What in-person conferences offer: feedback

I was listening to a Twitter space recently and the host had an interesting take: for the amount of money you would spend flying a speaker to an international conference (call it $5000, though of course the actual number varies depending on location, timing and more), you could record a great educational video and get it in front of many folks on Youtube.

Assume you spend $3000 on video production, and the CPM is $4 (hard to find solid numbers, but this post talks about rates in that range), you could put that video in front of half of a million people (1000 views/$4 * $2000). That’s a big number, certainly more than attend any conference.

As someone who is gingerly stepping back into work conference travel, who doesn’t like to spend time away from his home, who is a member of the flyless community, and who came into devrel in earnest during the pandemic, I’m sympathetic to that view point. It is more efficient to broadcast your message wholesale, whether that is with a blog post, webinar, or a video, than it is to talk to people retail at a conference booth, or even to give a talk to a hundred people.

But what I’ve learned is that there are real benefits to in-person conferences too: attention, prestige and feedback.

Attention

Think back to the last video you watched, especially if it was technical. How much of your attention did you give it? Perhaps 100% if following a tutorial. But perhaps substantially less if it was background noise or you were looking to learn a bit on the subject.

I’ve definitely “attended” online conferences where I was not paying attention. And I have never popped into a virtual conference “booth”, so I have no idea if the content there is compelling.

I’ve also seen folks at in-person talks on their phones or computers, to be sure, but it is not the rule.

Data is hard to come by, but I believe that folks that are more likely to pay attention at an in-person event. They have made more effort, so they are more committed (research finds “working hard can also make [things] more valuable”). There’s also more distance from the normal work task during an in-person conference. Attendees have far fewer distractions, and an expectation of attention. I think that focusing your attention on a speaker at a talk you are attending is the polite thing to do as well, and there are social norms pressuring folks to do that.

This attention makes an attendee at an in-person conference more valuable than a Youtube viewer.

Prestige

While not anyone can create a great video, anyone with a camera can make a video.

On the other hand, not everyone can buy a booth at a conference, attend one, or speak. There is a filter on everyone who is at an in-person conference. This filter disadvantages folks who can’t travel, have a disability, or have other constraints. But it improves the value of an interaction at a conference too.

Being able to pay for a booth or have a talk accepted in particular are signals of quality. They don’t equate with quality, as anyone who has sat through a vendorware conference presentation can attest, but there is some level of prestige that accrues to an organization by being at a conference. That’s one of the reasons companies pay to sponsor conferences; there’s value in being seen there. (Others might phrase it differently.)

Feedback

Feedback is the last, and in my mind, most valuable differentiator between in-person conferences and online educational activities.

At a conference, the opportunity for two way communication abounds!

Any time someone stops by a booth or asks a question after a talk, as an educator you have the opportunity to not just answer a question or address a comment, but to dig in and understand the person’s context. What do they do? Why are they asking that particular question? Is there an unstated assumption in their question?

You can and often do have ten minute conversations at a booth, and this qualitative, high bandwidth feedback from expensive software development professionals is valuable in learning about your market and seeing if your message resonates.

Contrast that with the limited q&a at an online conference or the comments on a video. Yes, that is also feedback, but it is far less nuanced, considered, and interactive.

Conclusion

The ready availability of high quality, intense feedback driven by back and forth communication is the killer feature of in-person conferences. I don’t see any way to replicate that right now online.


How to be a good conference talk audience member

I recently attended a conference and was both a speaker and audience member. It was on the smaller side; there were probably a few hundred attendees and the audiences ranged from about twenty to hundreds of attendees for the keynotes.

After one of the talks, a speaker came up and said “you were such a good audience member, thank you!”. I said the same thing to one of the attendees of the talk I gave.

I wanted to share how you can be a good audience member at a conference talk. It’s important to note that this advice is for attending in-person talks where the speaker can see the audience. This is typically when there are up to one hundred people. I’ve spoken in front of 800 people and it’s a different experience. While some of these principles apply, in general individual behavior is less important as audience size grows.

And online talks are an entirely different experience for everyone, both audience and speaker! I don’t have enough experience to give any advice for that scenario.

First, though, why would you care to be a good member of an in-person audience? After all, you are providing your time and money to the conference and the presenter. Isn’t it the speaker’s job to entertain and educate you? Why would you expend any energy to help them do so?

