Making the most out of tech conferences - Are conferences training? Should I be networking with developers?

Background

Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend the YOW! Conference in Melbourne for the second year in a row. My employer is a ‘gold’ sponsor of the event so I ended up with a free ticket that would usually cost a whopping $1,200!

I was fairly new to attending conferences last year and I didn’t really know what to expect. Check out my post from YOW! Conference 2018 where I talked about seeing Kent Beck for the first time. This year, a friend of mine and I were thinking more about how we make the most of the event.

How do you make the most out of a tech conference? Of course, we Googled this question and we found a few articles discussing how to make the most out of conferences in general but we couldn’t find much specific to conferences in tech. Hence, I hope this post helps people looking for advice specifically about tech conferences.

Networking: Meet just one new person

The number one ‘must do’ that the internet suggests when it comes to making the most out of a conference is networking. That gross-feeling thing that you’re ‘supposed’ to do as part of your professional career… However, it doesn’t have to be that bad. At first, I dismissed this advice. I thought to myself ‘it’s a free ticket and I can just go to whatever talks I want to go to without consequence’.

I learned that there is some merit to this advice. It still feels ‘icky’ to me to talk to people over lunch and coffee at conferences. I don’t know what it is. It feels unnatural and ‘fake’ in a way to force your way into making small talk with strangers who may or may not work on the same tech stack as you do.

The end-of-day drinks function is a golden networking opportunity. Even if you don’t drink it doesn’t matter. I would only usually have one drink at events like this anyway, maximum two. Hey, just have any drink in your hand even if it’s water, who cares? It’s worth setting yourself a small goal like I did: meet one new person. That’s it. Stop just sticking to your buddies from the office and just meet one new person and have a genuine conversation.

What I found is that it really built momentum for me and I felt way more comfortable talking to others after I made the first leap.

Networking: Target specific people to meet

Another approach that I found worked for me is targeting specific people. During the day, I saw a few faces that I recognised. One, specifically, was a speaker at the Google Developers Group (GDG) conference a month before this conference. I genuinely enjoyed his talk at the time and learned about running Android tests in parallel on multiple virtual devices at once in the cloud on Firebase. Since I’m learning Android development in my spare time right now, I thought he’d be a good person to ask about my learning approach and what it’s like to work in the industry. So I decided then and there - I’m going to hope like hell this guy is sticking around later at the end-of-day drinks event and I’m going to go up to him and say hi.

Yes - they will probably look at you like ‘who the hell are you?’ at first. But that’s okay! I confirmed his name, I introduced myself and I just said ‘I saw you talk at GDG and I really enjoyed your talk’. I was met with a smile and we got talking. There really isn’t much more to it than that. It was less about making meaningless small talk and we had a genuine conversation about the Android ecosystem, what Google is doing these days for developers, how that compares to iOS and how developers can transition into mobile developer roles. Overall I don’t think it could have gone any better! I’ve got a contact that I’m now communicating with on LinkedIn and I’ll probably meet up him with for a beer in future to pick his brain further.

“It was less about making meaningless small talk and we had a genuine conversation about the Android ecosystem, what Google is doing these days for developers, how that compares to iOS and how developers can transition into mobile developer roles.”

Talks: Which talks to attend?

Different streams of talks: All tech company conferences I’ve attended are structured in the same way: you have a few different rooms set up with multiple talks in parallel all day long. Conference organisers call these ‘streams’. The YOW! conference I attended had three different streams running: a technical stream, an agile stream and a general/whatever-else ‘Hey I’m a speaker and here is my story’ stream (well, that’s what it felt like to me, anyway).

So, how do you decide what to attend? I personally plan to attend talks that interest me. I sit down with the schedule one week before the conference and I read every single talk description and make a decision on which talk to attend based on what I’m interested in.

I usually prefer to go to talks where they’ll actually teach you something and you can apply it in your day job as a developer; talks by people who learned something technical and are able to share their lessons are great. I also love attending talks by revered software engineering authors and are known globally for the influence they have. Well-funded conferences have speakers with this level of clout.

“I also love attending talks by revered software engineering authors and are known globally for the influence they have. Well-funded conferences have speakers with this level of clout.”

I tend to avoid talks about team management and agile practices. A lot of the time, I feel like I’m trying to be sold an idea that’s short-lived and/or is only applicable to specific companies in narrow scenarios that don’t really apply to a lot of developers.

Freebies!

My advice to you: get there early. I arrived at the conference hall as the third person that entered, an hour before the first talk began. I was able to have a quick chat with nearly every tech company sponsoring the event at their booths and I obtained a lot of free merchandise. Brilliant!

Freebies from YOW! Conference 2019
Freebies from YOW! Conference 2019

A conference is not training

I understand that some attendees may have to share their learnings with colleagues back at the office the following week after the conference is over. Their employer might almost want to prove that spending money on a ticket was worth their budget. In that case, you might choose to attend talks more relevant to your employer rather than you as a developer. I feel like this is really wrong and it should be about the individual developer over the employer. Because in my view, a conference is not a training workshop.

“…you might choose to attend talks more relevant to your employer rather than you as a developer. I feel like this is really wrong and it should be about the individual developer over the employer. Because in my view, a conference is not a training workshop.”

A conference does the following:
  • It inspires you to learn something new (a lot of speakers give you tips on really good books to read - one of my favourite aspects); really this is about planting the seed for you to grow. I always take detailed notes in every talk I attend and I make a task on my personal (non-work) Trello board to follow up on notes taken from the day. If you’re genuinely interested, you will follow up on those notes.
  • It gives you a general idea of what important people in the industry are talking about; I attended a talk on ‘Intro to Rust’. I will probably never be a Rust programmer but it’s awesome that a great speaker was able to give an overview of why Rust is so popular and showed some sample code that wasn’t just ‘hello world!’. Now I have a general idea and it’s not just an empty void in my brain.
  • It gives you the chance to meet like-minded people; But only if that’s important to you. As mentioned, I found it really useful to target a specific person I hadn’t met before because that person is working on a tech stack that I want to be working on in the future. Use this networking time wisely and don’t have shallow conversations. If you plan it, you’ll work towards it.