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Making Conferences Better

I love PHP conferences. I attended a lot of PHP conferences when I was a brand new developer. Zendcon, OSCON, php[tek], Wordcamp Baltimore, DC PHP and others were my stomping grounds. I learned a lot, and the conferences I attended were on the whole useful, beneficial and wonderful experiences. But I also felt challenged by the fact that conferences don’t offer much for bringing up new developers with concrete information and training. This isn’t necessarily the fault of conferences: it’s impossible to truly impart a useful skill into a developer with only a 45 minute talk.

Are conferences even the right place for training?

I brought this blog post up to Eli White, organizer of php[tek], who pointed out that conferences aren’t really for in-depth hands-on training. I think he’s right to a point: conferences, as they’re organized now, are not designed to train developers.

Of course, that’s not what businesses think when they send their developers to a conference. They expect that their $400 to over $2,000 (plus airfare and lodging) will be well spent on teaching their developers how to do their jobs better.

I believe, therefore, that it is incumbent upon conferences to offer up training as a core component of the conference. Hands-on learning is an effective way to teach, and I believe it’s one of the most important things lacking at major conferences today.

I believe there are a number of things that conferences can do to offer better training options.

Creating Different Tracks of Different Lengths

A few conferences that I’ve observed offer different tracks with different length sessions, depending on how in-depth the session is. With lengths of 90 minutes to 120 minutes, these tracks are designed for talks that involve either hands-on interaction or a more in-depth review of the material presented.

These “double slots” offer developers an opportunity to learn more and to begin to understand some of the concepts, especially if the track is hands on. I encourage more conferences to engage in this kind of session type.

Including Hands-On Training During Tutorial Days

Confoo offered Advanced PHP Training by thePHP.cc this year, which included a hands-on development component. This was brilliant, because developers who took the training were sure to have a tremendous experience that would offer them new and valuable skills.

Similarly, I took a hands-on Django tutorial during DjangoCon two years ago. This hands-on tutorial was a great way to get my feet wet, and I was thankful to the tutorial organizers for offering such an option.

I recommend these kinds of tutorials strongly, and encourage conference organizers to do more hands-on tutorials that involve writing code and developing applications.

Offer Learning-Focused Hackathons

Many conferences offer hackathons, though their focus is more on helping the open source projects that attend rather than offering developers instruction.

One of the DC PHP meeting types is a sort of “Genius Bar”, where senior developers can help more junior developers understand concepts they might be struggling with. Conferences could offer a similar feature, which would be a wonderful way to help newer developers apply the skills that they’re learning about in conference sessions.

Junior developers can learn from senior developers who are willing to teach them. Spending just a few minutes with senior developers like Elizabeth Smith taught me a tremendous amount at conferences I attended.

It’s up to developers, too.

Developers do bear some of the responsibility, if not most of the responsibility, for boosting their skills and knowledge.

Sure, developers reasonably expect their employers to invest in them, but developers also need to understand their needs and their limitations. There are many different kinds of training available, from the one-day mini-conferences offered by php|architect, to training like The Object Oriented PHP Masterclass. Whatever the training options are, investing in your career is the most valuable thing you can do for yourself. It’s not only up to the conference organizers!

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Markus Wolff wrote at 2/28/2013 8:52 am:

“Junior developers can learn from senior developers who are willing to teach them. Spending just a few minutes with senior developers like Elizabeth Smith taught me a tremendous amount at conferences I attended.”

That’s why at the PHP Unconference in Germany we have whopping 30 minute breaks between each and every session, so people have time to get together and talk. Lunch break is even 1.5 hours. From what I’ve heard from the attendees, for many this is the most exciting part of the unconference, more so than many of the sessions.

Ivo (@ilukac) wrote at 3/4/2013 7:32 am:

Hi Brandon,

Thank you very much for your thoughts. I was thinking exactly the same one year ago and decided to do something. With the help of my company I organized eZ Publish Summer Camp last September. The focus was totally on hands-on workshops usually 3 hours long. The target was to have an event which is not a conference nor training, but something in the middle.

Btw, just started preparing the event for this year. Goal is to have 4th track: Symfony :)