04 February 2019

My Learning - Part 10 - Conferences


Conferences are expensive and/or time consuming but they also offer a unique opportunity to meet people with similar interests and problems like I have and/or experience in solving those kind of problems. This opportunity to meet and confer with great people is why I attend.

Find them

I can't speak for any other business but the primary ways I find out about interesting tech conferences are:
  • Recommendations from friends.
  • Pages like testingconferences.org
  • I check my heroes' schedules, if they speak at a conference it's at least worth checking out.
  • Browsing what's posted on e.g. LinkedIn or Twitter.
Selecting between them is typically a mix of evaluating the program and knowing the conference's history (is it traditionally a strong or weak conference). I know great people tend to attend conferences with strong programs and since they have a better ability to evaluate this than your average attendee they tend to group up at conferences with strong programs. Once again it helps knowing a lot of amazing people to keep track of this.

My situation in coaching is a bit different. Since I don't know who all the cool people are I can't really evaluate conference programs that well yet. So right now I'm keeping an eye out for people in my network who seem to attend coaching events, either as attendees (harder to spot) or as speakers (easier to spot), so I can ask them for directions.

Various forms of conferences

There are many different forms of conferences and each have their own benefits and drawbacks. To give you a few examples:
  • Local meetups
    Maybe I'm stretching the definition of what a conference is but local meetups share many of the qualities of a big, international conference: They gather people with a common interest, mix mingling with more structured bits and typically have some form of topic that creates a direction for the meetup. Local meetups are great for getting to know ambitious people you can more easily have a learning relationship with (see People) and even though the presentations may not be as polished as at a big conference the topics are often better tied to what's relevant in my area. This is also a cheap way to both build my personal brand (helps me meet great people) and the brand of the company I represent (helps me get better colleagues). Finally, this is where I started my public speaking career.
  • Peer conferences
    My favorite place to be! A peer conference is typically a small 1-2 day conference where the attendees are personally invited or in some other way specifically targeted. They demand action, not just participation, and the level of energy I get at a peer conference is unmatched in my experience! Also since the group is small I get a much closer relationship with the other attendees.
  • Regional conferences
    Big conferences but where the vast majority of the participants are either from the same city or at least country. These are basically a compromise between a local meetup and an international conference and for me they're a mix of meeting people I can more easily meet again and getting to meet/listen to top notch people in the business.
  • International conferences
    This is where the best speakers show up. Not only does these conferences sport the most fancy programs and speaker lineups, they also tend to attract some of the best people in the business as attendees. These conferences are typically the most expensive due to travel and accommodation but like I've said before: Learning from the best tend to be multitudes more valuable.


I try to always stay at the same hotel as the event is held or where I think the most interesting people stays (e.g. the speakers). A breakfast conversation with one of my heroes can be worth the whole conference fee.

I also try (if my employer allows it and it fits my schedule) to arrive at least a day before the conference starts. Typically the speakers and international guests are the ones arriving first and being there early means a better chance to speak with these people.


  • I arrive early so I get a seat where I can see and hear well. I always aim to sit at the front row.
  • I actively look for and write down questions that pop up during the talk and ask these either during the Q&A or to the speaker after the talk. A bonus is people seem to notice who asks questions (especially good questions)... so asking questions can help spark other's interest in me.
  • I almost exclusively look at the speaker and not the slides (if there are any).
  • I always bring my own note taking material, that way I know it fits my note taking style and I don't have to start looking for pens etc.
  • If a session turns out to be about something I'm not interested in I usually leave it (go to another session or just hang outside). When I do this I try however to inform the speaker why I left cause normally it's not because the talk was bad, it just wasn't relevant to me.
Additional pro tips:
  • If there's a session I must attend which has limited amounts of seats, I often attend the session before in that room so that I can stay and guarantee a seat.
  • I sometimes skip one or more slots at a conference and instead stay outside. This allows me to speak with others who decided to opt out. The other people skipping sessions are often the experienced conference visitors and/or speakers meaning they tend to have a lot of valuable stuff to share.

