Matt’s Tech Conference Survival Tips

Matt’s tips for getting the most out of attending a tech conference/training.

I’ve been working professionally in IT for over 20 years (and really if you count studying and hobby work it’s really over 30 years). I’ve attended a number of trainings, workshops and conferences during that time and I’ve learned some survival tips that help me get the most out of these events. Note – I’d like to think I’m unique.. just like everyone else :), but I doubt all my tips work for everyone. Find what works for you and ignore the rest, I won’t take it personally.

“Talk to Strangers” or “Do As I Say Not As I Do”

First off, full disclosure, when it comes to attending a conference where I don’t know anyone, I am pretty…ok very… introverted. I don’t think I spoke with anyone at all at WordCamp Saratoga last year beyond saying hello when I checked in (and for the record, this was all me, they were very welcoming and friendly, I’m just not great at starting conversations with strangers), and while at WordCamp Boston I attended with a friend who convinced me to attend the afterparty, at which I quickly found a corner and stood their awkwardly for a good hour as they socialized. This recent Onion article pretty much hit the nail on the head when it comes to me at parties with strangers. I’ve been told (via twitter :)) that I’m missing out on some of the major benefits of these conferences, that networking is a major perk that I should be participating in.

In a recent workshop on Freelancing the presenter said ‘Today’s networking contacts are tomorrow’s clients’.

SO… long story short, this blog post about the benefits of attending WordCamps & Tech conferences is missing a major benefit that ‘normal’ people would probably get; meeting other people. I’m working on improving things on this front, but it’s a challenge.

So my advice here… if possible… be social. Remember these aren’t scary “normal” people, odds are that everyone else there is probably a ‘geek’ to some degree as well (and quite possibly introverted to some degree as well). Conferences are social…“It’s social… demented and sad, but social” – The Breakfast Club

If you’re the smartest person in the room,
you’re in the wrong room.
” –

  • Pick topics that challenge you – I remember once reading a quote along the lines of  ‘Don’t take on any project unless you’ll learn something from it’. So my take away here is when given a choice, choose the topic that pushes your boundaries, even if some of it goes over your head.  While it’s very humbling to attend workshops where I am reminded that I’m a ‘small fish’ when it comes to the web design / coding world (and often reminded of this by someone 20 years younger than me). I figure that’s a good place to be, right in the middle. Some talks at these conferences are very ‘deep dive’ coding level which is just way beyond where I’m at, and others are more intro level or focused on topics that are more about ‘How to blog’ or ‘How to market your blog’ which aren’t of much interest to me (mainly cause if I ever need help on these fronts I just ask Nicole at 🙂 ).
    I’m usually looking for talks that don’t require extensive programming skills, but also assume that I know all the basics of how to install, setup and manage a WordPress site. Usually these involve an in depth focus on a specific feature in WordPress, like Custom Post Types or optimizing your web hosting setup for WordPress, or sometimes it’s about how someone is using WordPress to solve a particular problem, like Cameron Barrett’s “WordPress for Schools (my favorite presentation from WordCamp Saratoga 2014)
  • Kick it Old School – Use Paper notebook & pens – Don’t use your tablet, phone or laptop to take notes. If you are using something electronic you’ll get distracted by e-mail, calendar pop-ups, bouncing icons, txt messages, unfinished documents etc. Go old school, get a nice notebook (I REALLY like Behance Behance Action Method, Action Journal).
    • Write down quotes or topics that catch your attention. Yes, odds are you’ll get a copy of the slides later and they may even post a video of the talk, but really, will you actually go back to look at them? Any bullet points or quotes you scribble are more likely to be seen again later.
    • If you’re bored, doodle or write some off topic notes on another page, but avoid the distracting tech. “There’ll be time enough for counting, when the dealings done.” – Kenny Rogers, The Gambler
    • Oh and not having a glowing screen to annoy and distract those sitting next to you is good too.
    • If you’re workshop requires you do something on your laptop, quit all open applications besides what you need. Avoid the temptation to send a quick e-mail etc. If you do next thing you know the talk will be over and you’ll have missed a lot of it.
  • Twitter
    • Hashtags FTW – While I said above to not use tech during the workshops, in between them I actually do like to use my gadgets and I’ve found it’s useful to have a twitter search for the hashtag for your conference. Find out what other people are commenting on.
    • Search the hashtag & Follow the tweeters – I tend to follow everyone who tweets about the conference using the conference hashtag, figuring if they are ‘like-minded’ geeks odds are their future tweets might be of interest too. Often they follow me back and I can feel popular and important :), better yet, later when I tweet a question I often get a response since these other tech-savvy folks are following me and provide a quick answer. I’ve also found later that while I cant remember when I started following someone in the past, suddenly all the people tweeting at a different conference are people I already follow. It’s a small world after all.
    • Tweet it out – Remember those quotes you wrote down earlier. Tweet those. Ask questions of others. Say thank you to the speakers & organizers (they are watching and will appreciate it). Just remember the hashtag and POOF people are actually listening.

Bring a mini-powerstrip – Often outlets are at a premium, if you have a power strip that can not only allow you to share an outlet with someone else, but even a few other people you’ll be instantly popular 🙂 Find one that is small and only has 3 or 4 outlets, maybe a USB charge port, that’s all you’ll need. Something like Monster MP OTG400 BK Outlets To Go Power Strip – 4 AC Outlets – Black

Bring a battery to charge your phone – Since outlets are at a premium, and you’re not going to be using your laptop during the presentations (see notebook advice above) odds are it may be inconvenient to charge your phone. If you have a small phone charging battery, bring that and cable so you can secretly charge your phone in your backpack during presentations.

