1. 16

I have never found going to seminars particularly useful for learning anything.

Most of the numerous talks are forgettable. For the few good ones, you can just use youtube as they are almost always uploaded these days.

The talk format itself necessarily means that you can never get too deep. So at best you have a summary. Many of the better talks are authors talking based on their book. So you might as well read the review and/or read the books. Travel also significantly affect your mental ability as you will likely get sub-optimal sleep.

Networking is of course, useful.

Corporations seem to recognise going to seminars and, more importantly, talking at seminars as indicators of ‘progress’. Are seminars, in some way, career-point farms? Many speakers are representing their company. So they are there to give their company presence rather than having anything interesting to say.

Personally I have found the best way to learn is to get good resources (a nice book) and then go through it and/or experiment yourself on training projects.

What have been your approach to conferences and learning in general?

  1. 21

    As you get more senior is more complicated to allocate a whole day/week to learn something. You are always interrupted by a call, a colleague, a client…. When you are on a conference you are isolated from all the distractions. The main reason I am on my current company is that I am allowed to go to 3-4 conferences per year.

    1. 7

      This is the big one for me. If I’m looking at videos of talks online, I’ll typically either:

      • Intend to watch them but never quite get round to it / get interrupted.
      • Pick out a few that I’m most interested in.

      If I go to the conference, not only am I allotting time to watch the talks, but to fill the gaps, I will also go to a number of talks on topics which I wouldn’t normally decide to watch. As a result, I am exposed to new ideas which I didn’t know I was interested in.

      EDIT: Of course the flip side of this is that you have to allocate a significant block of time to travel to and attend a conference, so you’re less likely to attend a conference which is only vaguely relevant to you or only has a few talks which interest you.

      1. 1

        Seconding this. I’ve been attending online conferences since stay-at-home orders went into effect but it’s so much harder to stay focused on a video feed at home compared to an in-person presentation.

        Both the presenter and their audience can benefit, too, if the presenter uses the real-time, live feedback to adjust how they present.

      2. 9
        1. Talks shouldn’t be lectures. Lectures are for drilling ideas into you, it’s depth. Talks are for getting you interested in the topic in the first place, it’s breadth. Talks might also get you interested in the people giving the talks.
        2. It’s true, if you wanted to get an overview of the topic, it’s basically enough to look at e.g. youtube, reviews of books, or (my preference) the author’s blogs. But without attending the conference, would you even care to do that research in the first place?
        3. Conferences are a lot more than just talks. Like you said: networking. Maybe you wanted to connect with someone whose blog you follow, or have a chance to meet an eminent researcher in your field, or maybe you’d like to make friends who have the same interests as you. (This last one is important for me.)
        4. Attending a conference tells me that you’re probably very invested in whatever it’s about. After all you’ve travelled and accepted sub-optimal sleep for it. Yes, it’s signalling.
        5. If you’re looking for depth, then a nice book or a project is great. If you wanted to expand your horizons then conferences are great. If conferences aren’t doing that for you, you’re going to the wrong conferences.
        1. 1

          A corollary to point #1 from MJD’s “Conference Presentation Judo” is that a good presenter should take advantage of this to cover more material. If you’re a lecturer teaching a class where everyone is expected to pass a test, you have to aim for something like the 25th percentile of learning rate to make sure they really absorb. But as a conference presenter, you can aim closer to the 75th. Most people are just going to take away a few points anyway, and hopefully get interested in the topic. By covering more ground, you can provide more diversity and maybe interest more people.

        2. 6

          I learn things outside of the talks at conferences. Talking with speakers or other attendees is awesome to discover ideas or topics to look into.

          1. 4

            I take notes and usually turn those into some summary of my favorite talks. I find conferences good for expanding your horizons, ie finding the next area to get into deeper.

            1. 3

              Honestly one of the main appeals to conferences for me is getting a chance to see friends who I normally don’t see outside of conferences.

              1. 2

                I agree. I think conferences sometimes are good to find developers, jobs, people, with similar intrests and thus are basically networking events. Of course this depends on the particular conference, but for big language conferences, especially for newer languages, or new technologies, think cloud, kubernetes, docker, etc. this seems to be particularly true. Of course if you go to conferences that are by a company about their product or project one has to expect marketing talks one pays for, even when they are covering it up somehow. In any case the the goal of many talks is to say “Hey, this exists” or “I’m interested in this. Talk to me after, if you are too”..

                For learning I’d suggest things like reading code (standard libraries, reference implementations, etc) or actually using technologies for something that’s as close to real/production usage as possible. It can also be interesting to review code, setups, etc. of a less experienced you.

