or tags
Recognizing the above pattern of topics makes it easier to plan your time at conferences. Reading in between the lines of abstracts reveals details that may not be apparent at first glance. Reading abstracts multiple times helps, too —especially for long conferences offering many parallel tracks, like QCon, or small, highly focused conferences where there’s more room for repetition or overlap. Many talk summaries have keyword tags with them, but if they don’t, picking out familiar keywords is another way of getting an idea of what a session will cover.
Selecting sessions by speaker profile
Most session descriptions also include speaker profiles, which are a great resource for gauging the direction of the session. Each speaker’s employer may also be mentioned (this can give you more clues, especially if it’s an unfamiliar name). You can also check out a speaker’s Twitter or Github accounts for more context.
A note on product pitches
Product-pitch sessions are usually worth avoiding. It’s unlikely your company will onboard a new technology in its nascent stages, without any market hardening. Plus, you can always catch up with them later for your pet projects.
Tweaking your selection
If a conference spans multiple days, looking at the next day’s agenda the evening before can help further tweak your selection, since you’ll have already attended sessions on certain topics. Some conferences send emails to their attendees early in the morning with a list of talks that were added to the schedule or favorited by most attendees. Others organize their schedule by beginner, intermediate and advanced topics. Leveraging all of these pointers can help you make the most out of your schedule without getting lost or overwhelmed.
Practice makes it easier
Developing sound intuition around sessions is a function of your own career and conference-going experience. Regardless of how well you screen, a session or two will probably turn out to be uninformative. That’s OK — speakers don’t mind some folks leaving the room halfway through. If you’re not convinced about a session’s fit, try to sit on the sides or at the back of the room, so you don’t disturb others if you leave before the session is over. Finally, the only way to get better at planning your agenda is by actually evaluating it at the end. What does a productive day at the venue look like to you?
Making the most of the conference
Networking with people in your problem domain
Conferences are incredible opportunities to bring your own engineering problems to outside experts to get fresh ideas and a different perspective. Simply attending hour-long sessions and coming back home with a big blur of stories and buzzwords — or lengthy notes that you’ll most likely never revisit — squanders this opportunity. Approach the engineers in relevant breakout sessions with specifics of your work. Ask about their day-to-day challenges. Bring specific use cases to speakers of notable or interesting presentations.
I’m on the notifications platform team at Credit Karma. Our team recently had to deal with a concern related to email and push notifications. We were sending many notifications a day. One of the features we needed for customized user engagement was scheduled notifications. The design phase of this project coincided with our team attending the Reactive Summit in Austin, Texas. This gave me the opportunity to brainstorm our use case with Lightbend engineers and get their insights on the best big-data and high-scalability tools. One of the engineers and I got fairly in the weeds during a break, and he handed me his business card for future follow-up. What a great lead! Bringing his thoughts back to our managers and directors empowered all of us to make better design decisions.
During the break
Visit exhibits/booths and try to piece together the problem they address, why that problem matters, why it’s difficult and how they’re addressing it. Ask open-ended questions that create room for a larger conversation about the current state of things in the industry. Lately, for every conversation I have, I inevitably think about how it can be leveraged for my tasks at hand, and what new lessons there are in it with respect to software design, architecture, coding idioms, developer efficiency tools, etc. Thinking along these lines challenges me to take a hard look at how I work, make any changes to be more effective and hone my skills. How often are we challenged in this way in our crazy-busy work days week after week?
Don’t get lost in your notes
A quick note about note-taking: Pecking madly at the keyboard during the event instead of listening may seem useful, but it’s not. It disturbs others in the room, tires you out and leaves you with very few measurable takeaways at the end of the conference. Jot down only the keywords instead. Use the breaks to read up on them and complete the picture for yourself. Keep your phone handy and take photos of key slides during each session. Even when the talks are recorded, there might be problems—audio and video aren’t always in sync, may cut out, or have bad angles or quality, so having photos in your stash makes it easier to refer back to. Photos are even more useful for breakouts and booths. Plus, you’ll end up with one of the coolest tech photo albums and can brag about it to your friends.
After the conference
So you’ve survived the conference. What now? Reading up on any material shared right away —at the end of the day or on the flight home — is ideal, as things are still fresh in your mind. Blog, tweet, post on Facebook about interesting takeaways if you like. Discuss the most-fascinating ideas with coworkers who went to the same conference. They may have perspectives you missed. Even if they don’t, repetition solidifies things in our minds. Repeat after me: We learn by repetition. We learn better by explaining things to others and answering their questions. In a similar vein, also talk to coworkers who attended sessions on different topics.
And talk to your managers about the conference. This tells them how you processed it. Discussing the conference with your managers helps their perception of your technical abilities, and how you’ll assimilate new information and integrate it with the local ecosystem at the workplace. Last but not least, don՚t forget to thank them for the time you took off for the event (and if the company paid for the ticket, too).
Attending your first conference isn’t as daunting as you may have first thought. Instead, conferences can serve to add another fun, memorable experience to your career and life.
To recap the distance we’ve travelled together …
- Start out by selecting a suitable event.
- Select the talks and sessions that would be most useful to you.
- Make the most of your time by also connecting with speakers and networking with other attendees, visiting exhibits and bringing back key takeaways.
- Reflect on your learnings and share them with others.