Monday, August 13, 2012

The Anatomy Of A Great Conference

I had the pleasure of attending the North East PHP conference this weekend. I've attended a lot of conferences over the years, but I found this one to be one of the most enjoyable ones that I've ever attended. On my drive home (4.5 hours in a car gives you a lot of time to think), I was thinking about what made it such an enjoyable time. Here's what I've come up with goes into making a good conference.


The Venue

One of the first things that you notice about a conference is the venue that it's held in. While a great venue will rarely make a conference, a bad one will quickly break a conference. In my humble opinion, there are a few things that make a venue work well. The first and most important is good audio-visual equipment. Nothing will sap the life out of a talk faster than AV equipment that's not good. If you can't hear the presenter, what's the point? 

Another big thing that a good conference venue needs is lots of places to sit and have side conversations. For me personally, the best value that I get from a conference is not in the talks, but in the side conversations that happen during off time (or if there's no talk that's interesting to you in a time slot). The best conversation areas are large, open and have tons of chairs.

Something that many venues lack, but is hugely helpful is easy access to power for attendees. Most attendees bring laptops and use them during the conference. Whether it's to take notes, to look up relevant information to the talk (they didn't understand something) or just to hack away on a pet-project between talks, having easy access to power shouldn't be under-rated.

NEPHP was held at a very good venue: the Microsoft N.E.R.D. Center (New England Research and Development). Not only did this venue fit all of the above criteria, it was also very well setup. It was just a pleasure to attend. The only one complaint that I would have is that the majority of the conference was on the 1st floor, with one talk on the 10th floor. This really wasn't a big issue, but it was a slight annoyance. The rest of the benefits of the venue far outweighed this one inconvenience.

The Speakers

The next big thing that any good conference needs is good speakers speaking on good topics. Now, when I say good speakers, I'm not referring necessarily to big name speakers, but good speakers in general. While I only recognized about 3 names of the speakers prior to attending, almost every talk that I attended was dynamite. And the one talk that I would consider as not great had interesting points (it was still worth attending). There's so much that could go into a section on good speakers, that I'm not really going to go further than to say that the speaker pannel for NEPHP was excellent.

The Attendees

Just as important as good speakers is good attendees. When I say good attendees, I'm really speaking about a few qualities that make a conference more enjoyable. The first quality is that the attendees should be respectful. Nothing can kill a conference faster than a few jerks killing the mood by not showing respect for the speakers (talking during a presentation, abusive heckling, etc). Where good attendees will often ask awesome questions, have good and useful side conversations and overall make the experience much better.

Another thing that's very important to a good conference is that it has a healthy mix of attendees. I've been to conferences where there's 80% new people, 19% with a little bit of experience and maybe 1% people who are experienced. And I've been to conferences that were the exact opposite. For me, the best are those that have a fairly even distribution, as then there's something for everyone.

NEPHP blew me away again with the mix of people that attended the conference. There was a very healthy mix of experience, and they were all really respectful. It really hit a home run in my book.

The Organizers

Quite often, the real difference in a conference is in its organization. Good organization tends to breed good quality. Bad organization breeds bad quality. It's as simple as that. But what's good organization? I think that good organization comes from smart and level headed people who are realistic about their expectations. It's hard enough putting together an event for 300 people, but then having micro-managing organizers usually turns it into disaster.

Every event that I've been to has had something go wrong. NEPHP was no exception (lunch arrived late the first day). The thing is, it doesn't really matter what happens. It's how it's handled. The organizers stayed calm, and worked the problem rather than creating more. Their confidence led to a great experience even though there were 300 hungry people around. By keeping their cool, everything was fine.

I can't really say enough about the organizers of NEPHP. They did an absolutely tremendous job. For their part in the conference, I really can't think of anything better they could have done. And for the first year doing it, it was put together amazingly well.

The Sponsors

Where would a conference be without its sponsors? They not only make the conference possible, but also make it enjoyable. For me, there are 2 main things that make sponsors effective. The first is that they not only make the conference possible, but make the little things that make it enjoyable. Like hosting a social activity after the conference. Like providing interesting SWAG or give away gifts to attendees. Neither are really important, but they are nice.

The other big thing that sponsors can do is play the right line between being there, and being intrusive. I've been to conferences where the sponsors get lots of speaking time (usually in a keynote format) and are always in your face during the conference. This just gives the whole event a bad and commercial vibe in my opinion.

NEPHP's sponsors were excellent. They provided a great social after the first day of the conference (provided by WayFair). The best part is that they were there at the conference, but never in your way. They had tables set up in the main area, and were more than willing to talk to you, but they never pushed the issue. It felt like they were a part of the conference rather than trying to just make money off of it. 

All In All

All in all, it was a great conference to go to. It had a great venue in a great location, great talks, great people and great sponsors. I really have to thank everyone involved for putting on such a great event. I'll be back next year, and hope you will be too.