The reason for conferences

People have sometimes asked me if it's really worth it to go to a conference these days, given that so much material is appearing online via blogs, webcasts, online publications and Google. I think the answer is an unqualified "yes" (what else would you expect from a guy who spends a significant part of his life speaking at conferences?), but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

A long time ago, Billy Hollis said something very profound to me: "Newbies go to conferences for the technical sessions. Seasoned veterans go to conferences for the people." At the time, I thought this was Billy's way of saying that the sessions really weren't "all that" at most conferences (JavaOne and TechEd come to mind, for example--whatever scheduling gods that think project managers on a particular project make good technical speakers on that subject really needs to be taken out back and shot), and that you're far better off spending the time networking to improve your social network. Now I think it's for a different reason. By way of explanation, allow me to recount a brief travel anecdote.

I spend a lot of time on airplanes, as you might expect. Periodically, while staring out the window (trying to rearrange words in my head in order to make them sound coherent for the current email, blog entry, book chapter or article), I will see another commercial aircraft traveling in the same air traffic control lane going the other way. Every time I see it, I'm simply floored at how fast they appear to be going--they usually don't stay within my visibility for more than a few seconds. "Whoosh" is the first thought that goes through my easily-amused consciousness, and then, "Damn, they're really moving." Then I realize, "Wow--somebody on that plane over there is probably looking at this plane I'm on, and thinking the exact same thing."

This is why you go to conferences.

In the agile communities, they talk about velocity, the amount of work a team can get done in a particular iteration. But I think teams need to have a sense of their velocity relative to the rest of the industry, too. It helps put things into perspective. All too often, I find teams that look at me in meetings and conference calls and say, "Surely the rest of the industry isn't this bad, right?" or "Surely, somebody else has found a solution to this problem by now, right?" or "Please, dear God, tell me this kind of WTF-style of project management is unique to my company". While I am certainly happy to answer those questions, the fact of the matter is, at the end of the day they're still left taking my word for it, and let's be blunt: my answer can really only cover those companies and/or project teams I've had direct contact with. I can certainly tell you what I've heard from others (usually at conferences), but even that's now getting into secondhand information, which to you will be third-hand. (And that, of course, assumes I'm getting it from the source in the first place.)

This isn't just about project management styles--agile or waterfall or WHISCEY (Why the Hell Isn't Somebody Coding Everything Yet) or what-have-you--but also about technical trends. Is Ruby taking off? Is Scala becoming more mainstream? Is JRuby worth exploring? Is C++ making a comeback? What are peoples' experiences with Spring 2.5? Has Grails reached a solid level of performance and/or stability? Sure, I'm happy to come to your company, meet with your team, talk about what I've seen and heard and done--but sending your developers (and managers, though *ahem* preferably to conferences that aren't in Las Vegas) to a conference like No Fluff Just Stuff or JavaOne or TechEd or SD West can give them some opportunities to swap stories and gain some important insights about your team's (and company's) velocity relative to the rest of the industry.

All of which is to say, yes, Billy was right: it's about the people. Which means, boss, it's OK to let the developers go to the parties and maybe sleep in and miss a session or two the next morning.