This is not a "survival guide." I considered the title of this post carefully. If all I wanted was for you to simply not die at a tech conference, there are plenty other articles out there for that. This is a post about how you can get the most value out of conferences.
This post will move forward assuming a few basic things about you, dear reader:
- You identify as an introvert. This means you enjoy time alone and become emotionally drained from extensive interaction with other humans.
- You may or may not be shy. It is a misconception that shyness and introversion are the same thing. There are outgoing introverts — I am one myself. (More on that later.)
- You want to go to a tech conference. It's hard to maximize value for someone who actively does not want to do something. This isn't a "just make the most of an unfortunate situation" guide. If you are interested in going to a conference but feel nervous or apprehensive, this is for you!
Anecdote: I am an experienced conference-goer and international speaker. I'm outgoing and love interacting with new people, but I am an introvert! Being intensely social and public makes me very happy, but also severely drains my energy and I need to be alone (or with friends/family) afterwards in order to recover.
I also work remotely. For me personally, this means that 90% of my socialization is at conferences and tech events. Working remote means I rarely work with anyone else in person. It's also rare that I interact with strangers in my routine daily life outside of tech events.
(The other 10% is mostly school events for my kindergartener — which make me intensely nervous and uncomfortable! Apparently I can stand on stages around the world and speak about technical topics to hundreds of people, but I can barely hold it together when I have to interact with a handful of local parents and young children. Go figure. 🤷🏻♀️)
Still here? Great, then I think I can help. So you want to go to a tech conference and get the most out of it, but you're apprehensive (or even stressed AF!) about doing so. Let's take it one step at a time. First:
If you have the option to select the conference you're going to attend, give some thought to the following characteristics:
Conferences focused on a particular area of technology have benefits that make the event experience easier to integrate into. If an event is single track (or 2-4 tracks) with less than 1500 attendees, you will have a specific, common interest with pretty much anyone you'll meet there. All attendees and speakers, regardless of job title or demographic, are there for this shared interest. Examples of focused conferences include smaller, regional language conferences and framework-focused events.
Events that strongly promote community values generally emphasize making their attendees feel welcome and comfortable. These conferences often include quiet spaces, workrooms, or livestream rooms where you can tune into the talks without the darkness, stage lights, and shoulder-to-shoulder audience. I have also seen (and enjoyed) guided meditations, LEGOs, and knitting sessions. Some of these events also have social and mixer options that are well-lit and don't revolve around alcohol consumption.
When conferences emphasize community, many do a good job accommodating a wide variety of both physical and emotional preferences. Look for events that have a good reputation for being community-oriented and read up on their entire itinerary (schedule beyond just talks).
So what events are tougher for first-time conference-goers and/or introverts?
While there are some absolutely amazing events that fall into this category, they can potentially be much more draining.
Caveat: These conferences can also be surprising, incredibly productive, and offer wonderful opportunities. Be informed, and then make your own choice — you know yourself best!
Large, multi-track events (10+ tracks, 3000+ attendees) can be more difficult to navigate and network at than smaller, focused events. Surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly), more humans does not necessarily translate to more connection opportunities. When there are thousands of people in one place, they tend to move together in core groups. It's also less likely you'll casually run into people you've already met. I've been to events like this where I am deliberately trying to sync up with people I know are present, but we never even see each other.
At huge events that cross many disciplines, starting and sustaining conversations can take more effort. That's not to say that you won't meet wonderful people. All I mean is that you won't necessarily have the "we're both using X technology" crutch to lean on to start a conversation. There is tremendous value in meeting and talking to people from other job walks and disciplines! But for an introvert who might already be overwhelmed by the volume of noise and people, the emotional drain of struggling to find common ground to initiate a connection might not be what you're looking for — and that's okay!
Afterparties and social events will also be significantly more crowded, and getting around in a sea of people will be more exhausting between sessions.
Okay, you've chosen a conference! Regardless of its focus, size, or community, you've arrived at the event. Maybe you feel a (rather nerve-wracking) sense of obligation. Those obligations might include feeling like:
- You need to network with lots of people you've never met before.
