The range of individual experiences at conferences is staggering. Some are selling, some are buying, some are watching, some are talking. However, as an engineer and someone who generally loves classifying and generalizing systems, I have attempted to capture a statement that represents the greatest value a person can get from a conference. Here's what I came up with:
"Am I doing this right?"
Engineers might not be overly-enthusiastic about social media, but despite convention we are social animals. The greatest value from a conference is talking to others: telling them about your work and checking that the work you're doing seems to make sense to others. However, seeking validation does not imply weakness; instead, it shows a willingness to advance in your career and lifelong education.
The people on the other side of this question (and resulting conversation) will be quite varied at conferences. Sometimes it's a vendor and you're validating that you're making the right choice in choosing their product. Sometimes it's a fellow engineer and you're making sure that your test methods make sense by talking over your process. Sometimes it's panel of experts, talking about the future of your industry (slightly less two-way communication, but you're allowed to ask them questions). Sometimes it's a complete stranger, offering an opinion on one of your test methods. And if you're representing a company or vendor, you're talking to potential customers and hope they're telling you what you're doing correctly...with their wallets.
To be sure, many people get new pieces of information while at conferences. You might see some great new components that are available, possibly because they were just released. Or you may sit in a session that teaches you a new method for developing software or hardware. But very few times have I heard of people that go to conferences with no pre-conceptions or know nothing about the subject matter. Instead, we go with ideas and either validate or disprove them once we are there. In fact, if you're going to a conference looking for ideas and have no idea what you're looking for, I would put forward that you're doing it wrong. You need to understand your project needs and have an idea of what is in the marketplace before attending a conference in order to be successful.
At this point, you're asking, "So what? Why is this important to think about?" If you're looking at attending, I think it's useful for planning conferences. The event becomes less of a show and tell for vendors and morphs into a conversation; and I think for engineers this is an ever-increasingly important skill. Your efforts to connect with others in your industry or field pays dividends beyond the bounds of the days the conference occurs. These are people that could help you hash out ideas at a later date (NDAs in mind of course) or work with you outright (perhaps a vendor offers design services).
So what about you? Do you agree with my generalization? Do you see value in conferences? Do you go to talk to others or do you go to attend technical sessions? Perhaps you only attend because you're short on pens? Conversely, are you better served outside of a conference setting entirely? Please let us know in the comments below.
Chris Gammell is an analog engineer and writer from Cleveland, Ohio. His latest project is The Amp Hour, a radio show devoted to electronics.