You may have heard this one before:
Two managers are talking about training their employees:
CFO: What happens if we train them and they leave?
CEO: What happens if we don’t and they stay?
At STX Next (and your company too, I’d wager), all employees are offered a training budget to improve their skills and competences. We can spend the money on training, conferences, workshops, or books. As long as the training is in line with your position, you’re good to go.
Since the new year is in full swing and our budgets are renewed, you may be wondering about the best way to spend your training budget. That’s why I’ll be sharing my experience using my training budget in 2016 and 2017. I hope this will be an inspiration for you!
I am a Product Owner and during the last 18 months, I have attended Polish conferences related to agile methodologies and product development.
Here is my personal feedback on the conferences which I attended:
1. Product Development Days (November, Kraków)
Product Development Days is definitely my number one.
This was the best conference from the content point of view. The line-up was filled with talks by product managers from Google, IBM, Facebook and GE, to mention just a few.
I do not remember seeing such great energy and passion at any of the other conferences that I attended. You could feel this “transmission” from all of the speakers, but I will highlight two of them.
The first is Allie Miller, a product manager from IBM Watson. She gave two incredibly inspirational talks about getting into the Product Manager’s shoes and about AI.
Secondly Lynn Skotnitsky, business coach and conference animator, filled the breaks with the creative ideas and topics for short talks among the attendees.
What I enjoyed the most, however, were the speakers’ introductions. Lynn made it a point to spend time with each person in order to get to know them better. Then she was able to introduce speakers in a very interesting and unconventional way, sharing some personal news about them.
I did not know any of them and this simple trick built a connection between us and the people on the stage.
2. ProductCamp (June, Gdańsk)
My number two! In 2017, this was a 2-day conference: one day of workshops and Bar Camp on the second day.
I attended only Bar Camp, which is a non-official series of open format sessions.
How does it work? First, you see an empty wall. Until the very last moment, you do not know what to expect as a result. Everyone is invited to present a talk; it took just a few moments to fill the agenda in.
I was stunned by the quality of the talks and great “electric” atmosphere. You could feel all the product ideas in the air. It is impossible to describe it, you have to feel it!
The cost for attending the BarCamp was relatively low, around 150 PLN. This year it changed, in order attend the BarCamp you have to either buy the tickets for the conference (this is new) or a training session. The overall cost will be around 1000 PLN. Think fast. The early bird tickets are running out quickly.
3. Agile by Example (October, Warsaw)
This was the first conference that I attended. Everything was new and fresh to me at the time.
I loved every minute of the conference. I had the chance to hear high quality talks filled to the brim with inspirations. I could also meet the people that I had only followed on Twitter before the conference, as well as the authors of well-known books and blogs.
I remember I returned home full of ideas and energy. I wanted to start a revolution!
Quite a few people from STX Next attended the conference. We work in different locations, so it was a great opportunity to talk and integrate. We did not care about the agenda; one of us chose a talk and everyone else followed them.
What I like about AgileByExample is the fact that all talks are recorded and shared on YouTube. You can not only watch every talk you missed (because you were on a different track, for example) but also come back to the talks you liked whenever you need.
Watch out: the organizers recently announced that AgileByExample Light 2018 is approaching. This is a half-day, free of charge open conference that will be held in Warsaw on March 17th.
4. Agile Coach Camp (June and October, Poland)
Can you imagine putting all of the agile folks from Poland in one place so that they could have a series of open discussions on the different subjects over the weekend?
If not, and you would love to see it happen, then Agile Camp is a must.
This is a self-organizing event. I do not mean the organization of the venue and registration. I mean everything that happens inside the hotel after the camp starts.
You will not find any agenda online, as the program is built and owned by the attendees. All you have to do is to come with an open mind and embrace the unknown.
How is that possible? Similarly to Product Camp, the hosts build a plan that includes time slots and meeting places. Then, each attendee is welcome to put their proposition, which can be anything: from a question or problem to simply sharing experience or playing a game.
The proposition should be catchy and interesting, as at this point you are inviting people to join the discussion. This also means that you have to prepare yourself for a lack of interest in your proposition, and the possibility of an empty room.
Everything happens according to “Open Space” rules. If you want to see for yourself how that works, we invite you to our open space meetup in Poznan at our local office.
There is one thing that everyone who attends Agile Coach Camp has in common and repeats on every occasion - they all come there for the vibe.
I must admit that this is true. I met people who share the same challenges, could present my problems from different angles, and also provide me with tried and true solutions. After receiving such support and feeding off the incredible energy, all you have to do is take it with you and put it to good use.
5. Scrum Days (June, Warsaw)
This was the most expensive conference that I attended, and my expectations were high as a result. The agenda was promising, the venue great and the food delicious (trust me, this matters as well). I enjoyed the great organization as well as the idea of breaking the ice with a type of jigsaw puzzle.
