Christian Heilmann

⚡️Developer Relations revelations: Conferences are a lot of work

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018 at 10:08 am

This is part of a series of posts about the life as a DevRel person and how not all is unicorns and roses. You can read the introduction and the other parts of the series here.

So, today, let’s talk about conferences and attending them as a DevRel person.

Lanyards on my door

As an attendee conferences are amazing. You watch great talks, you can vote with your feet which ones to support. You can network and meet like-minded people. And – at good conferences – you have enough to eat, drink and you even might catch a cool party. It is a great way to get out of the office, be proud of your work or get inspired to do better. It is a welcome distraction from the daily grind and thus you love putting a lot of time into it.

Conferences for DevRel folk aren’t time-out – at all

As a DevRel person, conferences aren’t a distraction. They are part of your job. Whilst other people put extra effort in to enjoy them the fullest, you need to make sure you pace yourself not to burn out. Having a four hour sleep following an after-party is a lot less fun when you have to be on stage next morning or run a booth.

As a DevRel person conferences means 100% work. Of course, you might give a talk or workshop – I will cover that in the next post. You also might have booth duty. And even if that’s not the case, your job is to represent your company and to keep your eyes open for opportunities.

These could be

  • Covering the conference on social media. It is a nice thing to do for the conference organisers and it is a great idea to be part of the buzz
  • Conversations with influencers.
  • Talking to interesting company representatives to get workshop or collaboration opportunites.
  • Watching a talk by a colleague or friend to give them feedback.
  • Checking what the competiton is doing .
  • Eavesdropping on conversations and what currently makes your audience tick.
  • Taking notes and photos and collecting leads to add to your conference report
  • Talking shop with peers and competitors.
  • Shooting videos with interesting people
  • Showing demos on your computer
  • Helping people with problems with your products on their computers
  • Explaining people how to play with your systems
  • Dis-spell myths about your products or your competitors’
  • Give out swag and collect cool swag from others to add to your laptop

This all takes time, and effort, and a lot of concentration. You don’t sit back and enjoy the show – you are reporting on it and are part of it.

Here’s the thing: you get paid to be there. So you need to make it count for the people who sent you and make it measurable.

And that can be exhausting. It is especially exhausting when you don’t want to come across as pushy and on the clock, but be an attendee instead.

Loose lips cause Twitter Drama

Conferences are a chance for attendees to let their hair down and have fun with like-minded peers. Of course, the same can apply to you and it makes sense to be part of the fun crowd. But, whatever you say and how you behave is very much on the record. You’re not at an event – you are in the limelight.

Again: as a DevRel person at an event you are never off the record.

And the record spans much further than the event you are currently at. The bigger and more important your company is, the better headlines any of your mistakes make. We love to throw dirt at successful companies and people – that’s what all gossip magazines are about. And tech magazines beholden to clicks as revenue are not far from those.

A glib remark, a tasteless joke, some banter about your competition – easy to do at an event. And fun to do – everyone does it. But you aren’t everyone and you are not a stand-up comedian who succeeds with witty public outrage.

Fact is, as a person working at the event, you can not be part of indiscretions like that. It probably is even up to you to call these things out – in person, right at the event.

The reason – aside from the obvious – is that as a DevRel person of a hot company or product people repeat what you say. A lot of people are far too enthusiastic to do so. And what happens is that context gets lost. What was good natured fun at an event or a joke on your slides can turn nasty on Twitter for weeks after. You will be misquoted as attacking a competitor. You will come across as badmouthing your company. In a time where tech news outlets get away with quoting tweets quoting you as a source, that can last for years. Every time I am quoted as a “Microsoft engineer on Twitter” I get a small freak-out.

You have to watch how you behave and what you say as how you come across reflects on your company. And context does not protect you.

A classic trick interviewers love to do is an agreement trap. They trying to get you to agree with them when they say something bad or unproven about your competition. You need to be on your toes to not agree. Instead be adamant explaining that you don’t know about this and have nothing to add.

You do represent your company – for better or worse

People also love to bait you to get information that is speculation about your company. They bring up things your company has done in the past or does in departments far away from your influence.

