If you're here, you've likely received a conference invite or two recently. There seems to be announcements or newsletters coming out with even more event options lately. And it can feel overwhelming when picking an event or deciding whether or not to attend.
We've compiled a guide for what to consider when deciding to attend a new tech conference, key factors for picking a conference that's right for you, and featuring some of our favorite tech conferences to help you get started. Finally, we dig into how the conference landscape has shifted over the years and what you can expect going forward.
Let's jump right into it!
What makes a good tech conference?
In today's world, your time is limited. You want to dedicate your energy toward attending the best events, but what does that mean?
Here are a few key considerations for what makes a great tech conference, according to attendees!
Built-in Opportunities for Networking & Job Hunting
If you were to do a quick search online, you would find some consensus when it comes to attending conferences. Frequent conference goers love tech conferences for their networking potential. Conferences are where key connections happen, whether it's trading notes and business cards, making a lifelong friend, or scoping out new job opportunities. Overall, the folks who frequent tech conferences seem to agree that conferences stand out if they can help make these connections happen easier.
For example, a good conference balances expert talks with various breaks for networking in the right way. The conference venue should have designated spaces for networking, and networking should be integrated into the agenda, not just spontaneous.
Tony Uphoff's insight reveals a pattern in terms of what makes a good networking experience:
"Great conferences appear to have a natural flow between content sessions and networking. It takes considerable planning and execution however to make this appear 'natural'.
Great producers and operations people are key here - as important as great content people. [I] have seen more clever conference ideas, with great content, fail based on not having people who really understand how to run conferences behind the scenes."
So, a great conference is in large part thanks to great conference organizers. Their ability to provide networking opportunities to their attendees can change lives, but a poorly organized conference can turn out to be a complete waste of time.
Access to Experts
Rather than submitting a comment into the online void, attendees at tech conferences often have face-to-face access to industry experts. Even if you feel like you know all there is to know about your role, the opportunity to bounce questions and ideas around with industry leaders and expert speakers in a Q&A session or 1-on-1 capacity is hard to pass up.
Great conferences consider the diversity of their speakers, to make sure that a variety of perspectives and experiences are represented in the talks. Diversity of speakers will result in diversity of ideas, inspiration and advice, which has the potential to appeal to a larger and more diverse group of potential attendees.
A great tech conference exposes you to new, approaches, paths, and consideration that you may not have come across on your own. When evaluating a conference, check out whether their speakers appear to come from a diverse set of circumstances to determine if attending will help you achieve your goals.
Great Content & Keeping Up with Trends
Some argue that conferences don't do much other than regurgitate what you can find online or provide "fluffy" educational content.
According to Robert Scoble, the approach to the content and its formatting are key to separating a great conference from a lackluster experience:
"For me, what makes a great conference?
- The quality of the speakers. Panels suck. One or two panels at a conference is OK, more means the content will be lightweight and that the conference organizer just wanted to get a ton of people onto the program (which works to get a crowd, look at SXSW).
- The focus of the content. If I'm trying to learn, say, Ruby on Rails, I might pay to attend a conference on that. But if they start talking about Objective C I will feel that the value is less than it could have been."
The world of technology is constantly evolving. For developers in a highly specialized niche or discipline, conferences can be more valuable when topics are focused around major industry trends and new technology releases. Workshops and case study style, "How we achieved X", talks can offer a unique opportunity to learn from expert colleagues in your field.
Developers will be familiar with the pain point of constantly needing to keep up with always-evolving best practices and new releases to stay ahead. Some professional licenses and certifications require continuing education (CE) credits that can be earned by attending conferences, which can make staying ahead of the learning curve easier and more efficient.
Good conferences bear this in mind and facilitate the learning of new technologies and concepts in a more digestible and memorable way than a series of marketing slides or training videos. Consider these specific learning opportunities and the formats for how the content is delivered when you evaluate your next conference.
A truly great conference changes the way you think, opens up your mind to a different perspective, or makes you feel like there is a part of you that will never be the same (in a good way).
