Last week I had the pleasure of attending the South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference here in Austin, TX. This was the third time I attended the conference and, as normal, I left the conference both inspired and tired (as I should have). During the conference I read a number of tweets questioning the value of attending a conference like SXSWi. One of the people lamented the lack of developer-oriented sessions (SXSWi has a design leaning), another person questioned whether the whole point of SXSWi was to party and get loaded. The answer to the former is yes; there are a lot of sessions that had a ton of value for developers. Two that stood out were “Mistakes I Made Building Netflix for the iPhone” by Kent Brewster and “One Codebase, Endless Possibilities, Real HTML 5 Hacking” by Joe McCann. Each of these sessions were goldmines for developing real-world applications using modern technologies like CSS3 and HTML5. The answer to the latter question was no; SXSWi is not a conference dedicated to just parties and alcohol. A lot of good conversations happen at these shows. It is not a requirement to be intoxicated to have a good time. Which leads me to my point: how do you get the most out of conferences.

The Possibilities

Conferences are really for learning what is possible. Every time I attend a conference I leave with more questions than answers. This is because I like to learn what is possible. I use the speaker's knowledge and insights to illuminate directions and pathways I might not have been able to discover on my own. When I deliver jQuery sessions at conferences, attendees are going to have to do more homework on their own to really get true value. I just try and point them in the right direction.

Seeking Inspiration

A lot of conferences provide sessions that have nothing to do with technology. They provide sessions that serve the purpose of inspiring people. These are generally keynote session. I eat this stuff up. Two of the conferences I attended in the last year, RailsConf 2010 and SXSWi, provided some of the most inspirational sessions I have seen in a long time. At SXSWi, Guy Kawasaki provided a great talk on “Enchantment” while Gary Vaynerchuck gave an excellent keynote on the “Thank You Economy”-each of these keynotes caused me to reflect on my life, my family, my friends, and my business. When you attend conferences, seek out inspiration.

The People

When you attend conferences beware of what you do with your time outside of conference sessions. While the primary purpose of conferences is to spend time in sessions, a lot of the value is generated outside in the halls where real human contact happens. In January, I attended CodeMash in Sandusky, OH. For some reason, I felt that I had more fun at this conference than at a lot of conferences prior. It took me a while to figure out why. You see when I attend conferences I am often buckled down with work between sessions and in the evenings. At CodeMash I spent the majority of my free time in the hallway working and conversing with other developers. This is where I achieved my real value from the show. I learned about a number of cool concepts and technologies. I also made some new friends that I look forward to seeing at future conferences. If you need to work, try and do it in the open space provided at conferences. The conversations and contacts you make might just change your life.

Recharge the Batteries

Each of the points I made above all share a common trait. Each point has something to do with reenergizing yourself. One of the major reasons I like attending conferences is that it gets me out of my overloaded work environment. I am allowed to spend time away from work, I am allowed to relax, I am allowed to learn, and I am allowed to reenergize. If you do anything at conferences, try and really get away and use them to recharge your batteries.