Want to Attend a Conference? How to Make It Work for You.
You have heard a lot of great things about attending a conference, and how it can boost your career, so you decide to give it a try. But people face the same kind of roadblocks in attending conferences as they do elsewhere. These roadblocks are primarily related to cost, time, family and social anxiety. Let’s look at some ways to overcome those roadblock and help you attend your first (of many) conferences.
Cost is one of the biggest roadblocks people face. “Money doesn’t grow on trees”, and for most of us, that means attending a conference can be a hard thing to budget. On top of the cost for the conference itself, there can be flights, hotels, meals and missed work. And if you’re a student or looking for a job, this can be even more challenging. Here are a few ideas that can help make a budget possible.
Discounts and Scholarships
First, if you’re a student, unemployed or part of a minority, many conferences offer scholarships or discounted rates. Some of the scholarships may even cover travel costs, so please take advantage of these discounts and scholarships when you can, that’s what they are there for.
Sign up early. Often conferences give discounted rates when you purchase your tickets well in advance. Another way to get discounts can be through a school or local club/meetup. Often these organizations are given discount codes to share with their members.
You don’t always have to travel long distances to a conference, check out conferences that may be close to where you live to cut down on travel costs. Sometimes you can find smaller local conferences that have a much smaller ticketing fee. This is an especially good approach for your first conference. You have the advantage of being in a location you are already familiar with and may already know other people who are attending the conference. You could also start with a local meetup, workshop, or hackathon. Many of which are free to attend.
Even if the conference isn’t local, you can sometimes save money by staying with a local through sites like Airbnb.
Ask your employer to help pay costs
Does your employer offer educational benefits or reimbursement already? Some people don’t even realize they have this benefit or aren’t sure if it covers conferences. If your company has a Human Resources (HR) department, check with them first. The first step is to know what’s available and how to use it. Next, negotiate for what you want.
Your company will want to know that they’re getting a good return on their investment. Help them to understand how sending you to a conference can benefit them.
Write a formal request letter listing exactly what you are asking for and the benefits:
- Which talks would be most beneficial to your job?
- Get a list of specific vendors whose products would be beneficial to your job, then jot down questions you have about their products or services.
- Are there other industry competitors attending the event?
- Offer to share your notes or give a presentation on what you learn. (Doing this will make it easier to get approval next time.)
- Make arrangements so that your time away will not be a major impact to the company.
Also, remember to always say thank you for what you are granted as it will help pave the way for your future self and those around you.
If you aren’t able to get your employer to foot the bill or you don’t have an employer, an alternative is to write conference expenses off on your taxes. It doesn’t mean it’s free, but it still helps with decrease costs.
Speak at the conference
Many conferences give conference tickets and cover travel costs for speakers. Some conference may even pay their speakers. Not all conferences offer these packages, so check with the conference you wish to attend. If you’re interested in going this route, try starting with a local user group, lightning talks (5-10 min), or uncon (usually held along with a conference in a separate room. You sign up on the day of the event by writing your talk/name on a board).
If speaking at a conference is too intimidating right now, you may be able to participate in other capacities. Many conferences give out free tickets to those who volunteer their time. Usually this means you wont get to see every talks, and maybe even miss out on something you really wanted to see, but it also means you’ll be in a great position to network. You’ll get to work with other volunteers who are involved in the community and start to build those relationships that are one of the greatest benefits of any conference.
Tied closely to the first roadblock, because time is money and you can’t make more time. A conference must provide the best use of your time. There are likely many things that you “want” to do, but they never get done because they don’t make it to the top of your priority list. Here’s why to move conferences to the top of your list.
Know what you don’t know
The first step to learning anything is knowing what it is you need to learn. By attending a conference, you are able to get a pulse on the community and where it’s heading. Expand your awareness of what is currently available, as well as new research and ideas and the tools and technologies that those findings are bringing to life. Staying on the cutting edge with how these new tools and technologies might improve what you’re currently doing and even drive where you or your company are heading.
Yes, you can find ANYTHING on the internet… But will you? And how long will it take?
