Choosing talks at conferences

Always keep learning, keep on improving, keep getting better at what you do. That’s a rule many developers live by; we work in a field that is constantly re-inventing itself, coming up with better ways to tackle problems, new technologies to implement in our solutions and new methodologies to apply in our daily work. That’s why we’re always on the lookout for interesting articles online, reading books and visiting meetups. But if you’re familiar with meetups, you’ve probably also visited a conference or at the very least, you want to.

Conferences can be expensive; depending on the location and the number of speakers, an average tech conference can set you back a few hundred euros, at least. So time is valuable when you’re attending one; you have to choose which talks are worth that time and you don’t want to be throwing away your money (or that of your employer) by making bad choices.

Choosing talks? Yes, many conferences have many more talks than a single attendee could ever attend. They run in parallel tracks, giving attendees options about where to go in each timeslot but also forcing them to choose. And every developer will choose differently; sometimes a talk relates to a topic you’re working on, sometimes it’s exactly the technology you’ve been thinking about looking into and sometimes it’s something fairly new which you’ve already read a lot about and even applied in your work.

And that’s where the problem lies. I’ve been to those talks. The talks that seem exactly right for me. Or the tutorials that look like they might teach me exactly the right things. They seem to supplement what I think I already know, and because I want to get better at what I do every chance I get, I’ll often choose those talks and tutorials.

Seems fine, right? It isn’t. Because odds are that the talk you’re so interested in is given by someone who knows about as much about the topic as you do. Or the tutorial that should teach you about that one topic covers exactly (or mostly) what you are already doing. On the one hand, it’s nice to get the affirmation that you’re apparently on the right track, but on the other hand, what if you had attended the talk about the unknown topic instead?

Choosing the talks that don’t seem to connect with your current interests or your work are often the ones that are the most inspiring. They talk about problems you might not have and give you insight into another developer’s world. They show you a little bit about something you’re not familiar with; a new technology, a library with a specific focus, a method of tackling a problem. And because of that, you might come out of the talk, interested in a completely new topic or an alternative way of looking at existing problems. The benefits of such talks might be small, but if you weigh them against accidentally choosing a talk that talks about absolutely nothing you don’t already know, it’s obvious that investing a bit of time in the unknown might have a bigger payoff.

So, in future, I’m going to do things differently. I’m going to assume that I already know enough about those topics I was already interested in before I attended the conference. I’m going to attend the other talks. Dip my toe into new waters. Broaden my horizon. A conference is the place to do that; it’s not a week long course or a training; it’s just a bunch of talks. I want to learn new stuff and then spend my own time on it, so that on the next conference, I can choose yet another new thing. And I’d like to advise you do the same: choose the unknown. Pick the unfamiliar. Broaden your horizon.