March 24, 2019 ~ 5 min read

Tackling Conferences and Networking


Hello everyone! I'm a UI Engineer at Kelley Blue Book. I've been a professional developer for about 1.5 years, and I learned what a boolean was in 2016 (haha). I hope my own experience from GraphQL Summit 2018 can spark your desire to attend tech conferences!

I'd like to share my thoughts on how others can fully embrace and capitalize on conferences to market themselves and network. Whether or not you're actively looking for a job, it is to your own benefit to create connections with fellow developers and keep a pulse on the lay of the land. It's just business!

I'll tackle this subject from three points of view: before, during, and after the conference.

Disclaimer: I love being with people - many will call that extroverted-ness - but I have a social limit as well and certainly get tired after squeezing up the guts to speak to new people. But break through it!

Before we begin, let's get a couple of why's out of the way, and then move onto the how's.

Why attend conferences

If you love something, you best be around people who share the same enthusiasm. Around the time of the conference, I was super gung-ho about GraphQL.

GraphQL is the latest in tech that is transforming the way user interfaces interact with the back-end. It's allowing my own team at KBB to quickly breathe new life into our aging products! So I asked myself: why the hell not go?

End result: I remember maybe 15% of what I'd "learned". But my golden ticket was standing in the same space and interacting with other developers and GraphQL experts that I admire on the internet. Oh, almost forgot to mention that I got invited to a private after-party with Airbnb, Facebook, Netflix, Apollo, just to name a few! Also, the conf t-shirts were quite aesthetic.

Before a conference

So after cruising the internet, Reddit, Google, Github ReadMe's, you found a conference you'd like to attend. Let's tackle the money issue first. If you're fortunate enough to work for a company that's willing to expense your trip, by all means request it!

As soon as I got wind of GraphQL Summit, I proactively drafted an email, sprinkled lots of my own special this-is-for-growth-enterprise-talk sauce, and fired off the email with due respect.

For those on the opposite spectrum, my practical advice is to attend what you can! Any good conference will generally upload their videos within a month's time. Most importantly, networking opportunities are abound if you can make it. A lower conference price does not mean a lesser quality! Go and meet people - it's a level above meetups.

Get ready to say hello to your new peers.

During a conference

You're here now, you're checked in, and you're ready to learn. Don't forget why you're here! Whatever your goal is, networking or experience, make it your mission.

With a lanyard and schedule in hand (or around your neck), you'll naturally drift between rooms, halls, and auditoriums. Your opportunities to introduce yourself and make acquaintances are plentiful.

I find the most value in the human connections I make, and this doubly so at conferences, given that the conference talks will be on YouTube anyways. The mass of people is overwhelming but it's time to buck up and politely join conversations. Be human! Say hello, do introductions, ask questions, share stories. Everyone's there to have a fun, wholesome time. Just be kind and polite, and just spicy enough.

Live coding session

Let's do a live coding living session. True story here. At lunch, I see a speaker in a group of 4-5 already engaged in conversation. It's the Airbnb speaker and Airbnb friends! I love Airbnb - their design, their culture, their product. So I couldn't help myself!

But before I walk over, I remember my mission: make professional connections. I was genuinely already interested in what the speaker shared on stage earlier. With a couple questions prepped and lightly sweaty palms, I approached the group and waited until the current speaker finished:

"Hey everyone! Mind if I join you?"
"Yeah sure! No problem. Welcome."
Dry hands.
"I'm Dennis, nice to meet you all".
Shake hands, get names, smile too big because...I'm fanboying.

At this point, being the newcomer, I bring something to the conversation to keep it going. I ask about their work, open positions (yes, open positions), and about the talk earlier. Once I felt comfortable, I ask to connect on LinkedIn. The rest is history. The after-party invite was from an encounter with another speaker. Heh.

At the end of the day, leaving your comfort zone pays dividends. You don't have to speak to speakers. You especially don't have to talk to everyone you stand next to. But your experience will be multiplied in those few meaningful exchanges you choose to make.

That's about all to it!

Be genuine and curious.

Get your swags.

Be inspired.

After a conference

The conference is over and you've gained a few connections.

The best you can do is drop a follow-up message in your new acquaintances' inbox. If you're looking for a job, be clear and concise and honest about it. Else, just let them know that you enjoyed meeting them and leave it at that!

You can also choose to write about it.

Or tweet about it.

Or code about it.

Aftermath

Thanks for reading everyone! If I made you crack a single smile any point in time since the first line, my mission's complete. If you have any further questions, feel free to contact me via Twitter at @dangitdennis.

Thanks to Kelley Blue Book for sponsoring my time. Freedom!