drmorr's Hot Conference Tips!
You won't believe #17!
Hey all, it’s been quiet for a couple weeks around here. I’ve been heads-down trying to get my stuff together for my KubeCon talk, which is in—checks watch—6 days (at time of writing).1 But I think I mostly have everything put together for my presentation, so I’m hoping to be back at a more regular level of output here now. I’m certain I will have a ton of material to discuss after the conference next week, in any event.
I dunno if this is tired ground or not, but I’ve been to “a few” conferences before, and I really truly love attending them. I think going to conferences is one of the most fun parts of the job, but it also can be exhausting and hard. So I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to share some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned towards making conference attendance an enjoyable and beneficial experience. I hope maybe this post is useful to you, whether you’re going to your first conference ever, or your hundredth!
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1. Think about your goals for the conference.
The work of going to a conference starts well before the actual event happens. Once you’ve registered and gotten all your travel logistics (if any) sorted, you should start thinking about what you want out of the conference. Are you just there to watch some cool talks and learn something new? Do you really want to meet new people? Are you looking for a job? Are you trying to promote your own cool project? Are you there as an advocate or as a mentor for somebody else? Are you just there for the free swag from the vendors?2
There’s no “right” answer to these questions, and you probably will be attending for several different reasons, but what you want out of the conference will (or should) shape how you approach it. If you just want to learn some cool stuff, maybe plan to attend lots of talks. If you want to network and meet people, you should identify some folks ahead of time that you definitely want to talk to, and then plan on spending a lot of time in the hallway track. And so on. In short—your conference goals should be driving your conference activities.3
2. Accept that you can’t do everything.
Especially at a big conference like KubeCon (but even at smaller conferences) there is going to be way more stuff happening than any one person can do. If you’re attending with a team of folks, one useful strategy can be to divide and conquer, and then regroup with your team at the end of the day to discuss, but even with a team, you’re unlikely to be able to cover everything. And that’s OK! It’s impossible to do everything—so don’t even try, you’ll just burn yourself out.
This is why identifying your goals ahead of time is so important: once you know your priorities, and you recognize that you can’t do everything, you can start asking questions like “Does activity A or activity B get me closer to my goal?” You’ll have to prioritize ruthlessly, and even then you might miss things! It’s OK! Don’t get frustrated. You’ll have more opportunities to catch stuff when they come around again in the future, because here’s another pro conference tip:
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Technology doesn’t happen instantaneously, and more often than not, you’ll see iterations of the same thing come through in multiple times in multiple ways. If it’s important—it’ll come back around, and if it isn’t important—well, then you didn’t miss anything!
3. Take notes.
Doesn’t matter what your conference goals are, carry your laptop (or a pad of paper, if you’re feeling old-school) and take notes about what’s happening as it happens. If you’re in a talk, take notes on the talk. If you’re meeting with people, take notes during the meeting. If that feels awkward, you can always say something like, “Sorry, I’m just taking some notes, because this seems important and I’m going to forget it if I don’t write it down.”
Then at the end of the day, when you’re back in your hotel room, review all the notes you’ve taken. Probably a few other things will jog your memory—add those to your notes as well! There’s going to be so much going on that if you don’t take notes on the stuff that seems important to you, you will forget all of it by the time the show is over.
4. Build in time to rest.
This is possibly the most important point in this entire blog post, which naturally is why I listed it as number 4. Conferences are exhausting. I am a natural introvert, which means that talking to people is hard, and being around people all day long is hard. But even if that’s not you, there’s still just so much going on that you’re going to be wiped out at the end of every day. Guaranteed.
So take time for yourself. It is 150% ok to say “You know what? I’m just not going to go to this session that looks super fascinating, and I’m going back to my hotel room and taking a nap.” Remember what I said about not being able to do everything? So don’t sweat it and take the damn nap.
5. Ask questions!
Remember back when you were in a college class and you didn’t understand the topic but you didn’t want to ask a question cuz you were afraid of looking dumb, but then it turns out that everyone else in the class had the same question but they were all too scared to ask too? Yea, conferences are just like that, but times a thousand. Don’t be afraid to ask questions at the talks that you go to4. Trust me—the presenters want you to ask questions, because it means someone was actually paying attention to their talk :)
6. The vendor swag isn’t worth it.
This one’s maybe controversial, I know people who go to conferences just so they can collect as much free stuff from the vendors as possible. But here’s the dirty secret vendors don’t want you to know: their goal is to vacuum up as many email addresses as they can in as short a time period as they can for as cheap as possible. So when you collect vendor swag, you’re trading away the to get emailed relentlessly by that vendor for the next “however long it takes until you don’t use that email address any more” for a pair of socks. Bet that pair of socks doesn’t seem so exciting now, does it???