- You need to attend as many talks as possible.
- You need to go to all the social events and afterparties.
- You need to be "switched on" every moment of the event so you don't miss anything.
Remember that your primary obligation is to yourself. In order to get value out the conference experience, I want you to feel good about it. That doesn't mean you need to be comfortable the whole time; in fact, I grow the most when I'm outside my comfort zone. It does, however, mean you should prioritize your own safety and wellbeing. Let's start at ground zero:
Walking into the venue and getting in line for your badge and swag is the first "peak scary" moment for people who feel most comfortable when they're alone.
So try this: first, set your alarm so that you have ample time in the morning to wake up, eat, and not stress about missing anything. And it might sound cheesy, but one thing that can help you prep is standing in front of the mirror in your hotel room and telling yourself, "you got this!" (Seriously, don't knock it until you try it.) I also like to do some relaxation breathing exercises.
Anecdote: I once spoke at an event in Orlando, Florida. I had woken up late and was in a hurry in the morning leaving my hotel room. When I arrived at the venue, I walked in alongside a group of people headed to the conference. They recognized me from the flight — turns out we'd all flown in from Detroit on the same plane.
I managed to introduce myself, but wasn't prepared to be social yet. As a result, the conversation floundered before I hurried off. Later, I spotted the group at lunch and apologized for being distant and unengaged in the morning.
It takes me a little while to "switch on" at conferences. Day One, Hour One is often challenging. It's okay if this is the case for you, too!
If you're not fully switched on yet for Day One, Hour One, that's okay! Take that time to acclimate to the environment, the people, the noise, the bustle, et cetera. If you need to save your energy to network later in the day, it's okay to hide behind your phone or laptop or find a quiet corner. Don't feel bad about doing any of those things when the doors first open.
Head into the session hall or ballroom for the conference opener and keynote. During those talks, let your mental and emotional reserves fill up for the day ahead.
Most mid-morning breaks at conferences are reasonably short. You probably have time to grab a hot (or cold) drink and peruse a few of the sponsor booths; not a whole lot of time to get too uncomfortable or stand around awkwardly. Given this, lunch is often the second "peak scary" moment.
There are different lunch arrangements at different conferences. Some events give attendees a stipend and then have them head out on the town to eat. Others have no dedicated sit-down dining area, but people wander with their plates or box meals, gather around standing tables, or camp in social spaces. Still others have dedicated dining, generally with round tables that seat about 10 people.
In order to maximize value at lunch, gather with other people. Strategy varies a little bit based on setup. In general, look for tables to join with one or more of the following (if possible):
People are mostly sitting staggered with an empty space between them. Why? People who don't already know each other well will generally sit at a table and leave a place setting between them. This tells you that conversation is more likely to be full-table inclusive because it's not a group of friends who will mostly talk only amongst themselves.
Most of the people at the table are not from the same company. (You can often tell if they are from the same group by the way they interact with each other.) Why? The same reason as above. If a group of five or six coworkers came to the event together and then sit together at lunch, they are most likely to talk among themselves. This can make it awkward or difficult for individual table-joiners to join the conversation.
A speaker, influencer, or anyone you specifically want to meet is at the table. Why? Lunch is a great time to meet people. People stay in one place long enough to at least get some food down. The day is half done, which means everyone has experienced enough of the event to have initial thoughts on the whole affair so far. Speakers and influencers are people too. In fact, many speakers and influencers are introverts. They're happy to talk to you and be approached, since these events can be just as overwhelming and exhausting to them as they are to anyone else.
Introductions at lunch very, very frequently look like this:
- Hi, my name is ____.
- Where do you work / what do you do?
- Are you local / where are you from?
- Have you ever been to [this conference / city] before?
This is all perfectly functional to lead into more chitchat or shop talk. People are familiar with these questions, and they're easy to ask and to answer.
