image by Clive Andrews
Conferences have always been a big part of my career as a developer. Attending, speaking, and running events—off the side of my desk—have played a massive part in my career, job prospects, and personal relationships.
I'm co-chairing RailsConf 2024 in Detroit May 7–9.
Come and join us
Enough about me. What about you? Why should you take a day (or two, or three!) off work, spend a bunch of money, get lectured from a stage, and then have to talk to strangers in a strange town halfway across the country?
A conference is not training. At most a talk can impart useful syntax, or explain a concept, or help to bridge where you are to where you could be.
A conference is a great place to find out the latest and greatest thinking in your particular area of work or to be introduced to facets of your career that you haven’t had the chance to consider in the everyday, unrelenting, demand for features and bug fixes.
Even a couple of hours of workshop delivered as part of an event’s programming is often more of an introduction to a topic. You do sometimes get classroom training as an paid extra to conferences, but those tend to be additional full days in much smaller groups.
If information isn’t being downloaded into your head, then why bother? The videos will be online soon and you can always read the documentation.
Thinking like this misses the point. You won’t watch the videos, the YouTube counts under my own conference talks would indicate those numbers round to zero.
If you don’t attend the event, there’s no chance of serendipity. An unexpected insight, from a talk you might have avoided or a conversation in the hallway, where a new approach to a long running problem presents itself.
The relent from the day-to-day is a chance to pause and reflect on your everyday struggles and use the event as a springboard to better times.
I think of two kinds of inspiration.
One is the regular kind: a talk contains the nugget of understanding you need to take a new technique, or piece of thinking, back to your day job and solve a problem that you or your team have been facing.
The other is more intangible, and easy to scoff at.
Meeting someone, or seeing a talk, could change the trajectory of your career. You might choose a product company, if you’ve been in agency life. You might lean hard into open source work and make that a foundation of the next phase of your career. You might meet someone who, in three years, starts a company and remembers that great meal you had and asks you to join them.
All these things are possible if, and only if, you’re in the room where it happens.
Conferences are a great place to meet folks from other companies and many sponsors are actively trying to hire developers in the “hallway track”; the time and space outside the talks.
Does that mean that if you send folks in your team they’re all going to leave for better places to work? No. If you are concerned that this may happen, then you have a lot of work to do on your own organisation.
Folks move jobs frequently in the world of software. If you’re not out there extolling the virtues and benefits of working with you, and if your team are not out there doing the same, how difficult will it be for you to hire your next engineer? Very!
Isn’t it a vacation?
You shouldn’t think of a conference as “time off work”. It’s not. It’s a chance for you and your team to pause, get your head up, and see how you can make a difference in your day-to-day work and the wider community.
There’s opportunities to learn about new technologies, from other—bigger and smaller—teams doing things both the expected way or perhaps with an esoteric approach that chimes with your personal software philosophy.
Our jobs are increasingly remote, with our chosen career leading the charge in enabling sensible ways of remote working, but that doesn’t replace the need for human connection.
A programming conference can provide a place for folks on your team to enjoy time together in person, in a work-like environment, to rebuild connections.
The finest people, folks I’m lucky to know, have become friends at conferences. I’ve strengthened bonds with workmates outside the regular day-to-day and strangers have become friends or even future colleagues.
Many programmers think of themselves as introverted, you may too, the idea of a big room of other people might feel overwhelming. However, the other programmers in the room are introverts like you—with your same fears and worries, but also similar interests and work lives. What a lovely, familiar, friendly, bunch of folks to hang out with.
Because you’re a human being first
A recent episode of the Big Ideas podcast featured the American academic Robert Waldinger, the current director of the Harvard study of Adult Development. This study, begun in 1938, is the longest running investigation into the wide-ranging causes of our individual happiness.
A major finding was the value of social connectedness.
“…the people who stayed the healthiest and lived the longest and were happier, were the people who were the most connected to others. People who saw more people in a given week; people who had warmer connections to others. Their brains stayed healthier longer, they had less cognitive decline and their brains declined more slowly as they aged.”
If “you will live, healthier, longer” doesn’t convince you to get out of your chair and meet other programmers, I don’t know what will.
Self-interestedly, I’d recommend getting tickets to Brighton Ruby (which I run every year) and RailsConf, which I’m co-chairing in 2024. But there’s so many other great options for events at rubyconferences.org.
If this post inspires you to go to a conference, let me know!
Still running UK’s friendliest, Ruby event on Friday 28th June.
Ice cream + Ruby
Last updated on February 2nd, 2024 by @andycroll
An email newsletter, with one Ruby/Rails technique delivered with a ‘why?’ and a ‘how?’ every two weeks. It’s deliberately brief, focussed & opinionated.