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Should you go to SRECon?
A story about whether or not it is useful to go to conferences (spoiler: yes), why, how to maximize the value and how to overcome the invariable challenges you'll face.
On Friday, 13th October, Exhausted, I returned from SRECon EMEA 23. A conference I have been to twice now is one of my favourite ways to spend time and the most critical professional periods of my career. However, of all the people I know and work with, only a tiny slice go to these conferences each year. This post is for people who do not but who are interested in whether they can / should in future.
Let’s start by looking briefly at this conference.
Whoo boy, this post is different! Most of my posts are less community-focused. Still, if you like the work, consider subscribing!
a gathering of engineers who care deeply about site reliability, systems engineering, and working with complex distributed systems at scale. SREcon strives to challenge both those new to the profession as well as those who have been involved in it for decades. — SRECon
It is a problem-oriented conference (as opposed to a technology-oriented or vendor-oriented conference). It thus tends to have a wide range of talks, approaching software operations from different sides. This year, there were deep dives into technology (e.g. eBPF), reliability, domain (e.g. a Telco), learning and development (e.g. Scale your Future) and organizational change (Tracing the journey of Distributed Tracing).
The immediate question is, is this a valuable conference? Moreover, is it sufficiently valuable to dedicate a week of work, flights and hotels? For this particular conference, I obviously think the answer is “yes”. But let’s dive into the value of a conference more generally and how you can maximize it while you’re there.
Heads Up 💡 One of the reasons that SRECon is such a good conference is because the organizers truly believe and commit to delivering on the USENIX Mission. The USENIX members and sponsors support this mission and make this conference (and the YouTube content) possible. If you appreciate this material, consider donating or becoming a member. I picked membership!
Most of the “work” that seems to go around a conference is in scheduling and planning the talks that go into it or choosing which talks to attend. However, there is vastly more that you can do at conferences if you keep your eye out for the opportunity. For me, the most valuable aspects of a conference are:
Let’s dig into these a little bit.
It’s hard to overstate quite how much technology is a people-driven industry. Often, a handful of people write technology that changes the landscape of software engineering. People meet at conferences, discover a shared need, and work across organizational boundaries to try and find a standard solution to that problem. People are actively scouting talent to solve deeply challenging engineering problems. Invariably, some (like me soon1) use these conferences to try and find our next opportunity.
Working with people is slightly different from working with technology or a bureaucracy. People tend much more quickly to picture those they’ve seen or interacted with as partners, employees or managers. People weigh the ideas of others with greater heft if they’ve seen their peers react well to those ideas and will pay progressively more attention to them the more others also pay attention.
Attending a conference can be a massive boon to hiring or your efforts to find work simply because it exposes you to many people. At worst, the more you’re exposed, the more likely you’ll find someone looking for the particular kind of magic you’ll bring to an organization. At best, you’ll find new colleagues who bring the experience you sorely need within your organization, or perhaps you’ll find an organization that understands the value you can bring in a way your existing one struggles to.
There are ways in which you can work to maximize this value. These include:
Meet new people
Suppose you are attending a conference in another country and in a new environment. In that case, it can be extremely compelling to hang with people you brought along for the journey or meet regularly at these conferences.
My recommendation is to avoid this, if possible. The challenge here is that there are many ways to catch up with people you know already but few ways to get to know people you do not. A conference brings many people together with a shared interest, thus the perfect opportunity to meet these new people.
There’s no graceful way (in my experience) to go about this. Easily my favourite strategy is walking around with a coffee until you spot a gap in a group, and then ask at a convenient moment, “Do you mind if I crash this conversation?”. You will sometimes get uncomfortable looks, and you can move on — but far more often, you’ll get “Of course! We’re talking about …”. Once you join, listen in, ask some questions, and if the opportunity arises, share your experience. Be a polite “conversational guest”.
Lastly, if the opportunity comes up toward the end of the day, invite people out for dinner or join a shared dinner. The conversations at dinners can go much deeper, and you can build a much more lasting connection over fish and chips and a glass of wine.
