Are Tech Conferences Worth It?

Before I started working at Harvest, I had not attended a single tech conference. Frankly, I had not even given much consideration to attending one as I doubted they could be worth the price (including tickets, airfare, hotel, etc.) or time they cost. With most conferences making their talks available online at some point and a plethora of blog posts that sum up the key points, why would I even bother to leave my house?

Harvest has a very generous education policy (if something will make you better at what you do, you’re encouraged to do it) and conferences are something we’re welcome to explore. Some of my coworkers have attended conferences and seemed to feel they were worth it. I try to keep an open mind (especially when I haven’t given something a chance) and so I decided to attend a few events in the past year. I didn’t do it intentionally, but I was essentially the Goldilocks of conferences, attending four events of varying size and content.

##The Mega Conference

In 2011, I joined a large Harvest contingent for a trip to SXSW Interactive. With nearly 20,000 people in town and hundreds and hundreds of events to choose from, SXSW was pretty overwhelming. The huge number of events being held across the entirety of downtown Austin made it very difficult to find quality sessions to go to and the giant parties that happen at night mean lots of waiting in line if you don’t know somebody.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) may not have been born to describe SXSW, but a more appropriate usage would be hard to find. Everything about the proceedings is plagued by the feeling that something better might be going on across town. By the end, I was happy to find a quiet place with my coworkers (some of whom I only see a few times a year at best) and talk/hack on projects.

Price: at least $2000. SXSW Interactive Badge ($595–950 depending on when you buy), Flight to Austin from NYC ($400ish), 5 nights of jacked-up hotels ($1000+++)

Would I spend my own money to attend? Not a chance. If I lived in Austin, I would try and hit up the side events that pop up, but I wouldn’t buy a badge. I enjoyed the experience of SXSW, but there’s just not enough value to justify spending so much money.

##The One-Day Local Event

The next stop on my conference exploration was GothamJS, a one-day JavaScript conference right in NYC. This was the first year GothamJS was being run and they put together a nice roster of speakers on a mix of subjects that definitely exposed me to some new ideas. There were a few talks I didn’t enjoy, but there were also nice people and ice cream sandwiches. I was able to hop on the D train to get there, so the travel was a piece of cake.

Price: $220–250.

Would I spend my own money to attend? Yeah, I’d go again. Hard to beat a reasonably priced event with a solid speaker list in your own backyard. I don’t think I would spring for travel and hotel costs if I had to travel from another city, though.

##The Multi-day Out-of-Town Conference

Last month, I attended JSConf in Scottsdale, AZ. Buying a ticket for JSConf was a leap of faith because they went on sale before speakers had been announced and they sold out in seconds. I had read about the event’s reputation for quality content, great organization and a wonderful hallway track so I didn’t mind grabbing a ticket and counting on the JSConf crew to put together an awesome event.

I was not disappointed.

The speakers overall were great and I especially enjoyed talks by David Nolan, Daniel Henry Holmes Ingalls, Jr., Jacob Thornton and Jake Archibald — not to mention the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, Rick Falkvinge. More than the speakers, though, I really enjoyed the conversations that happened in the hallway. I had the opportunity to talk with people on the browser teams at Mozilla, Microsoft and Google. I talked to people writing user interface components and I talked to people going crazy with Node.js. There is a lot of excitement in the JavaScript community right now and it was fun to get to experience that energy in person. JSConf goes out of its way to make speakers available for Q&A and conversations (they stay for the whole event and attend all of the parties) and it’s an awesome way to follow up on something that caught your interest.

Price: $1800. JSConf ticket ($575), 4 hotel nights ($675), Airfare from NYC ($535)

Would I spend my own money to attend? I just wrote two paragraphs that didn’t mention the food (I paid for none of it), parties, freebies or the awesome (and free) pre-conference (NotConf). Yeah, I would go again and I wouldn’t hesitate to spend my own cash to do so.

##The Multi-Disciplinary Conference

My coworker, Matthew, and I also attended the Harvest-sponsored ConvergeSE 2012 last month. Converge aims to examine the “intersection between design, development and marketing.” Speakers covered topics ranging from design and development of mobile apps to typography to customer service. Day 1 was filled with workshops across five tracks and I tried to sample a little from each. Day 2 was a more traditional single track speaker day with all of the previous days tracks represented.

Price: $1150. ConvergeSE tickets ($300), Airfare from NYC ($250), 3 hotel nights ($600)

Would I spend my own money to attend? Yeah, I think so. I would definitely do it if it was in driving range and I could split a room with someone. As a developer, I really appreciated the exposure to some sessions on design, typography and other things I don’t spend enough time thinking about.

##So, Are They Worth It?

Yes, there are certainly some conferences that justify the expense. Spending a couple of days watching passionate presenters and chatting with amazing people had me fired up to go home and crank out some new work. It’s hard to put a price on that kind of motivation.

##My Tips For Getting the Most Out of a Conference

I’m certainly not a grizzled conference veteran, but I definitely picked up a few tips from my mini conference tour. Maybe these will help you out.

  • Get Outside of Your Comfort Zone: When you’re at a multitrack conference, try to choose talks that expose you to something new or sound “a little out there.” If you stick with things you’re familiar with, it’s a lot less likely you’ll hear something that blows your mind.
  • Participate in the Hallway Track: Talk to anyone you can, but especially follow up with speakers. Take Jason Fried’s advice and give new ideas 5 minutes — there are smart people out there.
  • Get Your Hands Dirty: If someone is demoing something you find interesting, try it out. You’ll not likely have a better chance to get questions answered.
  • Enjoy the parties, but not too much. Waking up for a day of talks with a hangover is a good way to flush cash and opportunity down the toilet. Have a drink, but don’t go crazy.
  • Find Time to Explore: If you’re traveling for a conference, try to explore your new locale a bit. Ask someone to join you at a local restaurant or take a walk through a new neighborhood — new people and new places are a great way to keep your mind open.
  • Give a Talk: I haven’t done this yet, but I hope to soon. Speakers get a chance to present their thoughts and ideas and get immediate feedback from a number of their peers. It seems like a valuable experience and I’m ready to give it a shot.

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