And for the love of all that is holy, if you must give a vendor your email, at least have the decency to use your work email. You don’t need to be flooding your personal inbox with that crap. But in general: don’t bother. You’re not going to win that raffle. The socks you got are going to wear holes through in 7 minutes of use. The cheap pen with the vendor logo probably doesn’t even have ink in it. It’s all a trap. Don’t fall for it.5 Just go buy some fancy socks from Target or whatever. They’ll last longer and your inbox will thank you.
7. Get in the social media game.
If you’re on some form of social media (Mastodon, Bluesky, the hellsite that shall not be named), chances are good that there’s a bunch of other folks also on that same platform live-blogging their experiences. If you figure out which hashtags to follow6, it can be a great way to learn about stuff that’s happening at the conference that you might otherwise not have known about. People will live-stream talks, post invitations to dinners or after-parties, or say “Hey I’m in the hallway outside of room XYZ if you want to say hi!”.
If you’re looking to build your sphere of influence on your social media platform, this is also a great way to do it. There will be lots and lots of other people on the same platform, and I can pretty-well guarantee that you’ll pick up a bunch of new followers if you’re active during the conference and post insightful or witty commentary.
8. Spend some time in the hallway track.
When people talk about the “hallway track” what they really mean is “milling about in the hallway talking to random people that you bump into”7. This can be really intimidating and hard to do, but it can also be really rewarding! Some conferences (like KubeCon) will give out little green/yellow/red stickers to indicate people’s willingness to engage in conversation. Take a green sticker! And then go look for someone else with a green sticker and introduce yourself. You never know what kind of connections you’ll form. These connections can be beneficial for your current role, depending on what that is, but where they really pay off is years down the line. When you’re looking for a new gig, or need some help with some problem you’re facing, or are looking for a mentor, you’ll be really thankful for the relationships you made at that one conference way back when.
9. Explore the city you’re in!
Most conferences take place in really cool locations, so take some time to explore! If you can build in a day or two at the beginning or the end of the conference for some vacation time, that can be a good way to relax and recover from the event, but even if you can’t, you should spend some time in the city at large. Don’t make the mistake of travelling to some exotic location and never leaving the convention center.8
Also, if you’re attending a virtual conference, you can still do this! Maybe you’re just at home, but you should still give yourself the full conference experience. Go out to a fun dinner at that restaurant you’ve been wanting to try, or go explore that new bike trail, or check out that cool new museum they just built. Conferences are fun! Treat yourself.
10. Be kind to each other.
I hope this one goes without saying, but the fact that I had to write about Grace Hopper last time would seem to indicate that it doesn’t. But hey — we all come from different places, different jobs, different life experiences, different everything. One of the beautiful things about going to a conference is getting to have all these different experiences mixed together. But conferences can also be stressful and tiring, and when we’re stressed and tired those differences can stop looking beautiful and start to be frustrating. So just remember to be kind. Take a step back. Breathe. And enjoy!
Bonus tip: Stay healthy!
You wanna know when I stopped coming home after conferences with the “con crud”? When I started wearing a mask and carrying hand sanitizer around with me. I know masking up can be controversial, but—would you rather wear a mask or spend the week after the conference feeling miserable?
Anyways, that’s all I got for now. I hope to see you at KubeCon or some other conference in the future!
Thanks for reading,
By the way, if you’re going to KubeCon you should check out my talk! There will be hats.
Another perfectly acceptable goal, particularly if this is your first conference ever, is just “take in the spectacle”.
Also: it is totally OK for your goals to change partway through the conference! Be flexible.
You should gauge the question-asking etiquette for the conference you’re attending. At most conferences the correct thing to do is hold your questions until the end of the talk, but I’ve been to a few—mostly smaller conferences—where you can interject with questions at any point in the talk.
Some of the vendors at these conferences are relentless, too. They will yell at you from across the room and chase you down so they can scan your badge and get your precious contact information. Don’t fall for it! Pretend like you didn’t hear them. Eyes straight ahead. Run if you have to. Or better yet, just never even go to the vendor hall in the first place.
Most conferences will publish the “officially sanctioned” hashtag somewhere in the conference materials
Even if you’re attending virtually, you can still participate in the hallway track! Most conferences these days will have a Slack channel you can hang out in and chat with folks. It’s not a perfect substitute, but it’s pretty good.
Just remember to take off your conference badge when you’re out and about. You’ll still look like a tourist but at least you won’t look like a tourist with a name tag.