In Practice @ SRECon
At SRECon, I met quite a large number of people this way, and had some tremendous conversations with colleagues from Microsoft, Reddit, Slack, Pragmatic AI Consulting, Nobl9, Lightstep (now ServiceNow). Mostly I just listened, and asked questions, and tried to bounce the conversation to include other listeners. As a result, I now have multiple new connections for both my courses and when I’ll need work again 🤓
As you’re talking to different people, there’s a natural moment in which the conversation will end — going into a talk, for example. At that moment, if you’d like to catch up later, you can always ask for people’s LinkedIn. Something like, “Oh! We could connect on LinkedIn if you like?” is usually sufficient; people can always refuse this with something like “Ahh, sorry, I do not have mine handy and need to run!”.
Following the conference, you can go through LinkedIn and figure out if there’s anyone who made a connection that you’d like to reach out to later. LinkedIn helpfully sorts them by recency.
In Practice @ SRECon
Here, I didn’t do this as much as I should have for this year — I learned from others. However, at the end I discovered the recency short, and messaged all those who were kind enough to reach out. Quite a number of us live in Berlin! I fully intend to reach out and arrange a gathering.
To understand why sharing your perspective with the community is so valuable, it is first essential to understand one of the weirder dynamics of growing within our careers. Beyond a certain career level, hiring the person who will be best in class in a given position is far less essential than ensuring you do not hire the person who will be destructive in that position.
This is perfectly reasonable given some thought about the organization itself — an organization can definitely survive being less efficient. Still, it cannot survive if the organization is torn down and stops delivering value.
That begs the question: How do you identify the people likely to be “sufficiently valuable” with limited risk of being “destructive”? Well, you ask them for their perspectives on a series of complex tradeoffs and ensure their tradeoffs and decisions align with yours (or are at least logical and defensible).
That brings us back to sharing knowledge. The challenge of people looking to hire senior colleagues and those running the conference is similar — find people who have to solve a challenging problem and ask them how they did that. The boon for you, as the speaker, is that by sharing your perspective across the audience (and on YouTube), you’re proactively sharing your tradeoffs and approach. In this, you’re exposing yourself to a wide range of people looking for that candidate and who might approach you based on that experience — even years later.
In parallel, it’s nice to give back to the engineering community as so many others are so kind with their knowledge. You might ignite an engineer’s curiosity and fundamentally transform their perspective! I have seen many talks that have changed mine. Additionally, nothing teaches you a topic like knowing you will have to present it and answer questions in front of up to a few hundred people.
Like before, there are a few ways to maximize your value here:
Submit the Call for Papers
You must submit the call for papers to talk at any conference. The reviewer decides whether or not to include your talk based on these proposals, so take them seriously.
What to submit is a challenging question, but I would look at the lessons you personally have learned over the past 12 months and take the opportunity to submit those. Don’t worry if someone else has already published material on this before — we are all at different points in our growth journey, and your version might be what someone else needs to hear at theirs.
You will face rejection in the majority of cases. There are too many enthusiastic speakers! But knowing that ahead of time is helpful, so you do not feel disheartened when the “no” comes back.
In Practice @ SRECon
This year, I submitted one full length talk that was rejected:
And three lightning talks, two of which were rejected:
You can find the talk I did on stage duplicated on YouTube.
Let’s assume that you’re lucky enough to have a talk (or a lightning talk) submitted. Congratulations 🎉 You’ll then need to write that talk. Without going into detail, the process I usually follow is:
Write a post or a script
Practice reading that aloud, editing along the way.
After that, in theory, you’ve got “everything you need” to present! However, presenting has one key factor that I (at least) find deeply challenging to overcome: sheer bloody panic. Presenting in front of people is terrifying; my legs shake, I speak too fast, and my mind goes blank. I rarely remember the talks themselves.
I’ve found only one solution to this over the years: Practice. Practice a lot. The reason to practice is to overcome that panic by “falling back” on the version of the talk you’ve wired into your brain. At best, you do not need it, but at worst, you can at least convey the talk you intended to convey without adjusting it to variables on the day. So, practice it, practice speaking it, practice it in front of your dog, practice it with a clicker and then practice it to a small community. Practice it until you’re hearing your voice in your sleep.
Lastly, when you’re at the conference, figure out where and how you’ll present. Figure out what mic you’ll be using, whether you can take notes, whether there’ll be a “confidence monitor”, and so on. Ideally, take a break to walk on stage in the empty room and test your computer's work with the HDMI. All of this minimizes the panic-inducing moments.
