Y1 Digital
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Y1 Digital

Flying Mania and I doing a silly little talk at MM18DE

On the value of conferences

Recently I had the privilege to attend the conference “Meet Magento DE” in Leipzig, Germany completely subsidised by the company I work for, Sitewards. It was my first “proper” conference, and I enjoyed it immensely. I was even able to give a silly little talk! But that aside, I wanted to reflect for a minute on the value of conferences.

Conferences are kind of weird to me. Intuitively, I do not find them to make sense. Attending a conference is:

  • Plane tickets to another part of the world
  • A hotel at higher than average prices thanks to everyone else attending the conference
  • Usually a couple of days missed work
  • Talks who, while enjoyable, I find do not provide sufficient value to justify the above expense. Particularly given a lot of it can be found on YouTube.

I come from a background of work which, prior to my IT career, did not indulge in this expense. However, having attended a couple of different kinds of these events and submitted and been accepted to talk at another, I think it’s worth reevaluating my initial understanding of conferences.

The value

Having taken a few days to think about it, as well as think about the impact of similar events on my work and my career I can provide the following “good parts”:

Sharing knowledge

The industry that I specialise in is primarily a knowledge driven industry. Our ability to provide useful service lies in our teams specialist knowledge about solving a specific set of computing problems.

IT (and, in particular, software development) is somewhat unique in that the amount of information that is required in order to provide the most effective service is immense — far larger than a single person can know and understand. In addition, there is such a large pool of consumers that it’s advantageous to team up with business that we might otherwise compete with and exchange knowledge so we can both serve our consumers better.

This means that if we’re able to create a network of experts that we can talk to whenever a problem sits outside our specialist expertise we’re able to leverage that persons information for our benefit. Correspondingly, we make ourselves available to others to give information freely such that they can serve their customers better. Essentially, we’re a network of very kind prisoners.

That network allows us both to increase the value of our service as well as, presumably, the price.

Understanding decision makers

There are a few people within any vertical who have disproportionate power to influence the conversation around a given topic. In the case of the industry I’m in a few examples include:

However, within any industry there are key figures who wield more influence than others.

Understanding those people and the reasons they’ve taken the positions that they have can provide a tremendous amount of insight into how the industry is evolving. Additionally, they’re just people — having an honest, direct conversation with these people can have far larger consequences than attempting to have that same conversation with 20 others with much smaller pools of influence.

Brand

Correspondingly, developing the social equity of both your and your companies name is a worthy investment.

I am lucky to work at a company who takes the craftsmanship of their work seriously and continues to work to improve the outcomes of their clients as a matter of course, rather than for some direct new revenue stream. However, while that will have an immediate effect on those who are already our customers we’d like to match ourselves with merchants who are similarly driven to improve their online offerings.

By attending a conference we’re able to demonstrate our capabilities simply by helping other companies who are struck with similar problems we’ve solved in the past. This is a “win win”; we’re able to help a company directly solve a problem it has, and we leave an impression in that companies mind (and perhaps the minds of others around) that we’re competent at solving that class of problems.

Additionally, helping at a conference makes this concrete in a way that’s difficult to do in other communication mediums. There is something much more satisfying about being able to see, hear and touch a solution directly rather than reading it in a dry medium post.

Lastly, not only will compatriot companies and development teams attend this conference, but keen merchants seeking technical consultation will also attend such conferences as a means to skip past the marketing gateway and chat directly to the development teams.

The conversation (talks)

For better or worse, the technology decisions that are made as part of software development are heavily influenced by the number of developers who both know and understand them.

Perhaps the simplest mechanism to help explain a technical approach is the conference talk. That is their purpose; take a complex idea, boil it down to a story that can be told in a 30 minute slot and deliver it.

There are certain technical approaches that work better for the company in which I work for. Our company would benefit immensely if those approaches were to become the standard way to solve a given class of problems as we would be instantly the experts in that area and be able to publish tooling or services that are able to best improve this solution.

Accordingly, it’s a worthy investment of time to share a given solution to a problem in such a conference talk as clearly as possible.

Recruiting

We do not go to conferences to recruit. However, like all others, we try and hire those who are able to best contribute and develop the services that we offer. As much as we’re able to be collaborative with our compatriot agencies, our ability to fulfil work is limited by the amount of people we’re able to hire.

All developers face an overwhelming amount of choice when looking for a place to work. It is, for now (and I would guess for the next 5 years or so) an industry that is facing a tremendous shortage of workforce.

By going to conferences and sharing what we’re doing and what we’re excited about, we invite our colleagues to join us temporarily in our journey. We’re able to demonstrate the sort of people that we work with, the technologies that we work on, the approaches that we take and the benefits that we have.

It is unfair to try and recruit people directly from businesses. However, all developers goes through evolution in their career and we want to make ourselves as known as possible so if someone feels that they’d find us a good fit, they know how to approach us and we can find a place for them.

Context

Perhaps most surprisingly for me, the conference was useful simply as a context switch away from the day to day problems associated with my project. It is possible to become “stuck” in a project; to no longer challenge the fundamental assumptions that are made during development, or to continue refining the project in a specific direction that you believe is best.

However, being forced to take a couple of days away and exposed to new people, approaches and ideas about software development forces you to reexamine your day to day life, and for a limited while you’re able to “see the crazy”.

It somehow recharges your soul. You have new energy to face the same problems that you’d otherwise indefinitely put off (not quite admitting defeat, but also not solving).

The cost

It would be unfair to evangelise the benefits of a conference without also looking at what it costs:

Lost work

In my case, this conference was “fairly cheap”. It cost:

  • 2 days productivity
  • Ticket price
  • Train tickets
  • Lodgings
  • An annoyed team as I didn’t tell them i was going

This pushed back sprint goals and I was not able to take part in some fairly important events that happened while I was away. However, perhaps most excitingly, the project didn’t suffer greatly.

Hangover

The alcohol consumption that a conference sometimes entails aside, conferences are both long and exhausting. To begin, I was on my feet all day, eating questionable food, drinking awful coffee, talking to new people and attempting to keep up a “sunny, bright disposition”.

It was not until I landed back in Frankfurt at my desk I realised how truly tired I was. The caffeine, missed meals and general level of effort involved keeping up appearances left me a bit zoned out for the next couple of days.

Call it another day of lost productivity.

Cost / Benefit ratio

So, this begs the question are conferences worth it? In my mind they’re sometimes worth it. Much of the value above depends on the people who attend the conference.

Out of this conference we directly got a lead, and I was able to meet some new experts in different areas. Historically I have lent on those people to learn insider information or help me solve a problem. That has been work far more than the 3 days work invested, but mostly as “saved time” — we were able to provide the consumer with that value, but we didn’t sell that solution for an additional 3 days time.

I would allocate a fixed marketing budget to the conference track, and encourage the dev team to submit talks to conferences they’re interested in attending. Conferences will in some cases cover costs (at least ticket price) for speakers, reducing the investment required.

In Summary

Attending a conference challenged my expectations, and I found it a more valuable experience than I initially surmised. As a developer, they’re worth building your professional network. As a team leader or CEO, it’s worth demonstrating your expertise in a given industry.

Track leads from conferences.

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