Going to a conference? Don’t waste your time

If I could go back in time I would have ample opportunity to fix some mistakes (but I would be scared to do so, else who knows what butterfly side effects there would be!) One general change I would make is how I spend time before, during, and after a conference that I went to.

I wasted a lot of time at conferences. It isn’t that they were a waste of time at all, but I could have gotten a lot more out of them if I handled things differently.

The biggest mistake I would make is how I thought of a “talk”. I would often sit there and take notes. Maybe I would blog about the talk. If you asked me anything about those talks today though, have I retained much? I doubt it.

I think you should look at these talks as inspiration to explore. I would now focus on really listening, and taking the odd note on topics that I want to go deeper on later. Later on I would then elaborate on these notes, create some tasks to explore, and maybe put some questions and answers into my spaced repetition system for anything that I actually want to retain and consolidate from short term to durable long term memory.

As you weed through the content, when there is something of interest expect to really put in some time to dig!

The same can be said for time outside of the presentations. The hallway track has always been an important one for me at conferences as I learn so much for talking to other practitioners about the craft. There is so much value in going deep on a topic and comparing experiences. Once again though, when something potentially fruitful comes about, make sure to note it and revisit later to go deep on.

Present to retain

I have given a few presentations in my time (in the thousands at this point) and I feel a bit bad about them now. Some of the high level “keynote” style ones with Ben were very much in the “inspiration” style. I am proud of some of those, especially one talk that we both knew so well that we had a period of delivery where a randomizer would BEEP, and the person who hadn’t been talking had to instantly take over, even if mid sentence. It kept us on our toes, made each talk different, and I hope was a bit of fun for the crowd?

I am cheesed off about the talks where I went deep and was trying to really get a lot of concepts across. I wish that I would have structured these differently, to help the group be set to retain. For example, I would get more questions going before the content was delivered to get them thinking, and I would make sure that everyone got to walk away with a series of questions. We vilify “tests” these days as they have been so abused as assessment tools, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water and ignore how amazing they are as learning tools.

On the coding side I should have not just handed out questions, but also unit tests that are all red allowing you to work through them to turn as many green as possible. I have often dreamed about creating a ton of these for popular open source frameworks. I always enjoy finding unit tests as they can be great examples of how to use an API, since that is what they are often doing!


Conferences and presentations are just the beginning. I now think about all of the articles, books, and podcasts that I have consumed but didn’t put the effort in to retain information that I cared too. The research that has been done on learning over the last twenty years makes past truth into myths. Although we are stuck with a paradox where the hard work of real learning doesn’t feel like you are learning as well as the easy work of your short term memory kicking into gear, we have efficient systems that beat rote repetition. I have been excited to see these work, and at least feel good that my kids won’t have to go through brute force time sinks that I did.

As I look at my calendar and see an upcoming conference, I hope to heed my own advice this time around. I will spend some time before hand on what I hope to get out of it: What topics do I want to explore and why? Who do I want to see? And after the fact I will add any knowledge any further investigations into my system to keep building for life long learning.

Have you explored any new learning strategies recently?

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