Groking Conferences

by Jess Brown

I just recently attended Grok. I'm not a big conference goer, but I've attended LessConf several times and a few ruby conferences. Sometimes I always wonder why people go to conferences and how they justify the expense. As an independent consultant, I'm always trying to figure if my money and time was well spent. I once heard another consultant say "how can you not afford to attend conferences."

They're not cheap. Grok was inexpensive as far as conferences go. Here's my expense summary:

Ticket:    $ 200
Hotel:     $ 600
Gas:       $ 100
Dining:    $ 150
Misc:      $  50
Lost Work: $1500 # 2 days x 6hrs day billing @ 125hr
Total:     $2600

Now this is a real expense for me. My bank account will be $2600 lower had I not gone to this conference. That's a small marketing expense for GitHub or Pardot, but a much larger % of my bottom line. That's a nice MBP or almost a new bike! So was it worth it? I don't know the answer to that question so I want list some reasons why I go.

1. Fun

I work from home and don't typically get to hang out with people who do creative technology stuff like I do. Spending time with them and getting to chat about the latest cool thing is awesome.

It's fun to travel.

Conferences also do cool things like schedule us to drive high performance BWM's!

Allan & Cebo about to make all the driving instructors very nervous.

2. Learn

You learn lots of things a conferences. It's not always technical. It could be things about teamwork, process, sales, or all sorts of stuff. You get to talk about what everyone's talking about and be a part of the conversation.

Grok is especially good at this. They have 10/20's where you get to split up into groups and have relevant meaningful discussions.

3. People

The people has to be one of the biggest reasons you go to a conference. You get to reacquaint with friends and people you've met from other conferences. You get to meet heroes, people that inspire you, people you've been following on twitter for years, but never met.

Matthew Smith aka @whale and I about to entrust our lives to someone else driving a fast car. Matthew is a design super hero.

Some of the best experiences you have are meeting people that you didn't know existed. I love meeting new and interesting people and it always makes me a little sad when I see photos of photos after the conference of people I didn't even get the chance to meet.

4. Business / Networking

There is a business reason for me to going. My hope is that by meeting people and making friends and connections, I'll be in a position someday to help them solve a problem or build something really great. I hope that I can be at least close enough in people's circles that if they have a need for web / rails developer, they might remember that nice good looking (ok that's a stretch :-) guy they met and consider me.

5. Inspiration

There's usually a keynote speaker or two there by design to deliver inspiration. At Grok this year, for me, it was Kristian Anderson.

He talked about the misguidance of following you passion. My take on it was while you should do something you enjoy, you shouldn't do it just because you enjoy it. No matter how much I want to be a pro cyclist, it isn't going to happen. You have to do what you're built for and also what you're willing to suffer (ie what real passion means) for.

This hit home for me because as a designer and developer, I struggle with the thought that I should strive to be great at one or the other. But I know I can never be the next Matthew Smith or Aaron Patterson, but put the two together and mix in a little business smarts and I might have something unique to offer.

You can always find little takeaways like that to bolster your confidence and help you focus on what you're willing to suffer for.

6. Getaway with Wife

Most conferences I go to my wife comes with me and my kids do not. It's a great opportunity to spend a few days (my kids are young so we don't stay gone long) away. She doesn't usually go to the conference, but she'll come with me to the dinners and hangouts.

Patty really wishing I'd stop taking her picture in the hotel lobby.

Not all bliss

Despite all of the positives, I'd be remiss if I didn't say there are hurtles as well. Besides the financial cost, mixing and mingling can be extremely difficult for some. I figure I fit more in the "outgoing" category and I still have a ton of insecurities. This is no reflection on Grok or any other tech conference. In my experience, they're always fantastic. The problem is our fears.

Logically thinking, I believe I'm a cool guy, have a pretty wife, a successful business, am friendly, and am experienced at what I do, but emotionally, I have a ton of insecurities at conferences. I worry that I won't be cool enough, or that I people won't like me. I worry that people will not want to talk with me if I walk up to them, or that they wished they'd sat beside someone else. I stress about why people don't follow me back on twitter or ask me to dinner too. I wonder why people don't take photos with me or mention me in their feed.

I was expressing these to my wife one night and she said, most of the others have them too. I suppose she's right. Regardless, it's just a part of being human, putting yourself out there and being willing to make yourself venerable. Without doing that, you'd never get to enjoy all of the positive experiences and meet so many cool people. So if you feel a little like I do, just remember, others feel the same way.


All in all it's a great experience. Grok was exceptional and I already know I'll be back next year. Hopefully the relationships I rekindled and started will evolve further. Hopefully several cool projects will come my way via a referral from a fellow groker!

So, my final conclusion is: conferences are worth it. You can't go to them all, but selectively choose at least several a year to attend and it'll be worth your trip!

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