The Importance of Attending Conferences

Now that COVID is under control and in-person conferences are coming back, I am hearing that many conferences are experiencing low attendance. I know why I go to conferences, but I wanted to find out why engineers aren’t going. I ran a Twitter poll and as you can see, the #1 reason is that the company they work for won’t even let them attend a conference.

In this article, I will discuss the importance of attending and learning at conferences. My hope is that engineers, mostly the younger ones learn why they should attend and for companies to learn why they should budget for this and give their engineers time off to attend.

Why I Attend Conferences

I have been attending conferences ever since the first year I became a professional software engineer. The first one was the former Visual Basic Insiders Summit held in San Francisco. Back when I was a beginner, the way we learned the most since the Internet was relatively new, was by attending conferences, reading books, and from other engineers.

At that first conference, I quickly learned how important attending conferences are for learning. Actually, one thing that the keynote speaker said, I still believe to this day. At a conference, you are exposed to many new ways to create applications. Also, you get to learn about the products and services offered by the sponsors.

But for me, the best part of attending conferences is networking (talking to people). If I am speaking at a conference, I enjoy speaking with the other attendees either answering their questions or getting to know what they struggle with in their job. Whether I’m speaking or not, being able to talk with the other speakers allows me to gain a lot of knowledge.

I also try to attend all the events like attendee parties so I can continue to network with the speakers and attendees. One thing that I do, and I suggest others do this too, is I purposely walk up to people I don’t know and start a conversation. I know that many engineers might be intimidated by this but try to push through and be outgoing. In the end, you will be a better developer for it.

To be honest, when I get home from a conference, I get depressed. This is because I spent close to a week around very smart speakers and attendees. I really enjoy this connection at conferences and I get sad when I get home since I can’t be around so many smart people on a daily basis.

Why Others Attend Conferences

I’ve shared why I attend conferences. I do talk about this subject with many speakers, but I wanted to get other opinions for this article. Below are the responses that I gathered via Twitter.

  • Barret Blake: Presenting. Running. Volunteering. Learning about things I would not normally spend the time to learn about. My first exposure to many topics over the years was from attending conference sessions. I rarely attend sessions for things I already know about.
  • Beka Modebadze: Learn what others are working on, network - meet similar-minded folks, and get inspired.
  • Christopher Johnson: I usually go because I'm either presenting, want to meet people, or I want more free stickers and socks. I do go to some presentations, but mostly to learn how to make mine better.
  • Howard Fore: I go to get exposed to other ways of attacking challenges than what I’m used to.
  • Jim Wilcox: People are the real value in every situation, and the connections themselves can’t be made through ChatGPT. Then, you get to learn what terms people in the real world are using in solutions. Understanding of such terms often beneficially impacts queries & prompts.
  • Karen Payne: Meeting with people I  know online. Sharing ideas is much better in person.
  • Michael Hagesfeld: I love the chance to see things from a different angle and get confirmation that I'm doing things right.
  • Vahid Farahmandian: The sense of participation in the community. Sharing ideas.
  • Xavier Abelaira Rueda: Ideas,  networking, but above all inspiration.

Next, I’d like to discuss the questions I asked in the Twitter poll.

Companies Won’t Let Engineers Go to Conferences

When I started this career, more often than not, companies would pay for engineers to attend multiple conferences a year. As a matter of fact, I used to have companies write into my employment contract that they must send me to at least two conferences a year.

But now, in 2023, many companies do not pay or let their engineers attend conferences or even other training opportunities. Even the popular top American cellular company Verizon which made 136.8 billion in revenue in 2022 will not pay for conferences. Maybe that is why the code I’ve seen Verizon developers write is poorly architected, if any architecture was done at all, and full of code violations.

I think the biggest reason companies won’t let engineers go to conferences is to save money. I don’t think they realize the value of attending conferences. They might think that info available online is adequate. They might think paying for training sites such as PluralSight is enough. While engineers do learn from these alternative methods, they do not replace attending a conference in person.

Another reason I do know why companies do not pay for any conferences or continuing education is that they fear that their developers will learn new skills and then leave the company. I don’t think that they realize that developers will leave in the future anyway. From my survey, most developers stay in a position for 2 to 5 years. So, thinking this way does not make sense. They don’t realize that these new skills will improve the software created by the company which means happier customers.

Maybe that is why so many companies are so far behind when it comes to technology. Their developers essentially become arrested developers, not learning anything new. At one company I worked at last year, I felt their apps and services were at least 10 years behind the times. Their backend services were very slow because of this. When I was there, they were still working on a three-year project to simply “lift and shift” their services to virtual machines in the cloud, not taking advantage of any of the features that the cloud brings. Their developers were so sensitive, I couldn’t bring up any issues in their code or architecture without hurting someone’s feelings. The next time you make a reservation to book a flight for a trip and the response times are really slow, now you know why!

For me, I would not work for a company that won’t let its engineers go to conferences or attend continuing education. So, if you are interviewing for a job, make sure to ask if they pay for conferences and continuing education. If they do, this is a good sign that they care about their engineers and apps.

I Can Find the Same Information in Blog Posts

Yes, you can find some of the same information in blog posts. I have many articles with the information that I present at a conference. An example of this is my three-part article series called Everything That Every .Net Developer Needs to Know About Disposable Types. But I guarantee you that I say different things when I present the topic than write about it.

Also, you can’t ask speakers about the subject either during the session or afterward in the hallways. This is the opportunity for you to ask the expert about the subject with specific questions to improve the apps and services you work on.

When I am speaking at a conference, I feel that it’s my duty to be available to answer attendee questions. Some attendees are better at asking questions depending on where the conference is. I think it’s a cultural issue. If you have questions, make sure to take the opportunity to approach a speaker and ask! What do you have to lose?

Training Courses Offer the Same Information

Just like in blog posts, training courses are a one-way communication. Training courses do offer more information that you can read in a blog post or a conference session. If a conference offers workshops, usually at an additional price, you can spend a day or half-day getting training from an expert in the subject.

This is a perfect opportunity to get expert advice with questions specific to what you are working on at work. As an example, I did a workshop at BuildStuff this year on globalization. I was able to help attendees with the issues they are facing at work. To me, these workshops are a very valuable resource.

Engineers Don’t See a Need to Go to Conferences

It’s my feeling that this is the way many younger developers feel. Since so many companies do not allow their developers to attend a conference, they have never been exposed to it like I was when I was a beginner. If you feel this way, then I hope that I have given you many good reasons to attend a conference.

If your company won’t let you attend a conference, I recommend you find a community-run conference near where you live, such as Code Camp. These conferences are usually free or at a very low cost. They usually take place on the weekend, so you won’t have to ask for time off. I really like community-run conferences since they are run by engineers just like you and me.

If you go to a conference once and follow the advice in this article, then I am sure you will want to go to more.

In Conclusion

I hope I have given you many reasons why going to in-person conferences is important to your growth as an engineer in the tech industry. When you attend, make sure to participate while you are there. Remember to:

  • Ask speakers questions. Give them feedback. Make sure you show your appreciation to the speakers. We work hard to present information at the conference.
  • Try to meet new people and start a discussion. You never know what you will learn from others. I’ve learned a lot this way.
  • Attend events to network with speakers and attendees. These events are fun so people are usually in a good mood.

I hope to see you at a conference in the future. Feel free to share your thoughts and insights in the comments below. Your feedback is always welcome and appreciated.

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