by Aisha Blake
A coworker recently came to me for advice on attending his first conference. He was about to leave for Google I/O (he thinks big!) and wasn’t sure how to make the most of it. I answered off the top of my head at the time but it got me thinking about what makes for the best conference experience.
I hope you’ll find these tips useful! The plan is to build out future posts based on many of the topics I touch on here. If there’s anything in particular that you’d like me to expand on sooner rather than later, please reach out via Twitter.
Finished the scavenger hunt! Got my Google Assistant pin! ✊
— Daniel Kaspo (NessDan) (@danielkaspo)
May 8, 2019
I LOVE going to conferences. In 2018, I attended about 20 of them. (My actual full-time job is to write code.) I’ve met such incredible people and had so many opportunities open up just from showing up as best I could at these events! I’m convinced everyone in the industry should try it at least once. Having been to so many conferences in various roles (attendee, speaker, volunteer, organizer, etc.), I’ve gained a ton of first-hand knowledge that I’d like to share.
Disclaimer: I am a raging extrovert and I recognize that events like these can be a lot easier for people like me. Do what you can do without draining yourself dry.
Understand Your Goals
First up: why are you going to this conference? Figure out what you want to gain from this trip. Are you supporting a friend who’s speaking? Are you hoping to connect with a leader in your specialty? Are you looking for a new job (maybe even your first one in the industry)?
Determine what is most important to you right now.
You might have more than one goal and each should influence the way you approach your time at the conference. If your primary objective is to find a job as quickly as possible, focusing on meeting and connecting with recruiters (as well as other folks with influence over the hiring process) is probably a stronger move than going out and exploring the city alone.
Focus on Connecting
Hopefully, you’ll learn a ton at your first conference that you can take back with you and start playing with, even implementing on your team. This could be a new framework, a software pattern you weren’t aware of, or even policies you can apply at an organizational level. Just as important, though, is making connections with new people!
Sit with a stranger.
One of the best (and, for a lot of folks, most challenging) things you can do is walk up and introduce yourself to a stranger. In ordinary life, this is definitely not something I’d recommend. At a conference, though? That stranger could be your next employer, coworker, or best friend. You don’t know!
Hello, #JSHeroes! 👋🏽 I’m here with an adorable little @ConfBuddy pin because I’ve never been here before and want to encourage people to come up and talk! If you’re a little anxious or just looking for a new conference friend, look for the big hair!
— Aisha Blake (@AishaBlake)
April 11, 2019
Be alert to other attendees’ levels of comfort.
A lot of conferences will give attendees buttons, stickers, or pins they can wear to indicate whether or not they’re ready for interaction. In the absence of these sorts of explicit instructions, you’ll need to keep watch for less obvious clues. Someone who isn’t comfortable won’t always come out and say that.
It’s totally fine to open with “Is it okay if I sit here?” or “May I join you?” Don’t assume the answer is yes and be ready to move on if it’s no. If the conversation isn’t flowing or things start to feel awkward, a simple “It was good to meet you! I’m gonna go [grab a seat, meet a friend, toss this trash, mingle].” is a great way to transition out of it.
Nurture your conference friendships.
There’s a fine line that we walk here. On the one hand, you’re likely to meet new people at each event. Continuing to expand your network and your knowledge base is an admirable goal. You also want to avoid keeping only to friends you already know to the exclusion of others.
On the other, you might only see these people at conferences, so you have to take the opportunities you have to reconnect. Interacting online is an option but it’s easy to get overwhelmed or distracted when you’re trying to build relationships via social media. It takes discipline and a focus on time management.
TFW hotel bar is closed but #jsheroes must go on so you raid the minibar @anjanavakil @aishablake @csswizardry @a0viedo @tlakomy @jlengstorf (@ Grand Hotel Italia – @followselect in Cluj-Napoca, Cluj)
— flaki (@slsoftworks)
April 13, 2019
Try to strike the best balance you can. You won’t always get it right and that’s okay!
Exchange contact information.
It may feel a little embarrassing but it’s one tactic that could help you achieve that balance. Call me old fashioned, but I like to get a phone number if it feels appropriate. Next best is an email address if I truly want to follow up with the person in the near future. At the very least, I’ll follow them on Twitter.
