Conferences are what you make of them. If you’re not sure why you’re going, or what you want to get out of the experience, you’re unlikely to get it. This essay gives one perspective on conferences, and how to make them more valuable and engaging experiences. Professional conferences take a very conservative approach to training and education, forcing attendees to take responsibility for getting value from the experience.
(Planning good conferences and training events is a separate topic. In short: Attention spans are short, yet most conferences have changed little).
Conversations are more valuable than the sessions
The surprise is the most interesting, informative and educational moments are not spent in the sessions themselves: it’s in informal interactions with other attendees. The lectures, talks and panels might provide some new ideas, but are one-directional, and you can get the slides or books by the speakers later. However, the unique, personal, and insightful conversations you have with other people can only happen at the event.
This means that you need to invest time in connecting with other people. Like going to a party where you don’t know anyone except the host, you must have a plan. Otherwise you’ll end up standing alone in the corner, holding a beer, hoping someone will talk to you. If the conference is well designed, there should be workshops or BOFs (bird of a feather) sessions, where smaller groups meet for an afternoon or a full day, and talk about a specific subject of interest. Often these are scheduled early in a conference, granting you a people you know and can talk to through the rest of the conference.
How to spend your time
Aside from finding ways to meet people, consider the types of sessions available at most events. When I look at the advanced program for a conference, here’s how I rank the different kinds of sessions:
- Contributing to something: All events have ways to participate. Anyone can submit a paper, panel session idea, or workshop proposal. There is no better way to meet others and access the most interesting and friendly people than participating. Even the process of submitting something is rewarding: you’ll spend some time trying to express your work in a way that others can get value out of, which always improves your ability to think and communicate about what you do. Even if your submission isn’t accepted, you will have benefited. You’ll get feedback from the experts on the review committee about your work and your writing, which you could argue is a free service to you. Volunteering is a great way for anyone to transform a dull event into a fun and engaging one.
- Workshops: Academic events have slots for small/mid sized groups to spend serious time discussing a topic. The requirement for entry is usually a position statement, expressing your point of view on a subject, and your references supporting why you’d be a useful member of the workshop. These are consistently the most enlightening sessions, and give you the largest opportunity to meet and interact with intelligent people interested in a topic that you are interested in. Even in a bad workshop, ask around for people who want to go out to dinner. Sometimes the conversation over dinner is better than the workshop (but the workshop gives you access to the right people to have an interesting dinner conversation with).
- SIGs / BOFs : These tend to be loosely organized, and it’s often hard to find out which ones there are. Basically these are informal workshops, called special interest groups or Birds of a feather sessions. Sometimes they’re short meetings where people agree to create a new alias for discussion. Other times there is an agenda, with speakers, and it’s like a mini-session. Anyone can start one of these by following the information listed in the advanced program. They’ll help by giving you a room and a time.
- Tutorials : These are half and full day sessions with an invited speaker. You typically have to pay extra to attend these. The sessions are often lecture based, which means a lot of sitting and listening. If you need training on some aspect of your job, and can’t find it local to you, tutorials are great. However, the sessions are often large, and for popular topics or teachers, can be hard to get into. Ask about tutorials you’re interested in, especially about the quality of the speaker.
- Panels : A panel session has 4 or 5 invited speakers sharing a time slot together. In better panel sessions, there is a diversity of points of view, and everyone is comfortable sharing them. But too often, panelists shy away from the intended topic, or avoid disagreeing with their co-panelists. They often feel pressure to represent their company or organization, which inhibitsactive and provocative discourse. This is why most panel sessions suck. It’s up to the organizer to avoid making this happen, but since they’re grateful for the panelists to attend at all, it’s usually hard to exert control over the tone of the session. Worse, some panels don’t allow for discussion, giving too much time to prepared presentations from each panelist. For these and other reasons, panels are a wild card, and often result in a fairly bland experience for everyone involved. When it works though, and the right people are invited and facilitated by the organizer in the right way, it can be the most enlightening session you’ll see at a conference.
- Posters: Some conferences have poster areas, where professionals or students put together summaries of their work for people to look at. This can often be a lot of fun. I like the fact that it’s an active environment: you walk around to different displays, and drive the experience (instead of the persistent passivity of almost every other kind of conference session). Posters are a great thing to stroll through if you get bored in the other sessions. Sometimes there are scheduled times where the posters are manned, so you can ask questions of the people that did the work. This can be great fun. Don’t be shy: usually they’re thrilled that anyone is looking at their stuff, much less asking questions. However, posters have a short summary that appears in the proceedings, and if it’s a research project, similar material probably exists on a website. So you can get some of this experience after the conference.(If you read a paper later and find it interesting, email the person that wrote it and tell them so. You’ll get a direct line for any questions you might have).
