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What makes a great conference experience?

Vincent Mayers
Vincent is an Oracle Java Champion, has been a board member of the Atlanta Java Users Group since 2008 and runs some of the USA's premier community conferences
・4 min read

Over the years I have been to a lot of conferences. I, like others in the “biz” have seen these from a number of different perspectives; as an attendee, as a sponsor, as an organizer, and as a presenter. So, what makes a great conference? What makes one want to return to a conference in subsequent years? Thinking through my personal experience, again as an attendee, sponsor, organizer and presenter, the one common denominator is the people I meet.

As an attendee, the overarching reason for attending a conference is the content right? Really? The content is available, for the most part, online. You can see videos on a number of different platforms by the speakers that might attract you to a conference, covering the topics that you are interested in. But if that is the only thing that you take away then I feel you are missing out on the most valuable part of the whole experience, the people. The “hallway track” is to me often the most valuable part of a conference. If you just go for the content, you will miss out on this. The hallway track is the conversations that are struck up with other attendees during a break, over lunch, at the conference reception. And, if you see someone else wearing an event related t-shirt; at the hotel, bar, in the lobby checking out or at the airport waiting for a flight. It’s the conversation you strike up with the person that you are sitting next to at a session. The person that you instantly bonded with because you both made eye contact and nodded appreciatively at a salient point made by the presenter.

The random conversations struck up with other attendees, about the real-world application of the knowledge imparted by a presenter, for their use case that get you thinking on how to apply what you learned in different ways; cannot be gained by watching content online. The conversations with sponsors or Dev Rel-types about what their framework/platform/product/whatever does, that leads to your synapses firing in new ways about how to bring new tech to your stack, reduce tech debt or tweak what you already have, cannot be gained by watching content online. It can only be gained by conversations with people.

It goes beyond this. When you attend a conference, unless you have met that person before, you don’t know who is going to be an engaging speaker. I don’t mean during their talk, but after. After the Q&A time allotted, after the room has cleared out, after the day is over, even after the conference has ended. Just recently at a conference I was running, the day was over, the reception was in full swing and I was clearing out a room to prep for the next day. A presenter ( I will call him Chris) was chatting to attendees and going over their code well into the evening. At the same conference another presenter (I’ll call him Gregg) organized a communication workshop for developers after hours (this was not a BoF, we did not have these as part of the schedule) because he understands the impact that communicating well at work has on your performance and career, these are life lessons as well, and he was driven to share his perspective with others. These are two recent examples I have seen of great people going above and beyond what was required of them at the conference. I have many more. Like when a Published Author and Globally renowned speaker spent so much time with attendees after his talk that he missed his flight out and had to stay another night. Meh, you might say? but this guy missed a day with his family before he had go on the road again in order to spend more time with attendees at the conference he was at. The point here is that you do not get this from watching content online.

The relationships you start or further when you go to a conference are invaluable in so many ways. My good friend Amelia has adopted a hashtag for this, #usualsuspects. There is a great book called “Three cups of tea” I won’t dwell on this or the challenges that the author has faced as you can follow the link or research to learn more but the premise is, in Balti Culture "The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family..." The same is true for #usualsuspects (tea is often replaced with beer though). Go to conferences and see the same people a few times whether as an attendee, speaker, sponsor or organizer and you have a network of likeminded people that will treat you like family and benefit you immensely both personally and professionally.

So, what’s the takeaway? What makes a great conference experience is the people. You may benefit from the content but you will absolutely be enriched by the relationships.

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