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.


How to be the worst web designer ever

After rescuing some sites this past month I’ve been inspired me to make a list summarizing all the messes I’ve had to help cleanup over the years. I’ve written this as an advice column for any bad web hosts or designers who just haven’t quite perfected the art of truly sucking to the point of being the ‘worst ever’.

"What? You want to access your own site? Sorry, only I can make changes. Good thing I brought my computer to the beach with me..."
"What? You want to access your own site? Sorry, only I can make changes. I'll get to it as soon as possible but I'm really busy right now."

Account Access:

  • Keep all account passwords to yourself, make your client has to contact you for any change (and charge them for 1/2 hour work for any changes)
  • Host their site under an account where you host other sites so you can’t give them full ftp/shell access to their files. This ensures they can never download a full copy of their site without asking you first, and that they realize their entire internet presences exists at your whim and they should be grateful you’re providing these services for them.
  • If you have to actually give a whiny client access to their own site;
    • Only give them the most minimal level of access possible so they can’t possibly mess up YOUR work.
    • Make sure you don’t explain how to do anything useful like add new items to their menus or how the site is organized so they are confused and have to contact you to make change even though they could have done it themselves.
    • A nice touch here is to give them their own account but make all the files in that account owned by root or another account, so they can just see the files but not actually use them.

Domain Names:

  • Host their site on a domain you own and that has nothing to do with their site. On the internet no one cares about the actual domain names, people just click on links so the words in the domain don’t matter.
  • If you actually have to get them their own domain;
    • Register the domain of their choice, but do it under your name.
    • Charge them more than what it cost you for the registration, hey they don’t know any better and it took you time to do it.
    • Be sure to encourage them to get as long a name as possible so it has lots of keywords but near impossible to remember or tell anyone over the phone.
    • Use a really expensive registrar like Network Solutions and register their domain(s) under your account so they can’t access it themselves.
    • Make sure they get domain ID protection and lots of other useless services that the domain registrar offers (and with domain protection they wont know it’s under your name. Tee Hee!)
    • Encourage them to get every possible variation of their domain (.net, .org, info, .cc) but then never actually point any of those to the site.
    • OR Better yet, point them all to the site and make each one work independently, that way google will crawl all of them and the site will show up multiple times in search results. I mean, what are the odds google would notice or care about duplicate content?
    • Set their domain to redirect or frame yours in it so they don’t ever actually have access to the account where it’s stored.
  • When/if they ever wise up and want to move to another host hold this domain for ransom, you bought it, you own it! So what if it’s their business name, this domain is yours. If they don’t pay your ransom be sure to either keep renewing it so they can never get it back on their own, or better yet if they are ignorant about how domain registrations work let it expire and let spammers & domain vultures get a hold of it before they realize they could have gotten it back. This way not only is their domain gone but spammers will fill it with all sorts of unsavory content that will insult and scare away any of their clients who visit.

Other services & licenses:

  • Sign up for all 3rd party services associated with this site using your own e-mail accounts & logins.

    "I like taking technology shortcuts that make my life easier. You know, because it's all about me the web designer."
    "Great job team, we've fit every imaginable keyword in their domain name and we've filled every page with keyword heavy text that wont make sense to any humans, but google is gonna LOVE this. Pagerank #1 here we come!"
  • Make sure they client pays you for all licenses and support contracts, but keep them all under your name, after all YOU’RE the one who has to support this site, not the owner.

Search Engine Optimization

  • Be sure to Search Engine ‘De-optimize’ their site whenever possible (this way you can charge them more to do this part right later on)
  • Don’t use any unique page titles, headines or tags. Use a plugin or other tool to block any external links from the site so no other sites even know you’re linking to them.
  • Put as much text as possible on the site using images of that text (and without alt tags).
  • Don’t turn on permalink/Search-Engine-Friendly link so all URLs look like ?page-id=123 
  • If you do use a permalink/Search-Engine-Friendly link make sure to have it auto add the .htm or .html at the end of every URL because that way it looks ‘real’ and official like one of those fancy hand made html sites from the 90’s.
  • Put every keyword possible into the text & title of your site. There’s lots of room for a nice long title so be sure to put as much as possible up there. If possible sprinkle these keywords as many times as possible all over your pages text too. Don’t worry if this makes your site unreadable by actual visitors, your search engine rankings will skyrocket!
  • "Don't  worry, I put my name on the bottom of  every page on your site. Now  everyone will know what a top notch web designer you hired!"
    "Don't worry, I put my name on the bottom of every page on your site. Now everyone will know what a top notch web designer you hired!"

