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The Secret to Getting the Most out of Any Conference is in the Hallway

Posted by on June 22, 2009

Conferences a great way for the PHP community to exchange bits of knowledge with each other. However, the real value of attending a conference is not found in the slides projected on the wall—it is found in the conversation that happen between the sessions and after hours. The hallway track in any PHP conference is the most valuable and stands to produce the most ROI for a developer and his employer.

The PHP community has a wide variety of conferences to choose from, and they happen all around the world. Each conference targets a slightly different demographic of the developer community— ZendCon, for instance, targets the business user, while the conferences organized by MTA are more community-centric, and The Dutch PHP Conference aims its sights at advanced PHP developers. All three, though, have a common thread running through them: the hallway track.

The hallway track refers not only to the time between sessions, but also the times that developers decide that the conversation they are currently engaged in is more productive than the sessions being offered.

The hallway track has no slides, no speaker and requires no specific room. The sessions are impromptu and can be as detailed or as high level as the participants want. Less structured than even an Unconference, the hallway track participants usually just find some space and talk.

Why is this important? Sessions in a conference represent great value, but they all have one thing in common: they are what the conference organizers and the speaker think you want to learn about. Sometimes we hit a home run, sometimes we strike out. Attendees have very little say in the planning of these tracks. The hallway track though is tailor made for each participant. As attendees meet other developers, begin to network, share problems and solutions, they get engrossed in the topics they are discussing.

Many times, a developer may come to a conference hoping that a speaker will point them in the right direction, only to find that someone they meet in the hallway track has not only already faced their problem—but solved it. Why listen to a speaker talk in generic terms about a solution that may or may not fit when you can talk directly to someone who has slain your white whale?

The hallway track is where networks are built. Personal networks are where developers turn when they need answers they can’t find.
If you have a network of friends you can turn to, you can usually solve the problem. If you don’t, you are stuck with what you can find on Google. Personal experience trumps Google every time.

The next time your boss asks you to justify the conference you have asked for funds to attend, tell him it has great keynote speakers, some interesting topics and a killer hallway track.

Cal Evans is a veteran of the browser wars. (BW-I, the big one) He has been programming for more years than he likes to remember but for the past [redacted] years he's been working strictly with PHP, MySQL and their friends. Cal regularly speaks at PHP users groups and conferences, writes articles and wanders the net looking for trouble to cause. He blogs on an "as he feels like it" basis at Postcards from my life.

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