I don’t care who you are (or what you do), do yourself a favour: go to a conference!
Even if you have no skills whatsoever, go to the local conference on the latest knitting techniques, I guarantee you will learn something. It probably won’t even be about knitting.
I recently attended GOTO Chicago, a software development conference in (you guess it), Chicago. It was amazing. There were 2 days of talks and 2 days of training (all of which I attended). The speakers were world-class, giving valuable/engaging presentations: there was probably only 1 presentation I’d rate as not being worth it. Everything from fighting cancer with Lisp, to writing databases in Clojure and the power/failure of incentives. Great variety of speakers/topics from across the spectrum of software development.
Now, none of the talks really taught me how to utilize any specific new technologies or anything, but that’s not the point. It made me aware of a whole bunch of stuff (you should see my list of things to google). Most of the things I scribbled down to look up later were not the focus of any talk, they were tid-bits that came up as the speakers were talking: books to read, tools to check out, libraries to investigate.
That’s all well and good, but that’s not where you get the true value out of a conference. The variety of different subjects, technologies, and speakers made me think. I saw how other people tackled problems similar to those that I have faced, as well as problems I have never seen before. All of this forces you to re-evaluate your approaches (past, present and future) and makes you better at whatever it is that you do. So often we get into the grind of our daily work lives that we don’t often take time to reflect on either what we are doing or how we are doing it. I find that the time spent at a conference both give me time to think about these things and forces me to really evaluate how it is that I do my job (whatever that may be).
Now, that’s all great but I still don’t think that is the most valuable part of a conference. For me, the single most important reason to go to a conference is people. When you go to a conference generally what you end up with is a whole bunch of really smart people (both speakers and attendees) in the same room(s) for a couple days. This is where the magic happens.
When you are at a conference you have a unique opportunity to talk with prominent figures in a field, as well as a whole bunch of people who actually care about the topic at hand. Where else do you get to sit down at a table next to an prominent figure and have a casual conversation? I got to chat with Corey Haines while he was franticly trying to fix a mail sending vulnerability on one of his websites. I think that is pretty cool.
There is so much to be learned from these conversations. Both related to the topic at hand and otherwise. I’ve missed entire presentations before because I was caught up in a conversation about life in general with one of the keynote speakers from a conference I attended last year. That hour and a half made me a better person and a better developer and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
It makes it really easy to engage with people when you all share some sort of common interest in the conference topics. While in Chicago, myself and a colleague met a couple guys who went to University with one of the guys who competed on Top Chef. They invited us to join them for dinner one evening at his restaurant The Frog & Snail. It was amazing, one of the best meals I have had in a long time and an experience I never would have had if we hadn’t talked to anyone. It is one of the more memorable experiences from my trip yet it really had little to do with the conference itself. You will meet interesting people and you will have a great time if you let yourself.
Go to a conference and meet some people.