Jeff Carouth

Web and mobile developer. Agile apprentice.

Conferences: Inspiration Is Your Responsibility

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I’ve been home for over a week now but some of the activities at ZendCon are still on my mind.

In the shadow of conversations about negative events that transpire at conferences and related activities I think it’s also important to focus on the positives.

People go to conferences for multiple reasons. Some go to sit in the talks and learn from experts. Some go to hang out in the hallway and talk to fascinating people. Some go to collect a new wardrobe in terms of T-shirts given away at vendor booths in exchange for your dignity–or your business card, but I digress. Some people go to escape reality for a week. I go to be inspired.

A wise person once told me that the point of a conference talk is not to teach but to inspire. I have not mastered the skill of balancing education and inspiration but I can tell you that going to conferences does inspire me. So, my advice for your next visit to a conference is to find a way to be inspired whether that is in a session or sitting on a couch pulling up some troublesome code with someone else.

It is your responsibility to be inspired

This brings up an interesting point. In the guidelines for sucessful open spaces there is the concept of the law of two feet. During a recent conversation in IRC I brought up this law and several people had never heard of it. It’s a concept I am sure you are familiar with but the point is if you are not benefiting or contributing to a conversation it is your responsibility to walk away and go somewhere you can be productive.

What does this mean in a conference setting? One interpretation could be if you are yawning in a conference talk and find yourself checking twitter or having conversations in IRC you should probably get up and leave. However, I think that is a bit misguided. If you find yourself in a session that you already know everything the speaker is talking about and you are not gaining any insight one of two things happened. 1) The speaker’s abstract was misleading and the talk does not satsify the abstract; or 2) You did not read the abstract or choose which session you would attend wisely.

In the case of 1) it is not your fault and you should freely get up and walk out. However, before you do make sure you post feedback for that speaker as to why you felt the abstract did not match the talk’s content. This is invaluable information and a great way to give back to the speaker, the conference, and the community.

In the case of 2) that is your mistake. You should learn from it and do a better job selecting where you spend your conference next session slot. This is where the law of two feet applies; before you enter the room. As a tip, I would suggest going up to the speaker in the room if you are unsure about the talk. Hopefully in the 10-15 minutes prior to the start of the presentation the speaker is aware of the content level and would be able to help you decide if his or her talk is appropriate for you.

So, what do you do when there are no talks you think would be interesting or inspiring to you during a given slot? You go find someone to talk to. If there is an uncon or open spaces set up, go to that. Participate. If you see someone standing around looking confused go talk to them. If you see someone you know has interesting things to say go talk to them.

But maybe you aren’t keen on going up to random people you don’t know and talking to them. Okay, I get that. It’s scary sometimes. This is where the social aspects of conferences come into play. If you know absoltely no one at the conference when you get there, at the first session or breakfast or something you will be sitting near someone. Say hi. If you do not you will end up sitting there in silence awkwardly. Join the IRC channel or join in on a thread on Twitter. That’s a low barrier of social exposure. And you will likely be able to engage someone then you can find them in person. It works.

Follow up

The biggest thing I had to learn about conferences is to make sure to follow up afterwards. If you take away two new ideas from a conference you need to apply them as soon as possible. If you don’t you will never do it and you’ll end up at the same point you were at prior to attending the conference.

This means if you felt inspired to join a certain community in IRC, do it. Set up your IRC client and join the room. Get involved.

If you felt inspired to use a new library, do it. Set up a test project to get familiar with it. Or just go all in and add it to your current work project.

The point is you must use what you learned or saw. Without doing so you have wasted your time.

Answer a Call for Papers

This point is not for everyone. But for some of you going to the conference will give you a boost in confidence and can lead you to speaking. While you are still in conference euphoria set some goals to submit a couple talk ideas to an upcoming conference. In the PHP community we are lucky to have many smaller, regional conferences popping up which will make it easier for you to be selected. Find one near you and submit some ideas.