They ask for very simple, true-ish, statements. Statements that make great soundbites. You need to be on your guard to deflect these arguments and not fall into the trap of being recorded as making assumptions. This would mean colleagues of yours will not only have to deal with accusations. They will have to deal with accusations backed up by a company representative. It is very tempting to shut aggressive people up my telling them what they want to hear. But there are consequences. As a DevRel person it is not uncommon that you have to prove the worth of your position to the company every few months. This won’t help.

You need downtime – but it is hard to come by

These things get a lot trickier when you are jetlagged, sleep-deprived, hung over, dehydrated and your head is full of a dozen things you need to cover at the event. Whilst not all these factors should ever be a thing, a mix and match is not uncommon, depending on your outreach strategy.

Be aware that as soon as you are visible, you will have people come to you and ask for your attention. This is a great thing, but it also needs moderation. You need to take breaks to stay lucent and helpful to people’s needs, and you can’t do that for a whole event. You also need a lot of patience as people are prone to asking you the same questions dozens of times at the same event.

Skipping talks

I’d love to see every talk I am also interested in at events, but I am not a conference participant – I am part of it. It also can get weird. Often I sit in a talk I am interested in, but I can’t see it. As people see me as an expert they keep asking me during the talk if I agree with the current points. Often points that are beyond my grasp or I heard for the first time. As a DevRel person you’re a source of confirmation for people. This is not the time to learn. You are better off watching the talk recording later. Unless, of course, the presenter is a someone you want to support or a competitor you need to watch.

I started to use talks as a chance to go back to my hotel room or a quiet room (if the conference offers those – PLEASE DO!). I fall flat on my face, groan a bit and maybe take a 15 minute power nap. I also do other things like answering emails that would otherwise pile up. I change the shirt that is not too comfortable after my talk or shows sweat stains. In any case, I try to do nothing at all and have a quiet room without people for a while to find my Zen again. You need to do this, too. It’s basic work practice and even factory workers have breaks defined by law – take yours.

When you skip some talks and go out you can come back in the breaks to network much more refreshed.

Creature comforts – drinks and food

It is quite tough to feed a herd of humans with things everyone is happy with and can consume. Especially without breaking the budget of your event. Catering is hard and expensive. I applaud every conference organiser that gets it done even half-arsed. I have massive respect for the people serving food and making sure everything stays in order.

That said, if you work on conferences, things get tricky. Lunchbreaks are a great opportunity to start chats and talk to people. Yet, talking whilst eating is tough. If the conference provides access to food before the mad rush, take advantage of that. Have a bit of food beforehand and work the room with a drink later on instead. That way you can talk to people having their break without covering yourself and them in crumbs.

Alcohol, of course, is a tricky subject. Know your limits, or just don’t drink. I learned that a glass of water with ice cubes and a lime works. You can carry it like a cocktail and it gets you in with the drinking crowd without all the ill effects and deflects peer pressure. But hey, up to you, just remember what I wrote earlier about being on the record.

It is in any case a great idea to try to live a tad healthier than people who come to party. I carry nuts and fruit and make sure I use the gym when I can in the evenings and the mornings. It is also a great opportunity to wipe your memory and get into the next day with a fresh start.

The conference end isn’t the end of your work

Once the conference finished, your collation job begins.

  • You collect all unused swag, pack it up and mail it back to the office (or haul it yourself)
  • You write your reports
  • You follow up with leads and type in dozens of emails from business cards
  • You send out information about your talk or workshop to the audience or the attendees.
  • You answer conference demands like your slide deck
  • You collect and sort your receipts for expense reports
  • You answer enthusiastic tweets and emails people sent you – it is not good to keep happy people waiting
  • You remind people you met about your conversations.

All this you need to do this as soon as possible, as the longer you wait, the more you forget. This means you also need to have some energy left for these task.

So, why do it?

Given all this work you may wonder why we bother covering that many events. Well, there are lots of great parts, too. The network you accumulate with peers and conference organisers is worth a lot. Anything to make it easier for you to get invited helps. It also helps your company a lot when they know about lots of different conferences to see which ones make sense to sponsor. And a chance encounter with engineers of a certain company at an event is often a great foot in the door for collaboration. Often I managed to get access to companies that way that sales and marketing people failed to do for years. The peer-to-peer IRL network of engineers and designers is a powerful access point.

In any case, I just wanted to list the needs and demands a dedicated DevRel person has at events. I hope this helps you prepare. I also hope that some people consider this when they tell you – once again – how easy your life is hanging out at events all the time.

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