The Programmer’s Guide to Networking at a Conference
One of the best reasons to go to a conference is the networking opportunities that are present—if you know how to take advantage of them.
Sometimes the best thing about a conference is everyone you meet in the hallways, not the actual talks or sessions themselves. So much so, that people often refer to this as the “hallway track.”
I've been to quite a few conferences and code camps as a speaker and an attendee, so I've had some time to figure out how to get the most out of each event I attend.
In fact, just this last week I was in Vegas attending Microconf 2015—which was an awesome conference by the way.
With that event fresh in my mind, I thought I'd write up my best advice about how to network at any conference or code camp you attend.
Start networking before the conference starts
One of the best things you can do to really make your conference networking successful is to meet and interact with people before the conference actually starts.
If there is a speaker you'd like to meet, follow them on Twitter and start engaging them a few weeks or more before the conference starts.
I always try to do this with a few speakers that I am interested in and I often will go up to a speaker after a talk and they'll instantly recognize me from seeing my name and face beforehand.
Don't do this with just speakers though. You can also network with other attendees.
Send out a tweet asking if anyone else is going to the conference you are attending. Try and get in touch with some of those people ahead of time and perhaps even suggest a meetup before the event or at the event. It's always nice to know someone ahead of time and meet them at a conference. This is a great way to build instant rapport.
Also, look for a message board or community where conference attendees can interact. The organizers of Microconf, Rob Walling and Mike Taber, set one up for all Microconf attendees and this was a great opportunity to introduce ourselves before the conference started and make some early connections.
(By the way, check out Rob's excellent book, here: Start Small, Stay Small: A Developer's Guide to Launching a Startup, and Mike's here: The Single Founder Handbook.)
Don't go crazy and stress yourself out though.
You can go overboard with this. Try to make a few connections ahead of time, but don't try and make 100. You won't be able to meet with everyone and you'll cheapen the experience if you start making connections to “make connections” instead of because you are genuinely interested in people.
Become a social butterfly
I know you might not be a social butterfly in real life—and that's ok—but, be one at the conference.
Get out of your shell and talk to as many people as possible.
Don't just sit down and have lunch by yourself, join a table and immediately introduce yourself.
When you see someone standing alone, go up to them and introduce yourself.
Guess what? You have something in common with everyone at the conference, because you are all attending the same event, so don't be afraid.
Again, I know this is easier said than done, but if you've already been talking to some people online, this will be easier, and you just have to realize that conferences are usually pretty safe environments for meeting people. Almost everyone else there is going to want to network and meet new people as well, so the chance of you getting blown off when you try to talk to someone is very, very small.
Oh, and if you do?
Big deal! You just move on.
Really. It's that simple. It's not like someone blowing you off is going to ruin your life. Just move on and talk to someone else.
Every time I go to a conference I try to show up a little early, so that I can get situated and then I go and find out where people are hanging out. I try to fill as much of my time as possible talking to as many people as I can.
Once you get into the groove of it, it becomes easier and easier. You just have to force yourself to take the first few steps.
Here are a few tips for being a social butterfly at a conference:
- Show up early and ask on Twitter or other social networks where people are hanging out
- When you sit down at a talk, introduce yourself to people who are around you
- When you sit down for lunch, find a crowded table, not an empty one. Introduce yourself.
- If there are no sessions you are interested in during an hour, go out into the hallway and talk to people instead
- Introduce people you met to each other if you think they have something in common
- Find out about the parties and get-togethers in the evenings and either join or even organize one
- If you see someone standing alone, talk to them
- Share cabs or even hotel rooms
Go up to speakers after talks
I'm amazed by how few people do this.
Sure, sometimes a speaker gets mauled after a talk, but more often than not, only a few people actually go up and talk to a speaker after they give their talk.
You can be one of those people. Just do it.
Start off by congratulating the speaker on the talk they just did and complimenting them on something about the talk, and then briefly introduce yourself, perhaps ask a small question and see if you can catch up with them later.
You don't want to corner a speaker right after a talk because often someone who has just finished talking will have several people around them they feel they need to talk to, to avoid being rude, but you want to take just enough time to introduce yourself so that you can reengage them later, when they have more time.
So, don't be afraid to go up to a speaker after they finished their talk and make that quick introduction. If you see other people standing around, make sure it's quick, and try to be conscious of the social cues that are telling you to shut-up and stop talking.
