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December 9, 2013

How to get the most out of a conference

By shutterstock_124542523_feat

I do not know of a single developer who can say they are entirely self-made and standing on their own merits. We have all been profoundly influenced by friends and mentors who have contributed to where we are today. Take a moment to identify a particularly important relationship you have had in your career, and then imagine where you would be with just one more relationship like that.

There isn’t a greater opportunity to forge new relationships than at a conference. Conferences are fantastic for learning new and exciting things, but I believe the real value of a conference is realized between and after sessions.

Here are a few practical and painless techniques that will greatly increase your chances of laying the foundation for some great friendships by making a few small changes to your preparation, positioning and attitude.

Be a servant

The most important step to getting the most of not just conferences, but anything, is to adopt the mindset of a servant. There are some potentially negative connotations of the word “servant” as many may interpret the word as “subservient,” but I am referring to “servant” as “one who serves others.” As developers, we have been serving the community for years. Why do we spend hours and hours contributing to open source projects? Why do we exhaust ourselves organizing community events? We do these things because it is gratifying to provide value to the community. We are servants because we serve the community.

One of the best conference experiences I’ve had was 360Flex in 2012, when I attended as a volunteer. No one wanted to get up early to do registration, and so I volunteered to do registration both mornings. This turned out to be a great opportunity because guess who I got to meet as they registered? Everyone! You can imagine how easy it was to lead to an introduction at that point: “Oh hello! I recognize this name! I really loved your last blog post. We should chat later about an idea I had around that.”

In addition to working registration, part of my responsibilities were to help set up the speakers before their presentations. This created a great opportunity to interact with some very talented individuals on a first-name basis and position myself as someone who was helpful.

If you arrive early at a conference, introduce yourself to the organizers and ask if there is anything you can do to help. It is amazing the kind of stress that event organizers are under, and an extra set of hands can go a long way.

The practical application of adopting this mindset is that if you see an opportunity to help, take it!

One other technique that I use that falls into the spirit of being helpful is offering time beyond the conference: “Here is my business card. Please shoot me an email if you get stuck. I would love to help!” You’d be surprised at how many of these invitations to help have turned into business opportunities.

And remember, it may not be about you finding a new mentor but also about being a mentor. Again, if you see an opportunity to help, take it!

Remember: Everyone is human

We have all been in that awkward situation of being in a room full of people we don’t know. Or maybe we might know one or two people, but because of the emotional challenge involved with stepping out of our comfort zone and introducing ourselves to someone new, that’s as far as our social activity extends.

It’s scientifically proven that the discomfort we feel around large groups of people is a bi-product of our ingrained fight-or-flight response, and you should accept this as a completely natural and human state of being. Also, realize that developers are human. I’ve done this and now can safely conclude that I am never the only person feeling uneasy in a room full of people. So when you feel discomfort, remember that you are in a room full of people who want to make new friends just as much as you do!

I’ve learned to recognize when I’m nervous to initiate conversation and have come to understand that so is almost everyone else. By doing so, it has really taken the risk out of the equation for me. I have found that everyone is appreciative of someone else taking initiative and making that first introduction. At a minimum, I have found that everyone is at least courteous of my inquiries, which has made it pleasant enough to keep trying.

Be prepared

If you are genuinely interested in people, they will respond with kindness. But make sure that you are prepared to answer questions such as “what do you do?” and “do you have a business card?”

Have you ever noticed how different something sounds coming out of your mouth than it did in your mind? It’s time well spent practicing how to answer common introductory questions out loud to yourself in private. Do you drive to work? Practice it a few times! On the way to the airport? Try it then, too.

There is a reason why public speaking coaches tell you to practice in front of a mirror or to record yourself before a presentation. Practice creates confidence.

And for crying out loud! When someone asks for a business card, that is a compliment and a stepping stone to bigger and better things! Nothing kills forward momentum like showing up empty-handed.

Do your homework

Know who is going to be at the conference and prepare accordingly. Often times, I will familiarize myself with the speaker list and their work. There is a reason why people get invited to speak at conferences. They are excellent at what they do, and this is why you want to surround yourself with this caliber of talent.

You can create rapport with someone much more quickly and easily when you’re already familiar and appreciative of the work they’ve done. A great opener might be something like “Hi, I’m Lukas and I wanted to thank you for the work you did on your last project. I am currently using it on my own project and I’m having great success with it. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions about it?”

Another technique is to know who is showing up and preemptively initiate contact. One of my favorite JavaScript books is “Functional JavaScript” by Michael Fogus. I found out that he was going to be at Strange Loop 2013 and reached out via Twitter. I was very complimentary and was able to use his response as an opportunity to promote Strange Loop. I had the opportunity to meet Michael in person, and getting my book signed was a highlight of the conference for me. It was easy to introduce myself because I had already laid the groundwork beforehand.

Close the loop

Creating connections are like planting seeds, and the last thing we want to do is to let them die in the field. One of the first things I do after a conference is get all the cards and contact information I acquired over the event and write an email to each new contact saying how nice it was to meet them. I also try to mention something specific we talked about and if there was a funny joke or story, I will reference that as well.

The impression that you want to leave is that it was memorable enough meeting that person that you can recall specific details, and that it was important to let them know how much you enjoyed your time together. You will be surprised at how this simple, thoughtful act will set you apart from the hundreds of other people someone may have met in a single event. Close the loop by offering to make yourself available and inquire about the next steps to move an opportunity along.

I love programming almost more than anything else in the world, but I have to concede that a lot of the momentum that I have professionally would not exist if I did not cultivate skills outside of software development. So the next time you’re at a conference, please give these techniques a try, and put in the effort to make at least one meaningful connection. It could very well change your life.

About the Author

is passionately pursuing HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript. He is also working on AngularJS in Action for Manning Publications. Oh! And he throws programming parties!

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