Previously, I wrote about the importance of developer perks, and conferences are an important perk. To be sure, there always are costs associated with attending a conference. Often times this involves a financial cost (e.g. ticket price, airfare, lodging), but there are other costs as well such as opportunity costs due to time away from work that must be managed. Whether you attend a large conference such as
Apple's WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference) or a more intimate conference such as Cocoaconf, the benefits of attending a conference can far outweigh the costs involved.
The most obvious benefit is the ability to enhance critical skills. Many conferences understandably focus on this aspect as a major selling point, and sometimes increase the skill enhancement by offering pre-conference workshops. However, the advent of live session streaming (or at least the quick posting of session videos to the conference website) has caused this part of the value proposition to diminish. That's not to say that skill enhancement is an unimportant part of the conference experience, just that it isn't the most important.
Why, then, is it important to attend conferences? Two reasons, really: networking and exposure to new ideas.
Networking is an often undervalued aspect of conference attendance. It is, however, something that cannot be done while watching session videos at home. Meeting people at the conference can lead to new business connections, new business or job opportunities, and new friends. In addition, the social interaction before sessions, between sessions, at lunch time, and after the sessions end for the day is when much of the learning takes place. While you are in a session, your mind is still absorbing the content as it is presented. The non-session time provides an opportunity for you to collect your thoughts and to share those thoughts with other attendees. This will often be a good way to 'break the ice' and to clarify things that may not have been immediately clear during the session.
Exposure to new ideas is quite possibly the best reason to attend a conference. Sure, new ideas are hypothetically only a quick web search away. However, meeting and having conversations with new people is by far the quickest way to be exposed to ideas that would not have otherwise crossed your mind. You could learn about a new technology or technique that will solve a long-standing problem you've been having, or you could be inspired to move in a whole new business direction.
In a way, conferences can be considered as great examples of concentrated serendipity . Where else can you enhance your skills, make new contacts, and discover new ideas in only a few days? Just make sure you can get a ticket, folks.