Next weekend 360iDev starts, and last weekend was the first CocoaConf of the fall 2014 season. I’ve seen on twitter at least one request for advice from a first-time attendee. I had more to say than I could fit into a tweet, so I thought I’d respond here.
Core Theme: It’s All About the People
There’s a lot going on at conferences, but the most important thing to remember is that you have access to people at conferences that exists no other place. Making the most of your experience (and time and money) is all about making the most of your contact with the people around you.
Sessions: Prioritize Your Questions
Conferences seem to be all about the sessions - or at least that’s where the attention is. That’s what the schedule is all about. You should definitely attend some sessions, but that shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. If all you do is go from session to session and try to record as much information as possible, you’re probably wasting your time. Many speakers post their slides after their talks, many conferences (like 360iDev and WWDC) post videos of the talks. If all you’re after is the content of the talks, those are good resources (and if you’re not sure if there are going to be slides/videos posted, ask). You probably don’t need (or want) to try to write down everything that the speaker says.
When selecting which session to attend (in a multi-track conference where there are more than one simultaneously), I recommend that you attend the one you think you are the most likely to have questions about while you are still at the conference. While you’re in a session, be thinking about the things that you don’t understand or other details you would like. If you’re going to take notes, write down those questions. Some sessions have a Q&A period at the end where you can ask. If not, find the speaker later and ask (either at a meal, in the evenings or, when at WWDC, in the labs). You can always ask the speaker via email/twitter after you get home, but face-to-face conversations are better and the closer to the talk the question is asked, the fresher it will be in both your minds.
Some sessions will likely have topics unfamiliar to you. You can attend those if you want, but if you don’t have enough information to be able to ask questions, you might want to prioritize a different simultaneous session and save the unfamiliar topic for watching on video later.
IceBreaking: Wear A Conversation Starter
I’m going to stereotype somewhat here, but remember that most of your fellow attendees explicitly chose careers in which they spend more time interacting with a computer than with another human being. I’m not saying we’re all shy introverts (and I’m not saying you are), but if I were to bet the odds, that’s where I’d put my money.
So in a room full of people who tend to be shy and/or introverted, given that you want to make the most of talking to the people around you, how do you facilitate those conversations? My recommendation is to wear a conversation starter. It doesn’t have to be anything too fancy - many of us have a closet full of geeky T-shirts already. This is the time to drag them out. This way, if someone wants to talk to you, there’s already something about you that they know. This (combined with your badge/name tag that you’re hopefully wearing) gives them something they can make small talk about (and some of us need help getting the small talk started). Some people have other conversation starters or ways to identify themselves - lab coats, suits, funny hats, etc. Be you, but try to be the least boring you that you can be.
Events/Meals/Parties: Go! Then, Talk to People - Different People
Some times you might be tired at the end of a long day and just want to get away from people. I know - I get like that, too. If you can make yourself, try to go to the evening events. Sometimes they’re part of the conference, sometimes you have to find out about them a different way (often, there’s an app for that), but most conferences have some events and parties in the evenings, and almost all of them have some kind of lunch. Try to go to those, too.
Some conferences have long waits for some events (Cough WWDC Keynote Cough). I’ve met some really good friends in those lines. You don’t have to go to those things, but if you don’t, you’re missing out on the people you’d have met.
When there, try to mix and mingle. Try not to sit with the same people all the time (especially your co-workers you brought with you). Find an open seat and ask if you can sit there. Go up to people you haven’t met and introduce yourself. Look at their name tags and/or anything else about them you can comment on to break the ice. I know it can be hard for some people to talk to strangers - try it - remember that these are people with whom you’re statistically likely to find common interests.
You can also ask people what sessions they’ve seen or which they are looking forward too. Deciding which sessions to attend is a common problem all the attendees have, so it’s a good topic for starting a conversation.
Keeping In Touch
When you talk to someone and you hit it off - try to get some contact information from them. Some conferences put Twitter handles on the badges, some people still have dead-tree business cards. Many apps facilitate the exchange of such information. Try to make the connection between your conversation and both of your real-world identities before the conversation breaks up. I have many friends I see only at conferences, but with whom. I keep in touch frequently the rest of the year.
Follow the Leader: Twitter as Party Planner
As you collect contact info from folks you meet, follow them on Twitter (at least temporarily), and follow the people they follow and retweet. Some conferences make Twitter lists of attendees to make it easier. As the conference progresses, you’ll see people tweet that they’re heading to a particular bar or restaurant or something. If they tweet it in public, you’re probably welcome to meet them there. If you’re not sure, reply to them and ask. Tweet where you’re going (or retweet the person at the place where you’re going) so people can know where they can find other attendees to talk to.
Note also that it’s handy, at least for the duration of the conference, to make your Twitter and LinkedIn avatars match what you actually look like to make it easier for people to tie the account to the person in their own memories.
Be Nice, Be Civil, Be Respectful
I hate to have to say this, but be respectful of your fellow attendees at all times. Even if alcohol is involved, this is still a professional event. If you can’t be respectful, just stay home and let someone else attend instead. If someone around you harassing you or someone around you, call them out or go get an organizer. We want this to be a community where we can all be and feel safe.
Say “Thank You”
The conference organizers have worked really hard to get the conference to this point, and many conferences have volunteers that help as well. Many people would be surprised by how much work conferences are to put together, and how many problems pop up every day that most attendees never notice. A simple “thank you” from you can go a long way toward making it a better experience for those working so that you have have a good time.
Post Conference Blues
It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it’s not unusual for people to get depressed (or at least sad) at the end of a conference. I know I do, and I’ve seen many other people make references to it. It’s easier for me to deal with now that I expect it to happen, and I know that it’s normal. It usually gets better after I’ve caught up on my sleep. If you are prone to such feelings, be aware that the end of a conference can be a trigger for many people.
Conclusion: Have a Great Time
I’ve mentioned before that conferences have been one of the factors that have allowed me to be successful as a freelance/contract iOS developer these last few years. They can be expensive (as much for the time I’m not billing customers as the money I spend on the conference), but every one has been worth the cost many times over. If you get out of your comfort zone, attend the conferences relevant to you†, talk to people and make friends, they can be a life changing experience.
†This article is about iOS conferences, because that’s what I do and the conferences I usually attend, but I’d expect much of it to apply to other types of dev conferences, as well.