The Differences Between Conference Attendance Experience as an Advocate versus Speaker and Attendee
It’s tech conference season! I’m starting to find that there are two busy periods in the year for tech conferences: April-May and October-November. It’s kept me busy as a new developer advocate starting in April 2022.
It’s more of a learn-by-doing approach, just like learning to swim by being dropped into the middle of Loch Ness. However, I wouldn’t have it any other way as I’ve always been more of a learn-by-doing person. My first ever manager referred to this style as “filling your boots”, which means diving in and taking as much as you want. You just need to balance this with not taking too much. Otherwise, you’ll end up in a similar situation to my husband in his youth where his boots filled with mud at a festival and he struggled to escape the field of sludge (sorry honey)!
I have been fortunate enough to speak at several conferences, including Devoxx UK in 2021 and 2022. My first experience was as an engineer with a passion for speaking and the second was as a developer advocate. I’ve enjoyed both of these experiences. I’ve also experienced vendor booth duty at DevOpsDays Birmingham, which was an enjoyable education. Up until now the closest experience I had was attending university recruitment events on behalf of my prior company.
I can’t help but see some key differences in my conference experience between my different roles. In this piece, I share my comparative experience as an attendee, speaker, and advocate, as well as tips on how to maximise your experience irrespective of your title.
One key difference when attending is an advocate is that you see attending the conference and speaking to people as part of your job. As a general attendee, even though you are representing the company, it can feel like it’s perceived as a bit of a jaunt because it’s not a common activity for you to engage in. Even if you’re a regular meetup attendee, you are going to sessions in your own time at lunchtime and evenings rather than during traditional work hours. So going to a conference during the day when you have a mountain of work to do can leave you feeling a little guilty.
This could partly be dependent on the various factors that have led to your attendance, such as:
- Whether you paid for your ticket out of your pocket or if it was expensed via your company.
- If the ticket forms part of a dedicated personal training budget or a centralised departmental pot. I’ve seen where this is held centrally that you are less likely to partake in training outside of internal company offerings.
- The number and levels of approvals required for conference attendance and speaking. While many start-ups and scale-ups have lighter procedures such as manager approval, larger institutions may have more defined or multi-level approval processes.
- Any expectations regarding knowledge sharing of what you find out. Some organisations or departments encourage you to share what you find out via internal blogs or knowledge-sharing sessions. One former colleague I bumped into at Devoxx UK was in this situation where they were taking notes so they could share their learnings when they returned to the office to justify the ticket cost.
I’ve always felt the need to maximise the attendance experience as a junior engineer when I’ve committed to sharing my experience internally when I come back to work. It’s understandable to think of this as actual work since it’s a quantifiable contribution. Often as engineers, we dismiss non-contributory efforts such as catch-ups, 1:1s, or admin because it’s not writing code. then when we transition to management, leadership, or even DevRel roles we realise that these contributions are not only valid but what we spend most of our time on. It’s important to drop the guilt, as learning new technologies and hearing about other experiences makes you better at what you do, irrespective of whether that’s engineering, management, or even advocacy. So enjoy!
As you progress on your speaker journey, you’ll find you become more resilient to handling issues that appear in your talk. Possible issues are false starts, mispronunciations, and technical glitches. I remember vividly how my first-ever issue knocked me off my flow entirely. It was an online evening meetup where I drank all of my tea before my slot, and then ended up trying to curb a coughing fit live on camera with no water or beverage in sight.
At that moment I wanted to earth to swallow me up. However since that eventful meetup, and through the advice of other speakers, I’ve learned that the secret to conference speaking is not that your session is full of mistakes. It’s that you keep going irrespective of the mistakes that you make. This realisation has helped me adopt a change in mindset. Despite being a pessimistic character, I no longer finish a talk feeling it was a disaster if one little thing went wrong.
I remember seeing the wonderful Gary Fleming at Lean Agile Exchange 2020. I’ve never seen someone so calm under pressure. He started his talk late because of unexpected Zoom issues at the conference. His clicker wasn’t working so he casually through it over his shoulder. Yet he gave one of my favourite talks at that conference. I remember thinking I would never be able to have that confidence to cope with the unexpected. Yet I feel I’m starting to get there.
This year at Devoxx I had a couple of glitches. My HDMI adaptors didn’t play ball, so I borrowed one from the tech gurus. My shiny new clicker with spotlight capability, which I tested at home for 2 weeks prior, kept freezing. So I abandoned it and went between the large screen and my laptop instead. I had a couple of stutters here and there. Not everything was as I practised. Yet I managed to get a couple of audience laughs, and many compliments afterwards too, including from the amazing James Gough who has been a fantastic mentor to me throughout my career. I’m not completely calm under pressure yet, but I’m getting better at hiding it over time.
Your first time attending a conference on your own can be a pretty scary one, regardless of your role or whether you are speaking or not. You probably won’t know many people at the event. It can be a bit intimidating to try and strike up conversations with people. Especially if you are an introverted character, or are from a diverse demographic. When you feel like you stick out like a sore thumb, you may be reluctant to speak to large groups of people that you don’t know.
As I attend more conferences I’m feeling more confident about connecting with people. Between DevOpsDays Birmingham and Devoxx UK this month I’ve met with many wonderful people, and had so many interesting and insightful conversations. Not all of them are about tech either. I’ve had wonderful conversations with other speakers where we have all shared our tips. Including the aforementioned notion that no speaker is perfect, and it’s that they keep going.
It’s not necessarily that I’ve become this super confident person that can walk up to any stranger and chat away. That is still a work in progress. What has changed is that I’m starting to see familiar faces appear at conferences and meetups. These individuals are also kindly introducing me to others so I can expand my network further. Conference communities are always a friendly bunch when you get to know them.
