It’s the most wonderful time of the year. I’m talking, of course, about training season. With the end of the fiscal year looming, good managers all across the globe spend the last big scoops of their budget on professional development. Hotels have big room blocks available, flights are reliable, and the great annual migration of the nerds takes place. (BZ Media is a conference producer, so apply whatever grains of salt you find appropriate.)
Training has changed remarkably in the Web age. At a fundamental level, access to expertise has become cheap. Once upon a time, it was difficult to find opinions on arcane technologies. Now, it’s difficult to put aside the endless stream of opinions and get any work done. And although there is a part of me that suspects that the best week’s skill improvement would come from hunkering down in a cruddy hotel next door to a decent pizza joint, there is far more to professional development than pure skill enhancement.
The No. 1 rule of conferences is: The value of a conference is not the lecture material. One of the shocks I had in my first years speaking and chairing conference tracks was how very little technical content anyone could hope to communicate in a conference lecture environment. Even in a fairly homogenous crowd, there’s far more variation than faced by a college professor; a conference speaker cannot give a dense, challenging talk whose value unfolds as it’s applied to homework while the talk is still fresh in memory. My rule of thumb became that an hour-long talk ought to cover about as much material as a thousand-word technical article.
In other words, were you to attend a conference where you dutifully filled your days with lectures, the best you could hope for would be to receive less technical information than you could get from a good book.
A number of conferences have tried to improve the information density of the lectures, primarily by moving toward shorter sessions, including “lightning talk” formats that rigorously enforce their brief durations. In my opinion, lightning talks are more appetizer than meal: They can stimulate and intrigue, but they do so by trading off depth and subtlety, and, perhaps most importantly, they can’t afford questions and clarifying answers.
Another trend in conference structure has been free-work labs, where a few experts circulate in an area of developers doing their own exploratory programming and asking for help. I flat-out don’t like this format, as “developers staring intently into their programming editors” is exactly the opposite of what you want to achieve at a conference.
My feeling is that you should accept that lectures are not as dense as writing, but are generally better at communicating emotional content. So, I am unlikely to attend a lecture on a particular API, I might attend a talk on a library (hoping to get a sense of “where this becomes an exciting advantage”), and I will seek out talks on improving the development process. When it does come to technical talks, I personally gravitate toward talks that look a little academic in the conference program, since “less dense and more personal” than an academic paper is a trade-off I’ll happily make.
But the real value of conferences is almost entirely derived from one-on-one conversations with fellow developers in a setting that encourages ambition.
The technical demands of our profession trap too many of us in short-term feedback loops: “This technical thing was frustrating,” “This technical thing makes that a little better but introduces this other complication…” and so on throughout the day, week and month. We cannot avoid all such turbulence, but by sharing our experiences, we can affirm that we’re not crazy and that other smart people (and not just loons on the Internet) share our skepticism.
Even more importantly, I’ve never been to a software development conference where I was not impressed and inspired by the intelligence and spirit of my fellow programmers. We all got into this business because we became enchanted by the power of programming—the ability to compose complex behavior by precise specifications of its component steps. It’s important that we rediscover that wonder every once in awhile, and conferences are the best places to do that.
Larry O’Brien is a technology consultant, analyst and writer. Read his blog at www.knowing.net.