How to Conference: Embracing the Community
Over the last decade, the two of us have organized, attended, and participated in a ton of developer conferences and community events, all over the world. Some big, some small, crossing different technologies and cultures. As well-traveled speakers and as organizers of the Kansas City Developer Conference, we have also interacted with thousands of other speakers, community leaders, and technologists, each with their own perspectives and stories. We truly love the developer community, and our participation in it has greatly enriched our personal and professional lives.
With that in mind, particularly over the last couple of years, we have started taking a deeper look at what makes conferences and communities tick. What makes them successful (or not)? What components and actions make for an amazing, transformative "conferencing" experience (or not)?
In truth, we could probably write many blog posts—or a novel—about our thoughts and experiences in this area. But in this article, we have attempted to distill these ideas down to core objectives. What is it that any developer conference attendee should do in order to get the most out of their opportunity and, potentially, find new ways to become involved community participants and leaders themselves?
When preparing for a conference, remember that most events publish information about their sessions, speakers, and even the hour-by-hour agenda weeks prior to the event. They also will usually promote "extracurricular" events—just as important; we'll come back to that—both on their websites and through email announcements. Never go into a conference blind. Be prepared!
First and foremost, when it comes to content, you need to spend time learning more about the things you already know. At its core, after all, a developer conference is a form of continuing professional education. Learning how better to create and deliver valuable software is why you're here!
It can be enticing to spend an entire day (or days) going from talk to talk learning about the most Bleeding-Edge, Forward-Looking, Esoteric Technology of Tomorrow (BEFLETT)™. But the reality is that these tools and techniques are not the most relevant to your job or your daily life right now. Even your strongest skills still need to stay fresh, and they can always improve.
Are you already a senior .NET developer building web applications with ASP.NET Core? Great! Look for advanced sessions on design patterns or practices that you've not had enough opportunity to explore. Join a talk about a tool or framework you've been away from for a while, as it still might offer a better way of tackling the problems you are already solving today.
Just remember that for many of us, our attendance at the event is encouraged—even sponsored—by our employers. Make this investment worth it for them. Come back to the office with new information that will help your team and the company right away.
Self-employed? Well then, I have news for you, too. Your "employer" is still sponsoring your attendance! Make the investment worth it for yourself. Sharpen that saw. Your product, clients, or customers will thank you.
Now... on the other hand, in proper amounts, those shiny new bits of BEFLETT absolutely have value! Technology changes constantly. Conferences provide a great opportunity to stretch yourself a little bit.
To that end, we would encourage you to find at least two sessions at an event on topics that are entirely unfamiliar to you. If you are a hardcore C# or Java developer, then go see a session on functional programming. Or if your focus is on building web apps, try to learn something about DevOps or even machine learning.
Sure, you may not end up using these technologies every day. However, exposure to different paradigms will present you with different thought processes and perspectives, which in turn may positively impact how you approach your own problems.
You may also think, "I am a developer! Why should I care about process or DevOps?" Well, that may not be your job, but here you have a great opportunity to expose yourself to these areas so you can better relate to the people at your organization who are in those roles. Because ultimately, you are all in this together and gaining some insight into their world will vastly improve your ability to communicate and understand those around you.
In addition, find sessions related to your field that really are just shiny new things. Even if you are not sure that you will use them, take an hour and gain an understanding of what is up-and-coming. If it ends up being useful, great! You found a cool new thing that makes your life easier. If it isn't useful, so what? You spent an hour now, learning from an expert, and you never have to think about it again.
Inevitably, someone will say, "Have you looked into Docker?" Now you can say with confidence, "Yep, I looked at it, and it doesn't solve a problem I have." That is very much worth an hour of your time.
Okay. So you are busy sharpening the saw and exploring all the shiny new stuff. But—and this is important—do not overlook one of the most important tracks available to you at an event, the Hallway Track.
