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Why Conferences?

After my last posting on upcoming conferences that I'll be attending, I heard from several people who asked me about the value of participating in such events. That's a sticky subject. I've participated in conferences for the past 15 years, and I take doing so for granted. But it seems many software professionals have gotten out of the habit of participation, or perhaps never got into the habit in the first place. Conference passes to some of the better-known events are too expensive for most individuals, and many employers have cut back on funds available for conference attendance.

Education is one reason to participate in conferences, but it's perhaps the least important one. Listening to experts describe and demonstrate new techniques can be useful, but the environment isn't often ideal for deep comprehension and note-taking. The best I've been able to say about the educational opportunities of conferences is that I've been exposed to things I hadn't done before, rather than learning something that builds on my current expertise.

Meeting both experts and other attendees in both formal and informal situations is a much better reason. This is one of the key ways you build your professional network. How important is that? It gives you contact with people you can turn to when you need help with a specific technical problem, or job references, or career advice. And it provides you with a sense of community, in that you are a part of something larger and more complete than your small corner of the professional universe.

It's been my experience that Microsoft technology events tend to draw more people, and more enthusiasm, than Java events. My thoughts on that are that Microsoft has managed to create more of a community around its users. And perhaps that is where Java is losing out the most. It's easy to conclude that working on Java development, testing, or administration is just another job, but the industry is too diverse and fast-moving to create a traditional kind of career. Technology in general, and Java in particular, needs a greater level of community and mutual support than it has had to continue its momentum.

Is there any way that you can attend a conference of interest without paying, or at least without paying full price? The answer is yes, although it might cost you in other ways. Consider the following possibilities:

  • Volunteer to work for the conference. Setting up and executing a conference is a complex and detailed undertaking, and conference organizers are usually happy for the help. Volunteers can often get full conference passes.

  • Volunteer to speak at the conference. If you have some expertise, or can tell a compelling implementation story, your knowledge could be valuable to others. Conference speakers get full access to all sessions, and might even have some of their expenses reimbursed. Most conferences do a call for papers on one or more Web sites months before the event. Keep an eye out for these, or contact the conference organizers directly.

  • Pursue a discount through either an educational institution or professional organization. In many cases, conferences will offer special rates to help attendees who are students or who already show their interest for the technical direction supported by the conference.

It might not be apparent from the first conference you attend, but if you make it a point to be a part of the Java community, over time you will benefit in both tangible and intangible ways.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 09/23/2004 at 1:15 PM

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