I make it to a lot of conferences these days. I often see colleagues, former colleagues, and friends at these conferences. Sometimes it is friends I haven’t seen in a few years, sometimes I just saw the same person in a different country the week before. Conferences now are much easier for me, in fact it is a bit hard to recall what the experience was like when I first started attending, but I’m at least going to try to give some input so others can have a smoother first experience.
Most people know no one
There is a very strong chance you’re attending your first conference by yourself or just with a single colleague you know. Being suddenly surrounded by thousands of people you don’t know can be intimidating. The reality though is most folks there are just like you and know very few other people. Most people don’t go to multiple conferences in a year, they go to 1. There are often a lot of opportunities to get to know folks. Some of the best times are during breaks between the talk track, and whenever there is food/beverages. If there is breakfast served at the conference as much as you’d like to sleep in wake up and go have breakfast and chat with someone. At lunch if there is a half full table, go ask if a seat is taken and join the table vs. sitting at a completely open one. During the breaks don’t rush to get to the talk 10 minutes before it begins, stay and mingle with folks.
If you’re really feeling shy wonder the booth floor. Those folks are paid to be there to talk to you. Let them tell you about their product or service, it’ll at least be a start to some flowing conversation.
Speakers can be your friends too
If you’re new often the speakers can seem extra intimidating to get to know. Don’t let that be the case. If one is talking about a topic you’re excited about hang around after the talk and discuss it with them. Speakers aren’t necessarily any more technically advanced than you are they just happened to get a talk accepted.
Study the agenda
The default is to look at the list of talks being presented and pick out which ones you want to attend. But pay closer attention at so many conferences there are a bunch of other great activities to participate in. PyCon is a model example of this. In addition to all the talks there is:
- PyLadies Auction - Which is a great night of dinner, drinks, and an auction of fun Python focused or other items which benefits PyLadies.
- [5k run] - You wake up early in the morning and run (it should be noted that 5:30 am does not sound fun to me, but to each his own)
- Evening dinners - If you’re worried about having dinner plans then this is a great option at a fun venue already coordinated.
If you’re not at something as structured as PyCon then there are a few places you can find what is happening. These days conferences often have a slack channel. Join it, find out when people get into town. Find out if people like to hike or visit breweries, join in with others. There is also twitter. Twitter things don’t get planned far in advance, but often you can find last minute folks that are coordinating things.
Stay at the conference hotel
If there is an official conference hotel or hotels, stay there. This opinion may be a little more controversial, but stay with me. First you’ll find folks hanging around the hotel bar after or just sitting around mingling. It’s a just one more way to not feel isolated. Second, it often helps the conference. Conferences can take on big risks with minimum rooms filled at a hotel. They do this to get good rates, but it also presents risk. Staying at the hotel both keeps you around others that are there for the conference, but also helps the conference itself.
You don’t have to attend all the talks
Talks are super helpful. You can learn a lot in a compressed period of time and then often get where to go next to learn further. Great ones teach you something but are also entertaining presentations as well. But, you don’t have to attend all the talks. Many conferences record the talks and make them available later. Personally I make a note of ones I wanted to see, as well as ones that others said were especially great. Then I go to youtube and watch them at 1.5 or 2x speed to get through more of them in less time.
Going to a conference may absolutely feel intimidating if it is your first. There will be a little of that first day of school jitters. What do you wear, who will you talk to, what if no one sits with you at lunch. Just know that for most people there it really is like the first day of school for them too. Even though it may be intimidating hopefully the above helps you jump in with a little less apprehension.