- Demos: Some conferences have demo sessions, where each person or team gets 10 minutes to demo a specific design or research project. This can be fun to watch if the time limits are short: You’ll see actual designs and work, and judge for yourself how useful or interesting it is. If the demos are short, it won’t be long before one demo ends and another one takes the stage.
- Paper sessions: At more academic conferences, there are paper sessions, where the authors of selected paper submissions get a chance to talk for 15 minutes about their paper. This is the biggest waste of time for conference attendees. First, if there are proceedings, all of the papers are available to you to read or skim at your leisure (think: flight home). Worse, these folks were accepted on their ability to write a good paper, not on their ability to engage or communicate through a presentation. In many cases, the presenters simply talk through the same outline and structure that is in the paper, sometimes even scrolling through the actual text of the paper, reading highlight. It’s a very poor use of 15 minutes of air time. Nothing will make the paper authors day more than to get a short note from a peer or a colleague telling them they enjoyed the paper. Even better: those short emails can lead to connections that might be reinforced at the next conference.
How to build a plan
A day before the event, sit down with the proceedings and the small guidebook or agenda that they often provide you with. Go through with a pen, and mark anything that looks interesting. If you find things that sound cool but vague, flip open the proceedings and check them out. If it looks like something better captured in a paper, then it’s probably not worth going to. Circle all of the sessions that look interesting, and if two or more occur at the same time, flag the one you want to go to first.
Then during the actual conference, go to the first session you’ve marked. Have a plan to bail after 15 minutes if you’re bored. Odds are it’s not going to get better. Go to the next session in that time slot that interested you. Repeat the same thought process. Worst case, you can always return to one of the other sessions. The result is that you maximize your time spent in sessions you will actually enjoy, and minimize your time spent bored, hoping things will get better. If you run out of sessions to go to, head over to the trade show area if there is one. During sessions is a good time to introduce yourself to the various people manning the different booths. I’ve had some of my best conference experiences in conversations that started this way.
After hours conference socializing
Most conferences have scheduled social events or dinners one of the nights of the conference. I find these events are often nice, but are in places and environments where it’s really hard to meet new people. Often, people spend most of their time at these events with people they already know, or the people they came to the conference with. If you are attending the conference alone, these events can feel very cliquish and elitist. I don’t think anyone intends for this to be so, but often nothing is set up to minimize or inhibit this social tendency.
If you can manage it, you want to try to have met enough people in the workshops and other sessions in the previous day, that you can wander around at the social, and say hi to people. If you made some decent connections, you’ll be able to jump in on some conversations about meet more people. If you have a few drinks, and can get into the right mindset, you can have a lot of fun bouncing around between different groups.
Structured receptions aside, everyone at a conference eats dinner, whether there is something set up through the conference or not. If you can find other folks and take them to dinner, you’ll find its a great way to build some relationships. When 4:30 or 5pm rolls around, every single person at the conference is thinking about where they’re going to go to dinner, and who they’re going to go with. Try to set yourself up with a plan early in the day, and ask people you run into or meet what their plans are. Often they’ll say that don’t have any, which is your ticket to make some.
One idea I’ve used is to tell everyone I met that day to meet at 6pm at a hotel lobby, and for them to tell others the same. Then whoever shows up goes to a nearby restaurant together, breaking into groups if necessary. If you ask enough people odds are good you’ll have a nice sized group. If things go well, and you’ve got a fun crowd, you might head out for drinks afterwards.
I think smart conferences provide ways to facilitate this, by having guides or delegates from the conference lead this sort of process, especially for people that have never been to the conference before. It’s in their interest to help people make social connections at the conference: the more connections new attendees make, the more likely they are to return.
Take advantage of the trip
If you traveled to another city or country to attend the conference, take advantage of the opportunity. Most corporations will allow you an extra day or two, especially if you’re willing to cover those extra expenses (tell the hotel this when you check in, so you can get separate receipts). Part of what can make a conference effective is it’s ability to give you new perspectives and ideas, and a great way to facilitate that is to take advantage of what’s unique about the venue you are in.
- Avoid chain restaurants and stores. You can go to these places at home. If you have to pay out of your own pocket for better/more interesting food or experiences, it’s worth it. Also stay away from hotel restaurants. They tend to provide decent but safe and tame food choices.
- Stay at the conference hotel if you’re new, but otherwise.. If you want to maximize your chances to meet and socialize, staying at the conference hotel can be a plus. But otherwise, take a chance and stay in a bed and breakfast, or somewhere downtown. Often they are about as expensive as professional hotels (sometimes much cheaper), and might only be an extra block or two away. I’ve found that having a short stroll each morning through an actual neighborhood in that city, gives a very different perspective on attending a conference, than only taking an elevator ride to the conference level of the same hotel. Most American hotels look and feel exactly the same. Many bed and breakfasts have individual charm and character, often in the spirit of the locale.
