First timer’s guide to FOSS conferences

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I’ve been going to FOSS conferences since 2006. My first open source conference was FreedomHEC in Seattle, a little 30-person conference for Linux users to protest Microsoft’s WinHEC. My next open source conference was OSCON, which had over a thousand attendees. They were both very different conferences, and as a college student, I really didn’t know what to expect. Going to your first open source conference can be intimidating, so I’ve complied ten tips for people who are new to the conference circuit.

Rule #1: The Hallway Track Matters Most

Conference talks are great because they teach you new skills or give you ideas. However, what conference talks are really for is giving you additional topics of conversation to chat with your fellow conference goers with. Hanging out after a talk ends to chat with the speaker is a great way to connect with speakers or fellow attendees that are passionate about a particular subject.

Why do I downplay conference talks? Because it’s really the networking at a conference that matters. The “hallway track” is where you’ll talk to fellow open source contributors, find your next job, or get excited about a new project. If you were only here for the talks, you would save yourself the travel expenses and sit in bed watching the livestream of the talks. So your first focus should be on the people at the conference.

There’s a lot of ways to maximize the networking you do. One small trick is to make sure you have a pen and physical paper cards. Moo cards are great, because you can add pictures to the front of the card. Maybe you want to add a picture of your latest circuit layout. Or travel pictures, so you can have an additional conversation starter. However, I would avoid putting a picture of yourself in a business suit on the front. I’ve seen one card that used that trick, and while it was great for identifying the person I talked to, it felt really pretentious.

When you receive someone’s business card, write down the reason you need to get a hold of them on the card, and any identifying information you need to remember who they are. You’ll thank yourself two weeks later when you recover from con fatigue and find a stack of forgotten business cards. I’ve tried using digital barcodes on my phone to redirect people to a business card page on my blog, but it takes too long for people to fiddle with their phones and it feels really awkward. Paper cards are old school, but they work best. I’ve also seen some hardware hackers print circuit board business cards. Those are really neat and memorable, but cost more and don’t allow people to write on them.

To optimize your networking, follow the one to many rule. If you mostly hang out with groups of people you know, you won’t end up making many new contacts. What you really want to find is a group of people that has one or two people you know, who can introduce you around. If you’re already in a group, face your body slightly outwards and a bit away from the person next to you, leaving the group open to new members.

If you don’t know anyone, you can stand around the coffee/snack/water table and drink/eat while you see if there are interesting conversations you can insert yourself into. Moving into a group of chairs and asking someone nearby if the chair is taken can be a good way to try and start a conversation about how the conference is going. If you find out someone is a speaker, you have an automatic topic of conversation later when you ask them how their talk went. Approaching a stranger with the question, “I love that sticker on your laptop, where did you get it?” is always a good way to get someone to talk about something they’re passionate about.

Rule #2: It’s OK to Skip a Session

Maybe you’re having an awesome conversation. Maybe you skipped lunch and you desperately need food. Or you’re speaking later in the day and you want to go over your slides one more time. It’s fine to skip a session. I promise you won’t miss out on much.

Rule #3: Triple Conflict Sessions Are Common

Conference schedules are a feast or famine affair. There’s usually at least two sessions where I’m not interested in any of the talks, and two more sessions where there are three talks I want to attend. Scheduling is the bane of conference organizer’s existence (it’s an NP complete problem!) so cut them some slack.

When I am triple booked, I’ll go to the talk on a subject I’m least familiar about. Conferences are a place to learn, and a place to network with experts, so it’s better to go to a talk on a new topic you’re interested in. The only exception I make with this rule is if the triple booked session is in the late afternoon. At that point, my brain is full of new knowledge, and it’s better if I watch the new topic talk as a video later.

Rule #4: Care and Feeding of Introverts

Most conferences start around 9am or 10am, include a break for lunch (either provided by the conference, or on your own at local restaurants), continue until 5pm or 6pm, and then have evening events from 7pm until around 10pm or 11pm. A lot of conference goers then go drink and chat until the wee hours of the morning.

I know a lot of geeks who don’t attend big parties at home, but get all their socialization in during the conference season. It can be exhausting as an introvert to attend a conference. It’s not just that there’s a whole lot of people, it’s that there’s a whole lot of strangers, and that can trigger social anxiety.

If you’re an introvert (like me), there’s a couple of different ways you can take care of yourself. Personally, my social batteries get pretty low around mid-afternoon. If I don’t recharge, I know I’ll be a untalkative zombie during the evening social events. Every day, when I’m planning out my conference schedule, I deliberately pick one uninteresting afternoon session to go back to my hotel room and take a nap. If my hotel room is too far, I carry a headband to cover my eyes and unabashedly take a nap on a conference bench. Those naps have seriously saved my life.

Evening events are always a game of chance for me. As an introvert, the best evening events for me are ones that center around an activity. Some of my favorite evening events at conferences have been bowling, wandering around a museum, playing arcade games and DDR, going for a boat ride, and playing board games. My least favorite conference evening events are the booze-filled bar crawls. When my anxiety at being crushed in a giant crowd of strangers is coupled with a throng of drunk dude-bros that are shouting at each other over the loud music, I last about an hour before I flee. It’s perfectly fine to retreat back to your hotel room. It’s also acceptable to find fun people to flee with, or even arrange to meet said fun people elsewhere and avoid the crowds.

Rule #5: Care and Feeding. Period.

