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How to Make the Most of a Tech Conference

Chris Achard

September 22, 2019

Software Development

It can be a big investment for you and your company to send you to a work conference. Not just the ticket price - but you have to take time away from work and potential disruption to your team's workflow.

So: how can you be sure that you get the most out of a conference?

I've just spend the last weekend at the great React Boston conference - so while it's still fresh in my mind, here is what I did, and all my recommendations for you as well.

First: decide why you are going

There are many reasons you might want to go to a conference; here are my top three:

  1. Learn new things
  2. Meet new people
  3. Take a break from normal work

Those are all important to me at a conference, so my list of things to do may be different than yours.

If your primary motivation for going is simple a mini-vacation: then you can probably ignore the rest of this advice! But if your primary motivation is to become better at your job, then you'll have to do some actual work at the conference in order to get the most out of it.

Here's what I recommend:

1. Do some research before hand

If you go into a conference totally blind, then you might be overwhelmed by the amount of new technology or terminology that is used.

A good conference will progressively expose you to that vocabulary by carefully selecting the order of the talks... but it's still probable that there will be at least a few talks about new topics to yet.

For that, I recommend two different types of research:

Topic research: Look at the list of talks and do at least a little bit of research on the topic before hand. Even just a few minutes of googling about a topic can give you a basic vocabulary about it - so you won't be so lost during the talk.

Speaker research: It's also good to look up the speaker list before hand, and get a feel for who they are, and what their background is. At many tech conferences, you'll be able to interact with the speakers throughout the conference - so it's nice to know at least a little bit about them so you can know their context when you talk to them.

This research is especially important during a multi-track conference. How are you supposed to decide what talks to attend, if you don't know anything about the topics or the speakers!

So just do a bit of research beforehand (even if it's the night before in your hotel room 😄), and you'll end up with a better, personalized conference.

2. Join the conversation

Many conferences today will have at least an active twitter account during the conference - and some have active Slack channels as well.

Take advantage of that!

Get Slack loaded onto your phone, introduce yourself in the intros channel - and respond to other people there as well. I've found that the best conferences I've attended have been the ones with an active Slack channel, with people setting up impromptu coffee meetups, or coordinating dinners.

Also - if it's your thing - and if the conference has an active twitter presence - consider tweeting at them during the conference! Twitter is a great way to connect during a tech conference, because much of the audience will be on Twitter as well - so take advantage of that connection.

3. Go to bed on time 😅

This one is hard - especially at a multi day conference with nighttime parties - but you'll be no use to yourself if you stay up too late and then are walking-dead the next day.

So pace yourself! You are here to have fun (see the points above) - but unless that's your only goal, you need your sleep too.

So yes, we're all adults here... but adults need to be reminded of bedtime too 💤

4. Leave your laptop in your room

It can be super tempting to bring your laptop and get some quality work time in during the conference... but then what's the point!?

If you bring your laptop and open it during the talks "just to check some email" - you'll get distracted. I guarantee it.

So do yourself a favor and leave your laptop in your room.

I do recommend good old fashioned pen and paper for notes though. 📓

5. Bring a backup phone battery

So you've left your laptop in your room - but let's be real... you need SOME connection to the outside world 😆

Since you'll be on your phone more than normal, in a building with probably not-so-great reception, and far away from your room with a power cord... you'll want an extra battery.

I have one (that I got for free from another conference) that is tiny and just slips into my pocket, and holds about one extra charge for my phone.

Perfect!

6. Actually meet new people

If one of your goals is to meet you people (and if not - then why not just watch the conference on youtube later?) - then you have to actually walk around and meet new people!.

Yes, it will be uncomfortable, and yes, it will be a little weird - but remember; the other people are at this conference to meet new people as well!

So don't just stand around waiting for people to come talk to you - you have to actually go talk to them.

My favorite pro tip for this is to walk up to a circle of people speaking and just say:

"Can I join your circle here?"

... I don't think anyone has ever said no to that - and I always have a good conversation!

It does take practice, but it's worth the practice.

7. Go to the events

A lot of the conference is not going to just happen during the talks. If you really want to get to know the other attendees and speakers:

That's what the events are for!

Most conferences have at least one party or social night included - so make sure you go.

While you're there, practice number 6 (actually talking to people), and go with no agenda - just have fun! You'll learn new things and meet new people, which are 2 of the primary reasons you're going, right?

8. Take a break when you need to

Obviously you need to watch out for your own energy and health.

If you haven't slept well in the hotel, and you just need a break - then there's no shame in just going back to your hotel room to take a bit of a nap.

You're no use to yourself (or others!) if you can't function; so take the break that you need to, and then come back ready to learn and meet people 🎉

9. Spend some time afterwards to decompress

Finally - conferences have a way of packing your brain with new knowledge and ideas. If you just go back to work on Monday without processing all of that new information though - you won't be able to turn those new ideas into actions.

I like to spend at least an hour (longer if I can) just writing down the ideas I heard during the conference, and how I'm going to apply them in my job.

If you're flying back the next day, then that is a great time to do a decompress journal. When you turn off your laptop and phone during takeoff, just take out a notebook instead and start writing.

I'm always surprised at how much detailed, actionable data comes out of my head during these writing sessions; and I can guarantee that I would have forgotten most of it if I didn't take the time to write it down.

Have fun!

So that's it - know why you're going, and then when you show up - actually show up!

Be prepared to learn; meet new people; but also to have fun.

Conferences are a way to get yourself out of your normal element, and to pack your brain with new information that you can apply at work - so take advantage of that change of scenery.

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