Advice for a first time conference goer?
October 2, 2007 3:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to my first conference and am looking for some general tips/advice from veteran conference goers

As part of my goal to finally go to a conference I decided to attend Ontario Linux Fest this year. I'm generally shy but would like to try and use the conference as a networking opportunity as well as a learning experience. It's a single day event with a reception afterwards, so it's fairly mild as far as conference schedules go. Can any of the more experienced conference people give some general tips as to how I can maximize both my learning and my networking experiences?

As an aside, if anyone is going to Ontario Linux Fest 2007 and wants to meet up feel free to drop me a line.

posted by saraswati to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm pretty shy and not good at small talk, but I've found that the lunches at conferences are pretty decent settings for getting to know people. Usually there are big tables, and even if you're there with colleagues, you end up sitting with at least a few strangers, and since everyone is (ostensibly) fired up about learning new stuff, they tend to be in a chatty mood and can have more extended conversations during a meal than at a reception where people are wandering about.

Also, if there are any "workshop" or "small group discussion" sessions that encourage interaction, which I would expect there to be at this kind of conference, rather than only the more structured "presenter presents, listeners listen" set-up -- those can be good places to start interacting with people who share your specific field and interests, and the conversation can continue beyond into exchanges of contact into, etc.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:17 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

er, contact info, not into. Jeez.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:17 PM on October 2, 2007

Best answer: You will walk more than you think you will so wear shoes that are comfy, not just fancy looking. At a linuxfest this is probably not an issue but at library conferences it's key. Bring a backpack for storing your laptop, a few snacks if you wind up starving partway through the day, and business cards or some other thing to hand to people who are like "what's your email address?"

Take advantage of any and all opportunities to charge your batteries both literally and figuratively. Downtime like this is also a good time to chitchat with other participants about whatever.

Plan a session and a backup session for most of your timeslots so that if something is terrible you can walk out and go to something else. Try to find people to hang out with over meals which is when most of the social stuff takes place. Don't be afraid to ask "where are you folks going for lunch?" if you're in a conversation and it's about that time of day.

I go to library conferences a lot which are also somewhat nerdy and I find that most people are pretty friendly, often there on their own and happy to talk about stuff, especially if you've got a few topics that you're really itnerested in or especially some sort of problem you've solved or problem you'd like to solve. ALA has a tips page on their wiki which aren't really applicable to you, but might have some helpful stuff.

I was also going to say "oh you're female and going to a linux conference, read this" but I checked your profile and you're not female so ignore that.
posted by jessamyn at 4:22 PM on October 2, 2007

I've attended about 50-60 conferences, usually as a vendor, and I would have to say that your networking results hinge on what you do between sessions, during lunch, and after hours.

Some ideas:
- If lunch is served, definitely get in line for that since it forces everyone randomly to sit together at the lunch tables.
- Check the hotel bar in the evening to see if any conference-mates are hanging out there. Beer isn't called social lubricant for nothing.
- Ditto on the business cards.
- I've never found banquets to be very good for socializing... too much distraction and you're stuck with the same people for hours.

That's about all I can think of at the moment.. need to run.
posted by rolypolyman at 4:52 PM on October 2, 2007

You don't have to swipe your badge, no matter what someone tells you. You will get junk mail from all four corners of the world if you do. If you don't mind, go for it.

Resist the urge to pick up every little piece of crap that people are willing you give you. The pens and t-shirts are usually pretty good, the other things are hit and miss and will likely end up taking up unwanted space in your life. Paper and magazines get surprising heavy by the end of the day.

You'll get thirsty and food/drink is always expensive at a conference.

Look for "Birds of a feather" sessions, you'll encounter people who are interested in what you are.

Read the schedule before hand and plan what sessions you want to go to before, you won't be sad you missed the perfect session otherwise.

If a session sucks, its not likely to get better, have a plan B if you don't think you are getting enough out of the current session you are attending.

Bring a lot of business cards. Don't be shy about handing them out.

Don't expect to meet tons of people, but you'll likely meet one or two folks you can keep in touch with professionally if you want to. can help with this also.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 5:36 PM on October 2, 2007

If you identify people throughout the daytime events that are interesting or with whom you'd like to converse more, aim to be in casual conversation with them right at the time the evening reception is ending. If it's early enough, people will make dinner plans and you could likely wangle the group invite, or if it's later in the evening, people will be going along to the next bar, and you could definitely go along. Don't worry that it's clingy or strange -- the social rules are different at conferences where everyone is a stranger.

Plan a session and a backup session for most of your timeslots so that if something is terrible you can walk out and go to something else.

Yep. My best trick is to sit at a table / chair very near the most inobtrusive door to the session room, for easy slipping out. And, if ever asked later, "What did you think of that great discussion this morning on [session you skipped]," I just reply "Oh, damn, I really wanted to see that, but I had a conference call that couldn't be rescheduled. I heard it was great. What did you think of it?"
posted by pineapple at 8:08 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Comfortable shoes are worth their weight in gold. You might also consider a sweater or a lightweight indoor-appropriate jacket for layering. I always find it FREEZING inside convention centers, and I know I am not the only one.

Also (from years of scientific-conference-going):
Don't wear your badge outside the conference facility. Use a comfortable, easy to carry bag big enough to hold your program/electronics/snacks/etc + any non-crappy swag you'll accumulate, but pare down your packing list to minimize the weight. Carry a refillable but smallish water bottle. Don't stay in boring sessions, but do try to go to something you know nothing about -- often those are the most productive parts of meetings. Time spent chatting outside a session is often more worthwhile than listening to the talks.
posted by janell at 8:15 PM on October 2, 2007

Been to a few linux conferences over the years.

Random suggestions:
- if you have a t-shirt related to a linux or open source project that you are involved in, wear it. It's dumb, but it's a decent way to get random people to talk to you.
- if there is a hotel where most of the presenters are staying at, try to stay there, and head for the hotel bar after hours. There will be lots of geeks hanging around being geeky.
- If there isn't a BoF for something you are interested in, organize it.
posted by alikins at 8:16 PM on October 2, 2007

Most people don't attend all the sessions. Lots of people sit some out and catch up with people out in the hall.
posted by salvia at 10:39 PM on October 2, 2007

Get a little bottle of that hand sanitizer. Seriously, I always get sick at conferences halfway through, and it ruins the last few days for me.
posted by SpecialK at 6:01 AM on October 3, 2007

If you're traveling to the conference by plane, mail all the flyers, swag, etc that you pick up to your home address on the last day. It's easy to pick up so much junk that your luggage goes overweight.
posted by Eddie Mars at 11:41 AM on October 4, 2007

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