Justin Garrison
October 8, 2023

4 Tips for a Better Conference Experience

Posted on October 8, 2023  •  5 minutes  • 1010 words

I’ve been attending technical conferences over 15 years. A lot has changed in conferences and the industry, but I’ve found a few rules for myself that help me get the most out of attending in person.

  1. Pick the right conference
  2. Socialize at your pace
  3. Choose talks sparingly
  4. Be present

Pick the right conference

This one should be obvious but lots of people I talk to seem to miss this step. The “right” conference for you is not the same for me, but where’s what I look for.

I rarely attend large, single-vendor conferences. I know a lot of people go to AWS re:Invent, Microsoft Ignite, VMware Explore, and lots of other conferences but they’re not what I’m looking for at this stage in my career. They are overly crowded, very loud, and not fun IMO.

The only single vendor conferences I enjoy are small (less than 1000 people) which give a lot of time to talk 1-on-1 with people using the technology. Attendees at small, vendor conferences are usually there by choice because they want to connect with the community.

Large conference attendees are often there because they were sent or they want to be away from normal day-to-day work and probably want to party on the company’s dime. That’s not why I go to conferences.

Some of my most memorable conferences have been early in the tech cycle—Kubecon 2016—or first year conferences—Hashiconf 2015. They gave a great balance of learning emerging things, connecting with the community, and plenty of time and space to talk. Those are my priorities for attending conferences in person.

Socialize at your pace

Everyone has different levels of energy and being around hundreds or thousands of people you don’t know can be exhausting even for extroverts. I pace myself by knowing when I’ll have energy to meet people and planning accordingly.

Some people get a lot of energy first thing in the morning and the excitement of getting coffee and being somewhere new gets them out the door. That’s not me.

I tend to start my day slow. I like to attend the opening keynote in person, but it’s perfectly fine if you watch the live stream while getting ready. Sleeping in also helps me stay out later and take advantage of dinner invites without feeling drained. Sleeping in can also be helpful when changing time zones and getting over jet lag.

I know for myself that I will feel tired in the afternoon. It happens and it’s totally OK. I will often find the conference quiet room—lots have them—or head back to my hotel for 30-60 minutes and close my eyes.

This gives me quiet time to get off my feet and helps me mentally get excited for more conversations over dinner. Make sure you don’t go back to your room and stay on your phone or computer. You will not feel recharged.

If there’s a conference party I usually go, but don’t feel forced. A small dinner with new friends can be more rewarding than yelling in close proximity with a circle of strangers at the party.

When I attend conferences I try to make myself as easy to approach as possible. I usually wear some of my favorite and most unique shirts (conversation starters) and try to stay off my phone. In all my years attending conferences I can’t say that it has helped, and I still regularly approach people/circles to join conversations.

Choose talks sparingly

I rarely go to talks at conferences because I regularly watch recorded talks on YouTube. The three reasons I will attend a talk in person are:

  1. I know the speaker and want to support them
  2. The talk is not recorded
  3. I have questions about the topic

I don’t prioritize any other talks. The majority of my time is spent talking to people in the hallways and at booths.

By keeping most of my schedule open it helps me have great, in-depth conversations with people. When the majority of attendees are in talks it makes it much easier to dive deeper into what folks are excited about.

If I’m giving a talk at a conference being in the hallway also helps people find me to ask about the topic I spoke about. Being open and available has generally been more valuable than attending talks from my experience.

Be present

I never bring my laptop to the conference unless I need it to give a talk. I usually have a notebook and pen and that’s what I take notes on and write down new things I want to research when I’m at a computer later.

I’ve tried leaving my phone behind at a couple conferences, but it makes navigating new places and coordinating too difficult. Now I just try to be mindful of not checking my email and staying off company messaging as much as possible.

If I pull out my computer there’s 0% chance I will be present. When I’m on my phone I will likely only remember a fraction of what’s happening. If I’m on my phone I should have a task in mind and then put it away as quickly as possible.

By not attending talks I have less of a reason to pull out my phone. I’m not running to another session and I’m there to talk for as long as people want and as long as I have the energy.

If it’s your first time in a new city try to fly in early to sightsee. You’ll have more energy than if you try to do it after the conference. This can also help you adjust your sleep schedule and feel less lost when you have to make your way back to your hotel when it’s dark.

Be safe. Travel with a friend/coworker you trust.

Be kind. You don’t know what other people are going through.

Be respectful. Pronounce people’s names correctly. Use their preferred pronouns. Look for banners and bracelets if they don’t want to be photographed or approached.

Have fun. Take pictures if it helps you remember the people and experiences.

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