What I Look for in a Conference – Part 1 – Jes Schultz

We welcomed a wonderful guest blogger to the Bits Blog this week, Jes Schultz, to write about what she looks for in a conference (and most likely what you’ll look for too!)

Take it away, Jes!📣

I love conferences. Yes, I’m an extrovert. But I believe people of all backgrounds benefit from structured learning and networking opportunities, especially being away from their desks for a few days.

There are many technical conferences you could attend today, on a wide range of topics. I will talk you through what I think makes a conference worth going to and Part 2 will cover what I believe makes a conference worth speaking at (So stay tuned!)

I’ve been attending, speaking at, and organizing conferences for well over a decade. I’ve been to small conferences with less than 100 attendees and giant conferences with thousands. When I consider going to a conference, here are a few things I think about to decide if I want to attend or speak.

As an attendee…👩‍💻

I’m an attendee, whether I am speaking or not. Here’s what I’d like to see from a conference.

Let’s get dive straight in… 🤿

The learning opportunities and the sessions offered are so important. I look for a mix of sessions that cover what I’m working on right now, forward-thinking ideas, and professional development. When I’m looking to learn a new skill, a set of sequential sessions in a track is really helpful. I also like less-formal opportunities. Therefore a published schedule with detailed descriptions of the content and the speakers listed is something I will often review.  

Networking opportunities at the conference are a big factor for me. Yes, I can go to a session and learn things from the presenter(s). However, the most valuable conversations I’ve had (and the most connections I’ve made) have been with the people sitting next to me during a session, people I’ve talked to in the hallway before or after, and the people sitting at my lunch table. People don’t go to conferences just to sit in sessions and be talked at – they go to make human connections. I think that conference organizers should have thoughtful ways for people to make those connections, whether that’s a morning coffee klatch, a Birds of a Feather lunch, or an evening social event.

One of the most important considerations for me attending a conference is the diversity of speakers. People of all ages, races, abilities, genders, languages, and countries attend conferences, especially as the conferences get larger. A wide range of people work with the technologies, build them, and help customers with them. They also speak about them. It is annoying when I look at a list of speakers and see a predominately white and predominately male list. This is doubly true when looking at workshop, keynote, and featured (generally, paid) speakers. I know that the topic of building a more diverse pool of speakers, then getting them to speak at specific conferences, is a long-standing discussion with many opinions and no specific solution. But, conference organizers, please work to showcase a diverse set of speakers. It is important for under-represented people to see themselves at the front of the room.

I check the cost of the conference. If I’m speaking, the fee may be waived – but that isn’t true for the majority of attendees. Work may cover part or all of a conference, but that can’t be guaranteed either. I like conferences that have an a la carte menu, where there’s a base price and then you can add on extra days or offerings. Part of the overall cost is travel. When looking at large, multi-day conferences that would require me to travel to another state or country, ease of getting to the location using public transportation is important.

Another thing I check is the conference’s accessibility. I don’t need to take advantage of many of these offerings, but I know they are essential for other attendees. Is the venue accessible for people with physical limitations? Is sign language offered and captions provided on-screen? Is childcare offered for caregivers? Is there a nursing room? Is there a prayer room? Are multiple food options offered? All of these things do matter to people and should be considered and addressed on the conference website.

I’ll see if there’s a hybrid attendance option. We’re still in a pandemic, and even if I think it will be safe to travel when I sign up a couple of months ahead of time, the situation may change. Others may want to attend remotely without even planning travel. A hybrid option significantly opens up learning opportunities for people that can’t take the time away from home or their jobs, that don’t have financial assistance from their company to attend and can’t afford it on their own, and for many other reasons. I hope that hybrid conferences remain and that the experience continues to improve over time.

What do you care about?🤔

I’m one person. Do you have opinions on what matters as an attendee, volunteer, or speaker? Make your voice heard! Make a list of things that are important to you. Research those on the conference website. If you don’t see the information you need to make a decision, or something is lacking, reach out to the organizers.

At SQLBits it means the world to hear people share what they would like to see at our events and what could make their overall experience better (as it would most likely help others too!). If you have any ideas or would like to share your conference must-have list for us to discuss with you, please contact us at contactus@sqlbits.com.

Be sure to look out for Jes’ Part 2 where she covers what she looks for in a conference from the perspective of a speaker!

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