I recently had the opportunity to visit two technical conferences in February 2023, both geared towards open source software. I was a presenter at Config Management Camp, in Ghent, Belgium, and an attendee at FOSDEM in Brussels, Belgium. This article aims to highlight my experiences at the conferences and to provide you with some tips on how to make the most of such an opportunity whenever it arises.
Have a purpose
Different people attend conferences for different reasons. Some people are presenters of a certain topic or area of knowledge or interest. Other people are attendees that want to gain knowledge from these talks and to network with other like-minded individuals. There are also attendees that are representing their companies. You most likely fall into one of these categories. Knowing what you wish to gain out of a conference is the first step to a successful conference visit. If you are a presenter, it means being proficient in whatever it is you are presenting. If you are an attendee, you should have a sense of what you want out of the conference.
Know the venue and schedule
FOSDEM is a huge conference with at least six thousand people attending it in a span of two days. Not surprisingly, for a conference catering to such an audience, a number of talks happen at the same time. It is next to impossible to attend all talks that are of interest to you. Usually, such large conferences are hosted at a spacious venue like a university or a conference center. Because the area is so huge, the talks are spread across the venue based on specific topics. The talks have a fixed schedule, so you might have to move quickly from one side of the venue to another. The map of the venue is easily available on the venue's website. It makes sense to arrive at the venue a bit early on the first day and familiarize yourself with it. This helps save time when you are rushing out at the end of one talk to rush to another.
It's one thing to focus and enjoy the talk while it's happening live. However, your mind can only retain so much. Sure, folks try to use their phones to the fullest by taking pictures of the slides that are being presented (along with the speaker). This is good if you wish to quickly update on social media about the talk that you are attending. However, it's not very effective for note-taking. Usually, the material on the slides is minimal. But if the speaker explains something in depth on the stage, you might miss out on the explanation. I recommend carrying a notepad and a pen with you at all times. You can even bring your laptop for note-taking. The idea is to make quick one-liner notes about interesting tidbits during the talk so you can revisit them later. You can always ask the speaker questions toward the end.
Network and collaborate
A conference is probably the best place to hang out with like-minded individuals. They are interested in the same topics as you. It's best to make use of this time to understand what work is being done on the topic of interest, see how folks solve interesting problems, how they approach things, and get a pulse of the industry in general. You are at the conference for a limited time, so make sure to get introduced to folks working on things that matter to you. This is a good opportunity to gather information for communicating with them later. You can exchange personal information such as email, Mastodon, LinkedIn, and so on.
Make time for booths and swag
Most technical conferences have booths from different companies or upstream projects wanting to market their products and services. To attract more walk-ins at the booths, a variety of swag items are often kept as an attraction available for free (in most cases). These goodies are usually stickers, cool water bottles, fun gadgets, soft toys, pens, and so on. Be sure to collect them so you have something for your co-workers and friends back home. Visiting booths shouldn't be just about the swag. You should use this opportunity to talk to people from different companies (even if they are competitors) to understand what they have to offer. Who knows, you might get knowledge of future projects!
Traveling for a conference shouldn't be just about work. It is also about taking a break from your usual busy schedule and relaxing. Chances are you are traveling to a different country or city that you haven't visited before. The conference, talks, and technical discussions are all important. However, they are only part of the whole experience. The other half of the experience is the travel which opens one up to another country, its culture, its people, the food, the language, and a different way of life. Take a step back and enjoy all these experiences and make lifelong memories. I recommend finding some famous landmarks to visit at the place of your stay. You should also try the local cuisine, or you can just chat with the locals. In the end, you will discover another part of yourself that you thought never existed.
Write about your experience
Once you are back from the conference, don't just forget about it and go back to your regular schedule as if nothing happened. Use this opportunity to write about your experiences, and share which talks you found the best and why. What are the key takeaways from the conference and the travel? You should document what you learned. You should reach out to the people you met at the conference. You can also follow social media posts on things that you might have missed out on.
Conferences are one of the perks of the tech industry. I suggest everyone go to one sometime during their career. I hope this article helped shed some light on how to make the most when visiting a technical conference.