As COVID-19 (Corona) has spread around the world, and while we can argue how serious that is, a lot of tech conferences have been cancelled, and rightfully so. Safety always comes first.
People have suggested that virtual conferences could be a replacement, but as I’ll explain in this blog, they can never really replace a standard conference, rather just be a complement.
First, let me just clear a couple of things:
- Safety comes first, if the prize of safety is to cancel a tech conference, that’s a small prize to pay
- We should generally try to travel less and replace some of the travel with the use of collaboration apps such as Webex, Zoom etc
- There are virtual conferences, such as the PacketPushers VDC, that do work in a virtual format
The first challenge is that we are all in different time zones. When I go to Cisco Live in the US, I adjust to the US time. If I’m staying here in Sweden, I’m not going to stay up late to watch a stream coming from the US.
When you travel to a conference, you are away from work and family, you have dedicated that time to make the most out of the conference. While I’m sure I could get some time set away for a virtual conference, I wouldn’t be able to clear my schedule for a week at work and from my family for a virtual conference. Also, see the first point on time zones.
One of the best things of a conference is meeting people. Meeting someone in person, talking to them, sharing dinner with them or going to a party with someone, is not something we will ever be able to simulate, regardless of how advanced our technology gets. Sometimes I solve a problem I’ve been having in the matter of minutes when speaking to the right person. This may otherwise have taken days to solve. Some of these people are really hard to get on a call since they are so busy. Meeting them at a conference makes things easier.
When you are at a conference, you bump into people. It’s not only about meeting people you already know. Every year I bump into someone that has read my blog, seen me online somewhere, or are in the same study groups. While I certainly just consider myself to be an ordinary person, there are people that I may have helped with my blog, or gave them encouraging words, that would like to talk to me in person if they see me. I try to be approachable and I wouldn’t be able to meet these people otherwise.
While most of the breakout sessions are available online at a later stage, it’s still not the same as being in person. I often pick my sessions based on who is presenting, as well as the topic of course. It’s important to connect with the presenters as well as others that are going to the same sessions. That way you build your network and have people you can ask when you get stuck on something. It’s difficult to simulate this with a virtual event, I think.
Lastly, but not least, it’s more fun to be at an in-person conference. You can share a drink with someone and relax for a bit. Trying to do the same in front of a web camera is not even remotely going to be the same thing.
So while I think we should put safety first, and restrict travel when we can, replacing in-person events with virtual ones, are not the answer. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for virtual events though, just that I prefer the in-person ones.