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I’m currently sat in my sofa looking through the recently published agenda for the European Collaboration Summit 2023 as I recently convinced my boss to let me attend - this will be my second tech conference, and I realized there was something I missed before I headed out to my first conference - “a beginners guide to tech conferences”, now normally I would say that a rookie can’t write a beginners guide, but maybe in this case there’s an exception! - here are my thoughts, takeaways, tips and tricks I wish I knew before my first conference!
My first conference
As someone who started out their career in 2018/19 Covid has been a thing for most of my “adult life” watching conferences remote, I was supposed to go to my first conference back in 2020, but yeah…
2022 would be the year I finally got to go, I went to the European SharePoint, Office 365 & Azure Conference (ESPC) it was being held in Copenhagen, and after begging my boss for a little while he caved in - I WAS HEADED TO ESPC!
I went with a colleague who ended up getting sick while we were there, so I spent a decent part of the conference on my own, which means I had to just “figure things out” if I didn’t wanna spend the nights alone in my hotel room, here are my best takeaways from that trip.
The “networking” part of the conference actually starts waaaay before the real conference, usually there is an app (ESPC uses Whova, Collaboration Summit uses run.events, and others probably a third one) they all serve the same purposes!
- See the agenda
- Plan your schedule
- Social events
- Private messaging
- “Group” chats - things like ride sharing, local recommendations, ask the organizers ect.
- Social events
- Giveaways - lots and lots of lego
The app is where you really want to get in on the action, there’ll be loads of chit chat, I was lucky enough to be some what local to the conference, having spent a ton of weekends in Copenhagen over the past year, so I was able to share tips on local foods, places and public transit.
You might not be that lucky, but still do your very best to be active here, not only reading, contribute! - I cannot stress this enough, contribute, this means people will see your name, they’ll remember seeing you everywhere, I remember seeing Lesley Crook and Kevin McDonnell literally EVERYWHERE in the app weeks before heading out, I would later realize that others had noticed my posts as well, this started already monday night when I realized I was stranded at the hotel by myself - NO WAY, I pulled up the app, and found that there was a pub quiz at a local bar that night! - unfortunately it was fully booked, but I ended up sending a message to the host and getting a ticket, and several people there already had seen me on the app and “knew” me, which was great fun, and also a great conversation starter, and a way to make sure people remember your name.
Also beware that usually there’s an option to pick-up tickets the afternoon before your ticket is valid (as least for multi day conferences) - this will save you time in the morning where you might already be stressing a ton - and there might be queues!
What to pack
You’ll of course want to pack some clothing for the days you’re gone, go with whatever you’re comfortable in, doesn’t matter if thats a shirt, hoodie, or even just a t-shirt, no one is judging you - also make sure you pack some solid shoes, you’ll be walking a ton!
A few other things I had great pleasure from bringing
- Earplugs for sleeping in a potentially noisy hotel.
- Medication, especially some painkillers, you’re most likely going to be hungover at one point or another.
- Snacks to carry in your bag, there’s probably food at the venue, but a granola bar is nice cause you can enjoy it anywhere.
- A water bottle, remember to stay hydrated.
- Powerbank, you’re going to be spending all day out, and perhaps using navigation and taking photos.
- Pen and paper, remember to take notes!
- A daypack to bring to the venue to carry all the swag you’re going to be collecting.
During the day
If you’re like me you’re excited about heading to a conference to finally meet people who are as passionate about tech as you are, and I guarantee you’ll meet people who are waaaay more passionate, smart and brilliant than you, be sure to listen to them, suck in all the knowledge you can!
I cannot stress this enough! - not only the speakers, also the peers in the crowd, talk to the person next to you, go to the “ask the experts” panels, if you don’t feel like asking questions, hang around even just to listen, there is so much knowledge “in the air”.
When attending the actual sessions, don’t be afraid to ask questions at the end, if you’re like me and slightly introverted you might be more comfortable going up and talking to the speakers afterwards, and that’s also totally okay, speakers are just like you, they’re passionate techies.
Between sessions remember to check out the expo area, where you’ll be able to find a bunch of sponsors presenting their products, for instance talking to a rep from one of the sponsors, and you’ll be able to collect swag, this ranges from stickers to t-shirts in return they scan your pass and get to send you some marketing material afterwards.
Another tip I cannot stress enough, bring a pen and paper, looking out over a group of attendees at a session where I arrived a bit late and took a seat in the back I noticed that thing we all know - people on their laptops get distracted, Oooh, look an email… - pen and paper is the only 100% distraction free note taking option, and note taking is something you might as well do from the get go, you’ll gain sooo much knowledge during those few days, 3 days at ESPC (18 hours of sessions) ended up in 27 pages of notes for me.
During the afternoon/night
As soon as the sessions end the expo area starts to live up again, and you’re going to wanna hang around there to grab a drink from some of the sponsors. Here you might be tempted to head off with a colleague for a bite in town and then back to the hotel for some much needed sleep, BUT you would be missing out on half the fun!
No matter if you’re into parties with unlimited drinks, exploring the city, or even just meeting new people over a bite of local food, make sure to checkout the conference app, here you will find all of the above and sooo much more! - and don’t stress, you won’t be able to do it all, so pick and choose some of the things you find interesting.
I had a blast heading to Tivoli gardens with a bunch of people I’d never met before, a lot of them I knew either from seeing them on twitter, listening to their podcasts, or even just from the conference app - initially I was obviously a bit “scared” as these were people who had proven their worth in the community, many where even MVPs, and most certainly had no clue who I was, but wouldn’t you know it, they were all super awesome and welcoming people, remember MVPs are also just passionate techies, and we ended up having a blast exploring Tivoli at later heading to a great party by one of the conference sponsors.
This also gives you a great opportunity to talk to speakers, I ended up changing my agenda after talking to some speakers about their upcoming sessions, and hearing what they were planning to cover, or weren’t - this is a great way to get a feeling for the level of a session before heading to it.
Make sure you remember yourself and your body during the week - I ended up sleeping an average of 3 hours a night for the days of ESPC, man was that rough, but I had an absolute blast, ended up spending a full week recovering fully, always remember it’s better to miss part of the party and feel good rather then ending up staying in bed a full day.
Now during the conference you’ll meet a bunch of people, make sure you connect with them on your preferred networking app, whether that would be Twitter, LinkedIn, or even mastodon, that way you’ll be able to keep up with what your new friends are up to, and expand your network!
The next thing that might be a good idea to do is to create a presentation that you can share with your colleagues that didn’t get to go, this can either just be in the form of a news post on your intranet, or some slides that you present for them at a “mini-session”, I really like the latter as it often leads to there being some chatting around some of the news that you’re “bringing home”.
Bring yourself, your best mood, and make sure to enjoy the moment, have a great time, and talk to strangers!
After I introduced myself to some new people as “a nobody” Kevin pulled me aside and said something that stuck with me - and really helped me realize, it’s okay to go up to anyone and talk to them!
You’re not a nobody, your just building you career!
P.S. Go read Kevins awesome post Chatting is hard but so so worth it