Conferences are Not For Learning
Near Infinity has the most generous training program I've heard of among our competitors, and certainly rivals the best in the industry. Colleagues occasionally ask me for opinions about a conference or training course they're considering. My stock answer for such inquiries has always been to "attend a good training class for depth of understanding on a narrow topic and pick a conference for more broad but shallower knowledge of many areas." I think the training course advice is still accurate, but I was wrong about conferences.
The best conferences aren't about learning at all. They're about inspiration. I finally realized this at RailsConf last week, despite having attended dozens of conferences during the past ten years. Surprisingly, I found most of the topics rather boring, most of the presenters unpolished, and most of the presentations poorly constructed and minimally rehearsed. The things I enjoyed most were the keynotes from Dave Thomas and David Heinemeier Hansson, a performance-related presentation by Aaron Patterson, an entrepreneurial story by Tom Preston-Werner, and a reflection talk by Keavy McMinn on her journey from artist to programmer. Why did I enjoy them? Because they caused me to look at things differently, forced me to think critically about my choices, and motivated me to act. Only one of these was technical in nature by the way, just one!
A good conference should inspire you to do something. No talk is long enough to teach you anything immediately useful. The best you can hope for is exposure to lots of stuff you might want to look into after the conference. Of course you could get the same level of exposure by reading the conference agenda, Googling each topic, and reading through some documentation on each homepage. What you can't get is the inspiration from a great speaker, motivational story, or engaged community.
So the next time you contemplate attending a conference, do your best to judge the inspiration potential. After all, if you're not going to do anything different after the conference, why bother going?