What I missed, however, were the inspirational and surprising talks. This experience made me realize two things: this was not the content I was looking for and I enjoy the conferences around the product the most.
What are the pros of attending the conferences?
1. It’s all about networking, socializing and integration
During the conferences you meet with people from different companies. They are all facing the same successes and challenges, so you can easily learn how they overcome problems, what’s new in your field, and how other companies are doing.
I have been approached on many occasions by different folks. This is actually normal, a lot of people attend the conferences by themselves and want to talk to someone. Conferences are a great place for socializing, provided that you enjoy it.
2. Sharing is caring
The majority of the conferences that I attended were a great inspiration, as people share their ideas as well as pitfalls openly, present what worked and what did not, and what should be avoided. This is great, because you learn by example.
What is also worth mentioning is the possibility of approaching the speaker during the breaks and asking further questions. They are always open to feedback and happy when they get it.
I usually return home with pages of notes and hundreds of pictures from the conferences. More often than not, I find myself searching the Internet for more details after the event.
3. Meeting gurus
The conference creates a great opportunity to meet people you have heard of, or authorities you know from books or blog posts. This means you can simply thank them for the education and inspiration, or ask a question regarding any situation you might be in. You will also meet new people who will inspire you and become your new guru.
Lastly, you can have a spontaneous and friendly conversation with all folks, which doesn’t have to be related to the conference agenda. This happened to me during ABE 2017 when I ate lunch with Tom Gilb who shared with us how he met his wife.
4. Searching for a teammate
Conferences serve a great opportunity for companies to search for candidates. Such events need sponsoring in order to succeed, as tickets sales alone may not bring enough funding.
I have seen speakers who took the chance to sell their company as well as share the open positions during their talks. Moreover, I know people who were unaware that they were being interviewed during the conference. They later got a call from HR and landed the job.
Just think about it: five minutes of spontaneous conversation at a conference could get you a new job. That in itself is a great reason to attend.
5. Personal branding
You never know who you might end up talking to.
As I’ve just mentioned, the conference may be a part of your recruitment process. It will serve you well to prepare a short, catchy, 30-second speech that summarizes who you are and what you do.
Additionally there is a list of the most common questions that you will most likely hear during a conference:
What is your reason for attending the conference?
What are your biggest challenges?
What are your greatest accomplishments?
Prepare yourself to answer those as well.
If you are open and easy-going, you should gain new friends who can then present you to their recruitment team.
Are there any cons?
Price. The conferences may cost a lot. The cost of the ticket itself can reach up to 1600 PLN (~400 EUR). Whenever this happens, the expectations are high, and the event doesn’t always live up to that hype.
How should I spend my budget if I am starting my career?
If you are starting your career I recommend spending your time and money on training. I suggest attending meetups and workshops.
I believe it is worth gaining the knowledge and experience first before you attend a conference. I find the content of the majority of conferences too complex or sophisticated for a newbie.
What should I do if I do not get the budget from my company?
I have three recommendations: you can search for talks and watch them online, attend meetups or become a speaker.
Finding talks online
The first option requires doing some homework. Firstly, you should create a list of conferences interest you. Then check their agendas and follow the speakers via Twitter or LinkedIn. Finally, search for the recordings. It may happen that the talk has been presented already and made available online.
Give meetups a try. I know a lot of people who train their talks locally first. Do not limit yourself to your hometown. I recommend signing up to meetups in different cities in order to get notifications about the agenda.
This way you learn what is happening in different towns, and you can see if any of the meetings can be of your interest. I usually go to Warsaw for Product Tank and Agile Warsaw.
Becoming a speaker
If you believe that attending the meetups is not enough, you can become a speaker. The majority of conferences offer free tickets to their speakers.
There are some conferences, however, which are not free of charge even for their speaker. It is worth checking before sending your application.
I enjoyed Agile by Example in 2016. I could not afford to attend it in 2017, as I have spent all my budget already. I could either pay for the conference myself or send the application.
I decided to take the chance to become a speaker. I must say it was a great experience. However, how it went and what to do in order to prepare yourself is a topic for a seperate post.
What conference are you going to attend this year?
Definitely Product Camp, I have bought the tickets already. I’m also planning to attend Product Development Days (the early bird tickets now on sale).
What is your method for finding a good conference?
Attending all of the above conferences helped me build my own expectations. I am now fully aware of what I am looking for when I am going to the conferences.
I am not interested in the theory - that I can easily google on my own. I want to see examples of putting the theory into practice.
The conference should inspire you to change and improve the way you work, your surroundings and your collaboration with others. The talks should be insightful, pragmatic, lively and personal.
If you return from the conference full of ideas and energy then I believe it was a great choice.
I would love to hear your feedback:
What are the conferences you enjoyed the most?
Do you have your own recipe for a great conference?
Please leave a comment if you would like to hear about conferences on software craftsmanship, as we attend them as well.