While attending the National BDPA Technology Conference can be a lot of fun it is also a professionally rewarding experience. The two main reasons to attend a conference are to hear presentations and to network with other professionals.
Listening to presentations will inform you of what others are doing (sometimes more clearly than the paper, and in any event with a slightly different spin and the ability to ask questions), will inspire ideas of your own, and will expose you to different styles of presentation. (You may see examples of both excellent and terrible talks.)
As your career advances, you'll learn that even though listening to the talks is extremely valuable, hallway conversations can be even more fruitful. Do everything you can to cultivate such conversations: that is one of your chief jobs at the conference. (But don't be annoyed if it takes a little while, or a few conferences, before the task becomes easy.)
You should also tell others about your experience. Think about how to frame your work to convey how interesting it is. This is an important skill not just for a conference but in general. Plan your pitch, practice it with your friends, and then further refine it through interactions at the conference. (Beware the trap of knowing your work so well that it doesn't sound interesting, or that you can't tease apart the interesting big issues from the details! I always return from a conference more excited about my career than when I left: it had become stale to me, but the excitement and admiration of others upon hearing of it reminded me how good it actually is.) Remember to talk first about the responsibilities of your job, and only then about the techniques you are using. You have to convince others that the work is worth hearing about before they are willing to listen to the technical details.
You'll learn a lot from talking about your work, seeing what confuses people and receiving their ideas and suggestions. Remember that no one likes to be in a conversation in which they only listen. You need to always tell people about your work, but also be sure to ask others about their work (even doing so first). You'll also learn a lot by listening and by asking questions. Keep an open mind, and try to deeply understand others.
Here are some ways to meet people at a conference. They are particularly useful for those who are shy or who are just entering the NBDPA community.
- If someone gave a talk, then introduce yourself and ask a thoughtful question about some issue that you are curious about or found interesting.
- Use a mutual acquaintance. It is easier to walk up to a group if you already know one of them. Making some contacts early on eases meeting people during the rest of the conference. Even just listening can help you learn. If there is something that confuses you, ask (or at the very least write down the question to ask your friends later — but typically you should just ask).
- Use others in your group to make introductions. It is not acceptable to hang out just with other people from your own chapter or company. It is your responsibility to talk with people from other companies. A good rule of thumb is not to join a group if that would make it half or close colleagues of yours. Another rule of thumb is that it's fine to travel in pairs — have a buddy to help you meet others — but not to hunt in larger packs. It's fine to check in with people from your group once in a while — to take a break from being social, to learn about someone you really ought to meet, etc. But use such time to recharge, not as your standard mode at the conference.
- Talk with people at meals. Show up early to get breakfast and especially to schmooze. Going out for dinners is good, too. At lunch, meet everyone at your table, find out what they are doing, and tell them what you are doing. At conference lunches, I often sit at a random table with people I don't know, which has led to valuable new contacts.
- Being a volunteer at a conference is a great way to network. As a secondary benefit, it also stretches your funding. It does require you to spend time on tasks such as checking participants' badges, staffing registration and information tables, etc., and to go to all the volunteer meetings. You should try hard to get jobs that won't interfere with the conference — the best jobs are checking participants' badges outside the sessions that you want to attend, since once the talks start, you can slip inside and listen to them.
- If there's someone on your "hit list” of people you want to talk with at the conference, just go up to that person and join or start a conversation.
- Help others: make introductions and tell others of related work or people they should talk to. Not only is this the right thing to do, but others will remember and will do the same for you.