First, I’m a big fan of being respectful of other human beings and helping them succeed. Public speaking is a common fear and being a good audience member can reassure the speaker and reduce that fear. It’s hard up there, whether it’s your first talk or your hundredth.

The second reason is that you can make a talk better for yourself. You can learn more and you can tune their presentation to your needs. They are an expert and you can take advantage of their expertise.

So, here are my tips on how to be a great audience member:

  • First, remember that you don’t owe the speaker your time, but you do owe them respect. If you aren’t interested in the talk, if it isn’t what you thought it would be, or if you have another commitment or pressing issue to address, leave the room. Don’t make a big show of it, but get up, walk quietly to the door, open it carefully, and depart.
  • Since you’ve decided to stay, pay attention. Silence your phone. Turn off your computer. If you want to take notes using your laptop, disable wifi so you won’t be distracted.
  • When you understand and agree with something, nod and smile. This feedback provides the speaker a signal that they are reaching you.
  • If you don’t understand, frown or make a questioning face. No need to harumph, but give the presenter feedback that the topic is confusing or that they haven’t made their point clearly.
  • If you have questions, ask them. Speakers should inform you if they want to be interrupted with questions during the talk up front, but if they haven’t, a polite hand raise should be acknowledged. If it isn’t, save your questions for the end.
  • When asking questions, realize you may not get a complete, satisfactory answer. If you don’t, I’d avoid a secondary question. Instead approach the speaker after for a more in-depth discussion.
  • If you didn’t like or understand the talk, give that feedback to the speaker afterwards. No need to be rude, but saying something like “I wish you’d given more background on <X>” or “It seemed like you skipped over the complexities with <Y>” will help the speaker improve their talk.
  • If you feel moved to do so, thank the speaker afterwards. This is not required but a talk is a lot of work and any feedback is usually welcomed.

Am I always a good audience member? Nope.

I get distracted sometimes.

But when I follow my suggestions above, I learn more from the expert on the stage.


Heading to AWS re:Invent 2019

AWS re:Invent logoI’m excited to be heading to AWS re:Invent this week. I’ve never been to Las Vegas (other than stopping at a Chipotle on the outskirts on the way to SoCal), so I’m looking forward to seeing the Strip. I’ve heard it’s a bit of a madhouse, but I did go to the Kentucky Derby this year, so we’ll see how it compares.

I’m also excited to re-connect with people I’ve met at other conferences or only online. There are a number of AWS instructors that I interacted with only over email and Slack that I hope to meet face to face. (If you want to meet up with me, feel free to connect via Twitter.) This is also my first conference “behind the booth”. I have been to plenty of conferences where I was the one wandering around the expo, kicking tires and talking to vendors, so I’m interested to be on the other side.

Finally, I’m excited to get feedback on the new direction Transposit is taking. We’ll be showing off a new tool we’ve built to decrease incident downtime. I wish I’d had this tool when I was on-call, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what people think.


Develop Denver Recap

Develop Denver LogoI attended Develop Denver in August and it was a great experience. It’s a really fun conference. There are a number of things I liked about it.

  • There is a real culture of inclusivity.
  • They have speakers across the spectrum, including experienced speakers, new speakers, and speakers from underrepresented groups.
  • It is entirely volunteer run.
  • There is a fun tradition, the Ballmer Peak Hackathon.
  • They have both social and technical events.
  • A large number of the speakers are voted on by attendees.
  • The topics are broader than at the typical conference, ranging from product to development to career to design.
  • The venues are spread across the RiNo district, so you walk between them. This makes it easier to start conversations and gives you a breath of fresh air.
  • It’s affordable for a two day multi track tech conference (< $400).
  • The community is rooted in a slack and meetup, so there’s year round engagement if you want it.
  • It was big enough that I can meet new people but small enough that I recognized folks from last year when I attended (~450).

Definitely enjoyed. It got me out of the Boulder Bubble as well, so that was a plus too.

It’ll be coming back in August of 2020. I’m not sure when they’ll be opening registration, but I’d check back in May 2020.

PS Here is one overview and a second overview of the conference worth reading.


Develop Denver

I’m excited to let y’all know I’ll be speaking at Develop Denver this year. Last year I talked about Amazon Machine Learning (RIP). This year I’ll be covering three things that surprised me as a new developer (based on my Letters to a New Developer project).