Site Content

  • Be sure to put a ‘This site designed by’ link at the bottom of every page. Don’t ask the client if they are ok with you doing this, just do it and imply that it’s standard practice, after all you deserve credit for your ‘art’. After all dogs mark their territory, shouldn’t you?
  • If you have to include any code libraries to assist with various features on your site be sure to set it to load these from the source site instead of having them stored locally on your server. That way your site visitors can load stuff from another site and decrease the load on your server, so what if they have to wonder why their browser is connecting to yahoo etc when they visit your site.
  • Put the entire site on one really long page and just have the links at the top jump to anchors later on. Sure it takes a while to load and you have to scroll for 5 minutes to reach the bottom but it’s REALLY fast after that!
  • Images
    • Don’t make thumbnails of any images, just resize the whole 10 megapixel photo to be 200 x 300. Everyone has broadband now right, so what if it takes longer to load?
    • Along these same lines, be sure to set all graphics to load off the site you found them at, they won’t notice or mind the additional bandwidth to their site.
    • Make sure you ignore any copyright limitations when you link to other peoples art & photos, hey if it’s on the net it’s free game.
    • Use a Flash wrapper for all your photos so they cant be viewed at all on ipods & ipads or other smaller mobile devices.
    • If you make any images or logos for a client only give them the file for the size they need for the site. The original layout file is your art and they shouldn’t have access to that. That way when they need to use anything in a print publication later on it insures more business for you! K’ching!
Hey, holding out on previously promised work for more money at a critical moment really worked! Pleasure to coerce you!
Hey, holding out on previously promised work for more money at a critical moment really worked! Pleasure to coerce you!
  • Do everything with poorly coded HTML and don’t test it in multiple browsers. It looked good on your machine, that’s all that matters.
  • Alt tags take a long time, son don’t bother. Visually challenged people or those using text only browsers don’t visit your site anyways so why cater to them?
  • Use lots of frames and tables within tables within tables so any hand editing of the HTML will drive folks nuts.
  • When handcoding be sure to embed the CSS in each page instead of using a central shared one, that way you can bill more hours for any minor aesthetic changes.
  • If your client demands a CMS (content management system), be sure to use something expensive, or something custom coded and proprietary instead of a free open source solution that they could use elsewhere. This way clients can never move their site elsewhere without completely rebuilding it with since they are bound to your software. Charge more per month for this privilege.
  • Have contact forms go to you and then forward the e-mails to the client as appropriate. Claim this is because you are filtering spam on their behalf.  To be extra slick, charge them extra for this ‘service’.
  • Stall finishing the site until it’s time critical and then ask for more money. If they refuse then stop responding to them, especially when they find a new web designer willing to help take over.
  • Put things like mailing address and phone number on an obscure page buried deep in the menu heirarchy. Who needs a phone number or physical address when they are on the internet? If anyone really needs the phone number they can use the phone book or can call information. Extra nice touch here, do this all within an image so the data can’t easily be copied & pasted, or crawled by google.

RSS Feeds

  • Remove all links & RSS features from the site since after all if you don’t understand what it is it must not be important.
  • Point all unique RSS feeds on the site to a single RSS feed of just your main page. This will stop people from being able to follow or monitor a single category or tag. You don’t want people to easily find or follow what they care about, it’s all or nothing baby!
  • Make sure your RSS feed only includes a very short summary of the post, after all you want people to visit the site, not actually read the content. If they read the content somewhere else that doesn’t help the webstats, and that’s all that matters.
  • How about we ignore RSS feeds and anything else we don't understand? Maybe they'll magically go away...
    How about we ignore RSS feeds and anything else we don't understand? Maybe they'll magically go away...

Other Suggestions

  • If they are smart enough to leave you for another host/designer call & e-mail their new host and claim you own their site design and will sue them & your former client if they don’t remove it immediately. Google around and find some semi-legalese about copyright laws that may or not apply to this and paste references to them into your letter just so you sound more official and threatening. Be sure to cc a friend of yours and say in the letter you are cc-ing your lawyer.

About this post – In the past month I was asked to help rescue several different websites from bad webhosts &/or bad web designers. Dealing with helping them get things fixed and moved is tedious but also strangely satisfying. Why satisfying?

  1. Folks are grateful someone is willing to help them in a fair and reasonable manner, even when they are in need and desparate and would probably pay extra.
  2. They appreciate the personal service and ‘extra mile’ effort required and are likely to be long term customers. Sometimes they even blog about it and give us a great referral to their friends.
  3. And mostly, somewhere out there on the net a really ill-informed or just plain mean webhost/designer just lost an income stream. Karma!

Dealing with these sites inspired me to make this list summarizing all the messes I’ve had to help cleanup over the years. I’ve written this as an advice column for any bad web hosts or designers who just haven’t quite perfected the art of truly sucking to the point of being the ‘worst ever’. However, even if you are just a mere website owner, you may want to read this list. If any of these procedures match your current web host or designers standard practice, well maybe you should ask them about that. OR, if you want an objective full audit of your site & setup Nicole @ Breaking Even Communications and I offer a ‘Website Audit Service‘ which covers a broad list of areas we check, and the best thing .. if we find anything that needs work and you choose to hire us to help clean it up (not required), then we’ll credit the cost of the audit towards the work. I didn’t intend for this post to be a sales pitch about this but it just fit naturally so, why not?

  • Disclaimer: In case any web designers/hosts I’ve cleaned up after when helping your former clients happen to read this post and think some of these apply to them – These are in no particular order and do not necessarily reflect any websites I or Svaha LLC host or have assisted with at any time (but between you and me, you know who you are, and shame on you!)
  • All photos included here are from and have been used under the Creative Commons license. Because another worst web designer thing to do is use someone else’s content without properly attributing it.
  • Special thanks to Nicole @ Breaking Even Communications for her assistance with this entry (No seriously, as in actual help in writing it, not the “inspirational” help many other designers gave me when I encountered their messes).