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Calie Rushton
Calie Rushton

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What happened at my first tech conference (spoiler: nothing bad...)

As an early-career dev there are no shortage of experiences to get excited, intimidated and a little freaked-out about. One of these is the tech conference, a mystical far-off place full of super smart people who dream in 1's and 0's, and actually know what those pretty laptop stickers are promoting.

Thankfully, there are conferences that break the mould, where the emphasis is less on stroking your chin over the latest framework and more on sharing knowledge in a safe environment where, legend has it, there is sometimes a queue for the ladies toilet.

ffconf is a really great example of how to do a conference well. I had heard about it through a couple of ladies from my meetup who had attended previously, and applied for a scholarship ticket in the hopes I could do the same. Special shout-out here to those companies that provide sponsorship, and the individuals who purchase extra tickets so that those of us of more modest means can share the experience. Without your incredible generosity, people like me are going to continue to view tech conferences as intimidating and unattainable, so I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I was lucky enough to be awarded a ticket and so last week I headed to Brighton, excited and a little nervous about what to expect.

Probably the biggest thing that struck me about ffconf was the down-to-earth nature of the whole thing. Julie and Remy who put on the conference are blessed with kids who love to help by cutting stickers and folding tshirts, and you really sense that everyone else who contributes to make the day a success are more like extended members of their family. Attendees received lots of personalised info including details of pre and post event socials, as well as a lunch organised for those who have travelled on their own. They really do seem to have thought of everything, and everything is done out of a genuine love for the community. This year was the 11th event, and the format has changed a bit over the years but their enthusiasm and dedication remains constant.

The night before the event I was a little nervous still, with no idea how I was going to get on. Next morning I walked the 10 minutes from my hotel to the venue (a beautiful old theatre turned cinema) and when I reached the front of the queue I received such a lovely welcome from the organisers that I immediately felt at ease. After collecting my pass I headed upstairs and within only a few minutes was chatting excitedly with another delegate (also a first-timer attending on her own) over coffee and pastries. Then it was time to start so we picked up some complimentary stationery (I love taking notes the old fashioned way) and headed into the auditorium.

The day was packed with talks across the spectrum of soft to hard skills, starting by considering how we can better support our peers, moving on to practical advice that can help us get better at collaborating, coding, planning, debugging and protecting ourselves online, finishing up with some inspiring examples of using code to make art and have fun. We laughed a lot during the day, but were also encouraged to consider where tech is taking us, and how that makes us feel - ffconf say their sessions are curated "FOR AN AUDIENCE THAT CARES ABOUT THE FUTURE OF THE WEB, AND, WHO WANT THEIR IDEAS CHALLENGED", and they certainly fulfilled in that regard. Some of the technical detail went right over my head but I can honestly say each and every speaker inspired me, taught me something and made me think deeply.

So that was my first conference, and I'm pleased to say not my last, as I already have another 2 booked up between now and January. Turning up to an event like this on your own can be scary even if you consider yourself fairly confident, but by heading to an event as genuine and inclusive as ffconf I had a hugely positive 'first-time'.

I think most events are all slightly different in their format so they offer different opportunities, and it's worth considering what you want from a conference. I expected I would be doing a lot more networking and perhaps at a different type of event that would be true, but the programme was packed and I felt so comfortable that I ended up having fewer, but probably more meaningful conversations. As I understand it some conferences have a lot of things happening at once, so you have to pick and choose which sessions to attend. You are bound to end up missing something but the single-threaded nature of ffconf meant I could enjoy all the talks without worrying about running from one to another and what (or who) I might miss the chance to connect with as a result.

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