Fabulous Conferences

I have been making plans to attend 3 conferences/festivals in the spring: SXSW 2006 (Austin), Pycon 2006 (Dallas), Tejas Storytelling Festival (Denton, Texas). My goal for 2006 is to devote more time and resources for personal development.

Danah Boyd on the paradoxical Homophily of Conferences. She writes about the paradox about trying to make conferences a diverse place:

Those looking to hire at conferences should also care about diversity. If you meet someone at a conference who’s exactly like you, what do they bring to your company? Most companies want innovative minds. Well, you don’t innovate best when in a room full of people like you; you innovate best when you get to play with a lot of different people because you take their throw-away ideas, remix them with yours and voila, new idea!Organizers want to have a diverse audience because their event will be remembered as the place where someone’s new idea came from, where the ideal employee was hired. Of course, it’s also tricky because over time, as excited attendees return, they too will end up being homogeneous, at least in ideas/perspective. This happens everywhere – events/companies/schools that were once a site of innovation become stale because it’s difficult to keep things fresh.

Of course, it’s also difficult for newcomers to attend a conference that is so solidified in its attendees. It makes it hard to penetrate, to be a newcomer. The amount of effort it requires to attend as a stranger, to learn the cultural values that bonds attendees… it is much higher. Yet, so are the potential rewards. But not if the attendees have so much centrality that they do not wish to meet newcomers.

It’s hard to pick a good conference. The Oreilly/etech conferences are famous, but also fabulously expensive ($1500 and up). Game conferences are also great and fabulously entertaining, but overly geared towards various platforms and graphical capabilities (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). I’d like to attend a serious film festival sometime (San Francisco, NY, Toronto, Sundance), but to be honest, I don’t know if it’s more for viewers and distributors than people wanting to trade tricks.

I like conferences where people are actually doing stuff rather than talking about stuff. In the computer field, this is hard to do, but not impossible. I enjoy conferences where meeting people can result in constructive collaborations. My cardinal rule: go to conferences where the people are smarter than you. Because honestly, most of them are. It’s both fun and challenging to attend conferences outside your area of expertise. If nothing else, you tend to stand out more. At this year’s python conference, I will certainly be one of the least qualified python developers, though I’ll probably learn some tricks to help me in instructional design and documentation. Also, I end up becoming inspired by the strangest things by people doing totally unrelated things to what I am. One visual artist mentioned something that just caused something to click in my head at one session. That is pretty common.

A few months ago I telephoned in to a 1 day ebook conference that was great, though a bit fatiguing. I would have loved to talk to the participants some more over lunch.

I tend to shy away from business-like conferences (like Book Expo). I like the concept of Etech, though not the price tag. It has become harder for employers to pay for a conference or even for time off even though sometimes the conference can be dirt cheap. Conferences tend to have regional flavors, and usually the only people who can travel from far distances are the superstars or those who have a product/agenda to push. Still, you’d be surprised at the number of conferences in your backyard if you just keep your eyes open. When I lived in Austin, I found out about one great academic conference, Hypertext 2000 taking place in San Antonio. Of course, every year they alternate between locations in Europe and in U.S., so who knows if I’ll attend again.

I’ve been going to SXSW for several years now, and although some of the guests are repeats, I’ve still managed to find some sparsely attended panels that were fantastic. Then again, some of the panels were atrocious. I should single out CSS as one area which is particularly ill-suited to panels. I’ve sat through 3 panels on CSS(no, actually 4!), all indisputably bad. Last year I saw a clever British chap (apparently famous in the CSS world) give a tongue-in-cheek talk about the subject. The talk was enjoyable, albeit worthless. I asked a technical question, and he laughed it off (as he did the other questions). All in light fun. I was indignant. Yes, I appreciated the satirical nature of his talk, but here I was, in the presence of a brilliant web designer and a dozen other like-minded individuals, and he chose to spend the precious time… telling jokes? Unlike web designers (who must bore themselves silly when they are around other designers), I attended this particular session because I don’t normally come in contact with such people.

I like conferences with informal panels or schedules. I also enjoy the idea of Sprinting , setting aside a certain amount of time for conference participants to team up towards one goal. I haven’t exactly given a presentation at a US conference before, though I have presented one way or another overseas. I guess I could serve as a talking head, but I haven’t done anything really noteworthy to talk about (though I have lots of opinions). There’s an assymetry taking place. I’ve usually heard of the speakers making presentations, although none of them have heard of me. (My biggest conference triumph came last year at SXSW when I met somebody who had actually read an essay I had written about why Austin sucks). I was gloating all weekend.

Some conferences are marred by location or scheduling. One conference I attended was completely in the middle of the week, thereby maximizing the number of days you would have to take off work. Gee, thanks! I like the fact that people are bringing recording devices to conferences nowadays. Hey, if you are afraid you’re missing out because you missed etech, don’t fret! Everything on itconversations.com (it seems).

Refreshments are ok, but sometimes people go overboard. Most refreshment trays are high calorie stuff, and I end up gaining a few pounds every time I go to one of these shindigs. In contrast, SXSW has barely any refreshments at all, although they have some at their parties.

I’m undecided about laptops. Cory Doctorow et al pioneered the use of Wifi at conferences, and that’s ok, I suppose. It’s an age thing, but I don’t understand how people could go to a talk only to end up spending the time checking email or sending sarcastic IRC messages to friends. I take a small amount of notes and actually end up returning to the notes later on at least once or twice. (Luckily online conference blogs make it easier to find other people’s notes online).

Why makes conference participants interesting? Sometimes it’s because of a personal project, but more often it’s because of a person’s job. Often, the reason we go to conferences is to see and meet with individuals who are actually doing the kind of jobs we can only dream about.

When you go home, you need time to absorb everything. Time to put into practice the kinds of ideas you are exposed to at these events. Often I come away from these things with great ideas but without the means (or time!) to implement them.

See my other post about conferences.