How to maximize the benefits you gain from a conference.

Conference is fun, but!

Although a conference definitely should be a lot of fun, on the other hand it requires plenty of effort from every attendee, so I’d like to share my vision what kind of effort that could be.

First, going to a conference, please, keep in mind that it’s a place where exchange of ideas is happening. And you need to be prepared to get these ideas; hence often ideas need a soil to grow from a small seed into something useful. A conscious preparation requires not only reading a brief talk intros, which still remains as a pre-requisite, but also an understanding of who will give a talk, what kind of experience he/she has.

Usually before a conference when I’m doing data mining on speakers, I look into their blogs, tweets and videos from previous talks. It gives me a clearer idea of what to expect during the talks and enables me to prepare some questions in advance.

Another part of the story is to become familiar with some concepts talk will be given about. Frequently, after Agile Riga Day we receive complains about too advanced topics having been presented, and it is typical for people to ask for less advanced talks.

I half-agree and half disagree with that complains. Of cause, not every talk suits a novice. But on the other hand, we strive to host interesting topics, not just another “Let me tell you how we’re using Scrum”. I’m glad that people wish to share their experience on that, but I’m sure that such talks are a better fit for a local community gathering somewhere in a pub, not for an annual conference. In a more informal atmosphere people will be willing to share more details about their experience, and the audience will have more time to discuss every nuance of it.

If you feel some lack of fundamental knowledge, you have two ways — either to write down all the unclear things and dig into it after the conference is over, or spend an hour or two before the conference reading some intro materials.

Next part of story is attending a talk.

We strive to invite people who are good at what they do, and whose ideas we like. It’s pretty good if they have excellent presenting skills. But what if their ability to deliver the message may vary depending of surrounding environment? Even a confident speaker may be nervous, feel sick or be exhausted.

In 2011 I applied as a speaker for Agile Turas at Vilnius with my talk on Agile Testing with Agile Tools. We departed from Riga around 3:00 AM and were in Vilnius around 7:00 AM. I caught a cold earlier that week and I felt terrible. And of cause, while giving a talk, I had forgotten almost half of my speech, I just followed the slides, and sometimes it was hard to link one slide with another. When the video was published, I almost committed a suicide, seeing how terrible it was. But for the audience, perhaps, I was just another moron, who thinks he knows something that other don’t. But I really know. And I’d be happy if few people got the idea behind the presentation.

So, I’d like to state that a burden of understanding the idea behind a presentation is shared 50/50 between a speaker and an audience. And if speaker is failing to deliver something, you could ask him again and again, until his part of work is done.

I attended at TDD Coding Dojo workshop once, and I wasn’t exited with overall content of the workshop, since we were only gliding on a surface of TDD by doing a very simple and trivial exercise. But after we finished, I spoke to the presenter, and it turned out that he was presenting Coding Dojo as a way to teach TDD. The idea wasn’t to teach us TDD, but to show how TDD could be taught in Coding Dojo format. I asked, and now I’ve got the idea. Somebody may have left without asking, and they might remain convinced that it was a stupid waste of time.

So, it is almost completely up to you, how hard you want to work to understand a speaker and sometimes it requires a lot of effort. But the payback may be equally impressive as well.

Be conscious, spend time to prepare yourself, and don’t let the speaker slip away leaving you alone with your doubts.

P.S. I’m really wondering at those, who ignore conference after-parties, since most of the ideas exchange and other interactions are happening there. Actually, the whole idea of organizing Agile Latvia group first surfaced in my head after a conversation with Vasco Duarte at Turku Agile Day after-party. God knows what ideas may visit you at the next one.