It’s August again, and for me that means both preparing for back to school and kicking off tech conference season. For my kids, it’s getting school supplies, new outfits, and a pep talk about dealing with getting shuffled in with a new bunch of students.
Ironically, for the tech conferences, it means getting new promotional supplies, new outfits (or at least a pair of heels I can run in), and a pep talk about getting shuffled in with a new bunch of community members.
In 2011, going to my first VMworld, I knew maybe 3 people, and that’s rounding up. I was the new kid in class. Another little secret—I’m actually a rather shy person, and 50/50 on every introvert/extravert test. So I ate most lunches alone that year and sat near the booth trying to convince people to go on camera for an interview series (before Engineers Unplugged!).
What brought me out of my comfort zone was knowing I had a job to do. I was being paid to attend this conference in large part to engage with other people and I was failing at it. So I smiled brightly and went for it, remembering the wisdom of a colleague: don’t ever sit with people you know.
That was very easy, as I knew so few people. “Is this seat taken?” became my new catchphrase. The advice stuck, though, and became a bit of a personal quest. I work for a big company, so there’s almost always a co-worker to sit beside, but isn’t that what the office is for?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome to spend face time with all the friends and colleagues I usually see on a small screen—but what about everyone else? After all, somebody out there is the new kid this time, just like I was. Lots of people don’t come with 20 co-workers in tow, it’s just them. If you want to become influential outside of your own cube, this is your chance! (This would be the “Show Up” part of the Get Up, Dress Up, Show Up.)
Trade secret for people who manage tech events: make it easy for people who attend alone to feel comfortable and you’ll have a great turnout.
If you’re the new kid at an event this year, please say hello, to me, to other people in the community, to a speaker you admire. If you’re an established community member or a seasoned conference vet, make this the year you shake things up by sitting with someone new every day at some point. Our community is that much stronger by growing.
I’ll close with sharing one of the first videos I ever made in my conference career, which led the handful of people who watched it and recognized me to yell “hey legwarmer girl” at the show. If you’re concerned you’ll make a fool of yourself trying to meet new people, take comfort in knowing I’ve already got that covered.