                If you really want to learn something that you deal with an exercise with is building things from scratch. I know there is the notion of “not reinventing the wheel”, but for learning and understanding thing, understanding why things are the way they are, why something is implemented in a particular way, it’s very helpful.

                And try to avoid looking for solutions early on. Try to avoid Stack Overflow, try to use or simply copy other people’s library. Later you can compare it what some good implementation did and maybe even try to figure out why it’s different. Again, Standard Libraries, if you can. And don’t be fooled by thinking something with many stars, upvotes, etc. means that something is a proper implementation or good quality code. But that’s a general rule.

                Last, but not least: Dare to try stuff and fail, to really get learning. We live in a time of instant gratification. That’s often counter-productive for learning, especially completely new things. You don’t get those from reading code, reading documentation, failing at first try. But try to implement some RFC, Paper or Spec of some protocol or something that you have no clue about where to even start. At least these have been the most insightful learning phases to me.

                And don’t be scared that implementing something that nobody uses or nobody uses anymore is somehow a loss. Not being driven to finishing some kind of product for some actual or imaginary customer (and be it GitHub users) tends to put you into a position where you actually can learn things.

                I am not sure about putting code that was created that way out there. On one side it can result in feedback, but it can easily turn into something that feels like a job, where you want to take shortcuts to simply have things done. This can be counter-productive.

                As for books: Try to get books by the authors of the thing you want to learn about. If there is an official manual or something use that. Sadly there is a huge amount of books out there that are bad. This has a bit to do with everyone trying to be the first to get a book about something new out. Therefor companies just write to everyone who writes a blog post, uploads a YouTube video or has a project using a technology on GitHub. Son in short: Put at least some effort into researching on a book, maybe ask about it the project’s community.

                These are all of course just personal experiences.

                1. 2

                  I can’t answer for you, but looking back on my own career, I should have read more books and I should have gone to more conferences.

                  I should have read more books so that I could have learned more cool stuff. There is nothing in this world like the experience of getting inside an author’s head while reading a long-form book, technical or not. It not only teaches you about the tech, more importantly it teaches you how the author thinks about the tech. That’s arguably much more important.

                  Conferences are a complete waste of time from a learning standpoint. They’re actually worse than a waste of time, as they primarily exist as a weird version of professional marketing. You get in, you get a pitch, you feel excited, you leave. It’s like a weekend time-share seminar, you know, where you are promised the free toaster. The overwhelming danger is that you’ll get caught up in the emotional feeling of the crowd and think you’ve actually learned much more than you have. But it’s fun. :) It’s also the only way for many of us to do a “cross-check”, look around us horizontally in our industry and put a critical eye on where it’s headed. More importantly, conferences exist for a good reason. They are quite effective marketing exercises. I don’t know of anybody who is popular in the conference crowd of various industries who ever worries about an employer or contract.

                  The jury is still out with me regarding videos. I want to believe they have this huge educational value, but as somebody who has looked into video production and who has closely watched his video stats on YouTube and other sites, videos are like chewing gum for people. They’re in and out in a few minutes and I seriously doubt a hour later anybody remembers anything of value from them aside from how cool X, Y, or Z might be.

                  Your mileage will vary on all of this. Good luck!

                  1. 2

                    I very rarely learn things from talks. Andy Pavlo’s DB lectures are a very notable exception that have taught me a ton. But I often learn what I want to learn from talks, then I go off and drill-in on my own to actually learn about it. I also enjoy gauging how other people prioritize various topics while speaking to people at conferences. But over time I watch fewer and fewer talks and just spend more of my time hanging out with people in the hallways.

                    1. 2

                      I suppose it depends on the conference, but I personally wouldn’t expect to learn anything in depth at one. I watch the talks to see, at a high level, what other people are working on and how they’re solving specific problems. Even if it’s not directly applicable to my work, the increased breadth of knowledge is valuable to me.

                      I can always follow up afterwards if I want more details.

                      1. 2

                        I think there’s a big difference between community conferences and those put on by a vendor.

                        Vendor conferences usually feel like an extended infomercial and the whole audience is kinda just waiting for the open bar at the end. That’s fine if someone else will pay for it (generally if your employer is a big enough customer it will be comped), but I would think really hard before I dropped $2-5k of my own money (plus travel) in to it.

                        Like universities, the for-profits have better production values and advertising but aren’t really there to serve your personal interests.

                        1. 1

                          I’ve been to a bunch of conferences, many good, but only a few I consider really good.

                          In a really good conference, I find myself with the following pattern:

                          • Attend a not-too popular talk (I have crowd issues, so I self-extract from anything packed)
                          • Get exposed to something interesting in that talk
                          • Digest that something interesting into actual learning, by skipping talks and talking with people (“hallway track”)
                          • Repeat as much as is feasible (generally not more than once or twice per day)

                          In good conferences, I still attend things, and still talk with people. But the talking is more about the technical issues at my job (or hobby, depending) than about the presented talks. Being able to talk with knowledgeable, interested people who are outside the culture and assumptions of my workplace, is really helpful. And being able to provide that perspective for someone else is very satisfying.

