A couple of weeks back I attended Web Summit - an annually-held four-day conference in Lisbon with 1200 speakers and 70 000 attendees. Prior to the trip, I asked my friend to give me some tips to prepare for the conference visit. Though definitely useful, I found her advice quite surprising, and now I want to share and expand these ideas with you and add some of my own to pay it forward. So: how to approach a tech conference as a developer, with no super hot awesome startup to pitch to investors?
1. The first thing to acknowledge is that WebSummit is all about the people. You are not going to a hackathon; you are going to a networking platform. Learning the newest AWS features is something you can do in the quiet of your own armchair - especially because most of the talks are recorded and uploaded to the web. So, ditch the heavy tech lessons (oh yes, a developer is telling you this!) and make a goal of speaking to n new people every day, where n is a natural number of your choice. Concentrate on quality over quantity and rather aim for 3 real conversations than 15 shallow ones. Also, when you find an interesting person, do follow-ups; go for lunch the next day or visit their booth.
2. Plan the days ahead! Altice Arena is a huge venue - my colleague’s sports watch recorded at least 10km on summit days (maybe that’s the reason they named it Summit). Also, did I mention the 70 thousand people? It’s like an ant hill of geeks and it really takes time to move from pavilion to another and to find a free seat - if there are any left.
My strategy was to spend the mornings in one conference and the afternoons in another to avoid moving around from place to place too much. This approach had other upsides too: 1) I got to be positively surprised by talks I wouldn’t have attended based on the title and short description; that tactic was like the random factor in the recommendation algorithm that prohibited me from becoming totally wrapped up in my bubble. 2) there’s a reason they call a set of talks a conference. The talks were logically structured entities, with many of the opening talks serving as an interesting expert overview on the topic.
3. Smaller venues may have more in-depth and thus more interesting talks. I’m not saying it wasn’t an amazing experience to sit in the front row of the main stage when Tim Berners-Lee gave his opening speech. I mean, the guy had a huge role in creating a/the singularity point of our age. Without him, there might not be Web Summit. However, the other main stage talks were often very high level. I found it much more engaging to attend a lecture on the computation capabilities of quantum computers at a smaller venue, than an extremely high-level overview about AI on the main stage.
4. I have long since discovered that everyone has an angle - and so should you. The conferences were built in such a way that you’d hear different viewpoints one after another or simultaneously in a panel discussion. Still, at the end of the day, the speakers represent their companies or brands - and their words are guided by them. I’m not saying it’s all bad, but it is all bad if you don’t acknowledge that.
The second part of the tip regarding having your own angle is about planning. Web Summit is a massive event that provides an overflow of interesting topics. Once you decide upon your overall goal for the Summit, selecting the talks in the summit app becomes much easier. P.S.: many of the talks will be available on YouTube should you miss them, and an interesting talk you missed is a great conversation starter.
5. Learn to pitch who you are, why you are at the Summit and what you do. You will get asked that a lot. It’s easier to get the conversation flowing if you have thought ahead about what things the other person might be interested in hearing (definitely not your life story). Having a prepared pitch also gives you an opportunity to direct the conversation; the things you mention easily become conversation topics, so if you want to talk about corporate acquisition, why not mention that your company was sold last week?
The Summit is a great place to smoothen your pitch, not only by practicing it when networking, but also by attending pitch workshops and by listening to the super hot awesome startup people pitching their super hot awesome startups. The bottom line is that you are not a story, but you need to have one.
6. Have a social event scheduled for each day! The talks are interesting and thought-provoking, but often the real a-ha moments come from real conversations. You already know what you think about a presentation or topic or hot question – how about getting someone else’s point of view? It’s easy to make people talk: just ask them questions about what they do and what they think.
The social event doesn’t have to be anything more special than afternoon tea in the lounge area, chatting with different people. I enjoyed spending time at the Women in Tech lounge a couple of times, and the conversations I had there – with both women and men. On one particular day, the Women in Tech panel was followed by lunch. Even though the Web Summit app said that the lunch was fully booked, I went to ask from the door if they could squeeze one developer in. As it happens, I got in, as did my two co-attendees. I ended up having excellent conversations with six ladies from all around the world, one of whom was a panelist. Best lunch ever!
7. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Be uncomfortable. Each of my Web Summit days started wishing my travel companions a great day at the entrance and then separating to our own ways. It is easier to meet new people and discover things that you are interested in if you aren’t spending all of your time with your friends. And yes, even as an extreme extrovert on the Finnish scale I did experience some awkwardness. One time, I was standing with my drink in the middle of a book club mingling event and everyone else around me was engaged in vivid conversations. I chose to ignore the growing panic, told myself I’m awesome and joined a random conversation with a smile and a simple “Hello, mind if I join you?”. I ended up having a great chat with a Portuguese PhD candidate and showing her colleague useful references for capacitive sensor research the following day.
8. Take time to reflect. The summit was like an amusement park - full of captivating stimuli and a bombardment of interesting interruptions. For four days. To be able to handle all of the input, use data processing techniques that work for you. I took notes during the talks and sometimes even mid-conversation. I rarely go back to them, but that’s how I structure the data flow and make sense out of it. We also spent the days following the Summit to visit a smaller town called Ericeira, and I sat on the beach alone for three hours, fully clothed, just musing and reading The 21 Lessons for 21st Century by Yuval Harari, an excellent book choice for the trip to Web Summit. Reflecting on what you’ve witnessed forms the foundation of what you eventually bring home. In order to do your homework well, you need to reflect.
9. Have an open mind - the best conversation might happen at 2 am while waiting for the flight back home at the airport. And that is exactly what happened. We were still in the Web Summit mindset, open to talking to total strangers about current issues and advancements. A senior climate change researcher sat next to us and suddenly the three-hour wait for boarding wasn’t dull at all anymore
10. Make it a workation. It’s okay to combine the Web Summit fun with others kinds of fun too! We spent the previous and following weekends exploring Portugal. We listened to b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l and seriously impressive fado in a shady restaurant, went to see the initiation dwell in Sintra and discussed its perks with the guide for a quite a while, and had a surprisingly comprehensive chat about mangoes with a fruitarian who didn’t even speak English. Turns out there are different varieties of mango with clearly different structures to them.
11. Keep it iterative! This list will and should improve and evolve over time. For example, I made several notes-to-self: 1. sign up for events and mentoring sessions in advance to ensure I get a spot, 2. go through the company descriptions in order to scout for interesting stands to visit, and 3. check more comprehensively the speakers’ backgrounds to make better sense of their angle on the topic.
In the end, it was an amazing trip which left me feeling empowered, inspired, and aware of which topics I want to learn more about. And of course, I know what the current and upcoming hot topics are – but that’s a different story altogether.