As I sit here and prepare my liver for the onslaught coming next week (ZendCon, of course), I can’t help but think about those folks that’ll be attending the conference. I’ve been trying to think back to the first time I went to a PHP conference (php|tropics represent) and how I felt walking about with the people I’d only knew by name from books, blogs and articles I’d read. I was actually sitting there learning from *the* Wez Furlong and was there with *the* Andrei Zmievski learning about PHP and it was amazing and thought provoking and I felt like I could write and do anything while I was there, surrounded by all these great minds.
Fast forward a few years to 2009 and you’ll find me still attending conferences and still enjoying getting to be around some of the big thinkers in the PHP community, but it’s just different. It’s not the talks or the evening events – those are all pretty much the same. No, I’ve definitely changed my expectations of conferences and I think it’s something that can easily happen to any attendee, speaker or not: you forget.
Yup, two simple words sums it up. You’ve been to one conference, maybe three and the sameness of it all starts to catch up with you. You follow some of the same patterns: you wake up, you drink enough coffee to make it through the first session, head to a few more, then lunch and on through the afternoon. Lather, rinse, repeat for the remaining days of the conferences. You can see how it’s easy to get in a rut and just coast your way through the conference absorbing what you can and drifting out the other side to an airplane that will take you back home.
Here’s another two words for you – speaker or not, conference attendee or organizer: wake up! As much as it pains me to say it (being a speaker and all), these events are *not* about the talks. Want me to repeat that? Conferences are *not* about the talks. I think Keith hit the nail on the head with some of his comments in a recent post talking about the “hallway track” and meeting people. Conference organizers will promote the sessions and the panels and talks they’ve managed to pull in with the big names, both in the PHP community and outside it. They want you to come and see these people and feel good that you sat in a room listening to the folks that took a chunk out of their conference budget. This makes them happy and they hope it makes you happy.
I can tell you one thing from my years of going to PHP conferences – if you listen to them, you’re missing out on the best part of the conference. See, the other benefit of having large events like this that companies can feel good about sending their employees to is…well…that it’s a large event with lots of people at it. That’s the key right there – the people. Enlightenment is fun, but sitting around having beers with the “internet famous” people you know from blogs and articles is so much more interesting. I’ll say it again just to be sure it sinks in – conferences are not about the sessions, they’re about the people.
So, what can you do to make sure you get the most out of your conference experience? I’m going to blatently steal some of these ideas from Keith but with a few of my own dropped in:
- Sessions are interesting, but people are fun – there are a *ton* of sessions happening at ZendCon this year. So much so that I have no clue where I’ll end up. Chances are, you’ve picked out a schedule that interests you and are just waiting to know which room they’re in. Do me a favor – each day, pick one talk that you’re on the edge about (yeah, you know the one) and don’t go. Yup, that’s right – don’t go, hang out in the hall or commons area or something. If you’re hesitant to go, chances are you’d just sit there and check your email or chat on IRC most of the time anyway. Do yourself a favor and get out and meet people. This kind of thing only comes around every once and a while, so make the most of it!
- Make connections – Keith recommends business cards because they’re easy, but I’d say take it a step beyond that. Really get to know people – it’s funny how a “camp” atmosphere can help people bond more quickly than usual. Take advantage of this time and really talk with people – go beyond the “hi, so what do you do?” kind of thing and find out who someone is, why they’re there and something interesting about them. Then exchange the cards…and IMs…and IRC nicks…etc. Get to know these developers! They’re your comrades-in-arms, after all!