Grab swag – There are vendors there looking to give away stuff, really it’s ok, they brought it to give away and odds are they don’t want to have to carry back to their car at the end of the day. Take what you want, or stuff others might want.

Talk with the vendors – Even if you’re not currently interested in their product, it’s always good to know who offers what. You might need that information at a later date, and odds are if they are sponsoring a conference, they aren’t that bad, go say hello.

Business Cards – Old school but effective, it doens’t hurt to have a card to share with folks. Use the back to jot down a reminder of where they got this card from and what you two wanted to talk more about.


My response to David Rovic’s essay “How Facebook killed the internet”

I’m on the mailing for an independent progressive musician I really like, David Rovics. He recently wrote an essay on his blog titled ‘How Facebook killed the internet‘.

I thought it brought up a lot of good points and it made me think, something I admit much of what arrives in my inbox does not do.

In a random and unexpected burst of creativity and verbosity I wrote the following response to him via e-mail … and then I decided to post it here too since it’s been a long time since I wrote anything unique here. I’m sure my regular readers, if any, have been eagerly awaiting more from me 🙂

(Oh and for those of you who know my father, I’m well aware that I suspect I sound a lot like him in the following note 🙂 )


Interesting essay David, a lot of good points and ideas. I think the title is a little bit ‘Click bait’, perhaps a better title could have been ‘The internet is dead. Long live the internet’ 🙂

I wonder if the same things were said by folks when books became more prevalent, or maybe when newspapers and magazines started appearing. Or when radios first started getting popular, or television. All of those were paradigm shifts where suddenly more information and content became available than was previously imaginable and I’m sure they all seemed overwhelming to those experiencing it. I’ve heard stories that the music industry was deeply against radio when it first became available, and that the movie studios hated the idea of VCRs, and TV stations hated the idea of tivo. Napster & Bittorrent scared the bejeezus out of the music industry, yet by many counts it brought about the revolution that brought us ipods and removed the music industries model of buying ‘albums’. Currently the cable companies are scrambling to deal with the idea that people can stream almost all their content and don’t need cable packages and bundles.

I don’t disagree with the premise of your essay though, I agree that things have changed and surely there is a lot of noise coming from … well.. everywhere. But at the same time, while now anyone can publish or broadcast, for cheap or free, well… ANYONE can publish or broadcast for cheap, or free.

Two sides to the same coin. The ‘double edged sword’ metaphor comes to play once again.

We can also now all choose what we want to read, watch, listen to if we are willing to ‘find’ or ‘pull’ that content down, as opposed to just watching what is ‘fed’ to us. Your essay mentions that in the past you observed many people asleep on public transportation, whereas now they are playing games or reading Facebook. Is that really a step backward? Seems to be just another form of sleep. I realize your point was in the past people were reading books, whereas now the games and social media have taken their place, but to assume all social media is pictures of kittens and pop-culture is also an assumption (though I admit, most of it is the internet equivalent of white noise).

But today, even super niche focused content creators could potentially find an audience. 20 years ago I might have known you were out there, and I might attend a concert if you were in my area and I happened to see it listed in Dirty Linen or someone told me about it. I could mail order a CD from you, but besides that I’d just know you that ‘Bonnie’s brother’ was out there somewhere and I should check him out sometime.

I certainly would never imagine I’d communicate with a musician directly in a letter form, heck I have enough trouble buying a CD from the actual performer, let alone talking with them as if they were mortal (ok perhaps I’m unique in feeling that folk musicians are akin to rock stars, but humor me).

So with all the noise coming from all directions, does cream still rise to the top? I would like to think so, but perhaps that’s just me being optimistic. I’m sure some good stuff never gets airtime. I guess what I’m saying is, we can all, if we choose to, hand pick our own ‘cream’. Perhaps a poor metaphor, and I guess it remains to be seen how things go. I don’t think all hope is lost, though I admit there are powerful forces pushing things in the wrong direction.

But..(sadly)… haven’t there always been?

I guess the pessimist in me says that, as it has been, only the properly populist filtered and crafted content will get the ‘air time’ where anything unique and different will become obscured and ignored. On the other hand the optimist in me says that we’re still in that ‘golden age’ where anyone could create something, whether it’s a thought provoking essay, song or movie and have it go ‘viral’ whether the powers & forces that be want it to or not.

It seems like every piece of media eventually gets ‘too big to fail’ and then is unexpectedly toppled by the next one to come along. The way you describe the internet now makes me think that if it’s all become noise and it all seems like it’s beyond it’s useful lifespan, that maybe we’re on the cusp of another ‘paradigm shift’. You pointed out areas where our current infrastructure is lacking and previous media succeeded, so there are ‘holes’ that need to be filled… better mousetraps are waiting to be created.

The human race and it’s creativity remain bigger and more diverse than any big corporation or government can predict or control. New technologies, ideas, etc could catch fire tomorrow and topple facebook, twitter, apple, google, etc.

Perhaps the laws of physics apply, with every action that dehumanizes the internet and communication another action of equal and proportion occurs to help foster new communities and communication.

Thanks for listening (or at least I like to imagine that you might actually have the time to read this unexpected e-mail).

I may even blog this, who knows, maybe someone else might read it and I might actually spur an unscripted idea in someone else 🙂

May we live in interesting times.

I’m glad you’re out there. Thanks for all you do and all your ideas & thoughts, you certainly are one of my hand-picked content sources.

Best wishes.