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I am currently in London as a speaker for the Ignite AI event of the O’Reilly Artificial Intelligence conference. Before attending the conference, I thought a lot about how to not waste my time here. I believe that many others working in technology also wonder about how to make sure attending a conference is worth their time. Here are some of my thoughts.
The best way to get value from a conference is to speak at the conference. This has a lot of benefits. First, you usually get to attend for free and might even be reimbursed for travel and time. Second, it allows you to talk about the work you, your team, and your company have done. This generally draws in people who are interested in the problems you are solving, which can help with recruiting and networking. Now instead of wandering around the conference hoping to meet people with similar interests, those people come to you. Lastly, speakers generally get better access to other speakers and event organizers. There might be a speaker’s lounge or speakers’ only event. These events can be a great way to get to know others working on challenging problems and talking with them can help you think about solving your problems in different ways.
Being able to speak at a conference, though, requires additional preplanning and time. You need to have work you are ready to present and you need to identify the conference early enough to be able to submit a proposal to talk. Thus, it is important to identify key conferences 6–12 months in advance.
This may be surprising to some, but usually, you get a lot more value from the people you meet than the talks you attend. There can be thousands of people at a conference, though, so how do you find the “best” people to talk with? I am a big believer in the idea that you can learn something from everyone, so I think speaking to anyone can be valuable, but I think there are some strategies you can use.
- Prioritize talks by who is talking, not just what the subject is. Then, go and introduce yourself to the speaker afterward. There is almost no reason to not spend a few minutes talking with the speaker — in my experience, these conversations will be some of the best of the conference.
- Don’t sit by yourself. Most people attend conferences alone, so you usually see a bunch of people sitting by themselves. At the beginning of a talk or lunch, go sit by someone and introduce yourself. You never know who you will meet and what you might learn.
- Spend some time at the exhibition booths. There are almost always companies set up at conferences. Go and talk to them. You may learn about an up and coming ML tool or learn about some new cutting-edge hardware.
- Meet people in the hallways. This is known as the hallway track and often can lead to long conversations in which you find yourself spending more time in the hallways than in the talks.
- Attend the events after the conference. Usually, there is some type of dinner or event you will get access to outside the actual talks. Go and meet people!
The general idea here is to make sure you take the time to talk to people, not just to listen to talks. This can be a little uncomfortable at first but is well worth it. And if you attend similar conferences with the people you meet, you will find yourself looking forward to events as a means to reconnect.
Take notes of what you learn and share them! If you are attending a conference on behalf of your team, make sure you write down what you learn and take the time to present your findings when you return. This allows everyone on your team to benefit from the conference. If that is too formal, set up a Slack channel and send out quick notes of what you are learning. Or if you want something even more formal (or don’t have a team to share with), create a Medium post and share your summary of the conference with the world. I find these types of posts extremely valuable. Taking the time to write down and share what you learn will not only help others but help you solidify the key takeaways as well.
Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash
After you have done all of the above and are back at home, take some time to reflect on the value of the conference. Something as simple as a quick pros and cons list can be very enlightening. What made the conference valuable? What did you not enjoy? Maybe you made a great connection who sparked some ideas on how to solve a current problem you are working on. But perhaps the conference also costs you a few days of work. Once you have the list, review it, and decide what you think the net value of the conference was. Be honest with yourself and use what you learned to make your next conference even more valuable. If you found that multiple-day conferences are just too long for you, make sure you attend a one day conference next time. If you treat conference attendance as a learning problem to be optimized, you will start to truly maximize their value.