Tech conferences can host exciting and innovating environments filled with growth and knowledge opportunities. Throughout my 20 years in software development, attending and speaking at these conferences has been an ongoing and fascinating part of my job. Amongst these conferences some have greatly benefited me, and others have unfortunately left me wanting more (and my money back). It can be challenging to understand upfront whether a conference will be worth your time, and how to get the most from these conferences. As a regular attendee, guest speaker, and conference sponsor, here are the 3 ways in which you can make sure a conference is worth your money:
1) Be picky
As most of us may have learned from being exposed to the real world, bigger does not always mean better. Not all conferences are created equal, and sometimes spending more money can result in an even bigger expense: your time. Whilst conferences are primarily set up to generate revenue, an understandable business model, their secondary focus is (or at least should be) to educate, encourage curiosity, and spread knowledge. The secret to understanding whether a conference is prestigious (and therefore expensive) or simply overpriced is to understand two things:
1. What is on the agenda?
Most conferences set up websites or at least events or brochures that explain what their goals and main focuses are. This should give you an idea of who their target audience is, and whether you believe this is a good fit for you. Their descriptions and topic explanations should give you an idea of whether you have sufficient (or perhaps too much) technical knowledge and skills to benefit from it (for example, is it prepared for managers or directors?). You should also explore whether this conference focuses on processes or implementations, to check if it is in line with the type of knowledge you are seeking to acquire. Finally, it could be a good idea to check whether the conference has a single or multiple tracks, as it could be that you find these specialisations more interesting than the overall conference topic. This will better help you determine if the information presented will help you in your current role.
2. Is the agenda worth the price tag?
It could be that the conference costs several thousand dollars, but their guest speakers are all Fortune 500 CEOs. It could also be that it only costs a couple hundred dollars, but the main topic is groundbreaking and very beneficial to your current role. When it comes to conferences, it always pays to do your homework. Keep in mind that even if the conference itself is inexpensive there may be other associated costs such as transportation and overnight stays. Make sure you take all factors into consideration when making the decision.
2) Have a clear goal for tech conferences & chase it
Like most endeavours, if you are going to be successful you need a goal. When it comes to conferences it is important to have a list of topics you want to learn more about and work towards this, instead of waiting for them to magically appear in your knowledge inventory. If you want to learn how to incorporate performance testing into your CI/CD process, look at the conference tracks and select the presentations that will help you achieve this goal. Without a goal you may find yourself wandering from presentation to presentation, dipping your toes in different topics without ever fully learning how to swim.
Networking is also a common (and excellent) conference goal but even when it comes to networking, which can be highly up to fate, it is important to have an outline of who you want to meet and what kind of relationship you are looking to establish. Are there specific sponsoring companies that you want to connect with or buy products from? Is there a presenter with whom you would like to exchange ideas? In either of these scenarios it is important to know what they can offer you, but also what you can offer them. If you want to capture someone’s interest, handing them a business card (no matter how fancy) will not be enough. They’ll need to remember you: whether it be because you presented an irresistible business offer, had a great idea, or were overall an interesting individual. Introduce yourself, tell them why you like their presentation/company/service offering. Perhaps they would like to meet with people at your company and you can offer to provide an introduction. If they offer services, have a discussion about the services they offer and be willing to pay for their time. It is fine to ask for informal advice but don’t be “that person” trying to score free services.
3) Be brutally honest with yourself
When attending a conference you need to be honest with yourself and be ready to exercise some self-discipline. Remember what you came here to do, and who you came here to be. It is easy to get lost in the wonders of new cities (and cocktails), and lose sight of your goals and objectives. Maybe the conference is in Las Vegas, and you want to make the most of it seeing as you already spent so much time and money getting there. But don’t forget that all that time and money can go to waste if you are too hungover to learn anything or carry out intellectual networking conversations the next morning. Please do enjoy yourself as this is an important aspect of any conference, but remember to be balanced.
It is also good to be honest with yourself with regard to your personality. You may, for example, decide you are going to a conference to network and make sales contacts. Are you a salesperson? Do you want to be a salesperson? Do you have the ability to walk up to complete strangers, strike up a conversation and try to get them to connect with you? Or are you most comfortable behind a laptop with a nice set of noise cancelling headphones? Play to your strengths and you will get the most out of it.
In the end, you are the determining factor in whether a conference ends up being worth your time and money. A smart first step would be to start with local conferences that don’t cost a fortune, as most major cities have small conferences that take place throughout the year. Use these opportunities to determine your strengths and weaknesses, and when you feel productive and ready, branch out to larger conferences. It is also a good idea to ask your network about conferences they have attended: What did they like/dislike? Would they go again? What did they learn? The best way to educate yourself is by doing some research.
Already feeling like a conference pro? Our next post will tackle whether sponsoring a conference is worth the hassle, so get ready for some serious brainstorming.