Blog Post

How to Attend a Tech Conference


I’m absolutely positive that I’m not the first to blog on this topic, but I haven’t seen anyone else say exactly what I want to say. So.

Hi! So, you want to come to a tech conference, like SQL Connections, TechEd, a free SQL Saturday, or the PASS Summit. Good for you, we really encourage people – especially novices! – to get out there and get educatin’.  What should you expect? What should you do?  No worries, SQL #Awesomesauce has you covered.

What’s it Like?

Big paid events, like Connections or PASS, are…well, big. And really really cool. You’ll register online, pay your fee, and get your introductory info. You can check schedules and sessions, speakers and bios, and extracurricular events online.  Go read some blogs about people’s experiences at the conference of your choice, and ask questions at will. 

On the day of or day before, show up and check in at the registration desk. There will be lots of people there to help and give directions, generally a provided breakfast and lunch, and a ton of sessions/demos/chalk talks/events to choose from, plus a big vendor floor where you can see cool demos and get some nice SWAG. 

Vendor area during the morning checkin

Smaller events like SQL Saturday are free – staffed by volunteers and funded entirely by sponsors. There may be a small charge to help cover lunch, but everybody is there because they want to be.  You’ll register online and, again, get your info on the main website and via email updates. Again, get online and read/talk about the upcoming event.  

On the day of, you’ll probably have a small registration area, vendor area, and 4-6 tracks of classes to choose from. There may be a keynote or a couple of special events, but the day is almost entirely dedicated to sessions.  Most SQL Saturdays have a wrap-up after, with raffles and thanks.

So, what do I do?

We (*ahem*) seasoned conference-goers take certain things for granted, so here are a few things you might want to know for your upcoming event.

Before the event:

  • Register early. If it’s a paid event, you’ll likely be able to find a discount. If it’s a free event, spots fill up fast!
  • I’ve said it twice: get online, get to know your event, and connect with people going to it. Twitter is great for this; tons of speakers and attendees will talk nonstop about the event, complete with hashtag (like #sqlpass or #sqlsat).

On your way:

  • Bring your chosen medium for notes: pen and paper, or laptop. The event may provide pen and notebook, or they may not.
  • Arrive early. Check in lines tend to get long close to the start of the day.
  • Expect a welcome packet - even small events often hand out a bag with vendor materials.
  • Eat lightly but well, and hydrate. Conferences take a lot of energy!

In sessions:

  • Get in a little early and get a good seat if you can, or risk standing room only  (or a full session!).  If you’re delayed, it’s okay to come in late – quietly, respectfully.
  • No phone play during sessions. Actually, just go and read Paul Randal’s  Top ten mistakes to make when attending a class
  • Pay attention.
  • Feel free to ask questions (the speaker may ask the audience to hold questions till end).  And go talk to the speaker – if you liked the session, if you have questions, if you’d like to know where to get more information, etc etc. These people LIKE to teach, and they like people, so don’t be shy.
  • Fill out feedback forms!  Feedback is very valuable to a speaker, so if you felt they set the right tone, or were speaking too fast, or you loved the cartoon on slide #4…tell them!

Through the day:

Hobnobbing at TechEd 2010

  • Talk to other people.  A conference is at least 50% hobnobbing with other people who are interested in the same stuff!
  • Talk to vendors (if you want to).  They all want you to look at their products, sure, but some of those products are really really cool.  Plus, if you’re at a SQL Saturday, they helped make the event possible with their sponsorship.  Oh yeah, and many of them have raffles you can enter.
  • Thank the organizers (esp if free event) and volunteers when you see them!

Get online after the event and blog/tweet/talk it up!

Happy days,

Jen McCown