Usually by 9pm on a given evening, I am winding down, feeling introspective and generally not chatty. However, this Sunday evening I had just arrived home after attending PyCon in Santa Clara, California. Upon realizing I was talking Sherri’s ears off, I stopped to ask, “Am I always like this after I get home from a conference.” The answer was a definitive: “Yes.”
It got me thinking about about why I go to conferences.
Not For the Technical Content
Perhaps this is heretical to say, but for whatever reason, it’s really difficult for me to learn technical topics deeply at conferences. I learn best in environments where I can minimize distractions, go at my own pace and engage one on one with my subject matter and instructor. Conference learning is the antithesis of this: tons of distractions, the speakers set the pace and the learning is one to many, even in the smallest sessions and tutorials.
This does not mean that I get nothing from technical talks. Some are very inspiring and give me ideas of subjects to look up and study later, when I get home.
For the Community
Conferences connect me with community, and that is their most important offering. Over the years, I have found there is simply no substitute for time spent with people in real spaces.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love that our world is made smaller by technology. I love that I can work for Mozilla remotely using Skype, Vidyo, IRC and other internet-based technologies. I enjoy the convenience of being able to attend local planning meetings without leaving my home. It’s allowed me to continue participating even though my family obligations have increased substantially over the last year.
But technology doesn’t provide the same sense of connection and of belonging that I get from joining the physical space of my community. At conferences I see people I never see in person except at conferences. I run into people with whom I have trouble connecting online due to our mutually busy schedules or offset timezones. At conferences I am able to interact with whole, three dimensional persons rather than flat images or disembodied voices. Because of this, conversation itself feels as if it has greater depth and meaning.
The connections that I form and strengthen at conferences have a lasting and cumulative effect. They provide the connective agent that makes online interactions between in-person events stronger and more productive. The people that I meet at community events become my friends, colleagues, peers, managers and mentors.
Why do you go to conferences and other community events?