The Beginner’s Guide to Tech Conferences
DISCLAIMER: I’ve only been to 2 conferences ever. This is what I learned. I’ll write an advanced guide when I become a well-seasoned conference-goer. Also, let’s assume money is not important here. 😉
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I think we can all agree that as software engineers, whether we love to continuously learn or not, we have to always be at the forefront of technology or we end up falling behind. Who wants to be talking about Rails 3.0 when Rails 5.1 is all the rage? There are obviously many ways to keep up with changes in the tech community. For example, reading blogs, contributing to open source, stalking your tech idol on social media, etc. But being the nerds we are, we should probably get out of the house once in a while, so why not go to a conference? You get to learn about all the new and upcoming changes in your community and you get to meet your idols in person.
There are three main steps to conferences:
Step 1. Choosing the Conference
Step 2. Attending the Conference
Step 3. Remembering the Conference
Sounds simple right? (cue buzzing noise here) Nope. It’s not.
Choosing The Conference
So you’ve decided that you want to go to a conference, great! Only problem is, there are hundreds of conferences that happen every year. Which one do you choose?
First warning, don’t Google what “the best tech conferences” are.
If you don’t know anything about Swift and/or don’t have any interest in Swift, it obviously wouldn’t be fun or educational for you to go to a Swift conference. Even if it is listed in an article titled “Top 10 Conferences You Can’t-Miss.”
After deciding what you want to learn about, that’s when you start Googling. There are tons of conferences out there for any language, framework, and software. Companies like GitHub, have conferences more than once a year, so if you’ve already missed one, it is more than likely that another one is happening soon. A good thing to keep in mind when deciding is what you want to get out of the conference. Are you just going to see what cool new things are happening? Or are you looking to brush up on some core concepts? If the latter, then I would suggest looking for conferences that have a lot of workshops for you to choose from. Workshops are a great way to learn the basics! Many of the workshops are taught by long-time veterans of the language/framework the conference is for. It’s a great way to pick up some tips and tricks.
Attending The Conference
You made it! Now what? You might be feeling a bit overwhelmed with all the people, companies, and talks at the conference. But no fear! They’re all there to help!
Yes, socializing can be hard. But it’s so worth it! A lot of people don’t know each other and are in the same boat as you. Take a risk and go up to another stranger sitting alone and start a conversation. You’re both at the conference for a reason, it might even be for the same reason. Either way, you’re bound to find someone interesting to talk to. You may just be friends for a day or you may become friends for a lifetime. Who knows?
Some conferences take the extra step and provide a quick meet and greet for first-time conference-goers. Take advantage of it! You get to meet some great people, some of whom are just as nervous as you.
SWAG, all the SWAG. One of the best things about going to conferences is the free stuff. But you have to work for it by talking to the companies. Yes, most of them are looking to hire you or get your company to use their software. But a lot of the time, they just want to talk to a friendly face. It’s tough being at a conference all day trying to schmooze, so why not make their day but have a real talk with them. You might even come out with some new networking skills and a few more LinkedIn connections.
This is what we come for. We’re hungry for knowledge, whether it’s new updates or a refresher on best practices. Depending on the conference you go to, there might be multiple tracks or just one track. I personally prefer one-track conferences because everyone is learning about the same thing and you don’t get a bad case of FOMO (fear of missing out).
Multiple-track conferences can be tricky. From my own experience, people sometimes tend to go to whichever talks their friends or coworkers are going to. Sometimes this works out and sometimes you end up going to a talk that doesn’t interest you at all. So choose wisely, you can always meet up with everyone again later.
Don’t forget to take notes! It doesn’t have to be like when you were in school taking notes in class. But make sure to write down things you found exciting, things that might have been confusing, and people you loved listening to. These notes are really helpful when you look back on them. You can google the things you found confusing and you can follow all the news on what you found exciting. I personally like to follow my favorite speakers and see what conferences they’ll be speaking at next year.
Remembering the Conference
You made it! You got all your swag, you met lots of people, and you learned something new. But you’re not quite done yet!
Take a look at your swag. Did any company stand out to you? Maybe you had a great conversation with one company and would like to talk a bit more. It doesn’t hurt to reach out and say “Thank you! It was nice meeting you!”
Was there someone you met that was just an awesome person? Maybe you met a fellow engineer that’s from the same place as you? Friendships and professional relationships take some work. Meeting each other is just the first step. You both have to make the effort to continue the conversation, whether it’s over coffee or email.
That talk about writing good code was amazing, huh? Share it with your colleagues. Practice it in your work. Do some more research on what you learned at the conference. A lot of conferences record their talks and post them online. Why not watch it again as a refresher?
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One conference is all it takes to get hooked. They’re meant to be fun and rewarding, so take advantage of them! Especially if you work for a company that helps cover some or all of the cost. You might be a beginner at this moment, but after a few conferences, you’ll be a seasoned conference veteran.
I know it can be quite daunting to be in a room full of strangers. Just remember that someone else is probably in the same shoes and most people are more than happy to start a conversation with you. Also, don’t forget your co-workers! If you find a really interesting conference, more than likely someone you know would love to join you.
One day you’ll realize that you were nervous for no reason. Then you’ll build up your courage to give a talk of your own and make it on someone’s favorite speakers list.