When I was younger and more "fill the schedule" oriented than I am now, when I went to a conference or user group meeting or seminars or whatever, I tried really, really hard to "get the most for the money spent" by being in a track session or workshop every single minute and moving quickly from one presentation to the next. I made a point of not getting drawn into conversations because I might miss a presentation. Even if there was not a presentation that I was really interested in attending, I made a point of going anyway. I needed to get my (well, my boss' anyway) money's worth!
How foolish of me.
Several years ago, I was sent as a "technical person" to a user group meeting for a software package my empplyer had purchased, installed and was using. I was the senior programmer for supporting the integration and customizations, and since they introduced a "technical track" that year, the software company "hosts" made a big deal about sending "technical experts" to learn about what was coming and what was going on. After a series of presentations with the same people sitting within a few seats of each other with the same "you've got to be kidding" looks on their faces as I'm sure I had, a small number of us began comparing notes. We skipped the next session, grabbed some drinks from the bar in the conference center, got out our pads of paper and did out own "track."
We had a number of people with similar experiences and problems and decided that we knew as much as the sales people who could not answer a single question about the product they were supposed to be giving us "technical information." The next day and a half I had two legal pads full of notes, diagrams and a stack of business cards from the folks sitting around the table. In my memory, we had 8 or 10 people who "snuck out" and "wasted the company's money." Except that all of us had solutions to problems we encountered that the vendor had not been able to address - and each of the solutions had been implemented somewhere and actually worked.
A few years ago at a regional conference, I ran into a couple of people who shared the same "this presenter does not get it" look on their face. The fact that one of them was a speaker I had listened to the day before, and been really really impressed with his information, did reinforce that a bit. We proceeded to have a "hallway conversation" that turned into several people sitting in comfy chairs drinking tea and/or soft drinks talking about the topic for the presentation we had just been in. We compared notes and war stories and annecdotes and experiences - and everyone came away with new ideas they did not have before (and did not get from the presentation we had all attended.)
From that point, every conference I've been to, I intentionally leave holes in my schedule. Lets face it. There may not be a speaker I want to hear or a topic I "really, really want to learn something about."
So, instead, I may seek out other interesting people I've seen during the conference, or heard ask intelligent questions, who are milling about (during that period between sessions) and talk with them - ask questions, SOMETHING. Those have been really enlightening the last couple of years, and lead to some great contacts and insight that I may not have gotten elsewhere.
Now, I know that walking up to someone can be a bit intimidating. So what - do it anyway. If they are speaking at the conference, they may well be open to a good conversation. If not, they may be as equally lost about "what session to go to next..." and maybe the right one is the one that starts in the hallway with the two of you and see what happens. More may join in and it could last and hour, or 10 minutes.
Either way, share conact information - let them know how to get in touch with you and find out how to get in touch with them. Easiest way to do that? Give them your card! Now, don't be like the guys who were talking with me at TesTrek and have a rather sheepish look and say "Our company doesn't give us business cards so I don't have any..."
TOO BAD! Business cards are cheap! A simple black ink on white card ("classic look...") can be made pretty inexpensively at most big-box office supply stores, or any small printing shop can help you. All you need is your name, something to identify what you do (like, in this case "software tester" might be appropriate) email address and phone number. Your address might be nice, but not needed.
So, since folks like lists, here's my list for conference attendees to do or bring for the the conference:
- Business cards - lots and lots of business cards. Even if the company doesn't give you some, get some made;
- Laptop or netbook computer or smartphone - great for taking notes (or checking email if you "chose poorly") and tweeting about the good (or bad) points the speaker is making;
- An open mind - You never know what you might learn and how that might relate to your interests, both personal and professional;
- Did I mention business cards?
- Note book / scratch pad. Yeah, I know, many conferences will give out folders or portfolios and a lot of conference centers have little note pads for jotting things down. The problem is I find those note pads too little. The portfolios may be useful for other things - like holding all the papers/CDs/DVDs you may collect;
- An open schedule - Have lists of "must see", "good to see" and "want to see" sessions, but don't feel you need to have every single timeslot open;
- Your favorite mints or hard candy;
- Business cards (did I say that already?);
- Work. Leave the office behind. Your boss sent you there to learn, so learn. Those people who are trying to suck you in now are the same ones who want all of your attention all the time anyway, including on weekends if they think they might get it. They'll be waiting anyway to ruin your day when you get back. You're there to learn. Learn to talk with people you don't know and learn about them. It may help you in your job.
- Work email. Yeah, I know, I mentioned bringing the laptop to check email or whatever. That work email that needs attention yesterday if not sooner can't really be dealt with while your in a conference session, so leave it for a while. Come back to it later - another hour or two won't make that big a difference. (I know. I've broken this rule, but just to be the exception that proves the rule...)
- Extreme self assurance in the "rightness" of your position. Put the ego in "Neuteral" and you may learn something useful.