- Take a road trip. Early in the conference ask around for people who might want to take a short road trip one night, or skip out on one afternoon’s sessions. If you end up going with other conference attendees, you have no reason to feel guilty about this. Your odds of learning something, and making connections are probably infinitely greater if you do something together outside of the conference, than if you do something inside.
The benefits and drawbacks of going with coworkers
It’s common to attend a conferences with coworkers. This can be great. You’re likely to bond more, and spend time together in a way that doesn’t happen at work. I’ve made lots of friends from work by meeting them for the first time at conferences. It’s natural that if you work the trade show booth with someone, you’re likely to learn a lot about them, and have a chance to meet people who may share your sense of humor.
However, if you have 2 or 3 friends that you’re traveling with, you might find it easy to fall into a pattern where you spend most of your time with them. If it’s assumed you’ll all eat dinner together every night, odds are your not going to meet many new people, or experience other kinds of social situations. I’m not suggesting you should avoid your coworkers (though sometimes there’s good reason to), instead, just be aware of how you are spending your time.
One trick is to go to dinner together with coworkers, but require that everyone bring someone they met at the conference ( the only downside to this is you potentially can bore them to death, if you and your coworkers have trouble not talking about your company).
Relax and have a good time
I’ve seen many folks take conferences way too seriously. I find that I learn much better if I’m having fun, and enjoying the people I’m with. I can’t do that if I’m fixated on getting to every session on time, or not staying out too late, or trying to achieve any specific objective. If I’m relaxed and enjoying my time away from the office, I’m more open to new ideas and approaches for what to do when I get back. I believe strongly that this is the primary reason my employer is sending me: to learn. Therefore, it’s my job to figure out what kind of environment and state of mind I need to be in tobest facilitate that objective.
I’m not saying that business trips and conferences should be converted into vacations. Instead, I think everyone should be thinking about what the real opportunities to learn are, and that they tend not to happen if you’re fixated on cramming in as much knowledge or sessions in as short a time as possible. Instructional design and educational psychology principles support this. The first rule of training you learn is that most people don’t learn very much when they are under stress.
And as much as we like to think we’re critical to our teams and companies, they can live without us for a few days. Plan your time before your trip so that while you’re away, you can stay away. If you have people that work for you, set them up to cover for expected situations that might arise. Give them your hotel phone number or cell, and let them call you if they need you. Otherwise, you don’t need to check in or check your email every day. Really, you don’t. You think you do, but you don’t.
If you find it hard, I bet it’s email addiction, more so than a real logical reason to see what’s going on without you. I personally find it hard to stay away the first day, but after that, it’s not so bad. I usually try to remember to sync up my email before the flight back, so I can catch up on the plane flight home.
How to justify going to conferences
These days its harder for folks to justify attending conferences. I have a few suggestions that might help towards making the case to go.
- You are an asset to your company. All assets require maintenance and enhancements. If instead of being a person, you were a piece of machinery, part of the corporate budget would go towards maintaining and upgrading you. Well, despite being human, you are an asset to the company. They should be investing the same percentage of budget towards maintaining and upgrading your skills as they do for the rest of the corporate assets.
- Offer to train others in what you learned when you return. You can pitch your trip to a conference as a way to bring back skills and knowledge to the rest of the organization. If you have any experience in training or teaching, you can use that as your justification to attend instead of other co-workers. Get extra copies of the tutorial notes from other sessions. This is often a cheap way to get some extra coverage.
- Trip report.Arguably one form of teaching others, the trip report is a write up of the sessions you attended, written for other folks in your group. The best trip reports make it easy for folks to dig up the right reference, or trigger people to come ask you questions. There’s rarely much value in 10 page trip report documents: no one reads them. Instead, a 2 or 3 page summary, with URLs and pointers to stuff for specific questions gets much more mileage.
- Connect the value of the conference to business goals. If ease of use or customer satisfaction are company or division goals, you can claim that sending folks to conferences on those subjects will help pull in more expertise and knowledge towards helping the business. This argument puts less of the focus on your professional goals, and more on the company.
- Recruiting. One of the reasons to send people to conferences is to recruit for open positions. If your team has had trouble filling certain jobs, or know that new openings are coming for your group, you can offer to do recruiting work while you’re there. Most conferences have job posting boards, or allow you to rent a booth for your company at the trade show.
- Professional development. If you have career discussions with you manager, tie your career goals and future development to specific kinds of training or growth opportunities that you need. This might force you to rethink which conferences you’re going to (the cool conference might not be the one that’s likely to help your career/skill growth the most). In some organizations, folks will get to go to conferences provided they are presenting or participating in a session. If you don’t know what your group’s policy is, ask.
