Confessions of a conference virgin!

Up until November 2008 I was a conference virgin: no jollies, no hotel booking panic and no development talks. As I’ve been self employed as a website developer for three years I decided it was about time to break the mould, invest the profits and head up to Manchester. Working from home with a small group of local customers can lead to an insular perspective and feeling in a rut, surely the best thing to do is get together with like minded professions? Of course, it seems so obvious but it still took me three years to get there!

So why did it take so long? The first thing most people think of is money; yes conferences can be expensive, but you can make it cheaper if you share cars, book buses in advance, go for b&b or find a friends sofa. Another usual barrier is picking the most relevant event to go to, there’s so many to choose from and some days they all seem to be in the US.

Actually my initial stumbling block was finding out about conferences in the first place. Reading the ‘right resources’ will give you a window onto the whole spectrum of geekups, barcamps, lugs, php*s, but what if you don’t know the ‘right resources’? Twitter helped, following everyone featured in the following list of respected friends was a good start and adding feeds such as Planet PHP and A List Apart to my RSS reader was a huge leg-up too.

So armed with the right information all I had to do was book and figure out how to afford it? Almost – I also had to get over the fear.

I dealt with a few assumptions:

1) I didn’t know anyone, (apart from the lovely person giving me a lift)

2) I didn’t know anything,

3) As soon as I opened my mouth I was going to make myself look a fool.

By following the excellent pre conference run up on twitter and the conference site itself I found out about other people who were going, what they were interested in or looking forward to and where they were travelling from. I picked out talks I wanted to go to and made time to go to the socials – quite easy as a freelance but planning ahead can also help make this possible for the employed too.

Forcing myself to speak to complete strangers brought me up against assumptions 2 and 3. In the end I found the simplest thing to do was to admit I didn’t know how much PHP I knew and say I was there to learn and meet people who knew more. Just let me say this was a good move! By being open to new ideas and admitting I didn’t know as much as I wanted to automatically I avoided looking too much of a fool. Not drinking too much on the Friday night helped but I cannot recommend enough the power of being honest.

I even got the chance to meet some of the speakers and kill an assumption I didn’t even know I had โ€“ they are all very approachable rather than the stuffy elitists I thought they might be.

Once I’d arrived and got over the Friday night social jitters it was time for the actual conference. Although I’ve not been to an event like this before, I’ve heard plenty of horror stories: lost registrations, badly signed venues, schedules run amok and tedious talks. I’m so pleased to say PHPNW08 was none of that!

The whole venue was well signed โ€“ from street to seat, the registration staff and crew were friendly and helpful. the schedule was clearly posted and appeared in the goodie bag. Talks started on time and were thoroughly engaging. Sadly, some talks (particularly the HTML to Drupal ) had little time for questions but everything I attended was well worth going to. If anyone is interested there is a list of the talks I attended at the end of the article.

It was a very full day of intense concentration punctuated by fresh air and coffee but unbelievably worth it. The talks weren’t the only reason for going of course, I wanted to make contact with members of PHPWomen in real life, find out who on earth the talented and vocal LornaJane is, take a look at exhibition stands, complete a brainbench test, see a demo of the Zend framework, talk to recruiters and even come home with offers of new work! Completely unrealistically long list of things to achieve as it turns out ๐Ÿ™‚

I have come away from my first conference with a whole new raft of assumptions:

– I don’t know as much as I want to about PHP, MySQL, HTML5, frameworks, testing, security….

– There are loads of resources out there on the web and in my local area to learn more or meet up with geeks like me such as PHPWomen, phpWM, whatwg, and freelance switch.

– I didn’t miss out on everything just because I wasn’t glued to irc all day

– Freelancing is a wonderful way to work

– I’m actually more of a front end developer

– Women can get exactly where they want to in the industry with hard work and determination (just like anyone else) Lorna and Johanna are just two of the successful developers that I had the chance to meet.

– The absolute best way to kick yourself out of a jaded rut is to get out and meet people, go to a conference, geekup, barcamp, php group in your area (or out of your area for a change)

– phpNW08 was the best choice for a first conference, no question. It was well run, open, friendly, and fired up my enthusiasm for the community and industry where I now feel at home.

I owe all that to the fabulous people behind PHPNW08, organisers and sponsors. A huge thank you to Jeremy (phpcodemonkey) for taking the gamble, the crew for keeping it all running so smoothly, Lorna and Johanna for inviting me into the PHPWomen fold, Smylers for being unfailingly enthusiastic and to Stuart for driving.

I attended (and surprised myself by understanding):

Welcome Keynote: KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)
Derick Rethans

Highlighting techniques we all forget in the great web2.0 takeover such as URLs that make human sense and the real place for spaghetti

First Steps with Zend Framework
Rob Allen

An excellent introduction to a sensible alternative to Notebook ++ and indicated just how much I don’t know about frameworks and php development.

From HTML to Drupal in 30 minutes
James Panton & Chris Maiden

A brave and successful live coding based talk that embraced visual teaching rather than discussing abstracts. I’m still not sure about Drupal but I liked the approach.

HTML 5: Whatโ€™s that all about?

Hugely energetic and enthusiastic talk by someone who knows and obviously feels passionately about their subject. Most of my post-PHPNW research so far has been around HTML5, standards and CSS.

Twittex: From idea to live in 7 days

As a freelancer I find I also need to know about the commercial world, cost, promotion and planning. It was great to hear about the development of a new service in the wider business context.

This article can also be found on the PHP Women site at