What makes a conference worth attending?

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011 by Robert Cravotta

Travel and training budgets for engineers (and possibly every profession) have taken a beating over the past decade. Gone are the “grand-ole-days” of huge conferences for developers that would take up multiple halls and you felt like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn as you walked the exhibit areas. Instead, show and expo attendance for these conferences is decidedly lighter than it used to be. The change in attendance has been so profound that a few single-company developer conferences were delayed, cancelled, or transformed into smaller regional workshops a few years ago.

The hopeful news is that there is a sense that design activity is beginning to pick up again. Conferences targeting developers seem to be returning, attendance is up, but it seems that most of the attendance is by locals who can avoid most of the expenses of travel. I was having a conversation with an exhibitor at a recent conference; we were discussing whether there was something that the conference could offer that would justify a growing attendance that includes more attendees that had to travel to get there. The conference offered many announcements for new or upcoming components and tools that will help developers build their projects faster, cheaper, and better. There were numerous workshops and hands-on training offerings that were all well attended.

One of the most obvious things gone from today’s conferences from the past is the over-the-top parties at the end of the day. I can’t help but wonder – tongue-in-cheek – whether the excessive parties were a symptom of the huge attendance or a motivator for it. As developers, we are creating more complex systems in the same or shorter time frames, often with smaller design teams than a few years ago.

On a more serious observation, the time and complexity pressures on developers today probably raise the bar on what a conference will deliver to developers to justify spending their time travelling and attending the conference. What makes a conference worth attending? What features or events have you seen that you thought were particularly valuable? Is there something missing from today’s conferences that makes them less valuable than previously? Or maybe the contemporary conference is doing exactly what you need it to do, but there is no time to attend. Do you find the recordings of the proceedings worthwhile or perhaps even sufficient?


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