Think about it this way: you are potentially surrounded by hundreds of people who do the same things you do every day. Yes, you can (and should) get a lot of good information from the "experts" who are leading sessions on various technologies. However, you cannot ignore the opportunities to talk to those who are in the same position as you. Here is a chance to build lasting relationships with people with whom you can share ideas and who can become regular sounding boards.
So, just walk up to anyone and strike up a conversation!
Um, yeah, the stereotype of introverted developers is a stereotype for a reason, and so that may seem like a pretty daunting thing to do. Here are a few tips for how to make that happen.
First, remember that you are at an event, and so are they. That is a super easy starting point. When in the buffet line or waiting for a session to start, simply turn to someone and say, "What have you seen so far that is good?" Easy, right? They have seen things—you know they have—so ask them about it. Or you could even go with, "What are you thinking of seeing next?”
Second, remember that they are technologists, and so are you! This means that "What do you do?" potentially leads to great discussion. "I am a React developer,” leads to “Really?! Me too!" And now you get to discuss all the cool React-type things you are currently working on. And, just maybe, they have recently fought a battle you are actively engaged in, so they can give you new insight.
Finally, don’t forget the parties. Many conferences host attendee gatherings or networking receptions. Please, please don’t skip them. This is your relaxed setting to have those same conversations and build those same relationships at the end of a long day. Moreover, many of the speakers attend them, as well, so this can be your best opportunity to spend more than a few seconds with passionate, engaged thought leaders in our industry.
Bottom line, literally everyone at a conference is a potential source of knowledge, not just the experts at the front of the room.
The time will come, ultimately, for any event to draw to a close. Done properly, a developer conference should be a uniquely rewarding professional experience. You can leave feeling empowered with sharper skills, exciting ideas, and burgeoning new relationships.
Unfortunately, this can also lead to the “conference hangover.” This is a kind of combination between mental and physical exhaustion, combined with a nagging desire to get involved. In fact, among the most frequent feedback we get from excited conference-goers is: “This was great! I wish there was some way for me to be involved in something like this.”
So...DO IT! The good news here is that across our entire industry, the developer community is thriving. And it is comprised of much more than the big conferences.
Check online and ask around about local meetups. There’s a good chance that several are available with varied and interesting topics. Start attending. Use the same skills you used for the “hallway track” to meet and build relationships with the meetup regulars. Then, when the time is right (HINT: it’s sooner than you think) offer to volunteer.
If diving into the community seems intimidating, that’s okay and normal. But don’t be afraid to start out small. Also, don’t be afraid to stay small with your involvement. The two of us may run a big conference and speak all over the place. That works for us, but it’s hard work, time-consuming, and not practical for most people. That’s okay, too.
No matter how big or small your participation—whether you start giving the occasional talk yourself or focus instead on organization and volunteerism—you are developing influence and a position of leadership within your local professional community. At the end of the day, this will help you learn, grow your visibility, and open doors of professional and personal opportunity.
So, you may be sitting there thinking, “Wow, that's a lot....” And it is, but it is also worth every bit of your time. All it takes is a few minutes to break out of your shell, opening up a whole new world of possibilities.
The two of us have had an incredible opportunity to travel the world, meeting and interacting with technologists of every background, experience level, and worldview. There are two definitive things we have learned.
The first thing is that we really are all the same. No matter where you are, there are people around you fighting the exact same battles you are. That is always a very comforting thought. It is unlikely you will stumble upon an issue that no one has faced before. Others can be very accessible to you to help you through your journey.
But second, we are all different. You are probably thinking, hold on, that is the opposite of the first thing. But bear with us. There is literally a whole world of people out there. They have diverse perspectives informed by their own very different experiences. Engaging with others will constantly stretch and grow you, challenging your preconceptions. When met head-on, with an open mind and open eyes, this can be the greatest opportunity of all.
Jonathan is on Twitter as @jonathanfmills
Jeff is on Twitter as @jeffreystrauss