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
- 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 BreakingEvenInc.com 🙂 ).
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.
- 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.