If you want to learn more about how much fun Develop Denver is, I wrote a recap about my experience last year. As of writing, tickets are still available. It’s a great two day wide ranging community oriented conference. Hope to see you there.


Things I wish I knew as a new developer

I’m participating as a speaker or panelist in my third annual Boulder Startup Week. This year I get to talk about my current passion project, Letters to a New Developer. I’m presenting on “10 things I wish I knew as a new developer” including tips like “learn version control” and “remember, it’s about outcomes, not output” It’s a free presentation on Monday May 13. I hope you can join me.

If that time or subject doesn’t work or interest you, check out all of the other awesome presentations happening in Boulder during the 2019 Boulder Startup Week and see if any of them tickle your fancy.


A video of My Amazon Machine Learning Talk

I gave a talk at Develop Denver last year about Amazon Machine Learning. They recorded it and you can now view the video. I feel a bit like a superhero in the shadows, because the lighting situation was such that you couldn’t see both my face and my slides at the same time, but if you want to see what AML is all about and how it can help you experiment with supervised machine learning in a lightweight, cheap, fast manner, please check it out.

The full video is about 35 minutes long.


Excited to be speaking at Develop Denver

Coffee break at a conferenceI’m excited to be speaking at Develop Denver. This is a local conference with a wide variety of topics of interest to developers, designers and in general anyone who works in the interactive industry. From their website, they want to:

[bring] together developers, designers, strategists, and those looking to dive deeper into the interactive world for two days of hands on code & design talks.

I’ll be doing two presentations. The first is my talk on Amazon Machine Learning, which I’ve presented previously. The second is a lightning talk on the awk programming language. I’m excited to be presenting, but I’m also looking forward to interesting talks from other speakers, covering topics such as IoT, software development for the developing world, web scraping, APIs, oauth, software development, and hiring practices. (That list is tilted toward my interest in development–there’s plenty for everyone.)

If you’re able to join, it’s happening in about two weeks in downtown Denver (Oct 18-19 in the RiNo district). Here’s the link for tickets, and here’s the agenda.


Going to GopherCon and Thoughts on Golang

GopherI am excited to go to GopherCon this year. I’ve been maintaining a couple of codebases written in Go/golang. Some are smaller webhook and automation programs, but a couple are larger data processing systems–take this data from these two sources, munge it a bit, put it over here. (Unfortunately, this is all custom, not using an ETL toolkit like, say, ratchet).

I’ve found Go to be an interesting challenge. It’s C based, but there are a few wrinkles/idioms that I’ve enjoyed figuring out (and more that I’m learning).

Things that surprised me:

  • GOPATH and the need for a domain name in paths.
  • That you have to search on golang to find anything useful.
  • The fact that any file in a package can add functions to any struct (I think I have the terms correct, please forgive me if I don’t)
  • The lack of an editor that can do reference searching (“show me all places this function is called”). I think VS.Code can do this, but have downloaded it and the Golang extension and can’t seem to figure out it. (This is likely my failing, not golangs, but I was looking forward to coding in a static language for just this reason. Well, this and safe refactoring.)
  • The strictness. I’m actually pleasantly surprised by it (no unused variables seems like such a no-brainer!) but golang is quite opinionated in terms of language syntax.

I unfortunately haven’t had as much time to write golang as I planned when signing up for this conference, but I’m looking forward to meeting some other folks and the excitement that always happens when you attend a conference. In particular, I’m looking forward to “Go says WAT?” which is patterned after the famous WAT video and “From prototype to production: Lessons from Reddit’s ad platform”. Hope to see you there.


Boulder Startup Week

If you are into the tech scene in Boulder, Boulder Startup Week is a great set of events–it’s coming up May 15-19 this year.  This is a totally volunteer run set of events which highlight various aspects of startup and technology in the Boulder area.  You can learn more at the website.  It’s a great place to network and to learn about new things.

I’m lucky enough to be participating in two events this startup week.  I’ll be hanging out at the Engineering Leadership dinner.  And I’ll be presenting on bootstrapping a startup as a developer with a few other bootstrappers.  Most of my short presentation will cover lessons I’ve learned from joining The Food Corridor.  I’m especially looking forward to hearing about Brian and Inversoft that day, because I’ve been friends with him for a number of years and have followed along with some of his trials and triumphs.

Hope to see you there!



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