The tech conferences that have wowed attendees in the past provided eye-opening experiences. Whether it was a world-famous keynote speaker or a particularly memorable peer conversation, attendees of a great conference should leave having been exposed to new and inspiring ideas outside the scope of their 9-to-5.
Plus, the most helpful perspectives and actionable insights for issues attendees face tend to come from a similarly-sized company or team. Rather than working through theories and ideas from industry-distant consultants, a good conference creates an environment to connect the brightest minds facing the same problems.
Fresh and diverse perspectives help attendees stumble across moments of out-of-the-box thinking. These "ah-ha!" moments may later be the key resolving a bug or issue. In any case, attendees should leave each session feeling like they're taking something valuable away with them.
Depending on the size of the conference, there might be a variety of session topics to choose from, ranging from topics that directly help you solve a problem, to learning a new skill that could benefit your career down the road in a way you never anticipated. A great conference should leave you feeling inspired and itching to get to work!
Good events have a positive atmosphere. They're fun! They go beyond just a work event.
For example, some conferences invite musical guests to perform. The best way to get a sense of the experience is through social media and people's comments and posts from prior years' events. What were their takeaways from the experience?
Of course, you'll also get a feel for the environment by attending yourself. How do people approach each other? Are there a decent number of volunteers? According to some conference veterans, this last point positively speaks to the environment of the conference community.
It wouldn't be a complete list without mentioning the free food, beverages, and swag. The consensus seems to be that good conferences have good handouts.
When it comes to swag, tech conferences tend to vary in the items they hand out. Typically, they're known to offer more standard items like tumblers, power banks, and drawstring bags. However, there are some gems that various individuals have proudly nabbed over the years:
- "At Storage Networking World, I won a Bose Wave Radio. At an IBM storage conference, I won two tickets to an Elton John Concert [in] the sixth row at Caesar's Palace."
- "[An] Apple TV from a VMUG conference!"
- "In my first year at HP's CodeWars, they gave everyone a copy of XP Pro, Office 2003 Pro, Outlook Business Contact Manager, full MSDN libraries, and Visual Studio .NET Pro (I believe). It was pretty awesome for a 15-year-old aspiring programmer."
- "[A] 'talk nerdy to me' t-shirt!"
- "[The] best swag I got from a conference was a 'Citrix Certified' track jacket for passing CCAA while I was at Synergy. It's permanently draped over my chair for when the office is running a little cold."
Food is also important, so do a little research on the food, drink, and swag offered last year when evaluating your next conference!
Important Considerations When Evaluating a Conference
Not all tech conferences are formatted the same way. Here are a couple of additional factors to keep in mind when it comes to finding great conference experiences that are personally aligned with your goals and values:
Size - Rather than categorizing larger or smaller conferences as "better" or "worse" experiences, this point is more subjective. Are you looking to explore a broad range of topics and network with people from a variety of disciplines? If so, attending a larger conference might be the right fit. Are you looking for more specialized topics and a more relaxed and intimate gathering? Smaller conferences might be right up your alley.
Location - Location is key with the return of in-person meetings. Larger cities with more of a tech presence, like San Francisco, Austin, or NYC, tend to have larger events, a broader range of sessions and topics, and more conference-related external events and afterparties. This isn't to exclude other cities or even virtual and hybrid conferences as viable options! In fact, hybrid and virtual conferences are more accessible than ever, and remote conference ticket prices are typically much lower (or even free) when compared to purchasing an in-person ticket.
Interactivity - Today, conferences are stepping away from the traditional format and lineup of speakers to feature a variety of workshops, co-working areas, and boot camps. The intent is to bring people together in new ways. Some events, such as the Space Tech Expo, feature "matchmaking" programs. This format, which have gained traction over the years in a number of industries, connect attendees with experts, companies, and fellow attendees to facilitate learnings, partnerships, and possibly, future collaborations.
