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How to Attend a Tech Conference

Conferences can be both fun and valuable, but they can also be a huge waste of time. Here's some things I've learned that have helped me get the most out of conferences as an attendee.

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Consider skipping talks

This advice sounds crazy, I know; the whole point of conferences is to hear the speakers, right? I'm not convinced. The most valuable experiences I've had at conferences are centered around the people, not the talks.

If sessions are recorded, you should go to very few sessions at all. Instead, ask people about what sessions they've found particularly enlightening, then organize "lunch and learns" with your coworkers to watch those presentations. While watching them, feel free to pause them and discuss. This discussion helps everyone involved more thoroughly understand the material and how it may be applicable. Ironically, by skipping the talks, you often get more out of them.

Write in a pocket notebook

While I use my phone to keep track of lots of information, I find that at conferences nothing beats the simplicity of a physical, paper notebook. The benefits are numerous. A notebook isn't going to flash a distracting notification on your screen while you try to write down someone's email address or take notes on a talk. You'll look more put together and less rude when writing something down on paper vs. on your phone. And I find that writing by hand forces my brain to be more concise, a huge plus when you review these notes later.

Aside from notes on any sessions you do end up attending, a notebook is also useful for keeping track of memorable quotes, people's contact information, restaurant/activity recommendations, or (really) anything else.

If you want to be trendy, lots of people like Field Notes, but a trip to your dollar store may yield something similarly valuable at a lower cost.

Create a followup plan

While pen and paper are excellent tools for capturing information, I have a different system for keeping track of my todo list. Mine happens to be electronic and centered around Trello, but the ideas here can be applied to your personal system.

During the day, I gather a stack of business cards and contact information from interesting people. Then, when I have spare time during/after the event, I take pictures of this information and add them all to a single "followup" card in Trello. I make note of a relevant detail or two from each person as well. A few weeks later, I like to email these people to follow up.

If you don't have a plan, you're planning to fail.

Bring business cards

Handing someone a business card is often faster than writing down your email or having them type in your Twitter handle. I prefer to use personal business cards (rather than those from my employer) because I want people to connect with me, not my company.

I used Canva to design and print my cards. Whoever you use, buy the smallest amount you can. The per-unit price difference can make it tempting to buy 1000 cards, but you realistically aren't going to give out 1000 business cards before you become unsatisfied with some aspect of them. When you buy a smaller batch, you have the freedom to change them more regularly. The relatively small per-unit cost increase is worth the added flexibility.

Track expenses on your phone, as they're happening

Keeping track of paper receipts is tedious compared to snapping a quick photo of your receipt. If your company reimburses for travel/conference expenses, see if there's a mobile app for expense reports. By using it, you'll be less likely to forget to expense something and you'll have less work to do when you get back from the conference.

Consider using Twitter

I usually avoid social media, but I created a Twitter account solely to connect with the people I was meeting at conferences. It seems to be the preferred platform for many tech people, and it feels less stuffy than LinkedIn.

Use your calendar

Before the conference, look through the schedule and figure out which ones sound the most interesting. Put the name, speaker's name, and location into your calendar. Even though you shouldn't be going to all of them, you can still enter the most interesting talk in each time slot. By doing this, you should be able to avoid wasting time with schedules when you could be talking to awesome people.

As an aside, this has become one of my favorite use cases for my smart watch (a Garmin FR230). Knowing where you're headed without having to pull out your phone is super convenient.