In the early days of Software Engineering Daily, Pranay and I went to the Facebook F8 conference.
We arrived at 8:45am, just as the doors were opening, so that we could be at the front of the line for food. It was like Willy Wonka’s Breakfast Factory--egg sandwiches, sweetbreads, fruit bowls, salads, oatmeal, granola, and bacon.
We ate a 5-course breakfast, then went to the all-day fridges and filled our backpacks with Frappuchinos and sparkling water. Then we walked to the espresso booth and staved off the food coma with 4-shot Americanos.
By the time of the “morning break”, we had pockets full of candy and brownie bites and dried quinoa energy bars. We alternated inhaling food with oxygen. We were trying to do a “2-cycle” day where you try to eat enough to force digestion to clear the way for more food by lunchtime.
In the evening, as the sun set over the pier, CHVRCHES was playing a live concert while waiters rotated around balancing trays of sushi and cupcakes. Pranay and I continued to gorge, standing with our bulging backpacks of free swag, our taste buds overstimulated.
We reflected--why were we there? How was it helping our business?
Common wisdom today is that company founders should avoid conferences. Y-Combinator emphasizes that conferences are distractions, celebrations of blind optionality and roulette wheels of networking. You end the day with a pocketful of business cards and unmet expectations.
And this is true, if you enter a conference without a strategy. But if you have a strategy, you can get a ton of value out of a conference.
Without a strategy, going to a conference is like scrolling through a social network. You will constantly have your senses titillated with free food, caffeine, and hype.
You can go to talks and be subjected to classroom-style lectures that will be posted to YouTube the next day. You can take the increasingly popular “hallway track” and socialize aimlessly with other attendees.
Or you can go to the expo hall--which is where the action is.
As I have gone to more conferences and realized the necessity of deterministic strategy, that strategy has increasingly centered around the expo hall.
I love the expo halls at tech conferences. At the expo hall, vendors have paid $15,000 - $500,000 in order to set up huge booths where they can demonstrate their products and talk to customers.
At the expo booths, you can find out how each company sees the future. You can compare those visions for the future with each other in real time.
You can talk to the expo booths, and see which companies managed to get engineers to speak in the marketing booth. You can see which companies have hired the marketers who can speak competently about products. You can assess the different sales funnels and see how the booth fits into the overall sales strategy of each different company.
You can study how booth grandeur, and swag, and free beer, and free churros impact a company’s ability to actually draw in potential customers. Are these companies handing out treats to paper over the fact that their technology is aimless and undifferentiated?
Keep an eye on which companies buy the cheap expo hall booths. At the next conference you attend, are they buying more expensive booths? When you read about a large funding round for a tech company, is that company immediately buying the $250,000 emerald package at AWS re:Invent? And do you judge that to be a wise bet?
The expo hall is the Chuck E. Cheese bazaar of the tech industry. Use it as meditative stimulus, and ruminate on the future of technology.