Just because you do your work over the web doesn’t mean that you need to be isolated from physical contact with your peers. There’s an endless variety of conferences you can attend to mingle with other digital bedouins, ranging from the huge SXSW Interactive (already taking registrations for its 2008 version) to targeted programming fests like RailsConf to traveling tradeshows like the Web 2.0 Expo. If you didn’t actually have to earn a living, you could easily make a full-time career of just attending one cutting-edge conference after another.
We’ve covered the mechanics of attending conferences in our popular Conference Survival Guide for the Web Worker, but that leaves open a wider question: why should you take time out from a probably-frantic schedule to attend one of these things? If you’re a web worker in a large organization, you may be able to treat a conference week as a paid vacation (more power to you!), but those of us in more entrepreneurial shoes have tougher decisions to make. Still, there are at least three good reasons why web workers should attend carefully-targeted conferences:
Inspiration – It’s all too easy to feel like the Lone Ranger when most of your contact with peers and clients is over an Internet connection. Conferences give you a chance to stand around in hallways, go out to dinner, and knock back a few beers with people who share your working circumstances and career goals, to compare notes, and just to chat in person. I find it more than a bit refreshing to get the confirmation that I’m not the only one to be taking this path through life – and that other folks are actually doing so successfully.
Learning – While most conferences have a formal track (or more than one) of speakers, training sessions, and seminars, don’t discount the informal learning opportunities either. Laptops in hallways are pretty much expected these days, and the air of optimism at a good conference leads to rapid-fire information exchange that far surpasses anything you can get even in the most active online newsgroup. If you’ve got a design, architectural, or coding issue that you’ve been stalled on, a conference may well supply the knowledge or push you need to work through it. And remember, this works both ways: go prepared to share as well as to learn.
Publicity – Unless you’re booked 100% for the foreseeable future (and you’re a rare bird if you are), a conference is a great chance to toot your own horn. At the very minimum you need to have your business cards with you and your personal elevator pitch memorized, and take opportunity of meals and breaks to talk to as many people as possible about potential work. After your first few conferences, it’s time to take things to the next level and start pitching session ideas to organizers. This is surprisingly easy to do; most conference organizers are on the lookout for new speakers because there’s the constant fear of putting on another “me too” show that bores attendees. While speaking is hard work, it’s great for your personal brand and job opportunities.
What’s been your experience with conferences? Which ones are you looking forward to attending next? What are the hot conference tickets for your fellow web workers?