If you're interested though, you can try asking your fellow diners slightly different follow-ups to these questions, like:
- What do you like most about living in ____? Anywhere you'd really like to go?
- What's the most interesting / useful thing you've seen or learned here today?
- What do you like to do outside of work? (Tech conferences give you the "easy way out" in small talk, which is to talk shop. However, interactions are much more memorable when you talk about something outside of work. You — and others — are less likely to remember "Carolyn, senior software engineer at XYZ Co." versus "Carolyn, senior software engineer at XYZ Co. who plays the mandolin in a bluegrass band")
By the time lunch is over, you'll likely feel more acclimated to the crowds and the prospect of engaging in conversations with complete strangers. The next "peak scary" is probably a longer afternoon break.
Okay, so I don't know about you, but for all the conferences I do, I still feel awkward at the sponsor booths. There are plenty of times where I just want to sign up for a prize raffle or grab a t-shirt and jet. That's actually fine. Although you might feel awkward doing this, do it anyway. Once you've done it a couple times, it'll feel less weird.
And for the sponsors you are interested in (for job opportunities, their product, pure curiosity), remember it's their role to engage with you. If you stand at the booth and look at their literature, the booth staff will talk to you and this will save you the trouble of initiating a conversation. If they ask if you have questions, go ahead and put them on the spot: ask them why they're sponsoring this event and what they hope to get out of it. It's kind of a fun conversation to have.
There's a phenomenon at conferences called The Pac-Man Rule. Basically, this rule states that groups should always stand with a space for someone else to join (e.g., the shape of Pac-Man). Look for groups in the hall that are standing in this shape (and when you join, make sure you enlarge the circle so there's still a space for one more person).
Starting up really casual interactions is something that requires practice, but once you've done it a few times, it starts to feel more natural. If you're not comfortable doing this, you don't have to, but if it's something you'd like to do, try something like this:
If you're standing in a group of people who are waiting for something (like lunch, or sign-up for a raffle with a really sweet prize), you can remark to your neighbor on the food, or the prize and exclusivity or supply-and-demand. If someone has a cool, unique sticker on their laptop, tell them so. These small interactions can lead to larger conversations. Don't forget to say, "I'm ___, by the way, nice to meet you" after some short banter.
I personally believe the most valuable track at most conferences is the Hallway Track. This is especially true at events where the talks are recorded or live-streamed.
The Hallway Track is what happens in the conference's public spaces outside of the talks (and even while the talks are ongoing). It is the conversations, networking, debug sessions, and mindshare that occurs organically at an event.
The reason that non-remote, In Real Life conferences exist is to bring a community of like-minded people together in a physical space. The talks are valuable, of course, but if they're being recorded, you could just as easily watch the recordings from home. The value of being physically present is to connect with the other humans at the event itself.
To get the most out of the Hallway Track, consider doing some of these things:
- Approach a speaker after their talk, introduce yourself to them, and ask them questions you had about their presentation or just tell them what you learned or appreciated.
- If you're having a great convo with someone you met during a break and the talks start, prioritize your personal connection with this person over attending a talk if it is being recorded.
- Skip some talks if you aren't interested in the topics. It's okay to do this! Oftentimes, speakers spend their time in the halls when they're not onstage. This is a great opportunity to talk with speakers while there are fewer people around.
- Talk to the event organizers. They are usually in the halls during the talks too. Good organizers will ask for your feedback on the event; give it freely and be candid. Be sure to introduce yourself; networking with conference organizers can be very valuable (especially if you would like to get onstage sometime).
- The sponsor room is quieter during talks. Have more in-depth conversations with companies you're interested in without the crowds that surge into the exhibition hall during breaks.
- Get peoples' Twitter accounts (if they have them) as a connection point. This is less awkward than asking for phone numbers, less formal than asking for email addresses, and makes it very easy to casually contact them throughout the event or after.
