For those of you who may be interested, I'll be attending the Power your Business with PHP conference in San Francisco next month. If you'll be there too or are close to the location, let me know via Keith @ CaseySoftware.com
Anyway, a few months back, I received an offer for a daypass to CFUnited: ColdFusion United. It mostly revolved around ColdFusion, and not being a ColdFusion guy, I was initially hesitant. Then, I looked at the schedule and saw that Joel Spolsky (of Joel on Software) and decided that if for no other reason, I had to demonstrate my geek cred by going and meeting the man in person. I met him, went to his presentation, and got a kick out of the whole thing. But then what was I going to do for the next 3 hours!?
Then I happened across a gentleman by the name of John Paul Ashenfelter. He had given the presentation immediately prior to Joel and had been working to convince ColdFusion developers to start evaluating Java libraries. I never realized that ColdFusion could use Java libraries, so I started asking some more questions.
The group conversation involved both of us, a few people who have been developers for a decade or two, a few people just getting their start, and even another couple of the presenters. While the discussion in itself was pretty good, I found the connections to be even better. I managed to meet two other dotProject users, developers from all over the US, and even someone who had been to my relatively small hometown on a regular basis.
This is the point of conventions. Yes, some of the presentations are good or even great and some will be horrible. Yes, some of the vendor demos might convince you to buy or even just evaluate. More than anything, connecting with other people in the same general industry is the best part.
You will meet people solving potentially similar problems with different perspectives, domain backgrounds, tools, budgets, and a variety of other things. Although you work on library systems, that indexing idea from the genome researcher might be useful. Although you work on financial systems with a limitless budget, that free library that the developer from the cash-strapped startup could be very useful.
Great ideas might come from your own people. Or they might come from your own people combining ideas from the five people they'll meet at the next conference.
I fully subscribe that when you put smart people together, big beautiful ideas will result. Yes, some will be world-shaking and some will be junk, but it's better to kill a bad idea while it's on the drawing board instead of six months into development.