Insider advice on surviving a tech conference

- select the contributor at the end of the page -
Conference season is here and we're gearing up by gathering insider tips on everything you need to make it through, without turning into an overworked zombie. We talked with a few seasoned vets on the subject to get a better idea of how the pros do it.

On planning

Matthew Fanto (lead developer at QA Reader), Adam Hogan (consulting security engineer for Cisco Systems) and Cia Hang (security awareness trainer) all mentioned the importance of preparing in advance.

Matthew: The first thing I like to do is figure out a schedule for the event.  I'll try and get some sort of plan of what I want to see, what I should see, and who I want to meet. It also helps to do research ahead of time on the speakers and the topics they'll be presenting. Often they're the core developers of libraries and services that I use, so preparing a list of questions ahead of time helps ensure I get all the information I need.

Adam: Figure out why you're at the conference. Is it to learn something or is it mandated? Find out who's speaking and choose based on that; when I'm figuring out what to go to, it's like, I know this guy, I wanna go see that.

Cia: Read the itinerary. Depending on the topic, style, and execution of conference, there may be some higher priority items that should take precedence. If it's a single topic, you really don't have much of a choice, but if there are multiple topics, make sure to attend the one that's most important to your professional or personal needs. If you don't check the itinerary beforehand, you might miss out on something important.

On packing

Think you'll need all that stuff? You won't.

Matthew: I remember the first few conferences I attended, I always had a lot of “stuff”. This was before camera phones were ubiquitous, so I carried a digital camera, a big laptop, chargers, and bags full of swag. I've since developed a minimal approach, and all I take now (if anything), is a tablet. I also avoid the free giveaways at booths. Most people are never going to wear the dozens of vendor t-shirts or use the stress balls that you're left to drag home.

On note-taking

To take notes or not to take notes? It's a toss-up.

Matthew: I use Microsoft OneNote for everything, including organizing the trip and taking notes. With tools like the OneNote Chrome extension, I can save airline confirmations and hotel reservations, add speaker slides alongside any notes I take, and use Office Lens to scan business cards and receipts for reimbursements.

Adam: You can take notes to learn-some people take notes to look busy. I have a keyboard I bring with the iPad when I want to take notes, and I just use Pages. Figure out what content will be unique to the talk-sometimes you can ask for slides so you don't have to attend.

Cia: I use my brain for taking notes. On the rare occasion, I'll whip out my phone and use the notepad. I'm not a fancy note taker. However, I have seen people break out their iPads, Surface tablets, Kindles, etc... and start frantically notating everything the speakers or presenters start spouting off like it was high school physics and there was a test tomorrow. The real cavemen pull out their laptops.

On snacks

Depending on where the conference takes place, snacks could very well save your sanity (or, at the very least, it'll spare you that awkward hunger-growl in the middle of a quiet room). Opt for healthier choices like jerky, trail mix and organic protein bars.

Matthew: I've found that eating healthy is a bigger challenge than sleep. Many conferences do buffet style lunches, and long days and the stresses of traveling make it tempting to grab a plate of junk food. After enough days, it starts to wear on you and you'll find yourself lethargic and missing important things.

Adam: Bring snacks, because different time zones can take you off your schedule. When I go to conference in the west coast, it might wrap up at 6 p.m., but that's 9 p.m. my time, which is long past dinner and it's closer to bed.

On networking

We may live in the time of technology, but there's still something to be said for the good, old-fashioned business card.

Matthew: Conferences are great opportunities for networking, finding potential partnerships, and meeting with customers ... after meeting someone, jot down a couple notes on the back of their card: how you met, what they're interested in, and any follow-up actions you need to take. It's hard to remember who's who when you're back home, so having a couple notes can jog your memory. The other thing I think people overlook is having a good elevator pitch. The most common question I hear is “so what is it that you do?” You might only have a few seconds to give an answer, and you don't want to fumble around trying to remember the key points.

Cia: Business cards. I always seem to forget mine when I head out to a conference, and it totally blows.  When you're networking, it's important to trade contact info, and the fastest way to do that is with business cards.  You may never know when you will need to reach that one guy from that one conference that talked about that one thing that was specific to the way your system acted, because his did the same thing once.

On surviving the inevitable headache

Whether or not you plan on partying after a long day of talks, there's a solid chance you'll wake up to tiny elves in spiked shoes doing a merry-jig in your head. Best to be prepared.

Adam: Bring extra headache medicine for your coworkers; there's always one guy who thinks he can drink as much as he used to in college, and doesn't realize he hasn't partied in 15 years…there's always someone hurting the next morning.

Cia: You don't always have to go to the "social" part of the events. I rarely participate, so I get back home or back to my hotel room with plenty of time to spare. Just treat the conference like any normal business day; except, at the end of the day, you get to drink with random people from your field and complain about users.

On branching out

It's OK to let your guard down.

Matthew: Have fun. Conferences are a low pressure environment where you can meet other developers, explore new technologies, and socialize outside of work. Even if there's nothing going on, hang out in the hotel lobby or bar area and don't be afraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger… you never know who you'll meet.

Cia: Try to spend a little time at the conference enjoying yourself.  There's a reason some of the best conferences are in popular cities with great attractions nearby.

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Stacy Warden

Stacy Warden is a contributing editor of the Pluralsight blog and has worked in publishing since the dawn of the iPhone. Currently, Stacy deals in tech and education--a combination that she finds absolutely fascinating. You can find her on Twitter @sterrsi.