Ask Women in Product: What are the best conferences for product managers?

Women in Product
Apr 23, 2018 · 9 min read

In this post, Tanya Elkins shares her approach for picking your first product management conference and maximizing the value you get from attending.

Photo by sam.88 via Twenty20

Answer from Tanya Elkins, Product and Operations Leader

This week, we tackle the question: What are the best conferences for product managers?

The short answer, unfortunately, is It depends. On many factors. In fact, as I was writing this post, I found myself wishing I had enough time to build a wizard that would recommend the best conference for product professionals based on factors like their current position as well as the short and long-term outcomes they were hoping to achieve. Since such a conference-picker tool does not (yet) exist, I will endeavor to do the next best thing, which is answer the question as I would have asked it before I had ventured out to a product conference.

When I attended my first conference, I wanted foremost to gain insight, wisdom, and knowledge that would help me perform better as a product leader. Even though I had been a product manager for a few years, I hadn’t attended a conference before. I know that’s unusual these days, but back then, there weren’t many PM-focused conferences. Also, if you’ve read last week’s #AskWIP post on the typical week of a product manager, you’d know that most people in this profession will say that a typical week is a week that’s maxed out. In fact, one comment on that article via Twitter was, “Very accurate. Though sadly my world includes more meetings. I would love to have so much focused work time.” So even if there were conferences out there for my profession, I wouldn’t have had time to notice them back in the day.

Fast forward to today where the fortunate entrants to this profession now have a plethora of conferences to choose from. Unfortunately, what’s stayed the same is the fact that we still have too much to do and not enough time. It’s far too easy for us to sacrifice what Stephen Covey calls the habit of Sharpening the Sawparticularly the Social (making social and meaningful connections with others) and Mental aspects (learning, reading, writing, and teaching) of this important Habit.

Step 1: Is this the right time for a conference?

Anyone with time and budget can sign up for the next product management conference, but I would suggest that one consider her level of experience before venturing out. If you have less than two years’ experience as a product professional, then training on the functional basics or even a mentor relationship might be more valuable to your development than spending two to five days off-site with hundreds of strangers at a larger conference. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to a conference as a brand-new product manager, just that you may get more benefit from a different type of stone to Sharpen your Saw at this stage. That said, I make an exception here for Product Camp, which I believe is suited for everyone and anyone involved in product development, sales, marketing, or management.

Once you’ve determined that a conference is the right next step for your growth, you’ll need to figure out how to make the time.

Step 2: How do I make the time to get out of the office?

Most days at work rush past us like an ocean wave, leaving us with a small window of time from 10 PM to midnight to try to think about the big picture. If your typical week finds you squeezing creativity, planning, and product strategy into the pre-midnight hours, what hope do you have for getting out of the office to a conference that’s ‘just’ to help you do your job?

One test is to ask, “If I were trying to take a weeklong vacation, would I be able to deal with the anticipated workload?” If you can answer with anything better than a “probably,” then you have solved your problem. It’s just a matter of deciding if you really want to have the conference experience and making the necessary preparations for your commitments ahead of time. While a conference is not as restful as a vacation, you can still experience some of the social, emotional, and mental connections that Stephen Covey talked about in that famous seventh habit. The quality of your work should get a boost as well.

Step 3: How do I prepare for it?

Before you book your flights and hotel, take a moment to go through the agenda, think about who might be there, and make a list of the most aspirational outcomes you could achieve at the conference.

At my first conference as a Senior PM, I was overwhelmed by the opportunities, the information, and the people in attendance. I was also flying solo, which made me feel like the last one picked for the dodgeball game in school. Even the dinners were a challenge; sure, you could be a foodie with great new venues nearby to explore, but it was just a little sad to be sitting alone without someone else to talk to about the learnings of the day.

As I looked at the agenda, chose breakout sessions, and walked through the exhibit area (alone), I realized that it was way too late to locate the people I wanted to connect with. Had I done my homework, I would have made connections and planned for meetups to talk 1:1 with customers, peers, and potential partners. Don’t get me wrong; I still got something out of that first conference experience, namely a life lesson plus a few pages of notes.

You’ll get something out of your first conference, too, but you can do better than I did by setting objectives and making a list of specific people you want to meet, take a selfie with, or add to your network.

Step 4: Which conference do I pick?

If you can only pick one product management conference, which one should it be? As I mentioned, you can’t go wrong by attending Product Camp as often as you can. Other than that, I believe any of the conferences listed below is worthy of consideration because any of them will add significant value as a first-go.