- After-hours For The Win – The conference will have events after each of the full days of talks, that’s pretty much a given with any sort of conference. It’s what happens after that is some of the real fun. No, you don’t have to go out and party until the break of dawn (though there’s sometimes that too). I’m always a little bit disappointed that more people don’t stick around to hang out after whatever evening events might be going on. They scatter to the four corners of the hotel, not to be seen again until the start of the next day’s sessions. If you’re one of those types, trust me – being out just a bit longer won’t kill you. Plus you get an *amazing* benefit from it…you get to see people, speakers and non-speakers, how they are “off the clock”. Once the day is done, no one has to report to the next talk or worry about what the conference organizers will think. They sit down, stretch out and shake down until they’re just them. *This* is when real conversations start. If it hadn’t been for this time of the day joind.in might not even exist. Come, relax and just enjoy being around people – it doesn’t matter if they’re speakers, core developers or rockstars.
I could be cheeky and say that it’s not a good conference if you can remember it 🙂
Jokes aside, though, very good points. Conferences are meant to be a two-way (or indeed, a multi-way) experience: if you just sit around watching someone else speak, you miss out in the unique opportunity to interact with people who share your very same needs, aspirations and experiences. Well said!
I was just thinking the other day that I’ve sort of lost track of which sessions I’ve caught where… which is odd because I used to do writeups of all of them. Now, I tend to remember what happened over lunch, who I met after hours, and what ideas where being kicked around.
* I remember the first ZendCon because I met Mike Ho of QCodo and learned how MVC and Active Record really worked.
* The second ZendCon was where Eli decided that he could tolerate me. I also dove into Ohloh and passed around CodeSniffer tricks to various people and was in a ZF board meeting getting to know Bill Karwin a bit. I met the NC State guys who I’d later go to BarCampRDU with.
* At the next one, I launched a beta of a startup after hours while trying to prepare for my presentation. I think I met LizN too.
* Last year was the unconference, our conversation about Joind.in, the hotel bar, and general chaos throughout.
* At tek this year, I learned some amazing ways of handling Model design from Matthew Weier O’Phinney and found and recruited a new member of web2project.
Only a few of those were sessions. The sessions blur together after a while because they serve as the spark for the inferno of hallway and after hour conversations.
I agree with the spirit of what you’re saying, but not with how boldly you make your case.
I think conferences are about the talks, too.
The people, and perhaps the best parts of conferences, are best experienced in the hallways and at evening events, but the talks provide the foundation: the topics, the tone, the people, and perhaps the spirit.
Your suggestions will help people get the most out of a conference experience, but you come pretty close to creating a false dichotomy. They can do all of these things and listen to a lot of talks, too.
On a slightly-related note, joind.in rocks. 🙂
The greatest part of Dallas’s very first national-scale PHP event (the recently concluded Codeworks ’09 Roadshow) was meeting these people after their workday was done. I’ve traded emails with a few of them over the past few years, but there’s a world of difference between knowing somebody via text versus actually speaking with them for a while. We computer-oriented people sometimes underestimate the sheer entertainment value of that. The PHP community is far more than a collection of text messages and mailing lists. It’s at its very best face to face, especially when it can involve good food and no schedule.
I think your assertions are true for a group of us. There is a group who go to conferences just to catch up, meet new people “work the room” find new jobs, etc. However, I don’t think that’s the majority of the attendees.
There is a large contingent of conference attendees who ARE there just to see the sessions, to learn from THE Wez Furlong and THE Chris Shiflett. I don’t think these people are wrong in any way but I don’t think we need to marginalize them either.
I’ve now hosted two of the major PHP conferences and spoken with attendees from both of them. Both conferences have had groups who are there for the networking opportunities and groups that are really there for the sessions.
Good conference organizers plan for both groups. They bring a good mix of speakers covering a wide range of topics AND they actively plan for the hallway track, making sure there is adequate room for the conversations to be held.
@chris & @calevans agreed…the talks are important and quite useful, especially for those just getting their feet wet with the language. Those big names are good to bring them in and keep them coming back – I just don’t want them to miss out on the whole other level they could be a part of if they move outside the bounds of the planned tracks.
No, it’s not for everyone, but it could be…it is a community, after all, and what’s a community without its members? 🙂
I read your post, thought about an answer, scrolled down only to find out Cal had written exactly what I thought. So RT: Cal Evans on this post. 🙂