Signs of Triviality

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Attending and speaking at conferences

February 28th, 2016

Conferences are an integral part of your professional life, whether you're speaking, attending without speaking yourself, watching streamed keynotes and talks, or just read blog posts about new technologies or practices presented.

Or perhaps I should rephrase that: conferences should be an integral part of your professional life. They allow you to keep up to date on current developments in your field of expertise, gain insights from other people's experiences, make connections with your peers, and to share your own research, contributing to the advancement of your discipline.

Unfortunately, many companies do not view conference attendance or speaking opportunities as a common part of your job routine and professional development. Instead, they will ask you to "justify the cost" of your attendance in monetary terms.

Sometimes you can handwave about all the possible new hire "leads" you're going to come back with, but, frankly, that's BS. If your company only sees value in conference attendance by the number of resumes you're feeding into HR afterwards, then they should sponsor the conference, have a booth there, and send a few HR and sales people.

Your professional development is something that should be in the interest of your company as a beneficial and valuable outcome all by itself. Your continuing education is directly in your company's interest.

While you can read up on the latest blog posts or post-conference write-ups, or watch a talk on YouTube while you're "multi-tasking" an email, a meeting, and your Jira backlog, you're only getting the most out of a conference when you're attending in person. (Incidentally, once you're attending, not bringing your laptop to the talks is a good idea so that you can actually pay attention.)

The value you get out of attending a conference is directly proportional to your own willingness to participate, to engage with others, to focus on the event and the people involved. What interests you the most? Are you seeking community experiences and an exchange with peers, or are you primarily looking to learn a new technology?

Try to define your scope: Attending a well-run conference with a tight, carefully selected program can be energizing; trying to simultaneously sit in on one talk while streaming a second, parallel track, and following tweets from a third, on the other hand, quickly becomes exhausting and stressful.

At the same time, you want to avoid merely turning up the volume in your own echo chamber. Consider selecting conferences outside of your narrow field of expertise. Larger conferences with multiple tracks can be useful if you're primarily interested in seeing a broad range of topics (just don't make the mistake of trying to catch all talks); smaller conferences great when you want focus.

The famous "hallway track" at large conferences can offer you a great opportunity to network with people from outside your direct job description or even industry and sector. At smaller events, the hallway track can feel cliquish; if you attend with colleagues or friends, you may be tempted to remain in the pack.

Try to make contacts on your own, join discussions with other groups, have lunch with people you don't know. (And don't worry, you can completely skip the after-hour "party" and any other alcohol-infused post-conference events. You're a reasonable adult, after all.)

A microphone in
front of an audience.

Getting value out of conferences is not a one-way-street, however. Attending and absorbing information is great, but as your career advances, you do have a responsibility to contribute to the advancement of your field of expertise as well, to share your experiences, to publish your findings and results. That is, you should consider speaking at a conference, obligatorily name-dropped impostor-syndrome be damned.

Speaking at a conference is a great opportunity: by preparing your talk, you will inevitably learn more about the subject than you thought you knew before. You will make useful and important contacts in the industry: the conference organizers, the program committee, other speakers, and attendees. A well-given talk may open the door for other speaking opportunities, career opportunities, or help you draw job seekers to join your team or company.

There are many great posts online about how to get started, but rest assured that you have something interesting to share; you just need to find the right venue and target audience to share it with. Don't shoot for the biggest names in the industry for your first proposal. Smaller community-organized conferences (such as the Security BSides, for example) are great to get started.

Keep track of what conferences are taking place throughout the year and don't hesitate to submit the same proposal to multiple conferences. It helps to customize your CfP submission a bit to the given conference, location, and target audience, but don't feel like you can only submit a proposal to one conference at a time.

You also shouldn't worry about whether or not you can afford to go should your proposal be selected. (Insert rant about most conferences not paying for their speakers to travel here.) You can cross that bridge when you get to it and seek financial support from your employer once you are accepted. If neither the conference nor your employer will cover your travel expense, you can still withdraw your proposal.

So pick the events that sound interesting to you and research their community, their target audience, their previous installments. Ensure they have a Code of Conduct, are inclusive, diverse, and welcoming to new speakers. Review their previous programs and tailor your proposal to the conference in question. Then fire away, submit, wait, and don't get discouraged if your proposal is not accepted: you can always fine-tune it, update it, extend it, and submit elsewhere.

The conference world is thine oyster,
Which you with wit shall open.

See also:

February 28th, 2016

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