Just to break the habit of a weekend, I’m writing this on the East Coast Mainline, on my merry way to a 2 day meeting in Reading of all places. Still, it means I get to bounce off London, which is rarely uneventful and often an expenses paid trip to catch up with a friend or a shop on the way past.

Conferences, then.

One of the few times I’m allowed out of the office is for highly cheap or vendor funded conferences about software products or technologies that are tenuously related to the day job.

I consider these to be a vital part of being an Engineer, it not only keeps you up to date with new products but, far more importantly, gives you an idea of How Other People Do Things. It doesn’t matter how large or small your team is, just reading somebody else’s code, or seeing a task you’re familiar with expressed in another language gives valuable insights that you should be able to apply to your own work (insert link to Always The Critic’s post here).

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of CFML, so I often find myself smiling at how much syntax other people have to write in comparision, but the vast majority of programming problems are completely language agnostic. A reliable message queue is a reliable message queue, but it might have a partricularly sensible implementation. An ORM framework abstracts your SQL regardless of whether it’s written in php, CF or .NET (ptui), but it’s how useful that framework is to solving a particular aspect of your project that’s interesting. Is coding time or individual developer skill more important than runtime performance? It differs from project to project, and there’s no such thing as having too many tools in in your kit (as my groaning tool cupboard will attest..)

Conferences are also a great way to meet other people doing similar things to you. Personal networking isn’t just useful for job hunting, it can be quite fun to debate a technical topic round a small table with a bunch of strangers. Especially if they happen to be invited speakers and are very highly placed in the community.

Clearly not all conferences are born equal, some are great fun and have flawless logistics, whilst others (SQL Bits, I’m glaring at you here) can’t even managed enough lunches for all attendees.

Easily the best I’ve attended has been Scotch on the Rocks, not only have they dragged in speakers from outside the UK like Sean Corfield and Tim Buntel, their ‘fun’ sessions were actually fun and not embarrasingly cringeworthy.

If I were to put together a wish list of things to make a conference great (really good, solid technical content is assumed), it would probably be:

– infinite water and caffeine between every session
– sufficient food that doesn’t need at least 3 arms and a fork to eat whilst browsing the
– interesting vendor stands (go to an ESRI dev conference)
– a conference bag with a shoulder strap (SOTR again)
– a notebook or pad that captures filled up pages and works on your knee (esri)
– a propelling pencil to note with (back to SOTR)

and for extra merit, use actual lecture theatres for the sessions (SQL Bits wins here), not vast hotel halls with stupid tiny uncomfortable seats and screens too far away to read (yaa boo M$), they’re designed for maximum student efficiency.

ahem, end rant..

Having said all that, delegates have a duty to conference organisers as well. For goodness sakes do not come piling into a session 5, 10 or 15 minutes late because you were smoking outside and forgot the time. The speaker is trying to do a difficult job and you wouldn’t like it if they did it to you. also, queue appropriately. An example, at SQL Bits, there were toilets on each floor. Don’t queue past the registration desk and get in the way of that queue, follow the signs to the other toilets upstairs and save yourself the time.

Honestly, it really just goes to show that even though individual geeks are quite bright, they still turn into sheep when a crowd reaches a critical mass.

Hmm, I wonder if you could graph crowd size against collective wisdom and come up with a threshold for when herding occurs and whether individual intelligence makes any difference at all..