Guide for newbie tech conference attendees

December 2, 2014

Now that I've been to two different multi-day conferences (and having made mistakes in how I approached them), I thought I'd pull together some tips for trying to get the most out of attending your first conference without getting completely overwhelmed.

0. Think a little bit about what your goal for the conference is, so that you have a heuristic for deciding what you want to do. Is it to learn a lot about a particular kind of technology? Is it meeting new people? For example, there were a few different informal socializing events at ArrrrCamp after the first day of the conference. One of those was rock climbing, which I was interested in trying out for its own sake, but my actual goal for the conference really was to meet people and have good conversations (while not getting overwhelmed like I did at RailsConf). So instead, I signed up for the bowling event. When the time actually came to it, my jetlag was hitting me pretty badly and I didn't want to go to an event where I might feel obligated to stay longer than I could really get myself to stay awake, so I instead went on the photo walk around the city where I could both easily chat up different people and leave early if I was about to fall over.

1. If there are any offers of some kind of conference guide program or attendee matchmaking program, sign up for it!! RailsConf had repeated messages about their program, but I didn't take them up on it because I thought I was taking up enough of their resources already from the support they were giving me as a first-time speaker, and I figured it was really more for solo first-time attendees. I also figured I'd be able to rely on my co-workers that were also attending. My co-workers really tried, but I ended up feeling bad about constantly asking to tag along with them and would then lose track of them. The accounts I heard of the guide program seemed pretty positive.

2. If there are specific people that you want to meet, take the initiative (probably over Twitter) to try scheduling breakfast/lunch/coffee/dinner dates or what-have-you instead of hoping to bump into them at one of the happy hours. I keep re-learning the fact that I dislike trying to get to know people in the loud and crowded environment of most happy hours. When instead I did things like reconnect with an old middle school friend over lunch at Portillo's, that was immensely more fun and effective.

3. Attend the lightning talks! I so regret not seeing Liana Leahy's rendition of “Let Me Code” (sung to “Let Me Go” from Frozen) in person. Anyway, lightning talks seem to be pretty reliably high value for your time, since the talks that are boring tend to be boring because there hasn't been enough editing to cut out irrelevant content.

4. Attend any smaller events you might hear about going on. Joanne gave me a tip about a thoughtbot podcast that was going to be recorded there one afternoon where Ben Orenstein interviewed Aaron Patterson, which ended up being in a fairly small room but was really cool to be in on.

5. However, IT IS OK TO SKIP EVENTS. I might've gotten more out of some talks if I'd gone to fewer overall or left some talks early after it looked like I wasn't going to get much out of them.

6. Along that theme, it's really important to take care of yourself. One of the best decisions I made during RailsConf was to sleep in the morning after my talk and spend the morning catching up and messing around on Twitter instead of going to see the keynote for that day (which was apparently quite funny, but I didn't think it would as important for me to see vs. DHH/Yehuda/Aaron Patterson etc.). I felt so much better about life, and then the first talk I did go see that day was Sandi Metz's, which was amazing already but particularly inspiring because I wasn't desperately exhausted anymore. At ArrrrCamp, I let myself sit alone and skip out on some of the socializing breaks in the afternoon of day 1 because it seemed like it would take more energy than I had left to get out of my seat to go talk to people (I promised myself I'd be better about it the next day, after getting a full night of sleep).

6a. Bring/eat more snacks. I get hangry pretty easily and the conference (being around so many people, attending all these talks I'm trying to pay close attention to, etc.) sucks up a lot of energy, so it would help to compensate for that with more snack consumption.

6b. Sleep more. Probably still won't get normal hours of sleep from being overstimulated, but just aim for as much as you can so you're not knocked off too much from your normal rhythm.

6c. There really are a lot of men around at tech conferences. It's always a bit overwhelming. My method for dealing with it is to let myself take a moment to acknowledge it before diving in to mingle or whatever.

7. I tried to take notes during all the talks I attended but I'd also come up with all sorts of ideas while sitting on talks (like new talk proposal ideas, things to dig into further afterwards, etc). I had a hard time re-finding those notes since I wasn't really taking notes on the talks to go through them again afterwards, but this got easier once I developed a different system for those notes to myself that I wanted to find again. I took notes on a reporter-style spiral notepad and put all my talk-notes on one side of the pages and all my notes-to-self on the other side so that I could flip backwards through and catch all the pages that had the notes I wanted to find again. Putting those notes aside in a draft email also worked.

8. Everyone talked so much about how the “hallway track” (general mingling and meeting new people in the hallways, outside of the talks themselves) would be the best part of the conference but I had a lot of trouble with this at RailsConf. A lot of people were on their laptops, so despite a co-worker's advice to just go up to people and ask them what they were working on, I couldn't bring myself to do that because it felt like I'd be interrupting them and I was afraid they'd be really annoyed about it. Instead, what worked a lot better for me was introducing myself to people that I sat near, before the beginning of the talk. That was a lot more similar to starting up conversations with strangers on public transit with random comments or observations, so I felt more comfortable with that.

8a. Another tactic to try is to bring your fandom or nerdy joke t-shirts to wear. This worked well for me when I wore my Veronica Mars t-shirt on day 2 of AdaCamp earlier this year, since that broadcast a potential shared area of interest to get a conversation going about.

9. When you tweet about the conference, using the hashtag instead of the official conference account handle so that others at the conference will pick up on the hashtag without the official account needing to retweet it.

10. Wear clothes that have pockets in order to not have to lug a bag around, or at most just have a light tote bag for my notepad and pen.

11. I didn't end up handing out all that many business cards. For most people, exchanging Twitter handles was sufficient, so I needn't have packed my whole heavy box of business cards, just brought a few extras.

(Note added 12/8/14: I started numbering this list at 0 because I wrote the post with all the numbers manually, then wanted to go back and add in a first point without having to renumber the rest. So think lazy, more than cutesy programmer numbering logic, lol)