When I first started going to conference, I wanted to see all the talks, talk to all the people, and do all the events. However, a lot of conferences don’t allow enough time at lunch to get food from restaurants. If you want to make the sessions before and after lunch, that typically means eating some crappy food at the convention center, and rushing off without talking to people. Rule #1 applies, so what you really want to do is be at peace with coming late into the afternoon talks, and wander off with some interesting people to chat over a leisurely, healthier lunch.

I’m not going to lie, a lot of people at conferences drink at evening events. Some of them don’t, and honestly, some of the most fun I’ve had has been hanging out and bonding with other non-drinkers. Many geeks don’t drink all that much at home, but tend to throw back A LOT of drinks when they’re paid for out of some start up or big company’s budget instead of their own pocket. If you don’t feel comfortable in that situation, make sure you come with a buddy or another non-drinker.

If you do drink, take care of yourself. Drink water, take some vitamins, and have a plan for getting back to your hotel in a foreign city. Due to past experience with the morning after impacts of heavy drinking, I always pack an extra pair of jeans. They add weight to your suitcase, but having an additional pair of pants is better than washing vomit out of your only pair of pants and then ironing them dry before you rush off to your flight. Did I mention I don’t drink much any more?

The morning after evening events are brutal. Not gonna lie, I’ve never made breakfast plans at a conference. I do often find people to eat with in the hotel breakfast buffet, but I never make firm plans because I don’t know how long I need to sleep. Sometimes I skip the hotel breakfast and just head straight to the conference. On those days, I’m really glad I packed myself breakfast bars.

Basically, you need to be a soccer mom to yourself. Pack yourself a water bottle and food, and maybe some fruit snacks and animal crackers. 😉

Rule #6: Trust the Whisper Network

Conferences are full of people who are interesting, and occasionally house people who are known harassers. As a newcomer to a conference, you’re likely to be targeted because you don’t know who those harassers are. Trust your gut if something feels off. Recognize when someone is trying to isolate you, test your boundaries, or ply you with alcohol. Know whether your conference has a Code of Conduct, and program in the email or phone number of the CoC contact into your phone, along with the local police non-emergency numbers. Figure out how to identify conference organizers, and make friends with minorities and women who have been to the conference in the past. It’s likely they will know who you should avoid, even if they can’t publicly talk about it because they might get sued for libel.

Rule #7: Know Your Conference Perks

Did you know that most conferences have a travel budget? That’s right, if you’re a speaker or a student or a member of an underrepresented group in open source, you may be able to get your conference travel paid for. Organizers will usually pay for conference fees, sometimes pay for airfare (it may be harder to get them to pay for international travel), and may pay for hotel and hood. If you’re a well-recognized speaker who has been invited to give a talk or keynote, organizers may also pay you a stipend (the amount of which is usually negotiable).

Some (but not many) conferences have consuites where any attendee can get free food. Others provide lunch. Some conferences have evening events with free food. If you’re a speaker, find the speaker’s lounge, which usually has coffee and cookies and other interesting speakers to talk to.

Rule #8: Swag is a Double-edged Sword

Do you really need another beer bottle opener? Are you willing to lug home a dozen t-shirts that don’t fit? When someone asks what that sticker is on your laptop, will you lose geek cred because you slapped some company’s brand on your property without actually using their product?

The downside of all that free stuff is that it’s actually a ploy to provide companies with your contact information. A new trick for conferences is to include a bar code on the badge with your personal information on it. Booth wranglers will scan your badge, and do whatever they want with that information. Give it to recruiters, sign you up for their email lists, or even give that information to third parties. Do you know what’s on your badge bar code? Could a stalker glean information like your phone number and zip code from it? You can always choose to take a pen to the bar code, and booth people should still give you all the freebies and manually sign you up for entry into any giveaways.

Rule #9: Follow up

You’ve met a bunch of awesome people, gathered a stack of business cards, and gotten in contact with recruiters at a fascinating new company. After the conference is over, it’s time to follow up. It’s best to wait at least a couple days, so that people traveling can get back home and start shoveling through their overflowing inboxes. Waiting more than two weeks is probably not the best practice for most conference contacts, but that may be an appropriate amount of time if you’re following up with someone you have given your resume to.

Rule #10: Project Passion Explosion

Conferences are a slew of new ideas. You’re likely to be introduced to a whole bunch of new projects and interesting people. The best conferences are the ones where you feel like your brain is on fire with all the new projects you want to do. However, be reasonable about your time commitments. Don’t try to start more than one project after a convention. Wait a week or two and see if you’re still passionate about the project before you start on it. Unless it’s a time machine. Please start on that right away, because every conference goer needs one.

8 thoughts on “First timer’s guide to FOSS conferences

  1. Outstanding list, Sarah, and thanks for writing this. I have to say that at SCALE, scheduling talks that don’t conflict is a Sisyphean endeavor — I don’t think any show gets it exactly right (and I apologize for that). Also, you got it right by making “hallway tracks” first.

    Your keynote Sunday was great. Thanks for that, too.

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  3. Pingback: First timer’s guide to FOSS conferences |

  4. Also as an introvert I find it much harder to actually talk to someone in the hallway track if I am hungry or dehyrdated. You won’t learn as much in a conference session either. Yeah conferences should not be all loud areas in the evening. The quiet room part of the game night is really comfortable in this regard.

  5. I totally agree with the importance of the Hallway Track. I’ve met many of my current friends “by accident” navigating the halls of tech events.

    I also found myself nodding in response to your statements about sleep. As a fellow introvert, I find myself drained after hours of interpersonal contact at conferences, especially after I give a talk. I am no longer ashamed to retreat to my hotel room for a couple of hours to nap during a conference because everyone benefits from a well rested introvert!

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