Tech conferences – a four-point survival guide

I go to a lot of conferences.  Some would say too many. In fact, it’s probably around 25 or so a year. So, about one every fortnight (although, like London buses, there may not be one for a bit and then three turn up in the same week).

While some are brilliant – incisive, inspirational, a joy to be at – I sit in others and realise that this is time I will never get back. The trick is, of course, spotting the difference before they lock you in. But I’m not sure I’ve quite cracked that one yet.

So here is my attendees’ guide: Four ways to survive a tech conference.

1: Make it about you

Remember, this is your time – chances are that whatever work you’ve left behind won’t magically disappear while you’re away. In fact, it’s likely to pile up with the same deadlines it had before. So make sure you get what you need out of your chosen conference. If you want to meet people and network, get over your nerves and start speaking to others (after all, you’ve all got something in common just by being there). Likewise, if a conference really isn’t working for you, vote with your feet and go do something else instead.

2: Look for light and shade

I’ve been to some great technical conferences where one genius after another has got up and given detailed explanations of their latest work. The problem is, after a while my head gets full. I need a little time to take in what they’ve said. Yet all of a sudden we’re on to the next guru (and the next). It’s too much. So now, I look for conference agendas that mix it up a bit – some deep tech followed by some more light-hearted geekery.

3: Don’t ignore the newcomers

Big name presenters always get people to sign up for conferences. I’m as much a sucker for superstars as anyone else. But the thing I’ve found is that it’s often the lesser-knowns that inspire me the most. The people doing brand new stuff. They tend to get hidden in breakout session F in a room furthest from the main hall but, more often than not, they’re worth the trek. (BTW this is why at Ubelly, we set up The Critters awards to recognise the best new talent.)

4: Don’t expect training (you won’t get it)

While I always want to learn something I can bring back to Microsoft and use the next day, conferences are not great at training for new skills. If you want that, sign up for small group workshops or one-to-one sessions. Of course, things can go too far the other way. I can’t bear the “thought leader inspiration” talks you get at so many conferences – all self-indulgence and little practical application. Personally, I want practical inspiration – stuff that makes your jaw drop and an explanation of how it was achieved.

For all their sins, conferences are a great way to meet other likeminded people. They help you see the world outside your own particular bubble. And they can be nothing short of inspirational.

My favourite talk from last year was by Phil Hawksworth. Phil is someone, with deep knowledge, passion and a sense of humour. For me these are the key ingredients to great talks and great conferences. (Check out my write-up up his talk on Ubelly.)

So what have been your favourite tech conferences over the last year? What should I book my place for next year? And do you have any tips of your own?

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