How to find and attend a tech conference

As a student in the design or technological industries, you may be asking yourself how to further hone your skills or network with potential employers to earn more freelance jobs.

One way to do this is to attend a conference.

Recently returning from the Adobe MAX event in Los Angeles, Iona Group solutions architect Chad Udell eagerly discussed his trip and offered advice for anybody looking to attend his or her first conference.

First, “you need to determine the reason you would want to attend a conference,” Udell said.

Udell, who graduated from Bradley University in 1999 with a degree in graphic design, develops primarily Flash and mobile applications for e-learning.  He said there are three primary reasons why people attend conferences: networking in order to meet people in your industry who you want to seek business with or promote your services to, to learn from the best and the brightest, and for presenters to share their knowledge.

“From there,” he said, “determining what conference you go to is a function of what your purpose is.”

Finding a conference

There are several ways to get involved and hear about conferences.  Udell is on a variety of different mailing lists and in user groups that are tied to national organizations.  Locally, for example, the Peoria Ad Club is tied to the American Advertising Federation. Adobe and Microsoft, too, have local user groups for this purpose.

He also finds out about events through blogs and Twitter.

After you start finding out which conferences are available, you can begin to narrow down which ones you would want to go to.

“First-time events are always kind of iffy,” Udell said, having been to 20 to 25 conferences.  “The first time is like a rite of passage.”

He said if a conference is brand new or if somebody who has never done one before is putting one on, conference-goers need to verify session schedules by checking the credentials of people on the list.

Last year, Udell, now an adjunct professor in Bradley’s interactive media department, attended the Designer/Developer Workflow Conference in Kansas City, Mo.  He wasn’t interested in speaking at it until he saw other interesting speakers on the bill.

On the other hand, some of the bigger organizations have more polish, and they feature higher profile speakers, celebrity appearances and giveaways.

“If it’s a perennial event, such as Microsoft Mix or Adobe MAX,” Udell said, “rest assured it’s going to be a pretty cool event.”

Events such as these typically have a keynote speaker and different subject matter every day.  For example, Udell said a day might consist of six hours of concurrent sessions and conclude with an evening event, followed by a reception.  Afterward, he might head out for cocktails or dinner with people he met.

The cost

The cost of a conference fluctuates based on several factors.  Udell said smaller, regional events might cost anywhere from $150 to $500, depending on the catering, how many days the conference lasts and what type of venue it’s in.

“You’re getting a lot of good knowledge there,” he said in response to the cost.  “The value is commensurate with the stuff you get.”

Udell said MAX organizers gave away $700 worth of hardware this year.  Its highest price was $1,695 for a full conference pass after on-site registration.  Earlier pricing was cheaper.

Not all companies pay for their workers to go to a conference, but again, it depends on the type of conference and the type of agency a person works for.  Udell said some companies budget for training and others don’t.  Some events may be less about conferencing and more about being a trade show.

“A lot of companies won’t pay for things like that,” he said, because the show is less about learning and more about selling.

Event speakers usually get in for free, he said, but sometimes he gets his lodging and airfare taken care of.

Finding a session

Once you’re at a conference, it’s your decision to figure out what sessions you want to attend.

“That’s always tough,” Udell said.

With smaller events, there are only one or two tracks to take since there might only be 200 attendants.  At an event like MAX, which Udell estimated to have hosted 4,000 people, it’s a little more difficult to choose.

Most big conferences allow you to register early and specify your agenda, but also allow participants to reschedule if they wish.

For example, Udell said at events like MAX, Microsoft Mix or Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, the organizations usually unveil brand new technology.  Previously unannounced sessions are then revealed for that technology, and “people flock to rearrange their schedules,” typically by using an online application.

The results of attending

Udell said conferences generally yield two results for participants.

One aspect of conferencing is coordinating talent.

“I may be able to find new freelancers,” he said, and he has found several for the Morton-based Iona Group.  “[Conferences are] great if you’re a freelancer, especially if you’re extroverted.”

Freelancers can now put their works on a handheld device or an iPad, so “you can always have your demo reel with you.”

People also attend conferences to get new business.

“Generally speaking,” he said, “a lot of people that are there would entertain business opportunities.”

Udell also has connected with at least one agency to make sure Iona’s prices are a good value for their vendors.

Udell started going to conferences just to learn and find out more about his industry.  Now, before he boards his plane, he makes a short list of people he wants to reach out to in order to share a drink or dinner with.

“That’s not something I would’ve done even a handful of years ago,” he said.

Udell said one of his favorite stories from attending conferences comes from this year’s Adobe MAX.

“I ran into a Bradley alum that I haven’t seen since graduation,” he said.

Udell knew his friend was working in the industry but didn’t know he shared as many contacts as he had.

“Reconnecting with somebody on the other side of the country that used to go to the exact same school and the exact same program…to meet him and find out he’s friends and acquaintances with people that I’m friends and acquaintances with is interesting.”

On the other hand, Udell said not all aspects of attending conferences are fun.

“Travel can be terrible,” he said, noting layovers and delays and sleeping in a hotel for three or four nights.

Days can stretch to 12 hours long by the time you get there, register and go to the keynote speech and concurrent sessions, followed by the gathering at the end of the night.

He said people think, “‘Oh, you get to get off work for three days and go to these conferences?’

“It’s basically working 12-hour days for the time you’re there.”

Being on the other side of the podium

As noted earlier, Udell has both been a participant and a presenter.  While he said it’s relaxing as a participant, “it’s cool being on the other side.”

With a speaker tag on his badge, Udell said people approach him to talk to him.  He said he may get invited to other events or get perks such as freebies.

“But it can also be a drag,” he said, having experienced speaking six times over three days at one conference.

As a speaker, Udell said, you’re far less apt to go to other sessions as a participant due to mingling more with other conference attendees.

“As a participant, you’ve paid for the event and want to hear people,” he said. But it’s not the same feeling for presenters.

Udell said he has ranked fairly high on the surveys collected at the events.

“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a below-average rating,” he said.

Udell has shared several of his sessions on SlideShare, which creates an online slideshow of PowerPoint presentations.  Several conference websites have featured his slides.

To follow up on his experiences, Udell typically uses e-mail, his blog, or Twitter.  He also gets many LinkedIn requests.

Final advice

Udell had advice for anybody looking for his or her first conference experience.

“If you’re thinking about doing something,” he said, “find a local, regional conference first.”

He said there are many opportunities in St. Louis or Chicago, and it probably wouldn’t cost more than $200 to $300.  Udell said people most likely already knew somebody in one of those cities, and that you could “probably just crash on somebody’s pad.”

For Udell, it really came down to one snippet of advice.

“Just go check it out.”

By Adam Bockler

Adam Bockler is a B2B marketing professional, a black belt martial arts instructor, DDP Yoga instructor, and a personal trainer.