Conference equals party! - or does it?

I’ve been back from SQLBits for a few days and things are slowly starting to settle. It’s been quite a long while since I went to a conference this large in person. A friend of mine commented on being tired but couldn’t grasp why on earth she’d be this tired from just talking to people. I responded that it is probably because of exactly that - talking to people, in person, is not something most of us have done for the past couple of years.

I’ve been on stage many, many times over many years and I like to think I’m fairly accustomed to it. But I realized trying to sleep the night before my first session at SQLBits that the baseline has shifted. Not a complete reset to the early days of speaking in public, but definitely a move back to a time when I was more nervous. Not surprising when I think of it, but for some reason I hadn’t quite expected it. This tendency to not see what’s in front of one’s eyes is what prompted me to write this blog post.

Coming back from SQLBits and mentioning being tired to some people, I’ve been met with smiles and something along the lines of “oh, a bit too much to drink, yeah?”. This made me rather upset at first, but that feeling quickly gave way to confusion. Why would people ask me that? Why would anyone view getting to go to a conference as some kind of a reward? Don’t they have any idea of the amount of work that goes into attending a conference, let alone speaking at one?

I realized that the answer is probably “no” - simply because I haven’t explained it.

Bear with me as this will be a bit long, but I think it is important to try to explain.

Part I - the session

So let’s rewind a bit and I’ll try to explain how conference speaking / conference attendance works, or at least, how conference speaking / conference attendance works for me.

The first step is coming up with a topic for a session. This can be easy, or it can be akin to pulling nails. Some speakers create abstracts for ideas and send them to conferences before having written the complete presentation. Some speakers prefer to first create the presentation and the abstract and then send the abstract to the various calls for content.
Some speakers prefer to only create presentations on stuff they know inside and out, and some speakers use the presentations as a reason to learn something at a level they feel is required to deliver a session on it.

I prefer to come up with an idea, sketch an outline for the session and from that spend quite some time on writing the abstract. If the abstract is poor, nobody will ever get to see my session, so it is definitely a good idea to spend quite some time on polishing said abstract.

The next step is sending the abstract far and wide. Most of the conferences use Sessionize - a wonderful tool that makes it rather painless to send in and reuse abstracts. Some conferences insist on using their own systems. Sometimes they’re good, most of the time they are horrible, giving no benefits over Sessionize while making speakers consider a career as a train conductor instead.

With the abstract submitted comes the dreaded part - waiting.

Many people believe that we MVPs are automatically selected at any conferences we send in abstracts to. Not so.
I get a lot of “Thank you for your submissions, but unfortunately…"-style emails. That’s the way of the speaking world, simple as that. I totally get that the abbreviation “MVP” after my name will give me a slightly better chance for a speaking slot, but in the grand scheme of things not as much as many think.

Finally (hopefully) comes the day when you’re accepted - congratulations! If you haven’t already done so, now is high time to create the presentation. This includes the slide deck, thinking about delivery and wondering how to actually pull it off in front of people. I won’t go into details about the actual creation of a session as that’d be a blog post in and of itself, but let’s just say that I’m spending anything from 10 to 100 times the session length to develop the session itself, the slides and everything that goes with it.

Let that sink in a bit.

Yes, I just said I might spend upwards of a 100 hours on creating a one hour session.

That is how much work I put in to make sure my points are made, that my story works, that the delivery is good, that pacing and timing runs according to plan. Not every speaker puts in this amount of time - far from it - but the majority of speakers I know spend WAY more time than most people realize. Keep in mind that we’re doing this for free, on our own time. That’s a lot of “own time”.

Oh, and we haven’t even gotten to the conference yet.

Part II - the conference

Figuring out how to physically get to a conference isn’t easy at the best of times, and these days travel logistics is even more of a hassle. The number of documents, time tables and details to keep track of is tiring, but that’s essentially the same with any trip. The moment you set foot in the venue, the outside world takes a bit of a back seat. I always make sure to go check out the room I’m speaking in early on - better to be aware of any potential issues early than to find them out at a point I can’t do anything about them.
I try to get hold of any sound/video technicians and figure out what stuff is in use, make sure my laptop works with the screen/projector, and see what kind of space I have to work with. This in turns prompts a lot of thinking about modifying my delivery to fit the limitations of that particular space. If the stage is small I can’t move around as much as I could if it was bigger, and if there are things like a lectern bolted to the floor, I have to figure out how to work around that. This takes cognitive energy, but I’m happy to say that this is one thing that does get easier with experience.

Knowing where and when I’m speaking as well as what the space is like, I can explore the other sessions. There is bound to be so, so much amazing content, and while I’d love to attend all of it, I can’t. There is simply no time, and I still have my own session to do final preparations for, remember?

Having said that, I always make sure to sample sessions from both speakers I’ve never heard about, speakers I know well, as well as topics I don’t know well (or at all). I see these 20, 50 or 60-minute sessions as a starting point rather than a complete training session. I get so many “a ha!” moments and ideas that I can use to dive deeper into the material. In many ways, sessions help me figure out what questions to ask and then go find the answers on my own.
I’d argue that conference sessions are an order of magnitude more useful for training than a “normal” multi-day-course - IF the attendee has a decent grounding and experience.
If you’re a greenhorn just starting out in the industry, that might be a different story, but for the vast majority of people with a year or two of experience, this is definitely the way to go.

I might even go for several sessions on the same topic but presented by different speakers. It doesn’t matter if the topic is the same - everyone has their own style, their own way of teaching a concept. This means I will have multiple opportunities to get a deeper insight into whatever topic I’m interested in.

A quick recap - not only am I mentally preparing to speak in front of potentially hundreds of people, I’m also attending sessions and learning new things.

But I’m not done yet.

The best part is yet to come - the people. I’ve written about my love for the community more than once. And never does the community shine brighter than at a conference. You get to meet so many fantastic people - speakers and attendees alike. Just imagine listening to a great session on Kubernetes or SQL Server - delivered by some of the top names in the industry - and then immediately be able to talk to them. Just like that. This is how you grow your professional network.

Take my mentee as an example:

She had never attended a conference of this size, let alone spoken at a live event - ever. I used my extensive professional network to introduce her to everyone around me. In the span of minutes, her ability to call on people to help her when her Google-fu fails went up tenfold. An hour later, that number was a hundredfold. THIS is what conferences are all about - networking with other professionals. People laugh when I somewhat cheekily say that you don’t hire me because I know everything (which I don’t), but you hire me because I know everyone (which I don’t, but I know A LOT of people). If I don’t know the answer to a question, I can just about always tell you who might know AND help you reach out to that person.
That is the result of many years in the community, speaking at and attending conferences.
This is why I do what I do.

So, back to the partying

Conferences, just like anything in life, become what you make of them. I have neither the time nor the inclination for partying all night long. I’m busy learning and networking, increasing my professional worth, and occasionally speaking. I don’t view a conference as a reward. I view it as training that is an order of magnitude more useful than classical training.

Everyone has a choice for their own career.

This is mine.