Why do developers go to conferences?

My post last week in response to Scott generated some good discussion about the value of developer conferences in general.  It certainly got me pondering more about how we ought to think of the value of PDC.  As luck would have it, our creative agency for PDC decided to hold a couple focus groups on Tuesday, specifically around understanding developer motivation for attending conferences.  So I got to sit on the dark side of a two-way mirror and listen to a dozen devs talking about what matters to them.  While there was no effort made to assemble a representative group, and you can’t assume that 12 people speak for the whole of the dev community, it was a really interesting exercise.


One of the most interesting things, from my perspective, was that the responses were all pretty consistent.  We had a decent mix of folks, with different backgrounds and jobs, but everyone seemed to agree with one another.  When the moderator asked our two focus groups why they go to conferences, we heard a pretty similar set of answers:

  • Networking, a chance to connect with other geeks who are as passionate about coding as I am.  One guy said he’s had a lot of experiences where he just starts chatting with the person next to him, and they end up sharing tips and tricks, and even continuing to email questions/answers back and forth after the conference.
  • Learning, getting to spend time focusing on new things.  It’s too hard in your day to day job to really set aside time to focus on learning new stuff.  Plus, a good presenter can teach you things in one hour that might take you a weekend to learn on your own just reading a book.
  • Labs, having hands on access to products and dev environments that you don’t have back at the office.
  • Inspiration, seeing what other people are doing with software.
  • See the warts, talk directly with the developers building and using the technology to get their honest assessment of not just strengths, but also weaknesses, unblemished by the touch of PR and marketing.


The groups also talked about what makes for a good conference.  Again, there was clear consensus:

  • Food.  Lots of mention of this.  Folks want good food to keep them fueled throughout the conference.  Only one person specifically mentioned also wanting to have lots of good parties, which either means we had mostly a very serious group of devs in the room, or nobody was willing to admit that it’s all about the parties ;)
  • Technical, not marketing, content.  I don’t want to pay for the privilege of being marketed to, the content better be intellectually stimulating
  • Great presenters, people who are engaging and know how to deliver a talk.
  • Real world focus.  Don’t just talk about some fantasy world 2 years in the future where a bunch of new stuff has shipped and is somehow magically running on every desktop, be sure to include some content on what I can do today, in a real world homogenous environment.


I enjoyed hearing the groups talk, and a great deal of interesting and funny things came up over the 4 hours I was watching. I think my favorite was the one guy who said he had an epiphany listening to Brockshmidt explain COM at the ’93 PDC, but walked out on BillG’s keynote at the ’97 PDC because he thought it was totally boring.