If I’m attempting to speak to people I don’t know without an introduction, I’m learning to ask more about what others do to strike up a conversation as well. Chatting with a friend this week I agree that people love to talk about themselves, so asking questions is a good way in.
Born to Be Wild
What you do in your day job may affect what talks you select to see at the conference. Thinking back to that justification of the ticket price mentioned previously, we may naturally want to pick topics relating to the tech we use every day to ensure we have the practical knowledge to take back to our organisations. Yet we can still learn a lot from attending sessions outside of our comfort zone. Particularly when it comes to identifying emerging tech trends, different opinions, or alternative patterns.
I saw so many wonderful talks at Devoxx UK this year by some fantastic speakers, and not all are strictly related to my elected speciality of frontend development. Some of my favourites were:
- The opening keynotes I caught gave some wonderful thoughts. Holly Cummins covered the emergence and future of the Java ecosystem with great humour. Asim Hussein clearly explained carbon neutrality and offset definitions in a way that means I finally feel like I understand these definitions.
- Grace Jansen covered stateful and stateless microservices in a great session that helped me reflect on my prior microservice experiences as an engineer and realise that it’s not as clear cut as having all your services be stateless.
- I got to see my new colleague David Pilato in action with his FS Crawler and Elastic talk. Given I’m new to the Elastic stack it was great to see a starting example of how to show off the product to developers using a meaningful use case.
- Taking a glimpse into the secret life of Maven Central with Joel Orlina was great. Although I’ve only used Maven repositories with Gradle in the Java ecosystem I loved the level of transparency he shared in this talk on their scaling challenges, and how they worked with publishers to address these issues.
- Going out of the traditional Web stack with Quarkus Renegade with Sébastien Blanc and Stephane Epardaud was an interesting education. I’ll be looking to learn more about Quarkus in the future, hopefully at a London Java Community meetup!
- I have some experience of Kafka from an enterprise system architecture angle, so it was great to see Danica Fine show a home project using Kafka and senors to give her alerts when her houseplants needed watering. I appreciate the practicality of this approach given my poor track record of keeping plants alive!
- Martijn Verburg’s session on running Java containers on cloud infrastructure was very insightful, and I appreciated the practical tips on Garbage Collector selection. My prior experience is that GC selection is never considered, and teams always go with the default assigned by the JVM.
- Seeing nature and software battling it out against each other in the security domain was an enjoyable experience. Well done to Grace Jansen for covering both sides of the battle solo!
- Learning more from Guy Royse about Redis and RediSearch on an interactive adventure to find Bigfoot was a great experience. This was a wonderful example of using humour and a practical use case to showcase search capabilities. I’m hoping to give Elasticsearch justice in my new role with some of the tips I picked up in this session.
- Seeing some of the ML approach adopted by Jonas Mayer, Martin Förtsch, and Thomas Endres to respond to and address sh*tposting online was very amusing and insightful. It refreshed me on some ML challenges such as stopwords and training considerations that I hadn’t been exposed to since my university AI course.
- Seeing Andrew Harmel Law talk about practical tips for capturing the four key metrics from Accelerate was definitely of interest to me as an agilist and frontend engineer encouraging the adoption of data visualisations rather than the usual data grids, as per my own talk slot!
- Hearing Kevlin Henney’s closing keynote on our attitudes to change in the software we build made me smile. It was great to see that I’m not the only person who has read Your Code is a Crime Scene by Adam Tornhill too!
Of course, I should also call out the social elements like Java Jep’dy, the speaker dinner, and Devrocks drinks on Wednesday and Thursday evenings too. These were great opportunities to have fun and connect with people.
I also have a few others I’m awaiting viewing when the playlist goes live:
- Sadly I missed the start of Julien Dubois’s session on accessibility. As a frontend engineer, I’m wanting to educate myself more on how I can make the things I build accessible to all, so I will definitely be watching this back.
- Everyone raved about Julien’s session on REST, to the extent that the room filled out. So I’m checking that out when I can!
- The same goes for the React Micro frontend talk by Rotem Zifroni. I didn’t make it after my talk slot before the doors closed so I’ll be watching that closely to see how closely it mirrors my early experiences of Angular Micro frontends and the potential approaches that can be taken.
- I really enjoyed the mental health-focused keynote at Devoxx 2021, so will definitely be checking out Frédéric Harper’s session emploring us to not .gitignore mental health.
- I’m interested to hear Jonathan Rigby’s experiences of metrics mania in his talk when I can. It’s my experience that teams gravitate towards extremes of over-metrification, or not having any metrics at all. So I’m interested to find out if a happy medium is possible.
- TDD and other drugs was full, and I heard wonderful things. So I will be watching Vanessa Formicola’s session when it comes online.
I want to hear Anders Norås’s talk on the Marvels of Teenage Engineering. Speaking to him at the conference it sounded like he had many inspiring stories about prominent technologists learning as teenagers, which I find inspiring.
Stop & Listen
Overall I’ve found the experience of attending conferences as an advocate to be an exhilarating and enjoyable one. I’ve met many people from various companies, made connections that will hopefully lead to future meetup opportunities, and also connected with prior colleagues as well.
Irrespective of whether you are a speaker or not, conferences are a great opportunity to grow as technologists, expand your knowledge of frameworks, languages, and tools and connect with others that can educate you and challenge your thinking. These are benefits you can take back to your day jobs, not just by sharing on a blog or a knowledge share session, but also in the development of the software you build. Don’t feel guilty about taking the time to grow!
Thanks for reading! Do get in touch with your own tech conference attendance experience, especially if they differ from mine.