I’m lucky enough to attend a lot of conferences – in Chicago, Vegas, Charlotte, Amsterdam, and Stockholm over the next six weeks – and I’ve put together two systems that work well for me.
When Your Employer is Paying the Bill
Your #1 goal – even above learning things or meeting people – is to get your employer to pay for it again next year.
To pull that off, ask your manager, “What’s the one thing you want me to bring back? Is there a problem that you want help solving, or a category of tools you want to know about, or a group of people you want me to meet?” Usually your boss has at least one burning question that they want the answer to, and if you come back with that answer, you’re golden.
Ask your coworkers the same question.
Write these things down.
At the conference, find these things out as soon as possible. Write the answers down. As soon as you’ve got them documented, you can spend all the time you want learning things, meeting people, and partying – without feeling guilty.
On the flight home, build a short slide deck with the answers.
Email it to your manager and coworkers, and offer to do a short 15-minute presentation recapping the answers, plus anything else you found really eye-opening.
After that session, walk into your boss’s office and say, “Did you get the value you wanted out of that? Yes? Great. They’re offering an early bird registration for next year’s conference – here’s the registration form. Can I sign up again?”
When You are Picking Up Your Own Tab
First, find out how to get the session recordings for later. There’s going to be a bunch of sessions happening simultaneously that you’ll want to attend, and you can’t. Buy the recordings or find out where they’ll be published, and now you won’t feel guilty about missing sessions.
Then, miss all of the sessions.
No, seriously – make a list of the people that you want to meet – your peers, your idols, vendors, whatever. And do it.
These are the people who will get you your next jobs, solve your next problem for you, or get you your first conference session. Talk to them. At least one of them isn’t going to suck, and you will have a good time.
Some of them might even be presenting, and you’ll be tempted to attend, but don’t feel guilty if you can’t. Instead, go to their room when their session is ending, wait in line with the question-askers, and listen to the questions they ask. You’ll get a sense for the presenter’s real personality there as they handle questions. When they’re done, ask ’em to join you for coffee or lunch, or just hang out in the hallway talking shop.
No Matter Who Pays the Bill
Skip the vendor keynotes and lunches. Conference organizers hate it when I say this because the vendor is paying big bucks to get up in front of all the attendees. Thing is, these are almost always pure spam, and they’re rarely even done well. You’ll get much more value out of having breakfast with people on your list – because many of those people won’t bother with vendor keynotes either.
Ask the people on your list what they’re doing for dinner. When I find somebody’s work fascinating – like their blog or their Twitter feed – I usually find their non-work stuff interesting too. Warning: call me a diva, but at conferences, I like having quiet dinners with my business partners, because we rarely get the chance to spend time in person together. If you catch me at SQL Rally Amsterdam or Stockholm, though, let’s do this.
Carry a tablet, not a laptop. You probably won’t have elbow room in most sessions, and if you find yourself mesmerized in your laptop, you shouldn’t be in the session anyway. Remember why you’re here – get the hell out of the session and talk to people on your list.
Carry a water bottle and healthy snacks. It’s tempting to “grab coffee” with a bunch of people that you want to meet, but after several of those in one day, you’re going to be a jittery mess. Throw in the after-hours booze and you’ll be miserable after the first day. Pace yourself – after hours, consider sparkling water. (If you’re presenting, you shouldn’t be drinking at all unless you’re determined to get crappy feedback scores.)
Find the Twitter hash tag for the conference. Even if you’re not an avid Twitter user, sign up and follow that hash tag in your Twitter app. You’ll know what’s going on, where it’s happening, and you can easily strike up conversations with people you want to meet. If you see that someone on your list is at a particular coffee shop, go there. Stick out your palm. Don’t be afraid – we all suck at this. (Yes, especially me.)
Wear your name tag, and add your Twitter handle if applicable. Nobody remembers who anybody else is. We’re all overwhelmed with faces that we’ve never seen before. Don’t feel guilty for looking at name tags and then saying, “Oh, I know you!”
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Presenters want to help – that’s why they’re here. Believe me, I lose my shirt when I present at conferences, and the free vendor t-shirts don’t make up for it. But at the same time…
But be respectful of other attendees. If you’re standing in line to ask a question after a presentation, and you’ve got a long, drawn-out question that involves looking at your laptop or picking someone’s brain, wait until the other attendees have finished asking their questions, and then offer to buy the person coffee.
If you’re flying out on the last day, ask about a luggage drop-off when you pick up your badge. Most conferences have a secure luggage area on the last day so you can check out of your hotel, bring your bags to the conference, and leave them in the secured area rather than dragging them around.
Fill out the session evaluations. Presenters want to know how to get better, and conference organizers want to improve your options next year.