By attending a talk at a conference, you can learn a great deal of information about a topic in a short amount of time. Someone else has already done the research and you can gain from their knowledge. As a bonus, most speakers are very passionate about the topic they are discussing, so are more than happy to talk to you in more detail. If you have specific questions, don’t hesitate to bring them up during the QA time, or introduce yourself to the speaker at another point in the conference. A great way to start a conversation is by telling them something you specifically liked about their talk. For more tips like this one, check out 8 Ways to Get the Most Out of a Technical Conference This Year.
There is a famous proverb that states “It’s not WHAT you know, it’s WHO you know”. This is particularly true in the tech field. Knowing the right people comes with important advantages: getting the inside scoop on a job, new clients, help with an issue you’re facing, and even career advice and mentorship. A conference can provide a great opportunity to meet key people in your industry or even the key people of the future. You never know when your career path may intersect with others and offer an opportunity to learn, grow and meet more people. Being friendly, sincere and helpful with others, will take you far in attaining your own goals. For specific tips and examples.
Don’t Forget Vendors
Speaking with vendors at a conference can help you condense your research of companies, products, and jobs. By speaking with someone in person, you are often able to get your questions answered quickly. Meeting those people in person can help you get the best deals, find the best products and even provide a contact at the company if applying for a job. Whatever your goals are, make sure you set aside some time to talk to vendors. It can also be a good idea to have a list of questions with your or a couple copies of your resume. Come prepared and leave happy.
As I mentioned with the cost roadblock, attending a local conference has many advantages. Including not needing as much travel time. It might also be more feasible for you to attend a single day instead of multiple days of a conference.
For those with family responsibilities like children or aging parents, these can be the biggest roadblocks. As a mother of three young children, I can relate. The good news is that conferences are STARTING to see the need and advantage of having childcare and a few conferences are making this a reality. The bad news is that there are still relatively few conferences that offer this, and for many, this is still expensive.
I’ll reiterate once more, local conferences For The Win. Having a conference that is local can give you flexibility to:
- Be home with your family each night
- Exchange or share care with a colleague or friend
- Have a partner that can cover some of the care needs
- Attend part of the conference, even if you can’t make it all work
- Have someone stay in your home. Having friends, family or nanny who can stay in your home can work well. This is actually the one I am blessed to be able to do most often, leaving me the time to appreciate and focus on the conference.
- Take them with you. Taking the family and a caregiver with you can work extremely well if you find kid-friendly activities close by. You can also hire someone locally.
- Take your baby. Some people choose to take their children, especially nursing infants and older children to a conference with them. Even going so far as taking them onstage while speaking. But before going down this route, do your best to find out how this will work logistically. This can be a more challenging one as it can be hard to get the most out of a conference with other responsibilities. For some extra advice, see Attending a Conference Alone with a Baby.
- Share the load. Offer to help or head up childcare for the conference and get other attendees to share the financial burden.
Some people find themselves completely overwhelmed with the thought of attending a conference, and it can even be an intimidating proposition if you are part of a minority, especially being female. So what can you do to minimize your anxiety and make the most of the conference?
- Go local (last time, I promise). Local conferences give you the security of being in a familiar space. You’ll be more comfortable getting around and even have the option to leave when you want.
- Start small. Starting with a smaller conference, workshop, hackathon or even user group can take some of the pressure off and be slightly less intimidating.
- Go with a group. Is there a local women in tech group or other group of people you relate to? Are others from the group planning to go to the conference? They would probably appreciate your suggesting to meet up and go together.
- Meet contacts at the conference. Arrange to meet with a colleague or even a contact you’ve only met online. You already have a rapport and know what to talk about.
- Talk with the speaker whose topic most interests you. If they’re speaking about it, the are most likely excited and passionate about the topic and would be more then happy to talk with you further. I know this can feel EXTREMELY intimidating, but it can help you see them as just human like you.
So, what should you do now?
- Find a local conference, workshop or hackathon that you’re interested in
- Read the schedule and figure out what things are most important to you
- List the costs involved and follow the steps to make it work
- List the responsibilities you have and what you can do to cover those responsibilities, either at work or at home
- Choose one person you want to meet or take with you
- Follow through
- Before you go, check out 8 ways to get the most out of a technical conference this year
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