# Saturday, 26 September 2015
Back when I first started going to conferences, the schedules typically ran 9 or 9:30 to 4 or 4:30. I used to bring a book to read in the evenings in case I didn’t like what was on TV. Then I started getting invited to dinners and parties and planning meetings and conference days got a lot longer for me. But what I’ve noticed recently is that conference days are getting a lot longer for everyone. People have come all this way and are willing to pack a lot into each day. I’m writing this on the last day of CppCon where there is content starting at 8am and running until 10pm. There's even content over the two hour lunch break! That’s a long day, and a bunch of them in a row makes for a long long week. So here are some tips for how to handle that kind of week. I’m going to be specific to CppCon, because I think a lot of my readers should attend it, but other conferences will have equivalents to everything I’m mentioning here; I’ll let you do the mapping yourself.

First, have a schedule. Weeks before the conference, mark out what talks you want to attend. Have a goal of selecting two talks in most time slots. Then if your first choice is not as good as you expected, or the room is full and you don’t want to stand, you know exactly where to go for your second choice. Have that schedule in your pocket – on your phone, or on a piece of paper – so you have no lost time figuring out where to go. (CppCon uses Sched, which mails you each day's schedule in the morning, making it easy to have with you.) Don’t be the person who shows up at 9 only to learn there were sessions at 8. Check the schedule at least once a day during the conference in case things are being added. Tip: things are being added, you can count on it.

Second, plan ahead to take care of the physical body that is carrying your brain from session to session. It’s really a simple matter to have a few granola bars and a bottle of water in your bag. If you miss a snack, you can still have something to eat or drink. Bring a light sweater in case you are in the cold room. Bring some painkillers if you might get a headache from sitting somewhere loud. Bring whatever little comforts you need to keep yourself from getting whiny and leaving early to go to your peaceful hotel room and watch TV. (That said, there’s always one day in a one-week conference where I go back to my room for an afternoon nap. It’s the only way I can stay functional during long and intellectually-intense days. Just make sure you’re doing it for a brain recharge and not for something you could have avoided by bringing a small item with you to the conference centre.)

Third, think about how you’re going to take notes. A paper notebook? Bring a spare pen, too. Your phone? Your laptop? Or are you just going to immerse yourself in the experience and use the videos if you want to check something later? Whatever your plan is, bring what you need to be able to use it. Power is always a challenge at conferences – I like to bring an external battery for my phone so it can charge in my bag. Think about what your bag is going to weigh and consider leaving the laptop at the hotel and getting by with a phone and some paper for notes. It’s really liberating not to be lugging a heavy bag, in fact surprisingly so.

Fourth, before you arrive (at the latest, on the plane to the conference) write up your goals for the conference. Do you want to meet people? Specific people, or some number of people, or people from a particular industry? Do you want to learn something specific? (Perhaps this is the year to understand SFINAE, or be able to follow along in a talk that includes template meta programming, or “get” those Haskell jokes people are always telling.)  Maybe you want to tell people about something? Tweet some number of times? Blog some number of times?  Have a plan. Have goals. Check yourself against these goals each morning, and adjust your plan for the day if you need to, so that you move towards those goals each day.

When you arrive at the conference, scout out the amenities. Where are the bathrooms? Are there tables and chairs? Are there tables and chairs with power? On Day 1, pay close attention to the food and drink pattern. Is coffee always available, or only at certain times? Where does the food appear? Knowing this will take away any worry you may be carrying around that you may miss something and not get another chance at it. It will also save you from taking extras of things and lugging them around all day when you don’t really need them. I also like to work out patterns related to what rooms I’ll be in – that I’ll be on the same floor all afternoon, for example. It just makes me feel a little more settled and centred.

Looking after your body doesn’t stop with what you planned and what you brought. I start each day with 5 minutes of stretching which makes a big difference to how I feel all day. I also try to use the stairs instead of the escalators – less lining up and it makes me feel better too. I go ahead and eat the snacks, many of which are not part of my normal day (brownies in the afternoon? bag of chips at lunch?) but not to excess. CppCon has fruit and other options that are not all about fat, sugar, and caffeine, and it’s often a smart choice to go with those rather than the straight-up treats. Try not to get too far from normal. If you normally have 5 cups of coffee a day, then you can do that during the conference, but if you’re a one-cup-a-day person, perhaps don’t go beyond 2 or 3 a day while you’re here. Same advice for alcohol – if you dramatically increase your consumption over the course of the week, you’re likely to feel uncomfortable by the time Thursday or Friday rolls around. The one thing you should be sure to take in more of than usual is water – whether you’re eating more sugar than usual, drinking more caffeine and alcohol than usual, or just walking a lot more than usual from room to room in a conference centre, extra water is what you need to compensate. If you grab a bottle of water at a snack break, hang on to it when it’s empty – typically most conference rooms have a watercooler or bubbler by the door where you can refill that bottle whenever you want. Can’t stand water? Bring something to flavour it with – pick up some powders or drops at home and try them out to see which one you like. It’s way more efficient than hanging around hoping that this is the break they have juice at, or leaving the conference centre on a half hour walk for a convenience store.

As the conference goes on, be aware of how you are spending your time. For example, if you check your email during a session, but then take a peek at Twitter, and then at your personal Facebook – are you even really in the session anymore? Don’t be afraid to leave if this is not the session for you. You can go to another one, or talk to other attendees out in the hall, or go back to the hotel for a one hour nap. Almost anything is better than ignoring a speaker and killing time on your laptop or phone. And if you’re not prepared to leave, then perhaps you just need to start paying more attention to the session – assuming it’s material you actually are interested in. Take a look at those goals you wrote. Have you tweeted recently? Blogged? Learned that thing? Met enough people? Will staying in this session and listening meet your goals, or should you go out to the hall and work on a goal? Are you just chatting with your own coworkers, or someone you’ve known for years? Building and strengthening relationships is great, of course. That doesn’t mean that discussing the football game with your cubicle-mate is a good use of your time at a place you flew 5 hours to attend. Maybe you can walk around and find a way to join a conversation with a speaker or someone else you wouldn’t normally meet. Just standing there listening can be very enlightening even if you don’t end up saying much.

If you’re not normally a tweeter, blogger, or talker-to-strangers, a conference is a great place to start. There are immediate benefits. Perhaps your question will be answered, or your point will be repeated and quoted, or you’ll make a new friend or business connection. This will give you reinforcement for doing that, of course. As you meet your goals, make a record of that, so you can easily answer questions about what you learned or accomplished during the conference. Consider writing a summary when you’re done – for yourself, or for whoever funded the trip. A chronological structure is natural – Monday morning I went to a talk called X and learned Y or met Z, at lunch Monday I talked to A and B who encouraged me to look into C, Monday afternoon I went to a talk on C – but be sure to have an executive summary that reads a little less like a diary. Start writing it during the conference and polish it on the trip home. Once you get back to the office, writing that summary is going to get harder and harder, so don’t put it off.

Attending conferences is a great way to boost your career – when you do it well you learn a lot in a short time, meet luminaries of your industry and people just like you, raise your profile and your confidence, and have a wonderful time. When you do it poorly, you get tired, hungover, lonely, overwhelmed, and bored. Put in the effort to plan and prepare, and you will be in a great position to reap the rewards.

Saturday, 26 September 2015 11:39:17 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0]
Comments are closed.