Learning and doing
I registered for the South By SouthWest Intercative (SXSWi) festival last week. It was a bit difficult to plop down $400+ to basically see what other people are doing, and yes, I do see the benefits or I would not have registered; its still difficult. So what exactly do I hope to get out of it? This may be a good exercise for myself: creating a list of what I hope to get out of conferences in general (or this one specifically) and make sure that whatever I do attend fulfills those goals.
I think first on the list is networking. I know, I know... it's cliche, and overrated, only it's not. Allow me to illustrate with a story. I recently attended an inauguration party thrown by a local technology-oriented group of folks (a social network that isn't based solely on the interwebs). It was sponsored (although there wasn't too much to be had from that, other than no cover, a shitty band, and "head shots" by a semi-professional photographer), and my primary reason for going was to network. While there I did meet a few folks, and I even "talked shop" with a couple. But the best effect of the evening (in my mind) was from a conversation with someone non-technical. This person was working with a company on a project that I had some interest in, although limited to participation, not to work on. However, I have a friend who is recently unemployed and who is a perfect match with this company. I know it doesn't benefit me directly right now, but that friend will (and has in the past) send work and networking connections my way. In the end, that chance meeting could pay off well.
The second important thing I want to get out of this (and any) conference/convention/festival/etc. would be fresh ideas for projects. If you look at the history of SXSW, I think its obvious that you get that, but maybe you are asking yourself why other people's ideas matter at all. And you're right, none of their ideas are things I'm going to do, but I will be able to (hopefully) meet some of the people behind these projects, pick their brain, and learn how they come up with their ideas. I can also see where the industry is headed, and where there may be gaps to fill with my own work.
The last goal I'll mention now (as this post is getting longer, and I don't think you'll read much more), is to get out of the damn house. Of course, this plays a lot into goals one and two as I need to get out of the house to do either really, but it is very important for my sanity (and everyone around me) to leave the work environment for extended periods of time now and then. It fosters a sense of freedom, it generates nostalgia for my work situation (which in turn makes me want to get back to work), and it lets me look at my environment (regardless of what I'm working on) with fresh eyes. For example, I might leave for a few days, come back, and realize that my monitor setup could be more efficiently organized, or that my desk is facing the wrong direction and screwing up the feng shui... you know, if I gave a crap about that.
So anyway, I'm going to SXSWi, and I'm looking at couple of other conferences coming up this Spring/Summer. Dropping the dough to go to these is difficult, but I suppose it is a tax deduction. What are you planning to attend this year?