I’m just back from Web Content 2009, which I really enjoyed. It got me thinking a bit about conferences, and the value of going to them, especially in light of Scott Abel’s discussion of the trouble the conference world is having right now.
I think conferences have benefit on five levels:
- Actual skill-based learning These are things you actually learn – discrete nuggets of information that you did not know before. For instance, Maxwell Hoffmann gave a great presentation on globalization, and I came away with a dozen new ideas about things I needed to consider for Blend’s own globalization projects.
What’s somewhat interesting is that I actually find this to be the least common benefit. Unless you sign-up for an actual workshop or training session that’s designed to teach you a new skill, I find that I don’t actually learn a lot of hard skills at conferences.
- Soft learning, or “trend learning” There are the amorphous concepts that are floating around in your head that you “sort of know” or have “sort of heard of." During a lot of sessions, you start to hear about these things more and more, and their relative applicability to your work starts to shuffle. Perfect example: XML databases and xQuery. I had multiple sessions where people were talking about the shift away from relational databases in content management and toward storing things in pure XML in systems like Xindice, Mark Logic, and xDB. I followed this up with a long conversation with the Mark Logic sales guy, and while I didn’t learn any concrete skills, I’m paying much more attention to that entire area of technology now than I was a week ago.
- Expansion of focus Conferences just open your eyes to the bigger picture. The day-to-day of your job often leaves you fighting fires all the time, and never looking further down the road. But listening to big thinkers for a couple days who are more concerned with your industry as a whole than with your specific business in particular, really helps you step back, get above the tree-line, and consider the entire forest for a minute. Epiphanies can result.
- Networking This is the big one, and you why, if you pick the right conference, you could almost go, not attend any sessions, and still get huge value out of it. It’s often said that the real value of a conference is what happens between the sessions, and my experience bears this out. I had some great conversations with Stewart Mader about wikis, Ann Rockley about content modeling (she reviewed my presentation for me, even), and I had constant contact with other people in my industry that I’ll likely have reason to contact and interact with in the coming months.
- Morale This depends on how much you travel, but traveling to conferences can be...fun. If you haven’t traveled for a while, it’s a nice reason to get to a bigger city, go out in the evenings, and get thrust out of your geographic world for a little while. If you don’t travel much, it can be a nice way to take a break.
So, there you have it. When most people go to a conference – especially their first, few conferences – they expect nothing but skill-based learning. If that’s all you want, book a training session or workshop or something. Conferences are often about the bigger picture and if you take a step back and focus on that area, you can learn a lot more.