Social Impact - Technology impacts every facet of our lives. Naturally, through the process of researching, iterating, and launching, there is a greater opportunity to develop products with an awareness of how technology can better serve a wider population. In that process, it's also key to highlight diverse voices and perspectives in tech leadership. A couple of conferences of note are prioritizing DEI initiatives in tech and explore the intersection of tech and social good, including the Diversity + Inclusion in Tech Summit hosted by the NC Tech Association, and Good Tech Fest, respectively. Additionally, Diversify Tech shares upcoming conferences with social impact values on its website.
Tech Conferences to Have on Your Radar
Now that you have a sense of what makes a good conference experience, we thought we might share a couple of our conference recommendations:
Where: Lisbon, Portugal
Web Summit is considered a highlight in the tech world. As one of the largest tech conferences in the world and the largest European tech conferences, Web Summit is a hub for thousands of CEOs, startups, angel investors, speakers, and global tech enthusiasts.
Typically held during the first week of November, this annual conference features multiple mini-conferences. Each is geared toward different topics including international business, health, and marketing, among others.
Where: San Mateo, California
SaaStr Annual is a three-day, community-driven, festival-style SaaS event. According to the CEO of Zoom, SaasStr is the "Super Bowl moment" for SaaS companies.
The annual event brings together thousands of B2B business executives, founders, VCs, and investors. What results is a giant networking opportunity with hundreds of meetup sessions, workshops, 1-on-1s, industry talks, and even pitching events for founders and investors to connect.
Where: Global, with annual conferences in both the US and Europe
MicroConf has been around for nearly 10 years. From its humble beginning in Las Vegas with a handful of founders, the community has grown by the thousands to become a trusted hub for independent SaaS startup founders.
Over the years, MicroConf has hosted 19 events and features both local and online events that bring SaaS founders together to connect and grow. Their local event agenda incorporates founder "speed networking", followed by SaaS Snapshots to dig deep into current issues faced by B2B founders. Local events are usually smaller and specific to a city (e.g. MicroConf Seattle, MicroConf Austin, and MicroConf Atlanta) in effort to connect local founders and allow them to build lasting relationships.
MicroConf also holds larger events, including MicroConf Europe and MicroConf US. Wether it's a local conference or one of the annuals, they are well-known for their "Hallway Track" of informal networking conversations that take place in-between or in-leu-of the talks. MicroConf takes pride in connecting some of the brightest minds and helping bootstrapped founders reach multi-figure valuations.
Bits & Pretzels
Where: Munich, Germany
Known as the Founder Festival, Bits & Pretzels is an annual festival focused on driving positive change through entrepreneurship. Over 5,000 creators, investors, founders, and startup enthusiasts come together for 3 days to connect, share success stories, and trade tips.
At each year's conference, the first two days are dedicated to keynote speeches, workshops, masterclasses, and startup competitions. The third day is fully focused on networking and matchmaking, with investors and founders sharing beer, chicken, and pretzels during Oktoberfest. Bits & Pretzels is also known for featuring impressive musical guests and keynote speakers (including Former US President Barack Obama!) during the event.
Where: Mountain View, California
Google I/O – also known by its shortened form, I/O – is an annual developer conference typically held at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California. Over a few days, attendees gain access to technology deep dives and key announcements from Google. Historically, the conference is known to share announcements around several major topics, including new releases for Android OS and its ecosystem, and Google Pixel.
I/O is known for its great food and exciting announcements, but getting a ticket can be tough (and expensive). If you can't make it to the in-person event, you can always catch up on the talks as they're shared online.
Where: Cupertino, California
The Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) is an annual, week-long event that takes place Monday through Friday. Apple WWDC shares key software updates and announcements for Apple, including the macOS, iOS, iPadOS, tvOS, and watchOS technologies.
Day one of the event starts with the main keynote address, (previously called the Stevenote), followed by the Platforms State of the Union in sharing software updates, and the Apple Design Awards for standout apps and games. Throughout the rest of the week, there are multiple session tracks covering a variety of topics for attendees of all experience levels.
