I used to go to conferences to get new ideas, and my emphasis was on the "big" ones like The SD Conferences or the Open Source Conference. Thanks to the internet, the public library, and wooden speakers who just stand up and read the bullet-points, I can now get most of that value from home. (No, they aren't all that bad, but you get the point.)
Over the past couple of years I have come to realize that little fact, and yet I still go to conferences. In fact, I desire to attend many more than I can actually get out to. Something changed.
Oh, I still try to pick up ideas, but instead of getting them from powerpoint slides, I get them from talking to people. In fact, it is people, relationships, and opportunities to sharpen my own saw that keep drawing me in to conferences; not fancy theoretical ideas about how to reorganize a 100-person IS shop, or new policies to implement top-down. To borrow a line from "Lessons Learned in Software Testing": Conferences are for conferring.
So here's two assertions for you:
1) It's generally better to meet people at conferences who actually live somewhere near you,
2) Having those people around, and talking to them, can often make 'sharpening the saw' (your mind) a lot easier
At this point, you might agree, but in the back of your mind you are thinking "but my company won't send me to a conference."
Well, let's connect the dots. The easy way to meet people who you have a chance of catching at lunch sometime is to go to a regional conference. Regional conferences are all over - there's GLSEC in Michigan, IQAA in Indiana, PNSQC in Portland, YAPC all over the place, the Simple Design and Test Conference in Pensylvania, a ton of barCamps, Ohio and Chicago both have conferences as well. Check out QAIWorldWide or the Agile Alliance for a user's group near you, and see if they have a conference.
Most of these conferences are run by a non-profit, so the price will be cheap - usually less than $300 per day. They may be close enough that you don't need a hotel room. If your company won't spend a dime, email them and find out if you can volenteer, and earn your own slot. Then you go for free.
If there is no such conference in your area, you can start one. Really, if you live in any kind of medium metro area and you have a few friends who will commit to it, it's not about being "hard", it's more a committment of time.
So, like I hinted at before, after the conference a few people who really care typically go out for a beer, and that's where the real learning starts. Amazingly, there are actual conferences that are structured this way. They limit the conference to something like 15-25 people and expect heavy involvement for all attendees; no sitting in a chair for you. My two examples are the Indianapolis Workshop on Software Testing, or IWST, which I'm making a real effort to get to this year, and the Simple Design and Test Conference. (SD&T)
Peer conferences are especially interesting because they go beyond non-profit to non-commerical! Everyone is a speaker and the conference is often free for all attendees. SD&T is the largest that I have seen, and it really intrigues me.
If you look at the SD&T website, you'll see on the bottom-right that they drew some reasonably big names to be "just" participants, er, speakers when everyone is a speaker. One of them is the guy with the hat, who just looks really familiar. It turns out that he's George Dinwiddie, a regular reader and occasional commentor on Creative Chaos, who now has his own blog. It turns out George lives in Maryland, my old stomping grounds, and the more-or-less home of the Agile Conference this year.
If you look at my blogroll at right, those people are more than just minds I respect; I consider them friends. I've met every single one of them at a conference or user group meeting (Except for Jerry and John Bruce) - and Jerry and John I have each read at least 180,000 words of. (That's about 3 printed novels)
So first, seriously, let's encourage each other. If you want help getting plugged in to a development community near you, drop me a line. And second, here's to meeting George at a conference soon, so he can qualify for my blogroll. (Seriously, drop me a line.) :-)
Schedule and Events
March 26-29, 2012, Software Test Professionals Conference, New Orleans
July, 14-15, 2012 - Test Coach Camp, San Jose, California
July, 16-18, 2012 - Conference for the Association for Software Testing (CAST 2012), San Jose, California
August 2012+ - At Liberty; available. Contact me by email: Matt.Heusser@gmail.com