Breaks and food

I try to avoid my colleagues during lunches, dinners and other breaks because I want to meet new people and/or people I (almost) exclusively meet at conferences.

Second of all, if I don't have a person I specifically want to dine with I try to look for a table with one of the top speakers. First of all it means bonus material and an opportunity to ask questions relevant to my context. Another reason is the people sitting near the speakers are typically either their friends (and likely pretty experienced themselves) or ambitious people with interesting ideas... so it's not just the speakers themselves who are interesting, it's also the other people around those tables. A tweak to this is to sit by the table where one or more of the "second tier speaker" sit since they attract a bit fewer people but still provide similar benefits.


This is a big reason why I attend conferences!

Here are just a few examples of things I love to do:
  • Catch up with friends I (almost) only meet at conferences; you'll get those when you start to attend a few.
  • Participate in games and exercises held in the open areas, especially the ones run by my heroes (they're often fun and I get a good opportunity to chat with them).
  • Give a lightning talk if the chance presents itself, it's a great way to make people approach me and heroes notice me. Lightning talks are also a great thing to listen to since there are always some new, fresh ideas brought up.
  • Organize something: Run an exercise, invite people to a special interest group (great to get ideas relevant to what I (and they) want out of the conference), facilitate some activity like powerpoint karaoke or lightning talks.
  • Join conversation groups which seems to be open to more participants, it's a conference, few mind another person conferring unless it's like a few friends catching up.
  • Check the official and unofficial (if I find them) communication channels where the most interesting people of the conference share their plans... and join in if possible.
Once again, I generally try to stay away from my colleagues since my goal is to meet people I wouldn't normally get to meet.


I wish I could say "Sleep is important to my ability to learn so I make sure I get enough of it"... but that's not the case. I have a few times considered skipping a less interesting conference slot to instead take a nap but never actually done that.

The conference is just the start

My most important professional relationship started thanks to a conversation that continued after a conference. Since then I consider conferences "a start", not just "an event".

This means I try to stay in touch with interesting people I meet so I don't have to wait another year or two before we meet again. Staying in touch can mean adding them on Skype, continue a conversation on social media or, if it's someone living nearby, book a lunch with them.

Another great way to get more out of a conference after it has ended is blogging. I use this to reinforce my learnings as well as make myself visible. Today most of my conference summaries end up as unfinished drafts but I still start most of them.

Finally, if someone posted some kind of challenge during the conference (that environment tend to create situations like that), I at least consider accepting them. With challenge I mean something like "post your biggest lesson from the conference using the hashtag #something" or "read at least one blog post per day for a month" etc. This is great since it makes me bond with other ambitious participants and usually the challenges get some extra attention which once again helps people notice me which once again allows me to meet more great people which once again is fundamental to my learning.

Speak at a conference

Apart from getting all the benefits already listed for a cheaper price (paid entrance, paid logistics, salary or whatever policy there is), speaking at a conference also gives me better access to other speakers, participants will seek me out and it helps spread the message that I'm a passionate practitioner happy to meet other passionate practitioners.

Preparing and running a session (talk, workshop etc.) also have learning benefits on their own which I'll mention in future posts.

... and you don't have to be the most skilled person in the world to give a presentation at a conference (especially not a smaller conference); for instance some of the most interesting presentations I've watched came from inexperienced speakers who simply had a fresh take on something.

Organize a conference

Something I've started doing the last couple of years is organize events and small conferences. Doing this is absolutely amazing! First of all it allows me to set a topic that's relevant to me (and obviously others if I want any attendees), set a date that fits me, I get a guaranteed seat, I get to influence who'll be there and I can set a format that fits me. Attendees tend to assume the organizer is some kind of hotshot as well so it gives me better access to high profile attendees or speakers as well as some "fame"... and fame means meeting more great people and more great people means... yeah, you get it.

If you want to arrange a conference I have a few old posts that might be helpful:

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