— Aisha Blake (@AishaBlake)
April 12, 2019
Social media isn’t my strong suit, but I try because that’s where the developer community seems to be parked for the foreseeable future. The ability to reach out directly to someone you admire in the industry is a significant aspect of both Twitter and tech conferences. Start or jump into a conversation with someone you think is awesome and go from there!
Connect people who can help each other grow.
In the same way that you can insert yourself into a conversation, you have the power to build bridges between other people. Meet someone at lunch who’s looking to learn something you were chatting with your breakfast buddy about? Help them link up! Every time those sorts of introductions are made, the entire community is strengthened.
On a very practical note, you gotta be comfortable if you expect your body to last through the whole event.
Wear shoes you can walk in for hours.
My boyfriend calls my Vibram Five Fingers “weird toe shoes” but I love them for long days full of walks clear across the venue to get to my next session. They allow me to move freely and they can be easily swapped into a variety of outfits. Bonus: they also function as a conversation starter! For the last several years, I’ve consistently had people stop me to ask “Are those comfortable? How long did it take you to get used to them?”
To be clear, the concept extends to folks who don’t walk as well. Wear whatever you need to maximize your time and comfort at the conference and know that this will probably mean moving from place to place a lot. Wear whatever gloves, pads, braces, or inserts will keep you going the longest! If you think you might need a mobility aid, don’t be afraid to reach out to the conference organizers so that they can arrange with the venue to have something on hand.
Clothing that you feel amazing in can act like emotional armor.
Especially when I’m speaking, I make it a point to appear overtly femme, wearing my very favorite skirts and dresses. I do this for a couple of reasons. The first has to do with the way women are underestimated and undervalued in the tech industry. If I’m going to be in the spotlight, I choose to embrace that power as well as the distinctly feminine parts of me.
The second reason is quite simple: it makes me feel fabulous! Knowing my outfit is on point gives me an extra layer of confidence and helps me move through the conference with more pride and grace than I’d have if I’d just tossed on my usual stretch pants and t-shirt on my way out the door.
People who know me would probably tell you that I say “yes” a little too often. That may be so, but I still stand by this advice! Most of the very best experiences I’ve ever had were because I went after an opportunity that presented itself.
Conference You has a chance to do things Average You has been too scared to try.
This is it! You’ve got the structure of the conference around you to fall back on but you’re most likely out of your usual element. You don’t know most of the people around you and you may be in a totally new place. What better time than this to jump up onstage and do a lightning talk? or taste another culture’s food? or play capture the flag for the first time? or try snorkeling?
Off to a good start! Taking a tour of Cluj and learning a lot about the history of the city.
— Aisha Blake (@AishaBlake)
April 10, 2019
If you don’t feel safe, it’s okay to say “no”.
Don’t take it too far. Despite appearances, there is absolutely no reason for you to drink if you don’t want to, not all the cool kids are hanging out with the speakers at that post-conference party, and you’re likely to find stimulating conversation via the hallway track if you don’t spend every moment in a session.
Keep your mental health and personal safety top of mind. If you need a rest, find a chair where you can read or nap. Want time to yourself? Head back to the hotel or see if the conference has a Quiet Room. Feeling threatened by another attendee? Grab an organizer, a volunteer, or whoever is listed in the code of conduct as the appropriate contact.
Live Your Best Life
All that said, of course different people are going to love different parts of any event. The important thing is to identify what you want out of your next conference and then use whichever of these tips you think will help you get there!
If you’re looking for that next event, consider checking out self.conference! It takes place here in Detroit every year, co-organized by me and other equally wonderful people. If you can’t make it or want to support the mission, you can always become a patron.
What are some of your tips for conference newbies? Hit me up on Twitter and let me know!
Aisha Blake is an Application Developer at Detroit Labs with a deep love for the Detroit tech community. She’s taught web development to people of all ages in bootcamps, workshops, and online courses. Aisha runs self.conference and <title of conf> and has traveled all across the US to speak on web accessibility, diversity & inclusion in tech, and how to give feedback fearlessly. She is down for anything as long as there are puppies and/or karaoke involved.
If you’re looking to network with other devs, join our CoLabs Community and we’ll get you connected at our next meetup!