How to attend a conference

I attended my first conference in 1996, and, almost without exception, I’ve been to at least one conference, at usually two or three, every year since then. I’ve attended conferences differently, and observed a large number of people attending conferences differently. My first conference (some Sun event, for reasons that I don’t remember) didn’t do much for me, because I had no goals in attending the conference, except that I’d heard of some new thing called Java, and because I had no idea what to expect.

The key to a good conference experience is to have a good idea of what you expect to get out of it, and then do whatever is necessary to accomplish that end. If you’re very new to attending conferences, you may not know what sorts of things those could be. To this end, I’ve compiled a short list of some of the most common ways that people view conferences, at least based on their behavior. While there’s certainly some humor in this, it’s also a serious effort to get you to think about how to attend a conference so that you don’t get to the end of it and feel a sense of regret about what you’ve missed out on.

Of course, conferences will look somewhat different to me than many folks, since I’ve also been speaking at every conference I’ve attended since 1998.

Conference as week-long party

If you’re like me, a conference is the closest thing to a vacation that you get. It’s a week away from work, away from responsibility, and away from doing dishes. Party time! From observing folks at conferences, it would seem that the seasoned conference attendees have fallen into this view. The goal of any decent conference, therefore, is to spend as much time as possible hopelessly inebriated, and to attend as many parties as you can possibly get an invitation to, and several more if at all possible.

If this is your view of conferences, there are some warnings that I should make:

  • Most folks have digital cameras these days, and they will post their pictures to their web sites
  • Despite what you may think, your boss does read your blog
  • If you can produce no evidence that the conference was a worthwhile investment, you won’t get to come back next year

Conference as social gathering

This is somewhat different from Conference as Party. In most of the world, who you know is significantly more important than what you know. Conferences are the best possible place and time to meet the important people in your field, and to shmooze. Sometimes this is called “networking.” I’m not sure what the appropriate term is these days.

The seasoned conference-goer who is not firmly in category one is almost certainly in this category. They’ve long since exhausted category three, and now attend the conference to be with their friends. I readily admit that this is where I wind up. Although I tend to spend an inordinate amount of time contributing to the production of the actual conference (ie, speaking), I try to spend the rest of the time catching up with friends who I get to see two or three times a year, other than time online, which is … different.

Conference as classroom

Most first-time conference-goers view a conference as an academic event. They are there to learn. It’s a good idea to have in mind exactly what it is that you want to learn. And do your research before (ie, reading all online available information on the topic) so that you are not wasting your time, and the experts’ time, asking questions that are in the FAQ. This should be a time when you get the hard questions answered, not the easy ones. If you’re asking the easy questions at a conference, you’ve wasted your money.

This is, incidentally, why I’m always amazed at how well-attended my “intro to apache” tutorial is. Not that I’m saying you shouldn’t come, but it always seems populated with people who have not done the most basic of preparation work. And they’re paying extra to attend this tutorial. I sincerely hope that I’m giving them the content that they paid for, but I can’t help wonder if their money would have been better spent if they just read the documentation and then attended one of the other tutorials.

Particularly at a conference like OSCon, it’s very uncommon that something is covered in a session that is not already available online somewhere. Granted, getting it right from the expert, and being able to ask for clarification and demonstration, is of enormous value. But do the work ahead of time to make that experience more worthwhile.

Conference as vacation

One of these days, I’d like to just attend a conference. Not speak. Not have a panel. Not do “guru is in” sessions. Not even have to introduce anyone or chair a talk. But I don’t expect that’s going to happen any time soon. I am very ready to admit that I stand entirely on the shoulders of giants, and I owe much more back to the community than they can ever owe to me.

Having said that, I’m starting to view conferences as vacations. I give two or three talks (ok, at ApacheCon it’s more like four or five. Sheesh.) and in exchange I get to have a few days off. No to party, or socialize, but just to get away. There’s certainly an aspect of the party and social gathering mixed in there for me. Indeed, the Sams Publishing authors’ dinners are some of the high points of my year. But looking at the schedule for OSCon, the first thing that came to mind was that I have Tuesday and Thursday completely off, and I’ll probably just go geocaching. 🙂


Which one of these categories you fall into is entirely up to you. I just encourage you to give it a great deal of thought before you get on the plane, so that when you arrive, you’re entirely in the right mind-set to make the most of the conference.

For example, if you intend to have the conference be a social gathering, or a party, then you have to firmly decide to be the last one to leave any event, that you won’t sleep more than absolutely necessary, and that you are willing to buy drinks for those persons reticent to trade the talk on LOTR for your company.

Or, if you intend to treat it as an academic gathering, make sure you know exactly what you want to learn, and don’t let that speaker out of your sight until they have answered your questions. While many of the speakers just want to get back to the speakers lounge, or to the next party, most of them enjoy discussing their topic and answering (intelligent) questions about it. They will, however, swiftly tire of questions that you should have answered by reading the FAQ.

And if you intend to treat it just as a vacation, make sure you stage a few photos of you appearing studious, and that you cram the printed notes from a few important sessions on the plane back, so that you can persuade your boss that you need to come again next year.

See y’all at OSCon!