Tech Conferences Aren’t Worth Your Time

Yes, thats right: the web industry's event of choice might not be as beneficial as you or your employer think it is.

To be fair, I’ve been attending tech conferences at least once a year since 2013 and have been massively helped each time. There are just some things you can’t get from Twitter, YouTube, newsletters, Hacker News, etc. but can get from a conference focusing on your particular language or framework. Being at an event with hundreds of people who have the same interests and similar experiences is invaluable for both learning and networking. For many of us, attending a conference also means the chance to travel and see a new city. These are all great things! But I want to propose that as software developers we can be wiser in how we spend our time and resources.

The problem

If you think about it, conference talks don’t deliver as much good as we might hope. The speaker normally has 30-45 minutes to pitch their idea or share their story about working with x-technology. This roughly equates to an introduction, problem statement, some quick examples or demos, and then wrapping up with a conclusion. If you have questions, the speaker might leave 5-10 minutes at the end to field questions from the audience. You might optionally catch them after the talk but let’s be honest: the line is long and you have another talk to get to 10 minutes. String this together for a full day or two and at the end of the conference you have a very surface-level idea about 10-20 concepts, libraries, or frameworks.

You haven’t mastered anything.

There are a couple other problems with conference talks…

The problem of interest

In attending tech conferences, you often find yourself sitting in talks that aren’t exactly what you thought they were going to be when you read the description beforehand. The talk turns out to be irrelevant or boring and 30 minutes later you escape hoping the next talk will be better. Or, if you’re rude, you just get up and leave during the talk to try what’s remaining of the other track’s segment. Sometimes you might just choose to sit through a talk only because it was the best option during that time slot. This is no slight on conferences or their great organizers, but mainly a result of a varied audience having mixed tastes and desires in attending a conference. You just can’t get it right every time slot.

The problem of cost

Another interesting thing about tech conferences is that all the talks for the conference will be out on YouTube within the next couple of weeks. The conference system is a business and like any other business, each conference needs to market their product in order to sell tickets for next year. The vast majority of conferences do this marketing on their website, Twitter, and YouTube by sharing all the content from the conference as quickly as they can. Within hours, you can have access to all the slide decks and Github projects that each speaker used to present with. Within a couple weeks, you can have video access to each individual talk. The only thing that you’re missing is the ability to personally ask the speaker questions, which can easily be solved by some Twitter work. With a little patience and some digging, anyone can have the full experience of each conference talk from the comfort of wherever and whenever they like. Why pay good money for it in the first place?

It's time to stop telling ourselves that tech conferences provide the best bang for our precious professional development bucks.

Why pay so much money for something you can get for free just a couple weeks later? Why sit through talks that you aren’t interested in when you could set YouTube at 2x speed until you decide you are really interested in what the speaker is talking about? Why get a surface-level understanding when what you are really searching for is mastery?

The alternative to conferences

The answer to these questions, I believe, isn’t actually too different from continuing to attend conferences. Don’t stop attending conferences but do change what part of the conference you attend. Many conferences these days are offering one or two day workshops before the conference begins. The format is different and instead of 30-45 minutes with the speaker, you get a full day or two working though a particular subject. Instead of a high-level pitch, you take a deep-dive and actually follow along. I believe that attending the pre-conference workshops and skipping the main conference days is the best way to spend my time and professional development budget. There are a couple reasons for this.

You can’t get this content anywhere else

In a workshop you get 8 hours per day of the instructor's time. This means that as you have questions, you are free to ask. There is actually a lot of time scheduled in for question and answers. As you work through the examples or try to figure out the exercises, you have other participants in the workshop to collaborate and problem-solve with. Typically the size for a workshop maxes out at about 100 people so the teacher-to-student is pretty reasonable. You even get to observe the instructor type, debug, and explain their solutions. These are all things that cannot be replaced by technology. Very few conferences, additionally, record the workshop videos and if they do, put them behind a paywall for additional profit.

You need to type to fully learn

In software development, typing matters for learning. While there is value in listening and watching, you often don’t fully grasp a concept until you can write the code for yourself. With a workshop, you get the experience of typing, correcting, debugging, and seeing the solution come to life in front of your eyes. This learning experience is so crucial for mastering a subject - it’s missing from conference talks but engrained in workshops. During a workshop, you follow along with the instructor and get hands-on experience as you learn new concepts. By the end of the workshop you are experienced with the ins and outs of the concept and really feel like you understand what you’ve just learned. Mastery is close.

You still need to leave work to learn

Let’s be honest: you don’t have enough time at work to learn all the things you need to in order to keep up with our ever-changing industry. While there are plenty of quality online learning solutions available to consume at your leisure, at some point you need to block off a dedicated amount of time to focus on learning. Companies that want to keep quality software developers will usually give them time and budget in order to attend training (often conferences) so that they can come back improved and more productive. If you find yourself as an employee of such a company, it makes all the sense in the world to use the time given to you. Use that time as a supplement to the regular habits you practice in and outside of work to learn and keep up.

In practice

I just trialed this approach in attending React Europe in Paris. The conference ran a two-day workshop before the regular conference with three different workshop offerings of Advanced React, React Native, and Mobx/GraphQL. Attending the Advanced React workshop was very beneficial for me and I met several other people who were actually using my approach of attending only the workshop. Now that the actual conference is underway, I’m keeping up on Twitter and Github while looking forward to seeing videos being released on YouTube within the next week or two. I didn’t sit through any talks I wasn’t interested in and can now even judge by Twitter activity which talks were “must watch” material. The workshop material was exactly what I needed and I now have plenty of new concepts to continue practicing.

In conclusion, being given the time and funding by our employers to attend external training is a great perk of being in the web development industry. It lets accelerates our learning and allows us to network amongst our peers. But this perk should be maximized while we have it. Make those dollars work for you and ensure that you are attending training that gets you closest to mastery as possible. Don’t just gain surface-level familiarity with 20+ different concepts. Attend a workshop dedicated to the areas you want to grow in and work towards mastering that subject. Sponsored training is a responsibility. Let’s use it wisely and learn in the most efficient method possible.

A closing remark

An absolute statement of a title does come with some clarifications to be made. It is well a documented fact that everyone learns differently. Some people may feel that they learn best from in-person, traditional conference talks and, if so, I cannot argue against it. Find what helps you learn best and go with it.

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