Going to conferences is often considered an expensive form of entertainment and more or less a waste of time, but I think this really misses the point. Conferences are one of the very few activities that help you attain multiple objectives: if you take a course you will just learn a new skill. If you go to meet ups you will just network and meet new people. If you read magazines like wired and blogs like signal vs. noise you may get inspiration and following specific groups on LinkedIn or quora may help you spot some trends, but going to a conference will provide all four things in one experience and more concentrated. It will also be something you will remember years from now (which most of the others aren’t)
Soon I am going to the GoTo conference, so let us take that as an example.
Like most tech conferences Goto conferences have several days devoted purely to training. Here you can keep up to date with the latest techniques like Continuous Delivery, new technologies like AngularJS or more soft areas like usability for mobile devices. This is a really good opportunity because the trainers are usually internationally acclaimed authorities in the field, who are also speaking at the conference. Chances are that training of this calibre is not something you find at your local community college.
Meeting people and expanding your network is always a good idea. First of all you will probably learn something from them, second they may in one way or another lead you to your next venture. Rumour has it that David Heinemeier Hanson, creator of Ruby on Rails and Jason Fried Co-founder of 37 Signals met at a GoTo conference and thereby laid the foundation for a true powerhouse in web development that gave us Basecamp and Highrise. It could also occur that you met a real moron that provoked you to think of something you hadn’t thought about before. Either way growing your network is a good thing at conferences.
Few places offer better chances to get inspired than good conferences. It could be that discussion about Doctor Who after the fifth pint of Guinness in the wee hours of the night, the presentation of a new technology in a booth or overhearing a heated argument about the best distributed database on the market. It obviously could also be a presentation at the actual conference, but inspiration in my opinion comes in unexpected ways and during a conference you are out of your normal (comfort) zone so you are more alert and exposed to new ideas.
Following trends and what is happening can be very difficult if you are not tapping into the right communication lines (and these lines are constantly changing), but at really good conferences you will very quickly spot what the trends are. You can do this by looking at the booths at the conference, listening to the conversations of others and generally looking through the program to find words that are repeated across different presentations and training offerings. These days it seems that Big data and Agile is on top.
So, if you are not going yet then you have four good reasons to convince your boss or yourself to go to the goto conference or other quality conferences.