I love conferences. As a web developer I spend most of my time indoors by myself. Conferences are a great way to escape the norm, see new environments and socialize with people in real life.
The last conference I attended was Drupalcon San Francisco And I had a great time! I met someone there who had a very specific technical problem he needed to solve. He was a little down trodden when we met because the conference was half over and he still had not learned of a solution. It was a tough problem most of us haven't figured out. I don't think he ever did find a solution. In my mind, that's the wrong reason to attend a conference and guarantees disappointment.
Here are my top tips on getting the most out of a conference. Go in with these thoughts in mind, and you're guaranteed to leave with happy feelings.
1. Don't plan on learning too much
This is the biggest mistake I see, and one I'm sure most people will disagree with. Most people go to conferences to learn stuff. I say in this day in age, everything you might want to learn is on the web for free already. Be there to recharge and get inspired by the many passionate people around you. If you learn something, it's a bonus.
2. Don't plan on getting a lot of work done
This is a tough one for me. I pride myself on the fact I can work from anywhere. But that's just the point. You can work anywhere, why work at a conference when you can be growing your network and enjoying sessions? Besides, the distraction of sessions and parties, in combination with shoddy internet access often makes getting things done more challenging.
3. The hallway conversations are just as valuable as the sessions
Don't stress about trying to fill your time table with scheduled sessions. Often (though not always) the most valuable and fulfilling use of your time will be speaking to people in the hallways and making connections.
4. Meet as many people as you can
My number one reason for attending conferences is to meet people. Granted, I'm a business owner and not only a developer, so I do have sales and marketing motives for it. But even when I wasn't, meeting people, making friends and learning the way other people work has always been the most rewarding part of attending conferences. If you come with a group of co-workers or people you already know, try not to spend all your time hanging around with them. Split up and attend different sessions.
5. Consider it a holiday
I know of people who plan their holiday schedules around conferences for the tax benefits. I don't suggest you do the same, but do try and relax a little and enjoy the sights. There's some great conferences in great locales like Miami, Las Vegas, London, San Francisco and elsewhere. Places you may go for a vacation anyways. At Drupalcon I knew of a few hardcore geeks who never left the conference center or their hotel rooms the whole time. It might as well have been Drupalcon Norman Oklahoma as far as they were concerned. Make sure to party it up a little.
Those are my personal rules. It's not a very comprehensive list, you'll find better articles on the topic elsewhere, but these work for me. I keep these things in mind and always come out smiling.
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