                          1. 1

                            Immersion, Repetition, Deliberate Practice, Competitive Programming, Imitation (Fake it till you make it), Code Katas, Refactoring Katas, Code Golf, Object Calisthenics, Memory Palace Method

                            1. 1

                              I also don’t find most conferences particularly useful for learning. It’s a good way to get exposed to a whole host of new ideas at once, and you can pick a few that sound interesting and get an overview of what it’s about. I personally think it’s more useful at the start of your career, so you can find new things to dive into. But in the end, you can only really learn these things after the conference by reading books, posts and such and toying with the technology.

                              The very best way to learn some technology in a deep way is still to do a serious project with it, because that’s where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. If you write a toy program, it’s all too easy to work around deficiencies in the system you’re using, or even to decide some feature isn’t important. But when a customer demands something, you will be forced to bend the tool to your needs, and that’s when you’ll encounter the type of friction that will tell you how flexible the tool really is.

                              1. 1

                                It’s usually not the talk itself, it’s talking to other people about the talk at the venue. Again there are usually people from different backgrounds, companies, countries, whatever. Talk to enough people and you will learn new things, usually related to the topics of the conference.

                                Also the talk is too shallow to take away a lot 90% of the time, but it will hopefully present a new idea to you in a form that you know just enough where to research on your own from now on, or pique your interest to look into it in the first place.

                                1. 1

                                  IMHO, you shouldn’t treat conferences as an opportunity to learn things the way you’d learn things from a book, or by writing a program. A talk is, what, 30-45 minutes? 60, tops, for really important talks given by invited speakers? That’s barely enough to find out about a thing, let alone learn it. Nobody attends a 60-minute talk about (picking a topic at random:) the BSD virtual memory subsystem and emerges out of the room able to fix even a trivial bug in it.

                                  But (good) talks are inspiring and encouraging in their own way. On the last day of the conference I have a few pages of notes from the really interesting lectures and dozens of new ideas or things to check out.

                                  “Networking” is something that I like to call the brainwashed cousin of socializing. (Good) conferences are attended by a lot of smart people, from diverse backgrounds and with diverse interests. You rarely get a chance to talk about interesting things and to so many people in a single place. It’s a shame to waste that on corporate chit-chat and exchanging cards and Linkedin accounts on the off-chance that you might end up working in the same place.

                                  Of course, there are plenty of conferences that don’t have a purpose besides that – they’re really meant just for posturing, marketing and networking. If you are, or want to be, in a management or executive role, yeah, it’s part of your job. If not… I guess they’re a good distraction at times?

                                  As for this one:

                                  Corporations seem to recognise going to seminars and, more importantly, talking at seminars as indicators of ‘progress’. Are seminars, in some way, career-point farms? Many speakers are representing their company. So they are there to give their company presence rather than having anything interesting to say.

                                  Yes, absolutely, and yes, but not necessarily as a general rule.

                                  I know people who have been hired solely because the parent company wanted someone to send to conferences. Not all of them are bad programmers, although some of them definitely are, and one of them hasn’t written any code in ten years (but retains the “Senior Engineer” title because talks given by “Tech Evangelists” are far less trustworthy today than they were ten years ago).

                                  It’s also a perk that’s easy to hand over to ambitious young engineers, so it’s inherently a sign of progress. And it’s convenient for the companies, too, because in exchange for a modest yearly expense – far less than that incurred by a proper raise + the ensuing bonus – they not only get to pat an employee on the back for “being a valuable asset this last year”, but they also get some promotional activity.

                                  It’s also a sign of progress at every level. If you’re a business unit manager, you get bonus points for exposure. If you’re a product manager, you get bonus points because you developed a product so amazing that it resulted in X conference talks. And, of course, if you’re – to use the corporate jargon – “just an employee”, you get bonus points because you were up on the stage and contributed to your employer’s branding and image as thought leaders in their field and whatever.

                                  However, this is not the universal rule. Plenty of companies have plenty of smart people and well-ran departments. The same company can have both. If the folks at the top of the food chain are any good, they only send smart people from the well-ran departments to conferences, but that’s not always the case. Like everything in the corporate world, it’s a mixed bag, and the logo on it is never a good indication of what’s inside.

                                  1. 1

                                    I learn more from conferences than anywhere else – but I learn it in the hallway track or the bar after, talking to the people at the cutting edge of the topic. The talks, I can take or leave.