Lunchtime sessions feature a number of industry leaders in technology and science. Labs also run during the week, which offer 1-on-1 guidance from Apple engineers and experts on how to use the announced Apple technologies and released features.
Cant snag a WWDC ticket? Prior to Covid, there was AltConf, a community-driven event, assembled to serve developers and a product driven community alongside WWDC. Nowadays, they host remote events. You can keep up with AltConf news and happenings here!
The Resurgence of Tech Conferences
Tech conferences are coming back after having been dealt a major blow in recent years, with many being postponed or canceled. According to Vox, the cancellation of major conferences like E3 and SXSW resulted in losses of over $1 billion as of 2020. PredictHQ, a global intelligence and data platform, shared that this number didn't even encompass the full cost for companies hosting the event.
Many conferences, including events like Facebook F8 and Adobe Summit, pivoted to offer online components. However, many events with a more virtual push found it hard to recoup their losses and attendance numbers, as we found was similarly the case with tech meetups in our article here.
The return of tech conferences, like tech meetups, has been slow and stealthy since COVID-19. One of the first major events to return was the prominent Code Conference, a Beverly Hills event featuring names like Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Evan Spiegel, founder of Snapchat. While the event was marked by vaccine cards and face masks, it showed that mingling in tech was again possible.
The event also set the tone when it came to creating more accessibility for tech conferences. At $10,000 per ticket, the Silicon Valley event doesn't exactly come across as a budget-friendly option. However, the event opened up attendance by allowing individuals to access the event via live stream at $125 per ticket.
Other larger conferences made more of a push to return in 2021. Amazon's AWS Re:Invent was one such event, which carried out its promise to go live in September with a hybrid approach. Splunk's .conf21 went ahead with event plans for October 2021 but made the last-minute decision to switch to a virtual-only event. Then, in January 2022, CES (aka the "Super Bowl" of tech events) launched in Las Vegas after a year hiatus.
Since the start of 2022, several tech conferences have sprung back up across calendars everywhere, featuring big events and names in the space, like DEF CON, the Gartner Data and Analytics Summit, Black Hat USA, and Microsoft events.
The Future of Remote Conferences
For some conferences, like O'Reilly Media, the decision was made to shift fully online for the foreseeable future. In a statement made by Laura Baldwin, O'Reilly's President, the decision to go fully remote was made with the belief that the "stage is set for a new normal moving forward when it comes to in-person events."
But are virtual conferences still an attractive option as other big conference players shift back to in-person events?
As previously discussed, tech conferences have been able to open up their events to a wider global audience. With the ability to stream a speaker session or keynote anywhere in the world, more people have access to join from areas where the means to purchase a ticket, qualify for a scholarship, or travel, may not be available. For both attendees and the companies that would otherwise send them, a remote or hybrid event decreases out-of-pocket costs while allowing more people to come together to learn.
The downside is losing out on the magic of attending in-person. Zoom rooms have their limit in replicating the non-verbal cues and spontaneity of in-person networking. Plus, throughout COVID, many have felt a particular burnout from viewing events via live stream.
And as mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are some real benefits with in-person networking at conferences that can't be replicated elsewhere. In general, the push for remote conference experiences hasn't necessarily gone away. Rather, it is being leveraged more as a way to amplify accessibility and opportunity at tech events alongside the in-person event.
Tech Conferences are Evolving
Over the last several years, the landscape of conferences has shifted. What used to be paid, in-person events have transitioned to include new locations, formats, and technology to bring people together in the tech industry.
The future of tech conferences is a push for experiences that are deeply impactful for attendees, as noted by Matthias Schultze of the German Convention Bureau (GCB):
“Our latest research shows that participants prefer events that are surprising, trigger change, or create a sense of community. The higher the disruption factor, the longer participants remember an event. Disruption is the key to satisfaction.”
This is in direct alignment with what attendees feel makes a good conference experience:
"Incredible experiences create memories."