So there is a new technical conference coming up and you are trying to decide whether or not to attend. You are weighing the pros and cons, but you can’t seem to make up your mind. Perhaps you have never been to a conference before and are not sure if, as one boss colorfully used to ask me, “Is the prize worth eating the Cracker Jacks?” Then, thankfully, you come across this blog post when going online, and realize other people have the same question, “Is it worth it?”
When you look at your list of pros and cons, the con side could make you think that the answer is a resounding “no!” Any type of conference is going to take up your time and will usually cost a decent amount of money. In addition, you’re taking time away from work, not for vacation, but to potentially extend your career. Despite the drawbacks, as someone in the technical industry, whether you are a developer/software engineer, systems administrator, security analyst, quality assurance expert, or other, you have many great reasons to attend a conference in your direct skill space or even one in an adjacent skill space. Some of these reasons include learning solutions from your peers, expanding your network, advancing your career, and reviving your passion for the technologies you work with.
Learn Solutions from Other Skilled Professionals
If you are in a technical profession, even if you know the job like the “back of your hand”, you will usually have an idea that you want to bounce off other people to see if it will improve your work. I don’t mean you want to give away secret processes, but perhaps you have workflow you want to improve or nagging problems for which your peers may have already found work-arounds. Chances are other people are tackling similar issues, so why reinvent the wheel? Technical conferences allow you to promote your ideas publically for peer review or listen to other people do the same.
However, you don’t even need to be that proactive when attending these conferences. There will be many sessions with topics you can choose from. Perhaps a presenter is giving a talk about an issue you are grappling with, or some skill you would like to utilize in the future. All you would need to do is go to that session and listen in on the presentation. Many of these presenters, who often are experts in the field and/or have published works, will provide a question and answer opportunity after the session. You will gain invaluable insight from people who are giants in the industry. These same presenters can then point you to other resources, including their own blogs or books, for additional information.
Expand Your Professional Network
It is always helpful to have a healthy professional network if you are in a long-term career path. At conferences, you’ll get the chance to meet like-minded people in your profession who may become part of your network in many ways: technical peer, future employer/employee, business lead for a new project. If you are out of a job or you need a new job, attending a conference might help get your career back on track. If you are happily employed, maybe your company is hiring and you can help find talented people to work with you. You can also meet people who keep you informed about changes in the industry, who you can email questions to if you get stuck on a problem, or will help you get connected with a group of professionals in your area, thus helping keep your skills fresh and your network healthy.
I can’t tell you how many times I have gone to one of these conferences and left with a handful of business cards. Some of my friends in the industry are a result of the contacts I made at these conferences. Not only are they friends, but they are also great resources for the future.
For the new guys in the field, here’s a tip. Usually, when you get a job, it can feel like you passed the final test and there is nothing else that needs to be done. For most of the companies in the technical industry, there are always other positions available that could be better paying if only you took the initiative to learn more. Managers are always looking for employees who are open to self-improvement. This can distinguish the slackers from those who want more. Going to a conference can be a big push in that direction, especially if the session topics are related to things you are working on.
A lot of companies want their technical personnel to be top notch and will cover the cost of these conferences. In other words, you will get paid to learn because they know your improved skills will ultimately benefit the company’s bottom line and improve the value of your services to their customers. Keep in mind, that some companies will foot the bill, but may ask you to commit yourself to remaining at that company for a set period of time. Otherwise, if you leave before that set time you may have to repay those conference costs. Regardless of your company’s policies, I believe it is well worth it. I go to at least one technical conference per year, just to keep my skills sharp and, thankfully, I have had very generous and supportive employers.
Keep the Flame Alive (or Continue to Love What You Do)
No, this is not the title of some cheesy love song. Think back to what made you work in this field in the first place. Have you ever felt like you wanted to write an application that could change the world or at the very least make your clients extremely happy? Perhaps your ideas could revolutionize the industry. Technical conferences can help you keep that passion for what you do burning. They not only make you feel better about your job they can actually help you do a better job. Going to conferences allows you to witness firsthand the edge of innovation in your field, keeping you up to date with the trends, and helping remind you why you love doing what you do.
Oh and let’s not forget, technical conferences can be fun too! You probably will get free food and beverages all day, you will get to hear new and interesting ideas, you are not expected to answer every work email, and at night you can go socialize with all the new technophiles you meet! So my question to you is why haven’t you signed up to go to a technical conference yet?!