The power of conferences

May 04, 2023     Janet Gregory, Lisa Crispin
Learning     Learning and Improvement

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NOTE: This post is a special edition copied from our May 2023 newsletter. Normally our newsletters contain content that is exclusively for our subscribers. We had a special request to make this issue available to a wider audience so we are making an exception. Please subscribe to our newsletter at the bottom of the page. 



We often address the importance of learning. After all, our second book is subtitled, “Learning Journeys for the Whole Team”. Those journeys involve many different paths. With “conference season” gearing up, let’s look at some of the ways conferences can aid our learning.


New ideas for you and your team to try


Conferences are a good place to find out about the “leading edge” of software development. Talks and even hands-on workshops using new tools and techniques provide a great opportunity to “try before you buy”. At most conferences, you can browse the expo and see demos and talks by various vendor sponsors. If you look at the programs for upcoming testing conferences, you’re likely to see lots of sessions about the hot topics of today, like machine learning and AI.


Sessions where participants set the agenda are also fertile ground for inspiration. Lean Coffee and Open Space sessions attract diverse groups of participants. Some years ago, Lisa’s team was struggling with an overly-long continuous integration build. She proposed an open space session at a conference to share ideas on speeding up the build and getting faster feedback. She took home a list of proven techniques that her team implemented right away, with great results.


You’ll get some of the most valuable conference takeaways from the “hallway track”. Informal conversations with people during breaks, at meals, and at social events can turn into big light bulb moments. Look for conferences that provide space for this encourage those conversations.


A career boost


Obviously, everything you learn from official conference sessions will help you gain new skills and further your career. Just as importantly, you will meet new people and hopefully (depending on the conference) become part of a community. These new friends will be there to support you long after the conference. The very first agile conference that Janet attended was very different from the testing conferences she had been to before. She met many new people who encouraged her to keep in touch. To this day, she passes ideas by some of those folks she met there.


Remember that the conference speakers are generally friendly, approachable people. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and ask questions, whether it’s after their session, during a break or at a social event. Lisa worked up the courage to get to know presenters and kept in touch with many of them. Many times, she’d learn they were coming to her area, and she’d offer to pick them up at the airport or meet them for coffee. And many times, they would be willing to visit her team or speak at her local meetup group. The learning keeps going!


Your growing network of friends will be a great resource for future job opportunities. Lisa has found several new jobs through people she met at conferences. Personal recommendations are the best.


A great way to increase your visibility in the community and put something special on your CV is to become a conference speaker yourself. Presenting at a conference is also a great way to learn because you put effort into making sure your thoughts are clear and you know your subject. If you don’t have an employer who can pay your way to a conference, speaking at it will get you there for free.  Many conferences compensate speakers for their travel and pay them to speak, although it may not be much. The idea of speaking is intimidating, but the benefits are endless. Look for conferences that have a “New Voices” track where they may have experienced speakers to help you.


Volunteering is another way to get to a conference on a tight budget. It’s a great way to meet people and get more out of the experience.


Getting the most benefit from a conference


You’ll invest a lot of time and possibly money to participate in a conference. You can take some steps to get the most out of it.


Choose your conference carefully. Ask us and other people for recommendations. Check out what people say about them on social media and in blog posts. Look for conferences with a diverse group of speakers, conferences that enable a diverse range of participants to attend. Of course, you’ll want one whose program covers topics you want to learn. You can find a list of upcoming testing conferences at DevOps Days are held all over the world and the Agile Alliance maintains a calendar of upcoming agile-related events.


Once a conference gets going, the time zips by! Since connecting with people is so important, you may want to reach out to one or more people in advance. Some conferences have their own Slack workspaces where you can chat with people. Make plans to meet up with them at the conference, at a specific time like breakfast or lunch. If the conference starts off with an icebreaker party or activity, take advantage to meet new people. They will be familiar faces for the rest of the conference. Early morning Lean Coffee sessions are another great place to get to know new folks – and get inspiration to help you choose sessions the rest of the day. We love hosting these sessions at Agile Testing Days conferences so if you have the chance, join us in Chicago later this month.


Conferences have a variety of networking opportunities. Lisa likes to join conference-organized walks outside the venue. And if the conference hasn’t organized them, she often organizes her own and gets a few people to go along. Janet tends more to find someone and chat in a corner somewhere. One time, she did some pairing with another attendee sitting on the floor in a hallway.


After the conference, keep up with at least a couple of the people you met. If you need help with something you learned at the conference, or your team is struggling with some blocker, reach out to those people. The people in your network can support your continued learning. When Lisa attends a workshop and wants to try out what she learned, she sometimes asks another participant to be her “accountability buddy”. They each set a goal to try something they learned within a month and check in with each other at the end of the month.


As you can tell, we are both fans of conferences. They offer so many possibilities for learning, professional growth, and fun.