So, it's your first conference. Yes, it can be a little intimidating. Yes, it will be exciting. Yes, it will be exhausting. Here are some tips to get you started:
Do: Look at the schedule to find your “must see” sessions. Once the conference is running, you're going to be overwhelmed. If there's a session you absolutely need to attend, you need to figure that out now and plan accordingly.
Don't plan to attend every session. I know, I know… you want to “get your money's worth”. You want to get exposed to every great new idea out there and you can't wait to dive in. First of all, no one can handle that much in a few days. Even the sharp guys over at North Carolina State University were overwhelmed at their first conference. Second of all, you can't forget the “Hallway Track”.
Do: Realize that the “Hallway Track” is often the best part of the conference. Odds are some of the best and brightest minds from your community will be there and this is a great way to get engaged. Don't hesitate to stop and listen to hallway conversations. If there's room at a lunch table, ask if the seat is open and listen. If you recognize a name from a project you use and appreciate, offer to buy the person a drink. This is your chance to listen to and ask questions of these people, don't hesitate. You might learn new tricks to help on your project, you might learn about the direction of a new idea, or you might spark a new idea for them. Honestly, most people attend these conferences to get ideas as much as to share their own.
Don't be a starstruck fanboy. At my first ZendCon in 2005, I met Chris Shiflett for the first time and said something along the lines of “Oh, you're Chris Shiflett!” Thinking back on it five seconds later, it was embarassing. Luckily, he's been gracious enough to never mention it. 😉 That said, realize that most of these people are pretty regular and normal.
Do: Bring your business cards and/or other ways of getting in touch. Have your cards on you. Make sure the contact information is up to date. If you use Twitter, share your username and follow the people of interest. Twitter, Facebook, etc are steadily replacing business cards in technology circles, but both are necessary.
Don't try to sell anyone anything. If you try to sell your product or push to get a job on this trip, you're likely to come off smarmy or desperate. If someone asks what you do – and they will – feel free to give a summary of your project or mention that you're job-shopping, but don't try to sell them and don't hand out resumes.
Do: Wear comfortable shoes. It sounds silly for a technology conference but remember that you're going to be running around meeting people and in sessions from 9-5 and then out until who knows what time. If you're miserable, people will wonder why…
Don't carry your stuff if you can drop it off. I don't care how light your laptop, netbook, or Mac Air is. After a couple hours, it's going to get heavy and it will ruin your trip if it gets dropped, lost, stolen, or left in the back of a cab. I lost my cell charger at SXSW this year and it made life miserable. Just leave everything you can in your room… even if you have to catch up with people for dinner.
Do: Follow up after the conference. If something from a presentation or conversation impressed you or generated more questions, don't hesitate to drop the person a note. Every presenter wants feedback on their session to make the next one to be better. Be helpful and share it.
Don't try to sell anyone anything. Yes, it's important enough to mention twice. If you impressed them or they mentally connect you with a potential job or customer, they'll ask. I hate getting unrequested resumes from people I've met one time briefly.
Okay, okay… so you're like 98% of the developers out there and you're just not a social person. Not a problem.
Almost any group will consist of lots of people with some that know each other and quite a few who don't. You can quietly blend in and listen. As long as you're not a jerk and (if applicable) pay your portion of the bill, you'll be welcome in many groups. Join a group, have a nice dinner, and listen to the ebb and flow of conversation. If you get brave enough and when you hear something of interest, don't hesitate to ask a question or share.
Update: Bradley Holt – who's first conference was ZendCon 08 – follows up on this with a number of ZendCon-specific conference tips. Of course, he references the ZendCon Uncon, so I'm kind of biased. 😉