In Practice @ SRECon
This year, I only did a lightning talk and did exactly as I described above (though it was only 4 minutes). I was still over too quickly.
Last year, however, I did a talk with a colleague (Salomé Santos). We had practice the talked exhaustively before the conference, but shortly before Salomé needed to present remote! In talking to the AV team, this meant that we would have no slides. Additionally, the whole talk setup was very unusul.
We adjusted to these constraints by falling back on what we’d practice. While I felt nothing but panic during the talk, it all worked out beautifully for the conference itself. I later got the opportunity to speak at another, industry internal conference as a result!
Lastly (for the conference itself), we have the talks. I put the talks last because, thanks to the USENIX mission, the members who support it and the conference sponsors, they’re available on YouTube afterwards. That’s not to say there are not valuable to do on the days — they are — but given a choice between making a connection and viewing a talk, I’ll choose the connection and watch the content a bit later.
That said, talks are still super helpful. First, and with some irony, they’ll bring together other people, even within a conference, who are interested in a topic you’re also interested in. That makes it an excellent opportunity to connect with those people (or the speaker) to ask further questions or discuss their challenges.
Second, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve watched a talk and had my perspective fundamentally shifted. Talks on Human Factors and Safety Science were recently my most substantial shifts and structured how I ran Embedded SRE for the last couple of years.
As always, there are ways to maximize your value from talks.
At a conference, you’re generally there for specific work reasons. That means to get the most value out of topics; you should pick the topics relevant to your job (or the job you want) that help you understand a challenge you are facing in a new way or provide you with peers to discuss it.
This means not picking the talks because the speakers are compelling or because you are excited by the topic. This is the hardest challenge and one I regularly fail, as I deeply love digging into the Linux kernel and technology challenges around infrastructure. Still, my job focuses on enabling software engineers to own much more frequent, less complex operational challenges.
In Practice @ SRECon
At SRECon I joined some talks on topics that I am currently working on, such as Observability. It was super helpful as I was struck there’s still a substantial disconnect between how operations people see Observability versus how product engineers see it. This is encouraging for me, as this is the problem I set out to solve with the Practical Introduction to Observability. I also learned quite a bit more about Machine Learning observability, and made a connection with an expert in this domain (Lina Weichbrodt)
However, I also failed here and joined talks on Chubby (and its history) as well as Sockmap in the kernel. In my own defense, there’s only so much I can focus without joy 😅
Thank the Speaker
Speakers are people too, and people who just went through an emotional ringer in front of many other people. You can help brighten their day by thanking them for their talk and pointing out a concrete insight you took away from it. You can ask if they (later) want feedback on it, or if you have only positive feedback, pass that on directly.
You’ll be surprised how many speakers are grateful for this! I know I sure am. You might not get answers immediately (or at all) — speakers tend to get bombarded with questions after a talk.
Last on the list. Personally, the fundamental reason I started going to conferences was that I was too poor to travel independently. I figured out that the conference ticket is free if I speak, and I can get work to (at least) chip in for my flight under “employer branding”. Its no additional cost for the employer to send you a few days earlier, so you can get your own hotel for the extra couple of days and look around.
My financial situation has somewhat improved, but some of my life's best travel experiences have been just before or just after a conference. My wife and I will go, explore the city for a little while and then I’ll head to the conference. We’ve been to a bunch of remarkable and unexpected places like this!
In Practice @ SRECon
My wife and I went a few days early, and did the Guiness tour, Viking bus and quite a few dinners and afternoon cocktails. It was great fun! After that, she went back and I went into “full conference mode”.
Right now, I have no employer so there is no financial benefit for doing this way. But we have the habit, and its a nice one to keep.
So! We’ve talked extensively about the value of this conference, how to maximize it, and examples from this year’s SRECon. However, at this point, you might think, “This sounds all great and well, but I cannot do this because …”.
Let’s chat about some of the challenges that I (at least) faced
The first and most substantial challenge is cost. SRECon this year cost me ~3,000 € all up. 1000 for the tickets (approx), another 1000 for the hotel, 150 for the flights (I live close), and a few hundred for food and incidentals. This is an enormous outlay of cash, no matter your financial position!
