How to meet great people at tech conferences

One of the biggest reasons to attend tech conferences is meeting people. A conference is like a filter, drawing out the most curious and passionate people in the industry. These people can open incredible opportunities for you in your career.

Some of these people are kind of famous. You know who they are. They have tens (or hundreds) of thousands of twitter followers. They hold prestigious positions at well-known companies.

You want to meet them, have a conversation… maybe even become friends.

But it feels so hard. They all seem to be friends with each other and you’re not in the inner circle. You do great work but, let’s face it, you’re a nobody. What do you do?

I decided to ask my boss, Ben Callahan about this. I asked him because when he goes to conferences he’s always chumming it up with influential people, getting food with the speakers, and generally winning. How does he do it? Here’s what he said:

“You have to ‘earn the right’ to do these things.”

It’s not as weird as it sounds. Let me explain.

If you start talking to an influential person at a conference, you are a stranger. And as a stranger, there are limits to what you can do.

Imagine you’re walking downtown and somebody you don’t know starts talking to you on the street. Would it be weird if they asked you for directions? No. Would it be weird if they asked you to get lunch? Yes.

Strangers can’t just invite themselves into other people’s lives. There has to be some sort of basis of trust that justifies a deeper connection.

What if that stranger on the street said, “Remember me? We were in the same dorm at Ohio State.” Now getting lunch wouldn’t be weird at all. They’ve ‘earned the right’ to do it.

So how do you ‘earn the right’ to get a meal or share an Uber with an influential person at a tech conference?

You have to find a way to not be a stranger when that conversation happens.

Here’s a few ways to go about that:

Find some common background or shared experiences you can talk about

Did you live in the same town? Attend the same school? Work at the same company? These are all things you could bring up in conversation. If they find it interesting, you might find yourself in a great conversation that breaks down some of those stranger barriers.

Get introduced to them through a mutual friend

If you do this right, you can be “along for the ride” in a group of people who hang out throughout the conference. This means more opportunities to interact and become a familiar face for future interactions.

Be visible in the places they hang out

Are they active in any online communities, like Slack teams or Discourse forums? Join those conversations! Be genuine and thoughtful instead of loud or self-promotional. Take the time to be a good member of the community, and add value to every interaction you have. It helps to have a consistent screen name and a distinctive avatar.

If you’re at a conference with them, be visible. Sit near the front and share the things you are learning on social media or conference hashtags. If they keep seeing your face on their phones, it won’t be unfamiliar if they run across you in real life.

Contribute regularly to their work

Once, at a conference, I had a guy come up to me, and say, “hey, I’m the guy who submitted the React animation PR to your open-source project.” I remembered him and -BAM- we had a connection.

Lots of open source projects have issues but not many people submit pull-requests to help fix them. If you take the time to do that, you will get their attention (especially if you submit multiple, high-quality, fixes).

If they don’t have an open source project, contribute to whatever they are working on. Comment on their blog posts or reply to their twitter questions. Whatever it is, do it regularly and they’ll remember you.

Be known for work that you have done

If you’re prolific, then your reputation can proceed you. This rarely happens overnight, but if you do your work in public, be consistent, and learn how to spread the word, you’d be surprised who might find it. (I was!)

Be a speaker

Speaking at a conference is like a cheat code for meeting influential people. Many conferences have benefits for speakers, like a speakers lounge, speakers dinner, or speaker badge. This can give you many opportunities to interact and get to know other speakers.

I didn’t realize how powerful this was until I spoke at my first big conference. Sitting in the speaker’s lounge, it was so much easier to strike up conversations with the other speakers. The conference selection process had done the work of filtering me out of the mass of strangers. It’s like I was just dropped into the inner circle.

I once had a mentor tell me that the biggest shortcut to relevance in your industry was speaking at events. I think there are many types of career goals but I definitely see her point.

In all these approaches, you have to do the work ahead of time. Often that means prepping for a conference months before you attend. This is why it’s called “earning” the right. You can’t just come out of nowhere and ask to be in the club. It takes work.

In closing, I want to share a few words of caution:

Beware vanity metrics. It can be tempting to chase down whoever has the most followers on social media, but consider your goals. What type of career opportunities are you hoping to open up? If you want to get into data visualization, then look for people who do that kind of work. If you want to work at a startup, then find people in that scene. These “niche influencers” will be more aligned with your interests, and easier to reach than the “celebrities” in your industry.

Play the long game. If you’re trying to set up a conversation and things aren’t clicking, then be willing to let it go for now. Building relationships takes time and you’ve got your whole career to do it. Acting like a stalker or appearing overly desperate is going to backfire.

Great people are everywhere. Like I said before, a conference is like a filter, drawing out the most curious and passionate people in the industry. You can learn something valuable from everyone, whether you’ve heard of them are not. Be a friend to everyone you meet and don’t blow people off just because you haven’t heard of them.

Focus on serving. You can’t build lasting relationships if you’re always focused on what you can get. Instead, spend your time thinking about how you can help and serve the others. Do that part consistently and the rest will take care of itself.