Why You Should Attend a Tech Conference

Ever since 2006 I had always wanted to go to a technology conference. I’d see titles of talks for ZendCon and think “Wow, that would be cool to learn about!” In 2009, I finally went to the Utah Open Source Conference (now called OpenWest), and I was blown away with all the stuff to learn. Then, in 2011, I shelled out my own money and flew to Chicago for PHP Tek, and it cost me around $3,000 after conference ticket, flights, hotel, & other expenses while at Chicago.

It was absolutely awesome, and I walked away extremely grateful that I went. I thought I’d list out some of my biggest take-a-ways:

One: Learning From the Talks

This is what most people think about when they attend a conference (especially for the first time), and it is one really good reason. If you attend the many different talks available, you’ll walk away with a lot of new knowledge. I remember typing down notes of all the new things to checkout after the conference. By the time I got back to work, I had some new ideas on how to solve some problems we were having. I picked up some more best practices, and I felt I had really had grown as a developer as I put to practice the things I learned.

So most people who never have attended a conference think the benefits stop there, but honestly it is only one of many.

Two: Discovery of New Technologies

You can’t know about some new technology until you first hear about it. You first need to discover that it exists, and at a conference this is absolutely one of the best ways to do this. For me personally, when I attend a talk I’ll learn more about the primary subject, but I’ll also walk away with 2 or 3 little things I didn’t know about. “What was that presenter using to have all those cool git command helpers in his CLI? Bash-it? Cool!” “So we’re going to look at performance increases using a tool called xhprof? Wow, I didn’t know that existed!” “I’ve been using XYZ library to interact with Redis, but this new library looks much better!”

Its not only in the talks, it is in the hallways talking with other attendees and speakers. It is at the socials that are planned in the evenings after talks. Its over dinner with a group of people you just met and are shooting the breeze about technology.

Without fail, every time I speak at or attend a conference, I walk away with some more tools for my “programming tool belt.”

Three: Rubbing Shoulders with Giants

Typically at a conference (especially smaller ones) you have a chance to talk with the people who are speaking & giving talks. I remember meeting several people at PHP|Tek 2011 who I’d read dozens of their blog posts, used their open source libraries, and really respected them.

But what stuck out to me was this: they’re just normal people. Yeah, they are smart and typically have done some pretty cool stuff. But they are just nice, normal people like me. I remember going to IHOP with several speakers and “community giants” and getting to know them outside of just technology, and it was a lot of fun. So if I wanted to work on a pull request for one of their libraries, I could feel a little more confident knowing that I’d met them before, and could remove a little bit of the “star strucked-ness” that I originally felt.

Once you realize that these people are just normal Joes, it makes doing what they do a lot more approachable. It makes you think “Hey, why couldn’t I try and do more of what they do?” Next time I write some code, I’ll open source the libraries to see if they are helpful to others. When I have a bug or problem, I’ll blog about my solutions. The reality of the matter is there is nothing stopping any of us from going out and trying to accomplish something and make our industry better. I remember walking away with a strong impression of “Hey, I can really go out and do what I set my mind to do.”

Four: Making Connections with Others

By far, the best and most important aspect of a conference is meeting new people and making connections. I have my great job at DDM because at PHP|Tek 2011 I met a handful of their developers. Through that connection, a year later they had a position open up that was a great fit and had me interview. I can guarantee I wouldn’t have applied for the job because I doubt I would have heard of the open position. The professional connections are near invaluable that you can make at a conference.

Even better than the professional level, you will also make friends on a personal level. Between conferences and user groups, I’ve met so many great people and have made many friends. When I go to another conference, I know that I’ll run into some friends from before, as well as know I’ll make some more.

Pick a Conference & Make a Plan to Go

The great thing now, especially with the PHP conference, is there are so many regional and local conferences to attend that are a lot less expensive than some of the bigger ones. So find a regional conference that is an affordable price, make plans, and go! I know with PHP|Tek, every year I said “Hey, I want to go, I guess I’ll wait another year…” It wasn’t until I sat down and said “Okay, I’m going, so what do I need to budget so I can go next year.”

I know many people follow me are in Utah, and we’re in luck that this year we’re having the first SkiPHP conference. In full disclosure, I’m one of the organizers, so excuse the shameless plug. Early bird registration ends Oct 15th (TOMORROW!), and its only $129. If you live in Utah, $129 is a lot less then the $3,000 I paid to travel to my first PHP Conference. So if you want to get your “feet wet” so to speak, its a great one to try out.

Hopefully in the near future we’ll have the chance to run into each other at a conference!

Justin is currently the Director of Development for the Deseret News. He is active in the Utah Open Source community. He is an advisory member of the Utah Open Source Foundation, and helps with the anual Utah Open Source Conference. He primarily focuses on PHP, MySQL, Redis, HTML, CSS, jQuery, and JavaScript. When he gets the time, he enjoys to play jazz piano. Read More

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