For a large part of the last year of my life I've had the good fortune of being able to speak and attend a number of technology conferences. Big, small, corporate, indie, local, international... conferences come in so many delightful forms.
Conferences can be a lot of fun, but they can also be mentally and physically exhausting. Here's what I've learned.
Some people you meet are going to be special.
Every now and then I attend an event that transitions from interesting to memorable. It tends to be locals who show you the way. Embrace the unplanned. Instead of going to bed early, think about taking someone up on their offer to go a town over to a hidden absinthe bar where everyone wears goofy hats. Or take a day trip to pet some cheetahs in the surrounding wine country. Or go back to someone's home and play Rock Band with twenty new friends. These are the memories that stick with me, and I experienced them only because locals took it upon themselves to show off their area.
Look for open, friendly people. They're everywhere. They know the best tips, and they are likely eager to tell you and show you their city.
The reverse holds true, too. If you're playing host in your city, pay it forward. It's your city. Show it off. Attendees are traveling for a reason, and more often than not, showing them your favorite place in the city would thrill them, too.
I don't typically check into Foursquare or anything like that, but I do try to take a lot of photos. They tell a story and help me relive specifics of the trip.
I try to geotag every photo. When you're traveling somewhere different — particularly in a foreign country — it becomes really difficult to relate all of different locations you visited to each other, particularly if you're taking cabs or public transportation. Geotagging photos gives you a very visual way of piecing together your journey when you load them into iPhoto or Aperture later.
If you're overseas, usually you don't have a full data plan on your phone 24/7, but if you switch off of airplane mode it'll still pick up the GPS coordinates and geotag any photos you take.
If you're like me and like taking your DSLR out for some shots, it's a pain to go back and geotag those manually. There's a few solutions, but the best one I've found is gps4cam. Before you start shooting, press the button on your phone to start, and then it'll record your GPS positioning every minute or so. When you're done, click finish, and then take a picture of the QR code on your phone. That syncs up the clock on your camera to the clock on your phone so it knows where you were when you took those photos. Then, load your photos on your Mac, run the simple gps4cam sister app, and it'll go through all of your photos, geotag them and timesync them to the correct time from your phone. It's kind of like magic.
Traveling is sometimes just one long quest to find good wifi, especially if you're not on your home mobile network. And, let me give you a hint: conference wifi almost always sucks.
You can buy a SIM card for most phones, but I've found that to be a bit of a pain, for a lot of reasons (the need to swap out SIM cards, and weird edge cases like iMessage getting confused as to which number it's on). If you're going to be traveling a lot, I'd suggest looking into getting an unlocked mifi. It's basically internet-in-a-box: buy a quick 1GB or 2GB data plan SIM card when you arrive in the city, toss it in, and you have wifi for up to five devices. It also means you can make four new friends if they desperately need connectivity, too.
I picked my mifi up from Amazon unlocked for a hundred bucks and change.
The common rally cry is that conferences are worthless and that you really go only to network and socialize. I think that's shortsighted. I've been surprised by talks in the past. Try to find talks about libraries or languages you haven't been exposed to. Even if you don't understand all of the material, you likely will come up with some interesting comparisons to your own world view.
If you're planning on giving your first talk in the future, pay attention to the flip side of talks: what do you like about the speaker? Are you bored? Why are you bored? What would you change? It's pretty easy to drift into passive mode, where you'll miss these important questions, so take some time to consciously think about these things.
Another not-so-secret secret is the conference backchannel. Every conference I go to I'll add the conference hashtag as a saved search in Summizer so that I can always see the new tweets about what's going on. It lets you keep track of the conference pulse, which is helpful for conversation topics later on: "Were you at her talk? It was hilarious!", "What do you think about the drama about the sponsor's booth?", and so on.
You'll also be able to see what people are doing after the conference- don't be afraid to ping new people and see if they wouldn't mind another joining in. If they're tweeting about it, they're probably happy to meet you, too.
The most lasting part of a conference is reconnecting with new friends after the conference is over. Our industry is not that large, particularly if you're in a smaller community centered around a language or framework. The people you meet today will have a tendency to show up at the conference later this year halfway across the world. It will be a welcome sight to see familiar faces, and they'll be able to introduce you to new people, too.
Don't be afraid to follow people on Twitter or GitHub during a conference and keep the lines of communication open. Sometimes it doesn't take much to maintain lasting friendships in situations like these... just a quick "hi" now and then.
Conferences can be professionally enlightening, and, more importantly, fun. Go and make the most of them. And if you see me, say hi. We'll talk about the conference wifi together.