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Njeri Cooper
Njeri Cooper

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A First-Timers Guide to Navigating Tech Conferences

Last week, I attended CascadiaJs in Seattle, WA. It was my first major tech conference, meaning that I had to catch a plane and stay in a different city for more than 48 hours. Here are my key takeaways from the event and how I plan to navigate the next tech conference I attend.

Travel Day

I traveled over 1,000 miles to get to the conference location. I thought I knew how to pack light - I was wrong. Here's what I would do differently next time:

- Under pack

My bag was packed to precision, bursting at its seams with ranger-rolled t-shirts and socks. On the way back home, it was a hassle to take my laptop out for TSA security screening.

I had the exact amount of outfits I thought I needed and left no room for new swag. I will not bring any additional shirts or jackets when I go to the next conference. One pair of pants and a few pairs of undergarments is enough. Seriously.

- Buy a neck pillow

Sleeping on the plane was impossible for me because I sat in front of an emergency exit. As a result, I could not adjust my seat for comfort. Lower back and neck pillows would have been lifesavers.

Here are a few things I got right:

Double checking flight info

I went to the airport's websites and entered the flight number to make sure I saved a file in my note app with all the details I needed. A screenshot of my ticket confirmation, a typed out flight number so Siri could have access to my flight info, and events saved in my calendar app with the correct timezones.

Wearing a light jacket

I have an old military jacket that I always wear when I travel so I can put any additional toiletries there and keep my phone and wallet secure when going through screening lines. It's a lot easier put on and take off than a hoodie.

Wearing comfy walking shoes

I never know what weather to expect when I land, so I always wear easy slide-on footwear that will keep my feet dry in the rain.

Using a charging backpack

This is a new one for me. Not only did I keep my phone above 80% the whole trip, but I also got a lot of questions and compliments about how cool and weird it looks.

Check out the life-changing bag here.

First Encounters

My first encounter with people that were attending the conference was at the "Speakers Dinner". I had not done research on everyone that would be there and had no clue who I was sitting directly next to. Good thing I was tired from the flights and didn't have much energy to say anything silly. Next time, I'll be sure to:

Have some energy

I don't like how processed energy drinks are, but B12 vitamins, some pure honey or ginseng would have definitely helped me not be such a drag at 6 pm.

Exchange info

I usually wait a while before asking someone for their Twitter handle, but because I'm growing a network, I realized that I should have connected with people I talked to asap. At the end of a conversation/ interaction with someone new, I tried to always add a "Would you mind if I connect with you on Twitter?" at the end.

The Conference Days

There were events planned the whole week, but I was only in town to catch the two-day conference. If I were local, the extracurricular days would have been fun to check out.

I'm the type that feels content with arriving at a location safely and figuring the rest out as I go, but in the future, I will:

- Know how to get to the venue

I was not sure of the name of the venue or its address. I would not have worn so many layers if I'd known it was a mile hike uphill from where I was staying.

- Research the venders, sponsors, and speakers

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CascadiaJs had a beautiful website with the full event schedule, sponsors, organizers, and attendees on the home page. I used it as a resource multiple times an hour to check what talk was coming up, where engineer meetings were being held, what the vegetarian option was for lunch, etc.

The tools on the website made it easy to connect with speakers, view job opportunities, and build more rapport with attendees.

One cool platform I learn about via the conference is FizBuz, an inclusive and recruiter-free networking platform for developers.

- Take more notes

A pen and paper would have been a bit much to keep up with, but I could have definitely used my favorite writing app, Drafts. It has Markdown support, publishes directly to your preferred CMS, and allows cross device-syncing.

- Prepare to speak with managers

I loved how there were built-in times to meet with hiring managers and recruiters. On the website, there was a TypeForm that let me pick which companies I wanted to speak with the most. I had a few questions in mind before I sat down for my chats that revolved around their codebases, work-life balance initiatives, inclusion in the workplace, and expectations for new hires.

- Talk to more people

Sometimes walking up to someone and saying, "Hello" is not as easy as it sounds. I get it. However, in the comfort of a tech conference around nerdy nerds, hopefully, some introverted social anxiety melts away while sipping the unlimited coffee.

I tried to remind myself that I was there to make new connections that could lead to a new software engineering position. This kept me chatting it up with the nearest person I could spot that wasn't wrapped up in their phone or in another conversation.

- Prepare to ditch dev talk

One aspect I didn't know to expect was the after conference social settings. Both days closed with a sort of after-party. Just what was needed after a long day of networking.

Thank you to the organizers of CascadiaJs, the awesome new friends and mentors I met, the boatload of opportunities that lay before me, and you, the reader. You're awesome. Please connect with me via Twitter.

I'd like to give a very special thank you to Jerome Hardaway and all of VetsWhoCode for making it possible for me to attend and teaching me cool nerd things. Help veterans learn how to program Javascript by supporting #HashFlag Swag

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What was attending a tech conference like for you the first time? Do you have any pre-conf rituals?

Njeri Cooper

Njeri uses the web to educate, innovate, and create. Feel free to send Njeri a message here.

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