Fortunately, there are definitely ways in which you can limit how much you spend.
Learning & Development Budgets
In this post, we’ve talked extensively about the value of conferences, settling on the primary value being around people. For companies, the highest ROI for conferences is sending people for hiring rather than learning. Still, the shared understanding that conferences are educational means that we can usually use our “learning and development” budgets to attend.
Often, just the ticket will exhaust or multiply the budget. However, these budgets are often pooled between 30 people, and companies can inadvertently make them hard to reach. This means that if you ask toward the end of the year when the budget is essentially “doing nothing” and will shortly expire, it’s easy to argue to spend it all on a conference ticket.
So far, we’ve discussed speaking as primarily valuable if you’re looking for either work yourself or some new colleagues to work with. However, one pragmatic upside of speaking is the free ticket.
Additionally, companies can look at speakers differently than they look at attendees. This means working with corporate communications to ensure your talk is aligned (which, if you’re in a large org, you need to do anyway); however, it also means there’s a separate and often much larger budget to tap for your flights and hotels.
Speaking is how I used to be able to afford to attend conferences!
While not something you can do beforehand, it is much easier to convince management figures that a conference is worthwhile if there is clear evidence that attending it drove positive change within the organization. Notably, this change doesn’t have to come from you.
You can use what you learned at the conference to try and drive change through your organization simply by summarizing your discoveries for others to consume. That gives people an “editorial view” of the material and helps them discover relevant things specific to their context. This is illustrated in an exceptionally amusing way by Tiarnán de Burca in this Slack thread.
Writing this up is cheap and can be done the day after the conference!
In Practice @ SRECon
This post was inspired by a discussion within a chat on this very topic. Hopefully it helps people understand just how valuable these conferences can be!
The conference takes a significant amount of time away from your professional work. If you are working in an organization with strict deadlines, this can be challenging. In terms of getting that time approved, the approach is similar to the cost issue — try to clarify the value of going and sharing the knowledge you gained when you return. If it is “ambassadorial” work, it is much easier for companies to pay for than if it is “learning”.
That said, at the outset, be clear that this is not “work time” — you will be entirely unavailable during this period. The value of the conference is in the people, and when and how to meet with them tends to be unpredictable. You should not plan work at this time.
Aside from that, plan the time away as you would a holiday!
Lastly, you'll quickly discover a challenge unique to the conference itself: Exhaustion. Essentially, you’re heading away from home to an (often cheap) hotel, and you’re not going to have the local coffee or food shops that you’re used to. You’ll be joining peers from across the industry, trying to put on a witty or polite facade for 12 - 16 hours a day over multiple days.
During this period, it is critical to be kind to yourself. Find a way to get space if you become overwhelmed, ensure that you get enough sleep and limit your alcohol intake to one that doesn’t interrupt your sleep (or interrupt your “ambassadorial work”).
Lastly, take care of things like the Coronavirus (or other kinds of sicknesses). If you are sick, stay away. Brutal though that is, by joining anyway, you’re probably taking out a large chunk of the critical engineering staff across multiple companies across a couple of weeks. When you’re there, you should feel empowered to take measures for your safety, such as wearing a mask, frequently washing your hands or working with organizers to ensure the rooms are adequately ventilated.
In Practice @ SRECon
This year, the primary challenge I faced was food. I train a few hours daily at the moment, and no food means I quickly get “Hangry”. I quickly found a local bakery which does good coffee and sausage rolls, and I disappeared there when I got overwhelmed.
The hotel itself was far away, so I blew my budget on Ubers at Midnight. Money well spent — money is cheaper than sleep — and I’ll book a closer hotel next time.
Lastly, I skipped a few talks I had intended on joining when I wasn’t able to be my “present and jovial self”. They’ll be on YouTube anyway, and I saved myself for dinner or the break.
The question asked at the outset — Should you go to SRECon — is hopefully answered. For me, at least, the answer is overwhelmingly “Yes”; so much so that I sponsored my ticket this year (as I am unemployed). Hopefully, this article helps you understand why it is so valuable, how to maximize that value and how you can overcome some of the organizational inertia required to attend.
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