Making connections at conferences

There have been a couple examples recently of the importance of making connections at conferences.

In a recap of a first time conference experience, Temporary Discomfort for The Sake of New Opportunity, author @samanthaelainef wrote about how difficult it can be attending a conference for the first time on your own. Additionally, the "Speaking at your first conference" Twitter Space hosted by Rizèl Scarlett touched on the benefits of having a conference buddy, especially for first-time speakers.

I've been very fortunate to have developed an amazing community over the past three years. I attended my first tech conference in the summer of 2019 and gave my first conference talk in February of 2020. Since then, I've attended dozens of virtual and in-person events, and have made so many friends along the way.

Finding my "speaker family"

Todd Libby, a friends and fellow speaker, wrote a blog post recently and mentioned getting to see his "speaker family" at different events. That's exactly how I feel about some of the people I've been lucky to connect with.

Traveling away from your friends and family can be tough, conferences can be stressful, and knowing that you have people while you're out "on the road" is so comforting. The best part about working in tech is without a doubt the people.

These are people who enrich my experience in so many ways:

  • Encouraging me when I'm nervous about a talk
  • Being a supportive face in the audience
  • Introducing me to others in the community that are working in the same area or have common interests
  • Providing helpful, positive feedback on how to improve as a speaker
  • Sharing their own experiences and reassuring me that live demos breaking, slides not working, flubbing words, and jokes falling flat are all part of the process
  • Giving a sense of safety, especially at events where I'm in an underrepresented demographic

Making connections

But getting past the initial discomfort of attending large events and meeting new people can be tough! Especially if you're an introvert, have anxiety, are neurodivergent, or other manage other considerations that could make it more difficult to connect with others in a new environment.

If you are a speaker or veteran attendee, I encourage you to make every effort to welcome newcomers, include them in conversations, and introduce them to others. It makes such a difference to their experience and encourages them to attend more events in the future. We also have a lot to learn from first time attendees. They often have a fresh perspective, insightful questions, and feedback to push our community forward.

If you are a first time attendee, here are some tips to help you find and make connections at the event.

Seek out events that prioritize inclusion

Not all tech conferences are the same. Look for events that prioritize diversity and inclusion, such as with scholarship opportunities, accessible experiences, and that are organized by local or community organizations.

Find a friend in advance

Join the conference Slack (if there is one) or other community forums in advance to find others that will be attending. Post on Twitter or LinkedIn using the event hashtag and connect before the event. My first time attending Refactr.TECH in 2019, I met up with someone I had previously only known from Twitter. Three years later she's one of my best friends!

Finding a conference buddy in advance, especially another first time attendee, can make you feel more confident going into the event.

Look to local meetups

Many cities that host tech conferences also have local meetups. Many of the folks that frequent these groups will also attend conferences, so by regularly attending local events you'll likely find familiar faces or can even coordinate going to the conference together.

I often post in the Women Who Code Atlanta or Out in Tech Atlanta Slack to see who is attending upcoming conferences.

Capture contact info

It can be hard to remember to grab someone's info in the flurry of a conference conversation, but maintaining the connections after the event are great for growing your community (and finding future conference buddies!)

Twitter and LinkedIn both have QR codes in their apps that let you scan and connect with others right from your phone. Often, conferences will also have QR codes on badges that you can scan to grab someone's name and email.

If you feel awkward asking, I usually phrase it like:

"I'd love to stay connected, what works best for you? I'm on Twitter and LinkedIn, or I can give you my email."

This allows them to choose their comfort level in sharing their contact info, or let them gracefully take your contact info instead if they prefer.

Take breaks when you need to

While you may worry about not getting the most out of a conference, it's normal to feel overwhelmed and need some quiet time. Giving yourself the space to recharge means you'll be able to have more quality experiences because you'll be rested and able to focus.

Many conferences will have quiet spaces or working rooms. If you are traveling, taking a breather back in your hotel room can make a big difference in your ability to get through the event. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and if you miss a talk or two, you can always watch the recordings after.

Remember that it gets easier

Like @samanthaelainef says in her blog post, the discomfort of attending a conference is temporary. The tradeoffs, however, can be enormous. I now look forward to every conference and getting a chance to see my "speaker family" again, as well as the opportunity to meet new friends.

Over time, you'll get to know more and more people and find your own community. Getting to that point is so rewarding, and worth the initial awkwardness.

If you see me at an event, please come up and say hello!

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