Making the most out of conferences

This week was my last conference of 2017, Voxxed Day Thessaloniki organized by my good friend Patroklos. I started going to conferences some years ago.

Going to a conference is an investment, whether in time or in money - or in both. You should me make sure to get the most out of that investment. In this post, I’d like to write down what I do to achieve that.

Plan ahead

The first thing to do is to get the list of available talks ahead. Some conferences require attendees to register to talks beforehand. That’s especially true for workshops, which have a limited number of seats. You’d be very sorry to miss a talk you wanted to attend only because you didn’t register.

Also, some have talks in different buildings. Even at conferences, logistics do play a role.

Even if that’s not the case, planning ahead will get you a clear picture, in case you’re interested in more than one talk at the same time.

Workshops over talks

Some conferences offer workshops in addition to talks. IMHO, such workshops have way more value than regular talks. While in a talk, your mind can wander away, workshops make you more implicated by essence, because you need to do something. In the end, you’ll be more focused and what you learned will be more persistent.

Avoid long talks

When I was a student, I listened to 2-hours lesson. Even then, it was hard to stay focused for such a long time. Some conferences propose 3-hours talk. I don’t think anyone can stay focused during the whole talk.

While it might be possible to attend one such talk over the conference, more than one is not worth it.

Take notes

A good way to keep your focus is to take notes. An even better way is to share your notes, whatever the medium. It can be you personal blog, you company blog, a company meeting, anything. By setting an objective, you’ll pay more attention during the talk.

Put your phone away

Let me repeat it: put. your. phone. away. Or shut it off. Or leave it in your bag. It’s too easy to be distracted by notifications, especially if you have a smart watch on top of it. Hey, an email! Hey, a Twitter follower! Hey, a connection request on LinkedIn. I’m guilty of this myself.

During talks, phone are only useful to:

  • take pictures of slides
  • tweet a quote from the speaker

    In the first case, speakers (or conferences) nearly always make their slides available afterwards. In the second, write the quote down and tweet later.

Don’t be shy

The talk is finished. It’s QA time. A lot of questions are in your head. But you dare not ask them, for whatever reason. Or you waved your hand, but was not chosen and the time is up. Or there was no QA.

In all cases, ask your question. If time is up, go the speaker after the session. If he leaves the room, chase him. Most speakers will be very happy to engage in a discussion on the subject they talked about. And then, you’ll keep what you learned longer because of that personal engagement.

Walk away

Yes, people don’t want to talk about that, but sometimes, the talk is not great. Perhaps the content is not what you expected. Perhaps the speaker is not that great. Or whatever.

In that case, you shouldn’t be afraid to just walk away, and use that time in a more productive way. Or just take a break - see below.

Voting with your feet is important. But it’s even more important to give a detailed feedback. Conference organizers and speakers want to improve, so this information is core to them.

Try something new

After the first or second talk about <insert hype subject here> (e.g. Docker, microservices, React, etc.), what you learn is pretty marginal. If you’re an expert of <insert subject here>, why would you go for a talk about it? Granted, you could want to deepen your understanding, but in general, conference talks are not so deep dive because they need to attract many people.

On the opposite, attending a talk on a subject which is completely foreign to you could open new options. For example, I’m a Vaadin fan and still went to an AngularJS talk some years ago. It was great, I never regretted it. Now, I have one more option in my solutions toolbelt when designing an architecture.

Speaker over content

Let’s face it. Some speakers are better than others. They can make a good and entertaining talk out of poor content. When the content is good, the talk is just awesome. You remember it. You want to tell your colleagues about it. You’re even likely to pester them until they watch the recording. It got you inspired!

While you should give a chance to new talents, it’s sometimes a good idea not to think about too much about the content and just go for the show.

Meet new people

Yes, conferences are about improving skills, and discovering new things. But this is not by far the only possibilities.

Networking is as important as technical content, if not more. In conferences, you could talk to someone who could offer you your dream job, or introduce you to a new idea. Or you could mingle with a group, and have a nice time debating over an idea - or simply chit-chat. Work is not all, relaxing is also required at some time. Network if possible.

More importantly, if you already have a network, try to enlarge your horizon. Meet new people. Conferences are a fantastic opportunity to meet experts in a field completely unrelated to yours. Listen to them talk about it in a passionate way.

Don’t overdo it

With the first few conferences, I did want to squeeze every last piece of information out of conferences. I went to every talk I could Took notes, wrote blog post. And ended up quite tired.

A conference is not like a sprint, but more like a marathon. Stuffing a lot of knowledge quickly into your head doesn’t help retain it.

Pauses are important. Netwok (see above). Go to boothes, play games, sit and think about what you learned, rest and sleep if need, whatever works for you. That’s also useful time, albeit of a different kind.

Nicolas Fränkel

Nicolas Fränkel

Developer Advocate with 15+ years experience consulting for many different customers, in a wide range of contexts (such as telecoms, banking, insurances, large retail and public sector). Usually working on Java/Java EE and Spring technologies, but with focused interests like Rich Internet Applications, Testing, CI/CD and DevOps. Also double as a trainer and triples as a book author.

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