Attending a Conference on Your Own

Attending a Conference on Your Own

Sandro Padin

October 29, 2014

After doing some research and seeing some pictures of Ghent, Belgium, I knew I had to go to ArrrrCamp. ArrrrCamp is a modern software developer’s conference, and Ghent is a pedestrian’s paradise—a place to go if you enjoy wandering around looking at beautiful canals and incredible architecture.

I’ve only started attending conferences since I joined 8th Light. I went to two conferences in the Midwest with coworkers, and they were both fun, interesting, and inspiring. This time, I wanted to try something different and attend a conference on my own.

My two main motivations for going to ArrrrCamp alone were to force myself outside of my comfort zone and to challenge myself to meet new people. I did both of those things, and I learned some things along the way. Plus, going to a conference alone meant I could do whatever I wanted: tourist boat (check), wandering around Ghent taking random pictures (check), eating Belgian fries with newly made acquaintances (check).

Making those acquaintances would take some work, but I’ve learned that most people are generally receptive to conversing. It’s OK to go up to a table and ask what someone thought of the previous talk.

ArrrrCamp employed a great strategy for making conversation easier among their attendees. Standing tables were placed throughout the hall outside the auditorium with snacks, cream, and sugar. You could grab a coffee or tea during breaks, but would need to head to a table in order to finish making your drink.

The drink and snack tables outside of the auditorium weren’t enough to get me to speak with new people on their own, though. I could have easily gone to an empty table and hoped for people to approach me and start a conversation, but that wasn’t my goal. Instead, I decided to wait for the auditorium to clear before I went out to get coffee. This meant that when I finally got my coffee, I couldn’t hide in a corner at an empty table because they’d all be taken. This small trick is what helped me meet the most people, and I learned I wasn’t the only one to do something like this. Others suggested trying to speak with everyone wearing a red shirt, or everyone with glasses, etc. Find whatever reason makes it easier for you to start a conversation.

The best way I know to keep a conversation going is to make the conversation about the other person. Everyone likes talking about themselves. The secret to being a good conversationalist isn’t to have interesting stories; the secret is to help other people share their interesting stories with you. Truly being interested in their stories and actively asking questions about their experiences will make you everyone’s favorite person to speak to.

This approach allows you to hear some really interesting stories, too. I truly had a great time meeting so many people at ArrrrCamp. In all, I probably spoke with 10 people on the first day from countries including Germany, Sweden, England, Poland, Slovenia, and New Zealand.

A nomadic programmer shared his experience working with clients remotely. He’s been on the road this year for well over 200 days already, traveling from Asia to Europe. It was very interesting to learn how he made that work with his clients. He didn’t have regular stand ups, he’d just gather the requirements for stories and deliver the features. His clients trust him completely, which is what makes this work. Where he works is much less important to them because he’s proven his reliability.

I also spoke with a young developer about his experience and troubles learning a new programming language. It was awesome to have someone I’d just met earlier in the day feel comfortable enough to share that story with me. We also talked about the merits of learning a new framework in a language we’re accustomed to versus learning a new language altogether. Neither of us were trying to prove a point, we were just sharing our views and appreciating the other’s opinions.

But while I was able to meet many people by focusing on their own stories, it’s difficult to employ this strategy when talking to a group. This makes it hard to break into groups of friends and coworkers. It’s interesting, because I previously didn’t consider this when I attended conferences with my co-workers. We tend to stick together, which is natural, but sticking together makes it difficult for others to join in the conversation. It’s easier to speak with a single person from a group, and if that person introduces you to his or her coworkers then you will be instantly validated and the conversations will come much more easily.

After having spoken to so many new people the first day I noticed that a couple of them were also speakers at the conference, which was awesome. Thinking back, I don’t know if I would have approached people if I’d known they were speakers. I would’ve been too intimidated. I’m glad I was able to have good conversations with them.

Despite how fun it was, actively trying to meet new people is mentally draining. I went to the hotel after the first day, and was so exhausted that I decided not to do the social events that evening. I noticed I wasn’t motivated to meet new people the second day, either. I wasn’t even using my coffee table trick. However, I ran into someone I’d met the day before, and he ended up introducing me to his coworkers and a couple of people they’d met, so I ended up meeting five new people on the second day just by happenstance.

Next time I attend a conference on my own, I'll feel more prepared to have conversations with new people because of this experience. I'll also be more prepared for being mentally tired from meeting new people, fight through that, and continue meeting and talking with people for the entire conference.

I’m very happy that I attended ArrrrCamp on my own. It was such an interesting experience, and I ended up learning a lot about myself and what motivates me to meet new people. I recommend everyone try going to a conference alone at least once. The experience is well worth it.