I've travelled to a number of tech conferences over the years and learned a few things along the way. Here are some of the strategies I've developed for getting the most out of a conference:
- 🥗 Bring Food
- 🏃 Pace Yourself!
- 👩💻 Put Your Laptop Away
- 📝 Take Notes on Paper
- 🚶♀️ Don't Be Afraid to Leave A Talk
- ⌛️ Don't Linger
- 💬 Hallway Track
Conferences are usually catered, but many catering services, well, leave something to be desired. In particular, breakfasts can be rough: pastries, fruit, more pastries... you get the idea. Eating a healthy breakfast that makes you feel good is more than just a luxury when travelling: it can be the difference between having a good morning and a crummy one. Take care of your body at meal-time and it will take care of you later!
When I arrive in a new town for a conference that I will be spending more that one night at, immediately after checking into the hotel I head to the grocery store for:
Plane travel, being in a new place, eating out three times a day—this is all hard on your body! Not to mention your wallet and brain. Sometimes siting quietly and eating a simple meal beats another hour of socializing over beers & burgers. That's where the fruit, bread, and cheese come in: when you need food and a quiet break, you have a meal ready in your hotel room.
- Don't be 100% reliant on conference catering
- Have a meal or two on hand to save money and brainwaves when you're tired & hungry
The first couple conferences I went to, I had my whole day planned out: this talk at 9:00am, that one at 10:00, then 11:00, 12:00, 1:00, 2:00... this is crazy! Remember: there's a limit to how much you can take in. If you do attend eight talks in a day, it's unlikely you'll be able to really focus on what you're hearing at all of them. Rather than power through eight talks in a day, pick four and give each of them your full attention—you'll get more out of it overall.
The FOMO is strong, but no matter how hard you try I guarantee you'll be missing something. So take my advice and stop worrying about it! Rather than stressing about everything you "missed," you'll have a much better time if you set realistic expectations and give yourself breaks. So:
- Limit the number of talks per day to something reasonable (for me this is about 4 talks)
- Don't worry about missing talks! There are always more talks. 😊
- Take a break when you're feeling tired or frazzled. You'll enjoy the rest of the day a lot more!
What to do when you're not in talks?
- Get some exercise at the hotel gym or walking outside
- If you're tired: take a nap
- Follow up on notes or questions gathered at talks
- Hallway track
It's tempting to google the topic being presented, check twitter, email, try to run the code examples etc.. You do not need to travel to a conference to do this. As such, it is (in my opinion) a poor use of conference time. If you're watching a talk, tune in and pay attention! If the talk is really so uninteresting that you don't feel the need to pay attention, why stay? There are usually better places to sit and work than an auditorium seat.
Taking notes is a great way to remember what you heard, note things you want to look up later, and to capture follow-up questions. So take out your laptop and fire up Evernote, right? Wrong! When you get out your computer, it's really hard to stick to just taking notes. When you're taking notes on your computer, and you have a question, and the talk is a bit slow, and it will only take just a second to find the answer on google...
Carrying a pen or pencil and a notebook is a great strategy for those of us who are easily distracted by the wide internet. If you've never tried this remove-the-temptation strategy, you may be surprised how much more you get you get out of a talk when you give it 100% of your attention. Paper notes may help you retain the information better, and they're useful whilst chatting at the after-party: peek at your notebook to easily recall insights and questions. (Bonus: it makes you look super organized! 😄)
I used to feel like I had to "commit to" a session I was watching, or that if I missed the beginning of a session it was pointless to join late. Not true! If you get five minutes into watching a talk and realize it's not what you expected or you just change your mind, quietly slip out & try another talk.
I'll admit that as a speaker, it's not my favorite thing to see people walking out of a talk I'm giving. However, I know that you're at the conference to learn new things, not to flatter conference speakers. You don't owe it to anyone to sit through a talk. Furthermore, if my talk is bad and everyone sits through it just to be polite, I'll never know it's bad. Do speakers the courtesy of giving them honest feedback: if a talk is bad, don't sit through it, be honest and walk out! You'll be doing yourself and the speaker a favor.
This one really comes down to personal preference, but I've found that sticking around for the conference closing party or staying an extra day to visit the host city is rarely worth the extra time in the hotel. I used to extend trips a night or two for this reason, but I am usually so exhausted after a conference it's hard to enjoy being a tourist, and I've found that the value of sleeping in my own bed sooner almost always outweighs the value of another evening of schmoozing.
There is definitely a point of diminishing returns at the end of a conference: the crowd starts to thin out, the vendors pack up, and eventually there's naught left but a lone nerd, tinkering with a new framework at an empty buffet table, or wandering the vendor floor aimlessly with her sponsor shirt and enormous backpack. It's a bit depressing, frankly. 😛 Don't feel the need to stay 'til the bitter end!
These days I try to get a flight out as close to after-closing-ceremonies as possible, or a bit before if the other option is staying an extra night.
You've probably heard this old chestnut, but it bears repeating: there's a lot more value in conferences than what you get from attending talks. Networking, trading tips, finding job leads, and making new friends: these are all things you'll find on "the hallway track," i.e. by hanging out in the hallway, chatting with your peers. Conferences are the best venue for networking (read: "finding work") I've found, but you won't access this value if you're in talks all day. To get the most out of your experience, be sure to make time for the hallway track!
I hope at least one of these tips has been useful to you! If you have feedback or can think of one of the many points I missed here, please do send a comment and I'll add it below. Happy conferencing!