What is the point of going to a conference?

conference attendeesFor many years, my primary focus was developing software. In the mid 90s, that morphed into developing software for web developers, in particular one of the very earliest CSS editors, Style Master.

For a long time, I knew as much about CSS as almost anyone on earth (Eric Meyer and Bert Bos probably knew more than I did back then).

I wrote parsers and editors for all of CSS2 (Pro tip, be very careful about supporting standards that aren’t final — CSS2 was never finalised and supported features that ended up in other CSS modules often many years later), and I knew all the minutiae of CSS rules and properties and values. I developed a database of hundreds — possibly thousands — of browser CSS bugs, with suggested workarounds (like caniuse​.com, but available in 1996).

Fast forward 20 years and what I really know a lot about now is running great conferences. I say that with humility, and based on a lot of feedback that I believe has been honest and has often included ideas for improvement.

And yet that’s not something I’ve ever written about (which is unusual for me), despite having some very strong opinions about this (which is not at all unusual for me).

So, given we have a big conference coming up in three weeks, I thought I’d write down a thought or two about conferences, in particular addressing the issue, “what is the point of attending a conference?”

I actually remember when we ran our first conferences, around 2004, people asking in particular why anyone would come to a conference about the web, since they were all online and learning and connecting.

I used to talk abut the value of connecting in person, either with someone new, or with people you meet maybe once a year at our conference. Back then, there were few if any meetups, and indeed not many people actually did this web thing, well at least not compared with today.

It was a way to connect with, and share ideas with, and form friendships with people who did what you did. Face to face.

While that need is, up to a point, met in other ways now, there is something about hundreds of people in the one place, being inspired and educated, caffeinated and connected that is special.

But my focus is very much on the content, speakers and ideas. And this is what I think few people really think about in terms of the value of the content of a conference, or at least this is how I think about that value.

When we attend a workshop on a specific topic like “Introductory React” or “Advanced CSS Animation”, we think of ourselves at a certain level of knowledge (I know a fair bit about CSS and animation, I know nothing about React).

We also have a sense of where we want to go over the course of  that day or the days of the class.

It’s about, in Donald Rumsfeld’s famous, often ridiculed but I think valuable formulation, about known unknowns. It’s about realising what we know we don’t know, and filling that specific gap.

That’s not what conferences are for, even though workshops and conferences seemingly often take place hand in hand.

Conferences are (at least in how I program them) about discovering what we don’t know we don’t know — and turning these unknown unknowns into the known unknowns we can then focus on (if we think that is warranted).

Workshops are turn by turn instructions from point A to point B. A conference is perhaps a travel guide, pointing out the things we could do, the ideas we could explore, the places we could go.

Using a conference in this way means we seek out what we don’t know (time and again attendee feedback from our conferences is that it was the speaker who they hadn’t heard of talking about something they didn’t know about that was most valuable).

To me it this serendipity, of the people you meet and the ideas you encounter, that is the  irreplaceable aspect of a conference.

Yes, conferences require a real commitment of time and money. But I honestly feel they are unique and uniquely valuable.

It’s why I love running them, and talking at them, and attending them.

Every conference I’ve ever attended has been of real value. And while that remains true I hope to keep doing them, and speaking at them and attending them.

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