Yes, I fell asleep in the lobby
Lessons from my first tech conference
Conferences *shudder* They’re expensive, exhausting, and overcrowded. Guests are prowling for jobs, and exhibitors are pushing services a noob barely understands, much less needs. You’re not ready to start job hunting, and to top it off, you’re very likely the least knowledgeable person in the entire expo. Why bother attending these so early? You have nothing to offer.
Wrong! Well, mostly right, ngl. But wrong in an important way. Noob though you are, you have something valuable: the element of surprise! Many people don’t like surprises; that’s okay. End the conversation politely and quickly, and find out whether the next person does like them. Here's a conversation repeated ad nauseum at DeveloperWeek 2023 in the San Francisco Bay Area:
Me, extroverting with all my might: Hello [name of conversational victim, covertly taken from their badge], how was your talk on [topic looked up on speaker schedule beforehand] received this morning?
Person who might like surprises: *confused but pleased* Hello … Ren. It went well … what do you do?
Me, offering a surprise: I’ve just started studying software engineering!
They do not like surprises: So you’re a student. *looking around for an escape* Where do you … go to school?
Me, confirming surprises are unwanted: I’m learning online, self-study. I’m here for conversation. Which talks are you finding most interesting this week? The [only talk with a title I understood] one this afternoon looks engaging.
Confirmed surprise-averse person: There are so many, and not enough time….
Me, putting us both out of our misery: That’s true! I won’t keep you. Pleasure meeting you, and glad to hear your presentation was well received! *leaves immediate area so the other person doesn't have to*
DevWeek: come for the exposure, stay for the awkwardness®. If you’re not an extrovert, I strongly recommend faking it for the duration of the conference, to get your ticket’s worth. I slept through the first “after hours” party due to an acute case of tuckered-out-introvert, but made it to the final party, and it was worth it. There were fewer people and the atmosphere was relaxed. Best of all, most of the job-seekers skipped this portion. This was where I met most of the surprise-welcoming people.
These friendly people were happy to offer advice with a smile, and promised further guidance as my studies progressed. They are the gems, the mentors, the ones who make conferences worth the hassle.
As for the rest of the conference, well. As expected, I understood very little of the content, and I said as much to one of the mentor-types. He assured me that my incomprehension mattered not at all. The key is to continue showing up, inserting yourself into the environment, and most importantly: starting conversations with people in the industry.
Great! I'll attend as many as I reasonably can. ...But wait, conferences are expensive! If you’re not an employed software engineer, or heir to some kind of oil/hotel/railroad fortune, how can you even get through the door? I’ve found two ways:
Bootleg tickets. Kidding. Don't report me. Scholarship tickets! Occasionally, prospectives with financial need can apply for tickets that have been sponsored through the generosity of others. If you are fortunate enough to be gifted a scholarship ticket, be a good human and find the appropriate people to thank, sincerely, by name.
Volunteering! More common than scholarship opportunities, as conferences need help, and lots of it. If you’re friendly and flexible, you might be compensated with a ticket. This is sometimes even possible with virtual events! It’s worth asking, and as with most things, the earlier you reach out, the better your odds.
If you go the volunteering route, note that the work takes it out of you for real. By the time I had completed my daily five-hour volunteer shifts and was permitted to wander, I was pretty much sleepwalking. By the end of the second day, I passed out in a giant inflatable chair next to a giant connect four. Then fell asleep standing up on the train home. It was 4pm.
I'll close with a final, happy observation that I haven't seen anyone else mention when talking about the benefits of attending these conferences: friends! Some volunteers, some guests, some locals in line at the dim sum place I ran to for lunch. Gather a few thousand people in one place, and you're bound to meet a few who delight you. That's worth the cost of entry any day.
Not pictured: "DEV"