Tech Conferences can be a Waste of Time: Pick the Right Ones

02 Nov

Next week I will be speaking at Oredev about Natural User Interface techniques and I couldn’t be more excited about it. As a conference, Oredev has become one of the most prestigious developer events in the world bringing together a great speaker lineup, focusing on multi-vendor technologies, real world solutions and a contagiously passionate community around the event. Those are some of the ingredients I look for these days in industry conference because, let’s face it: conferences can be a tremendous waste of time from both an attendee as well as a speaker perspective.

Let me try to explain:

Every year, I speak at 9-12 industry events ranging from core developer forums to more executive type events. Over the years, I’ve learned to be very selective and very honest to myself about the events I decide to speak at. While before I used to try to see conferences as a way to grow my professional reputation and network, these days I only try to speak and attend events that I am really passionate about and that, I think, can result on a great experience. This is a very personal position I developed after spending a lot of time speaking at the WRONG TYPE OF CONFERENCES and not feeling I was providing a lot of value to the audience.

I know I can come across as very blunt about this topic so I figure I share some advice about technology conferences.

As a speaker, focus on vendor-agnostic conferences: This is something it took me a while to realize. I spent a lot of years, speaking at vendor-specific conferences that I didn’t enjoy but it helped me nurture a reputation within those tech communities. After a while, I realize that most vendor specific conferences and just big sales shows on which the presentations and topics are ultimately targeted to sell more product licenses instead of delivering true value. More importantly, vendor-specific conferences are constrained by a lot of policies and burochreacy  that prevents them from delivering a great experience. While I still do a few of those conferences every year, I find vendor-agnostic conferences as Oredev, QCon, etc much more open, honest and effective on attracting a great speaker line-up and delivering great value to attendees.

As an attendee, you know more than you think: One of the reasons I am super excited about Oredev is because I always have a blast speaking at conference in the Scandinavian region because you are most certain to encounter a super savy and real tough audience J. As an attendee, realize that there are cheaper and more efficient ways to acquire knowledge than attending industry events. If you are attending a conference, focus on sessions about topics you are passionate about, take the time to get familiar with the topic and challenge the speaker. Good speakers appreciate knowledgeable audiences and it makes an overall productive experience.

As a speaker, It’s Not About You, It’s About Your Audience: A lot of mediocre speakers who are only interested on making a name for themselves spend an awful amount of time marketing themselves or their company while failing on delivering valuable content to their audience. Being a speaker at a major conference comes with the responsibility of delivering a great experience for your audience and help them expand their knowledge on specific topics. When you get on stage, spend the time focusing on helping your audience instead of making the session about yourself.

As an attendee, there are cheaper ways to acquire knowledge: Let’s face it, you rarely learn anything at a conference. These days, most of the content delivered at industry events is available online in some shape or form. In that sense, you don’t really need to attend a conference to get yourself familiar with a specific topic, there are more efficient ways to do that.

As a speaker, please be original: I couldn’t emphasize more about this. A lot of content delivered at technical conferences these days just seems to be copied out of product documentations, internet blog posts or reciting some vendor party line. As a speaker, try to come out with original ideas that will help your audience think outside the box and push the boundaries of specific products and technologies.

As an attendee, focus on real experts-doers and not talkers: As I mentioned before, there are a lot of speakers at industry events that are just there to recite somebody else’s ideas. If you are attending a tech conference, try to focus on sessions delivered by true experts who have build real things in those specific areas. Even if those guys are sometimes not the best speakers, they will most certainly focus on delivering original content based on innovative ideas.

What do you think? Can tech conferences be a waste of time?

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Posted by on November 2, 2012 in Uncategorized


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