When it comes to tech conferences, the first thing most people think about is the parties.
They might think about networking opportunities or learning experiences, but all too often, these are brushed off as mutual admiration societies and redundant, unoriginal chatter. I've heard every critique imaginable about some of the best-known tech conferences- but are there still valid reasons for shelling out a thousand dollars or more to spend a few days "partying" with your peers?
The greatest thing I've ever gotten out of conferences is friendship - mutually beneficial, educational friendship. And the greatest task a conference organizer can hope to accomplish - swag, parties and panels be damned - is getting the right people into the same set of rooms so those friendships can be formed.
Aside from the pure serendipity of meeting new people (or meeting online friends in real life), I have found that the main benefits of conferences are those I create for myself.
In other words, when I have complained that the content was boring, I am to be blamed for not seeking out content that was interesting or, in a single-track show, for not participating in the conversation and helping to make it more interesting for me and my fellow attendees. When we say that a given show is good for nothing but parties, well, that's a pretty good sign that partying is more of a priority for us than gaining real value. If we say a conference is populated by "the same old douchebags," as one person recently said to me, then perhaps we're not taking the time to socialize and network outside our zone of comfort and familiarity.
To be blunt, bad attendees make bad conferences. An engaged, interesting and curious person can go to the exact same show and, in most cases, can derive huge benefits from it though a little effort and a lot of great attitude. There's no show too big, too small, too boring for that person to not be able to learn something from it.
What do you think? Have you ever been to a truly, in-and-of-itself bad conference? Would a shift in your own focus have helped? How would you characterize the best conferences of your career to date? Let us know your opinions in the comments.