In the coming weeks, the PHP community has ZendCon, DayCamp4Devs and CodeWorks back to back to back. To be able to go to any of them, most likely you had to convince your boss that the conference is relevant to your job, worth the cost, and you'll bring back the best ideas to share. After days (or weeks!) of making your case, they relented and you're getting ready.
First of all, congrats. Many bosses don't have the foresight to send their people go to conferences. But that means above all, you have to keep your side of the deal. Here are some ways to get started:
At the first ZendCon – which was the first conference I really attended – I walked in without knowing a single person. The first day, I sort of hid off to the side and listened through some sessions but didn't get engaged. As a result, I ate dinner by myself the first night. You don't have to shake every hand or intrude into every conversation but if you hear a group talking about something interesting, feel free to stop and listen. Sometimes you'll have something to add, sometimes it will be more valuable to listen. Either way, you will have the opportunity to learn and meet people. Everyone can win.
Take notes and share them.
Write down the names of people, projects, ideas, or whatever you think might be interesting to your boss and team. No matter how great your team is, there is room for new ideas and new approaches to problems. In fact, set aside 15 minutes each day and send the notes to your team along with one sentence on how an idea could be relevant or helpful. Even if something isn't obviously helpful, include it and note why you think it isn't relevant. You never know what ideas might spark for your coworkers. Bonus points if you include a link to the presenters' slides.
Not only does your boss know that you're attending sessions and getting value, but you have an email trail to refresh your own memory in a week. Everyone can win.
When in doubt, ask questions.
So you know and understand project A but the presentation is on competing project B and you don't know why this is important. Ask. Raise your hand or wait to the end – the presenter will give their preference at the beginning – and ask: "I'm familiar with A's approach to X.. how does B approach this process?" Most of the time the speaker can give you an explanation. Sometimes audience members will fill the gaps. Even better, you've just announced your interest to a room full of people. It's likely someone else in the audience has similar interests, problems, or experience, and now they know who you are. Everyone can win.
Ok.. that is intimidating for many. Instead, ask the speaker after their session. Immediately after their session is an okay time but later at lunch or at the happy hour is even better. Even better, most speakers are at the conference the entire week so you'll see them in the hallway, getting coffee, or chatting with friends and colleagues. Politely join the conversation and ask your question when you get a chance. Remember that even the guy giving a keynote is still a human being.
Eat lunch with different people each day.
I know you want to sit with friends and coworkers, but don't. Sitting down with a group of new people will be intimidating but I've found three questions that anyone can ask and everyone is willing to answer. I've used these questions for five years at 20+ conferences without fail:
- What did you think of the keynote?
- What sessions look interesting today/tomorrow/this week?
- What's the best session you've attended so far?
Ask any one of them and listen to the answers.
And to be clear. This is not being fake. This is your opportunity to find out about great sessions you've missed or would otherwise miss. Even better, it applies to everyone at the table. I've lost track of the number of times I've heard "Oh, I forgot about that session. Thanks for reminding me." If you're lucky, you'll come across people with similar interests and get a chance to chat. Everyone can win.
If you haven't gotten my point yet, it's that Everyone can Win with just a little bit of effort. You can meet new people, learn new ideas, get a new spin on an old concept, explore ideas with the people you meet, share ideas with your team, and convince your boss this was the greatest investment ever.
But it's all up to you.