WEB Advent 2008 / Guide to Conferences

There are a wide variety of conferences in the PHP world: there are small half-day conferences at one end of the spectrum and full-blown 5-day conferences at the other. Nowadays, there are so many good conferences that there’s almost always one to visit nearby.

In this post, I want to help you get the most out of these conferences. Sure, you can just go, watch and learn, but with the tips in this post, I hope conferences will become even more useful to you.

Convincing the Boss

Going to a conference often starts with convincing your boss that it’s a good idea for you to go. If you do it really well, he might even pay the expenses. Some companies recognize the value of conferences and have a policy that allows people to go to a conference once a year (or more), but most people will have a bit of persuading to do.

Here are the benefits of a conference that your boss will like:

  1. You’ll learn new skills, at a price that’s usually cheaper than a training course.
  2. It’s very rewarding to be sent to a conference, and you’ll love him for it.
  3. You’ll get to meet people. Having friends in the PHP community gives you the most powerful knowledge base there is: people you can talk to when you’re stuck with a difficult problem.
  4. With a bit of luck, you can recruit new developers and, if you have a bit of a commercial mindset, you might even get him a potential customer or two.
  5. Wear a shirt with the company logo and call it marketing. (I have met people that shaved logos in their hair, but that might be taking it a step too far.)

Session Selection

Most conferences feature a mix of keynote sessions and breakout sessions. The keynotes can always be attended, but for the breakout sessions you may have to make a choice, as most conferences have multiple parallel tracks of sessions—some even have 9! To get the most out of the conference, have a look at the schedule before the conference starts. It can be hard to pick the right session. Try to make a mix of what’s new, what’s hot, what’s fun, and what will teach you skills you currently need in your job. Sessions on technologies that you haven’t heard of can be as interesting as the ones you know—they might teach you something useful that you’d never considered, and will help you greatly in your projects.

If you’ve been to a number of conferences, you’ll get better at picking the right sessions for you. By then, you may also know the speakers by name, and this will help in selecting good sessions as well.

The Community

Conferences are about more than visiting sessions and learning. They are also about engaging with the PHP community. During a conference, you can talk to fellow programmers, core PHP developers, speakers from the conference, and celebrities from the PHP world. The PHP community might be one of the most accessible communities. Whether it’s xdebug and core developer Derick Rethans, or Zend founder Andi Gutmans; if they are at the conference, you can talk to them. Don’t be shy—mingle. At lunch, sit at a random table and start a discussion with those at the table. During coffee breaks, ask your fellow attendees what they thought of the previous session. Exchange ideas, make friends, learn from each other.

As there is so much to learn from the community at a conference, networking between sessions is sometimes referred to as “the hallway track” because it is as invaluable as the session tracks themselves.

The Backchannel

Talking to each other isn’t limited to the breaks; all conferences have a lively “backchannel” in place where you can discuss sessions while they are running. The main backchannel is usually an IRC channel named after the conference (#zendcon, #phptek, #works, #dpc, etc.) and they are usually on the Freenode IRC network. IRC is an ideal channel for live discussions, or to validate questions before you ask them.

The second backchannel is Twitter. Attendees that tweet from a conference will append a “hash tag” to their messages—the tag is usually the same as the name of the IRC channel. Most conferences will tell you what tag to use to identify your tweets. Even if you don’t have a Twitter account yourself, you can easily follow the Twitter conversation. For example, to read all the tweets that are related to the recent PHP Northwest conference, you’d go to http://search.twitter.com/search?q=phpnw.

The third backchannel is a relatively new one, a web site called Joind.in. This one allows you to post feedback on sessions and events, which is very helpful for speakers to improve their presentations. (Joind.in was initiated by Chris Cornutt, who also runs the popular PHPDeveloper.org news site).

After-Hour Socials

Most conferences also organize social events in the evenings. Bar visits, karaoke, Rock Band or Mario Kart contests, dinners—anything is possible. And if the conference doesn’t organize something, then usually the attendees will organize something themselves and go somewhere fun.

These gatherings are excellent for meeting the community and talking about things other than just PHP (of course PHP is fine as well). You’ll get to see the speakers, attendees and organizers in a different setting to the conference, which helps you to get to know each other and is generally always good fun.


The ultimate form of participating in a conference is to do one or more presentations. If you think that this is only for the best of the best, you couldn’t be more wrong. Everyone has the chance to send in a proposal for the Call for Papers that most conferences organize. If you have something to say, you can be heard. It takes a little perseverance, and you might have to submit ten times before you get invited once, but if you’re up for it, you’ll eventually get the chance.

If you have the ambition to speak, start by practicing within your company. If you’re comfortable with speaking in a small group of friends/coworkers, take the next step and speak at a local user group. If that goes well too, take the plunge and submit to a conference. Start with the smaller ones, but don’t hesitate to submit to the big ones too.

The benefit of speaking is that the conference will usually pay as least part of the expenses, which ultimately helps with the first point I mentioned; convincing the boss. But the main benefit of speaking is that it helps you get recognition in the PHP community and helps get your message out.


The tips above should help you maximize the gain you get out of attending a conference. If you haven’t been to a conference before, start by convincing your boss to send you to one. If you’ve been to a conference before, use these tips to learn even more the next time you visit one. And if you see me at a conference, come and say hi!

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