In-person Conferences Are Back!

I had the chance to attend my first in-person tech conference, CascadiaJS, earlier this month and I’m very glad to have live events back in full swing again!

As software engineers, we’re lucky to be in a field that allowed a fairly easy migration to remote work. Virtual conferences and hackathons were plenty available the last few years, but there is something special about in-person events. They facilitate connection in a way I don’t think we can quite replicate digitally, though as metaverse creation tools keep evolving, this may change.

As I’m getting ready to head to my next conference, here are some things I’ll be keeping in mind I wanted to share:

What to Wear to a Conference

I started my career in software development during the pandemic, so I got very used to living in sweatpants and other forms of (athleisure)[].

As the conference date approached, I realized I had not figured out what to wear the next few days. Would it be alright to go off media tropes of casually dressed developers, or should I play it safe and get myself some business attire? I asked for advice from more seasoned folks in the field and it turned out people wore a mix of both. One recommendation would be to have some comfortable shoes, since you’ll likely spend a decent amount of time walking around the venue or standing around while chatting with others.

What to Bring

Are Business Cards Necessary?

I saw several recommendations online to bring business cards and jot down notes on ones you get, since you might forget what you talked to them about. This seems like a good idea but if you don’t happen to have any as I did, I found it was easy enough to add people directly on LinkedIn. You could always type out a short message as you’re sending an invite too. This also cuts out the step of adding people afterwards. CascadiaJS had a QR code tied to our tickets to connect with other attendees quickly, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other events have a similar feature too.

Your Favorite Notetaking Gear

This may depend on your learning style, as some people absorb information best by listening intently while others like myself pay attention better while taking notes. If you’re taking a workshop, you may also want to bring your laptop so you can follow along to any live tutorials. - If you forget, chances are, someone tabling will be giving away a notepad or notebook

What to Do at a Conference

Attend Talks & Workshops

Talks and workshops take up the bulk of a tech conference schedule, and for good reason - they give us a glimpse of interesting things others have learned or come across. This may be particular to the conference I attended, but in a nutshell, I learned how far web development has come, from tools that make our work easier and those that make the web experience richer and more expansive.

As a newer developer, it also gave me a chance to assess what I know and how much I’ve come across in my journey so far in tech. For example, while listening in on a talk on understanding data for frontend developers, I realized the concepts were not as unfamiliar I had imagined them to be.

Don’t Forget About the #hallwaytrack

Some would argue the opportunity to meet and get to know others in the industry is the actual highlight of conferences, and I wouldn’t disagree. Casual conversations open the door to things you might have missed, give you a pulse on what others found most interesting, and add that human touch that’s so difficult to encapsulate and distribute online.

During the breaks from talks (or if I’m honest, also while looking for seating at talks), I found myself seeking familiar faces. It’s often the easier option for many of us to stick with our co-workers and friends at large events. I challenged myself to stop defaulting to my comfort zone and get out there and meet new people. I found that most everyone is happy to chat and it’s up to us to take the initiative to start conversations.

Pacman game scene made of happy hour snacks (cheese and grapes) The organizers went over the “Pac-Man Rule” - we can display with our body language that we are open to others joining our conversations, which may be an easier start than jumping into a conversation. Instead of closing off into an encircled huddle, leave room for someone to join in.

Another way I met new people was by asking to sit with them during mealtimes, if I saw an open seat. Food seems to be a natural conducer of community - it puts us in a good mood and offers us time to slow down so we can share conversations.

If you’re still feeling nervous, prep a few conversation starters such as:

  • “What are you working on?”
  • “What did you think of X talk today?”
  • “How did you join this industry?”

Don’t Forget to Take Breaks

Something I appreciated about CascadiaJS was that they incorporated a “wellness track,” so attendees could take time to enjoy the great outdoors in all the different ways Bend OR offers- from kayaking to cycling to yoga.

You might find yourself at conference events starting as early as 7am with coffee and go late into the evening with social events, which may lead some folks to social exhaustion. Signs may include an inability to focus, irritability, fatigue, anxiety, if you don’t take the steps to recharge your energy.

Even if there isn’t deliberate time carved out into the schedule, it might be a good idea to check in with yourself throughout the day. You might feel some FOMO about missing out, but conference talks are often recorded, so you can (re)view them later when you have more time.