I personally try to meet each speaker that speaks at a session I attend, and even many speakers whose sessions I didn't attend.
Speaking at a conference or event is one of the best ways to network.
Speakers usually have some kind of speaker's dinner or speaker-only events and usually have some kind of a speaker's only lounge, so there are huge networking benefits to being a speaker yourself.
Now, I realize not everyone can speak at major conferences, but just about anyone can speak at a code camp.
So, it's worth trying to see if you can get an opportunity to speak at any event that you might be planning to attend.
In fact, I almost always speak at any event I attend.
(By the way, here is a great book on public speaking, from one of my favorite authors, Dale Carnegie: Stand and Deliver: How to Become a Masterful Communicator and Public Speaker)
Become a volunteer
If you can't be a speaker, you can almost always be a volunteer.
Events are always looking for volunteers and volunteers usually get special access to the organizers and the speakers.
So, you might want to consider being a volunteer at the next event you attend.
Just email the organizers of the event and tell them you are interested in volunteering. This is a great way to meet the organizers of the event and network with some of the most prestigious people at the conference or event.
Have your elevator pitch down
What is the question everyone is going to ask you when you meet them at a conference?
What do you do?
Well, don't you think you should have a pretty good and concise answer to that question?
Yes, you should.
Think about it ahead of time and rehearse it, so that you know just what to say.
I talk about how to do this in my How to Market Yourself as a Software Developer Course, in the module on building a personal brand.
The key thing is to give something specific that sums up what you do without rambling on.
You want someone to remember you because you clearly indicated what it is that you do, not because you rambled on about all your 15 different hobbies.
The point is: this question will come up, so prepare for it.
Seek to help people and be genuinely interested in them
No one likes someone who is just trying to see what they can get out of them.
So, don't be that kind of guy.
But, how do you network and not come off as someone who is “networking,” you ask?
Simple. Instead of trying to make your goal “networking” and instead of trying to figure out what value someone you are talking to has to offer you, flip it around.
Start off by being genuinely interested in the people you meet. Don't worry about who they are or what they can do for you. Instead, focus on the actual conversation at hand and show a genuine interest in what they are talking about.
You shouldn't have to fake this, if you want more than a superficial network.
Along with that, don't try and get something out of other people, but instead try and give something.
Try to be as helpful as possible and figure out what you can do or provide for people that you meet rather than trying to figure out what they can do for you.
If you adopt this attitude, you will find that the law of reciprocity will take care of you later down the road.
But, don't even worry about that. Just try to be as genuinely helpful and interested in other people as possible and things will go well for you.
Sit in the front and pay attention
Take a seat as close to the speaker as possible and put away your laptop or cell phone or don't even bring them with you.
When the speaker talks, pay attention and nod to show that you are understanding and following what the speaker is saying.
You'll be amazed at how much rapport this can actually build with a speaker.
Just this last week at Microconf, one of the speakers, whose session I attended, came up to me and said “Hey, I noticed you were actually paying attention when I was talking. Lots of people had their laptops out and were typing away, but you were making eye-contact and nodding your head. Thanks for that.”
And this is not the only time this has happened to me.
I built special rapport with my teachers in high school and college by using the same technique.
It wasn't until I became a speaker myself that I understood that this works so well.
When you are speaking to a crowd, you are constantly scanning the room trying to gauge if you are boring people or if they are engaged.
It's very relieving to see a few people who are hanging on every word you are saying and really paying attention. It makes you feel good and you tend to start talking directly to those people.
Often, when I am speaking, I can pick out a few people who are really paying attention and I also notice the ones who are falling asleep or rudely typing away.
Finally, make sure you follow up.
If you met someone at a conference who you'd like to know more or you'd like to build a relationship with, make sure you follow up with them.
I'll often create a list of people I talked with during a conference.
I'll put a star by the name of people who I really hit it off with or who I felt would be really valuable to get to know better.
I usually wait a week or two and then email them, so that I give them some time to get back into the swing of things and catch up with their email before I reach out to them.
But, make sure you do follow up.
Well, that's it.
I'm sure I've left a few things out, but that is the bulk of the advice I have for networking at a conference or other event.
I've found that conferences are really valuable, not because of what you learn, but because of who you meet.
There is something about meeting someone in person that can't be replicated on the internet.
What about you?
Any tips you have that I didn't cover here?