You can eliminate some choices based on the schedules, then further shorten your list by picking the ones that you have a better chance of attending with someone you know — assuming they are also interested in the content and not just the party. Your engagement at the conference will be far greater if you’ve got a buddy, and you’ll also increase your enjoyment at lunch and dinner. Just remember that, together, your duo should be braver about making connections and not look like a closed circle. Look for others who are flying solo if you run out of people you planned to connect with on your list.

Major Conferences in 2018

See this list in table format

  • Mind the Product. Started in 2012, MTP is one of the largest conferences focused on inspiring product leaders. Sessions follow a TED-style presentation. Price varies based on time of registration and how many sessions you attend.
    In the US: July 16–17 in San Francisco. $700-$1000
    In Europe: October 19 in London, £539 — £699
  • Women in Product. One day. Top leaders in product management Bringing Together Women Who Build.
    In the US: September 7 in San Francisco, California, Cost TBA
  • INDUSTRY. Specific topics and a smaller (though still sizeable) attendee list make this event ideal for product managers looking for actionable strategies to take home. Ticket prices increase every month.
    In the US: October 1–3 in Cleveland, OH. $495 — $1535
    In Europe: April 23–24 in Dublin, Ireland. €395 — €1295
  • Product Camp. The best place to build your street cred as a Presenter and contribute to the success of the event even from the audience. The low ticket cost belies the value of the experience.
    Takes place all year at various sites. $10-$20.

If you’d like a longer list, feel free to dig deeper into the sources I’ve cited in a related LinkedIn post. I’ve also included links to each event above so you can see how the conference is selling itself. And for the experienced product conference-goer, I’ll post a couple of lists that I found while doing this research in the comments of my LinkedIn post.

Step 5: I made it! What do I do while I’m here?

Be fully present and engaged; attendance is too low a bar. A conference is an investment in you of several thousand dollars, paid for by your company. If there are teammates who were unable to attend due to budget or workload constraints, make sure your attendance benefits both you and your whole team.

Aside from attending keynote addresses and breakout sessions, challenge yourself to go beyond attendance and drive your own agenda. Some ideas to consider are bulleted below.

  • Increase the size of your network in each relevant category, including future customers, employers, employees, integration partners, and subject matter experts. This idea is listed first because it’s the one that many women struggle with — even extroverts sometimes grow shy in a sea of people who seem to already know each other, especially when you are attending solo. Conferences are great for two things: content and networking. You can get content from books and the Web, but you don’t get the same networking benefits virtually as you will with face time.
  • Collect market, industry, and trends data to incorporate into strategy and business plans. Seize every opportunity to take a step back and see how your company and product fit into the big picture. Conduct competitive analysis and user research (if possible).
  • Educate the team back at the office — how will your attendance be paid forward? Don’t limit your thinking to peers in product, but think of the bigger picture. What insights could you bring back that will inspire developers, marketing, operations, service, and sales?

If you really want to knock it out of the park, take the advice shared by my friend Aaron Orendorff, who is Editor-in-Chief of Shopify Plus and a Forbes Top 10 B2B Content Marketer.

And yes, there may be some fire drill the day before you leave that lasts the entire time you are away from the office . . . just like when you try to take a vacation. Go to the conference anyway and resist the urge to work all day in your hotel room unless you are seriously and truly the only person in the world who can pick up the pieces of whatever is going wrong.

Step 6: What do I do after I get back home?

Aim to complete these activities within three days of returning from the conference.

  • Review the outcomes you had envisioned prior and evaluate how well you achieved them. Figure out what went well and what you would do differently next time.
  • Identify follow-up actions that should be taken, then figure out how best to implement the takeaways you consider a top priority. Find someone with whom you can partner to follow through on these action items, then schedule an appointment with your accountability partner to review your plan. A study by the Association for Talent Development has found that you’ll increase your chance of success by up to 95% if you have a specific accountability appointment.
  • Share the wealth of knowledge you’ve gained. Doing so will encourage your colleagues and manager to support you as you get back on your game and certainly won’t hurt your chances of getting funding for the next conference you want to attend. This sharing can be done by updating product plans, feature lists, user stories, personas, or any number of artifacts for which you are a contributor and which can now be improved by your experience.

The best conference experiences inspire you to new heights, remind you of proven principles, and energize you to be aspirational about the future as you serve your customers and work to fulfill your product’s mission. And while you can’t go wrong attending any of the conferences listed in this post, the value that you get out of it depends most on what you do before, during, and after the event. I hope the steps in this post will encourage you to sharpen your saw.

Women in Product

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