Someone paid for you to attend the conference. Maybe you paid for your own ticket. Maybe your company paid. Maybe a scholarship sponsor paid. If "time is money," you'll want to — again — maximize the value you get out of the time you spend at the event. You might remember those obligations I mentioned at the beginning of this article. You might be tempted to fulfill them, but please do not do so at the cost of your own wellbeing. It is not possible to get the most out of the event if you're miserable.
Here are some tips to help you find the right balance and make the most of the event:
- If some talks are recorded and others aren't, prioritize attending the un-recorded talks. (You can watch the recorded ones online later.)
- If you need to have time alone, do so and don't feel guilty. If there are quiet rooms, use them, or find a quiet nook elsewhere in the venue. (You might want to try to stay on premises though; if you go back to your hotel room, will you actually return to the event later? You know yourself best.)
- Try the Hallway Track. Take advantage of times when most people are in the talks, and use the lack of crowds to connect with speakers, organizers, sponsors, and other Hallway Track'ers.
- Assess the value of the social events for yourself before participating. Will you get anything out of them, or will they just stress you out? For example, if the social is in a very noisy, dark, crowded place, it'll be hard to carry on conversations or even see what's going on. Make a judgment call and don't feel like you have to go.
- Consider going out to dinner with a handful of people you met at the event instead of going to the larger social events. If you've collected Twitter usernames from people, reach out to them in a group DM. Many conferences also have apps that let people post publicly. Often, people self-organize dinner groups and anyone who is interested can participate. If you see this happening, join one if you've got the energy.
- If you need to skip going out and order room service or delivery in the evening, do it.
Anecdote: One of the conferences I spoke at in 2019 was at the tail end of an exhausting month of back-and-forth international travel and events one after another. I had a fantastic time at this conference, but I was beat: physically and emotionally exhausted. As an outgoing introvert, I had spent weeks speaking, networking, and socializing and one evening, I just couldn't do it anymore.
I ordered UberEats and there was no silverware in the delivery bag. I didn't realize this until I'd gotten back up to my hotel room. At this point, I couldn't bring myself to go back down to the lobby or pick up the phone to speak to even one more human being to ask for a fork to eat my salad.
Fortunately, I found a teaspoon with the coffee maker in my hotel room. With tremendous and tangible relief at the prospect of spending the rest of my night entirely alone, I ate my salad with a spoon:
...while watching Netflix, and then I went to bed.
Before we conclude, I want to highlight that being a speaker at a conference can be great for introverts. If that sounds contradictory, let me tell why this can be a wonderful opportunity:
- People will initiate conversations with you. This helps alleviate the pressure you might feel to begin conversations.
- You'll be invited to speaker dinners / events. Many conferences host dinners exclusively for the speakers. You can easily network with the organizers and other speakers in a quieter environment.
- You'll have dedicated quiet space. Most conferences have a "speaker lounge": a space reserved only for speakers, supplied with seating, charging stations, food, and beverage. This is a great place to go if you need a breather, or just want to practice your talk or network with other speakers.
- Your ticket cost will be covered by the event. (And if it's not, do not speak at that conference!!!)
- Your flight and/or hotel may also be covered.
On top of all of that, not only does speaking at conferences provide loads of networking opportunities, it's also a career launcher. These are just a few of the many benefits of speaking — but that's a whole separate blog post (and a talk I'll be giving at tech conferences in 2020) for another day. 🙂
If you're a self-identified introvert (or an apprehensive newcomer) who wants to get the most out of conferences, I hope that these tips and insights help. Again, I don't want you to just survive a conference. I want you to enjoy it: nobody is promising that you'll feel completely comfortable and at ease the entire time. I don't feel entirely at ease at conferences either.
But there's a difference between being outside your comfort zone while experiencing something new, and being really stressed out. It is my sincere hope that this post can help you get comfortable with a little discomfort, but avoid serious stress at tech conferences.
I'm always open to chatting about all of these things, and I love mentoring people who want to get deeper into conference-going and also public speaking. Please let me know if you have any questions, or just want to connect!
Thanks for reading, and I hope to read about your conference experience — or better yet, chat with you about it in person at an event!