- Split the costs. If you believe the conference is needed for your professional development, then you should want to attend regardless of who pays. Offer to split the costs. Or ask just for the time off without having to use up vacation time, and you pay your own way. This can be a way to prove the value of the conference, if you return with great stuff and teach others on your team. But it can also set a precedent for you paying your own way. You might position it as a trial: if you can show that it’s valuable, your manager will pay next time.
Random tips that didn’t fit anywhere else
Some of these might be general travel tips, but they’re related – here goes:
- Don’t use the conference bag, or lug around all the crap they give you. First, it makes you a mark as a tourist to carry the conference bag around outside the conference. Second, traveling in packs of people all using the same bag, all wearing name tags, makes you look like a cult member. You rarely need to lug around all of the stuff they give you (I recommend dropping off the proceedings at my hotel room as soon as I get it). Instead bring a light bag, with enough room for the small conference handbook/schedule, some paper, a pen, maybe something to eat, and some business cards. Travel light. You’ll feel much better at the end of the day if you haven’t been carrying 15 lbs of stuff all day. Don’t bring your laptop so you can read your email. Go talk to someone instead.
- Don’t wear your badge outside the conference. There is nothing sillier than a grown adult with a name tag (Unless it says Rupert or Cornelius on it). When you go back to your room, or leave the conference hotel, you are no longer at the conference. Take the badge and put it in your pocket, or with your wallet/purse so you don’t lose it.
- Ship your proceedings and stuff back to your office. If there are proceedings and other materials, such as books you’ve purchased, arrange to have them sent back to your office. Find a nearby shipping store, and drop off your stuff the day before you leave. This saves you the burden of packing 10 lbs of stuff into your luggage or carryon. Sometimes the conference center has a little office that will do this for you. It’s usually not too expensive and you may be able to expense it.
- Sit near the back if your not planning on staying. If I’m at a conference that has concurrent sessions, which most do, I usually plan on bailing if I don’t like it in 10 or 15 minutes. Knowing this, I tend to sit in the back. It makes it easier to leave without annoying people or the speaker. The downside to this tip is that sitting in the back does make it harder to connect with the speaker in the first place. An alternative is to always try to grab an aisle seat.
- Ask lots of questions. Learning is a contact sport. If you don’t make your experiences engaging for yourself, you are guaranteed to be bored. Talk to speakers, paper authors, booth people, the folks sitting next to you, whoever. Ask for recommendations for books, websites or other conferences. If you don’t become an active participant in your own learning, don’t be surprised if not much of what you experience is relevant to you.
- Some conferences serve breakfast, some don’t. Know this before you end up 15 minutes into the first session, sitting in the middle of the room (making it hard to get up and leave), and realize you’re starving. Same for lunch or snacks. Sessions tend to start early, so you probably won’t have time to grab something before the conference if you don’t plan for it.
- Get some exercise every day. Yeah, I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again. Your mind functions better if your body has been active too. Most hotels, especially the fancy corporate conference center types, have nice weight rooms or pools. Take the time to get some exercise at least every other day. Skip a morning session or skip out early if you have to, to find time for this. If you hate exercise, and are in a city, go for a long walk instead of taking a cab.Personally, if I don’t exercise every day I’m really not a nice person to be around, and I struggle with sitting and listening for hours on end.I stress out easier, and am generally less happy.I think most people are more likely to enjoy the conference,and return home healthy if they break a sweat a few times while they’re away.
- Take smart notes. Think about what the notes are good for – you’re writing for the future version of you. What level of detail do you need?
Finding conferences to go to
There are a few different places to go, depending on what field your looking for. ACMis a good place to start for any computer science related field. Most of their subgroups have annual conferences. Google searches with your topic of interest + “conference” can often be the fastest way to find leads.
Last notes and conferences I’ve attended
Your mileage may vary on all of the above. Everyone has different travel and learning preferences. So I don’t recommend following this essay very closely. Instead, I hope it helps to raise some questions and thoughts about what you might want in a conference, and how you might go about getting the most of the time you spend there.
For reference here’s a list of professional conferences I remember going to.I’ve been to many others, but these are the major ones I can remember. The recommendations in this essay may be biased towards CHI since i’ve been there a few times:
CHI 2002, Minneapolis, MN
CHI 2001 Seattle, WA (Presented)
CHI 2000 The Hague, Netherlands (Presented + Interactionary!)
IDSA DesignAbout 2000, Seattle, WA
Interact 99, Edinburgh, Scotland, (Presented)
Tech Ed 99, Dallas, Texas (Presented)
CHI 99 Pittsburgh, PA
Microsoft PDC, San Jose, CA 97 (Presented)
Internet World 97
Internet World 96
WWW7 Paris, France (Presented)
CHI 97, Atlanta, Georgia (Presented)
CHI 96 Vancouver, BC, Canada
CHI 95 Denver, Colorado
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