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For the past 10 years Cal has worked with PHP and MySQL on Linux, OSX, and Windows. He has built a variety of projects ranging in size from simple web pages to multi-million dollar web applications. When not banging his head on his monitor, attempting a blood sacrifice to get a particular piece of code working, he enjoys building and managing development teams using his widely imitated but never patented management style of "management by wandering around". Cal is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 28 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

An entirely unscientific look at why people attend conferences.

07.20.2010
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Dear Reader,

Those of you who follow me on twitter (@calevans) know that recently I asked for opinions on conference attendance. I’ve collected what I learned in this blog post.

Who I asked

Speakers

First I asked my friends who were speakers why they attended. I got a lot of good answers but most were variations of “…because someone else picks up the tab.” :) (It should be noted that of the speakers I asked, only one was a professional speaker who collects a fee and even he attends some conferences just because they are fun)

Non-speakers

Next I asked on twitter for anyone who was not a speaker to email me and tell me why they attend conferences. My intent was to write a deep expose on why people attend conferences and give deep insight into the matter. It turns out that the people that responded all attend for the same reason I do.

Managers

Finally, I turned to managers, Directors and Team Leads to find out what was important to them. My hope was to educate conference organizers on how to properly market conferences to the decision makers. The responses I got back were very educational. I would have assumed that management was just interested in price – and price was a factor – but we have a lot of enlightened managers out there.

What I found

Here are my findings from the second and third groups. I was originally planning on drawing deep conclusions from the responses but some of the emails had such great quotes that I couldn’t say it any better. (All quotes are used by permission) So instead, I will present you with 2 things in each section. First, a graph of the things people listed as important. I read each and every email and grouped the responses into nice and neat categories. Many responses listed more than one reason and when possible, I listed their response in more than one category.

Why people attend conferences

The obvious reason, to learn, came in second (training) while the first reason people attend conferences is to network. Networking was mentioned in some way by almost every person but more than a third of the respondents thought it was important enough to list as one of their primary motivators.

Community scored high as well. Community is defined as meeting members of the PHP community whereas Networking was meeting and talking to other developers. Community is a much more focused topic and yet is still important to 17% of the respondents.

Beyond those two thoughts of my own, I will let you hear what the respondents had to say themselves. Here are quotes from five of the respondents that really stood out.

“I see these conferences as a good way to have a break from the day-to-day, learn about some new tech, polish up on some old skills and hopefully have some fun also. They’re also good as they show my company is prepared to invest in my skillset.” – Rob Mills

“Conferences often give another look at daily subjects, that is my main reason to keep coming to them.” – Sjoerd Maessen

“It’s about the back-and-forth between the presenters and the audience, as well as the back-and-forth between attendees in general. “Networking” is one word to describe this, but I think it goes beyond that: I think it’s almost a form of the Socratic Method, insofar as an idea of Person A will trigger a thought in Person B, and before you know it, Person C has joined in and the three of them have formed The Next Great Idea.” – Carl Anderson

“I realized pretty much immediately that if I was going to get any long-term value from conferences, it was going to be from the other developers there. I found that the sessions themselves provided little more information than I could find online, but they helped spur conversations outside of the sessions with other developers, and that was invaluable.” – Court Ewing

“Save me from spending 10x the time in chasing and vetting the latest trends on the web. Usually, by the time it makes it to a tutorial, it’s a pretty good idea. Or at least, someone has given it some very careful thought” – Daniel Holmes

What managers look for in a conference

It is not enough for developers to believe they need to go to conferences. In many cases developers are not the decision maker and if they want to attend, they have to convince someone that it is worth it. Again, I was surprised. Having worked in PHP conferences around the world for the past five years I thought I understood what managers first and foremost concern is…price. Make no mistake, price is a factor but the #1 thing that managers look for (33%) is training. They want to know how much it will cost but they weigh that against the value of the knowledge bring brought back. Many expressed that the value of sending a developer to a conference is directly linked to not only the knowledge but the developer’s ability to disseminate that knowledge throughout the team upon their return.

Price came in tied for second, surprisingly with “Peer-to-peer networking”. This was another pleasant surprise. Most developers paint a picture of a Pointy-haired boss for their immediate supervisor. The ones that responded to my question seem to understand that developers building a network of peers at a conference is a valuable thing to the team and to the company.

Like before, the respondents were much more eloquent than I could hope to be so allow me to allow them to put it in their own words with these three quotes from managers.

“I want my team members to come back from a conference feeling excited and energized to code again.” – Ben Ramsey

“Choosing the specific conferences to go to will be a mix of reputation, stuff we’ve been to before and something a member of staff may ask to attend” – Simon R Jones

“I never worry about whether it’s related to a current project. Sometimes going to a conference helps open the brain up a bit to new possibilities that can be used for those projects, but it can help them rethink the project coming up that they don’t even know about yet. In other words: if you’re sending them to a conference to learn something that can help with a current project, it’s already too late.” – Jack Ford

Conclusion

It seems than most people see conferences as a chance to get to know other people. For all of the stereotyping of developers as anti-social, in our own group we don’t seem to be that way at all.

  • Conferences give us a chance to put faces with screen names or blog authors.
  • They give developers a chance to talk with peers and use them as sounding boards for new ideas.
  • They give developers a chance to grow in knowledge, imagination, and a chance to expand their network.

Companies who see this and send their developers to conferences get all of this, plus happy developers.

Thank you to everyone who responded to my request for comments on this topic! I couldn’t have done it without you. I hope to see each of you at a conference sometime in the next year. :)

Until next time,
I <3 |<
=C=

References
Published at DZone with permission of Cal Evans, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)

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Comments

Dean Mao replied on Wed, 2010/07/21 - 12:48am

I found this article to confirm what I've been thinking about the value of conferences. We're planning to use some software (Presdo Match) to help enable networking at an upcoming conference for developers.

Eris Deesse replied on Fri, 2010/07/23 - 9:05am

I attended FOWD London 2010 this year. It's the first proper conference I've been to and I wasn't wrong when I thought that it would be an opportunity to learn a great deal, meet a tonne of lovely folk and generally have a blast.

Rather than blogging about it the day after like most folk, I waited for the hype (my own included) to die down and wrote up my thoughts on the conference just this week. Reflecting on what I have gained since attending was an interesting exercise - looking back I am certain I got my monies worth.

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