7 tips to make the most out of a data science conference
Crazy as it may seem, over the past year, I’ve been to 6 data science conferences in 5 different cities all across the US and over a dozen data science meetup events and gatherings (not to mention one emerging tech conference as a deep learning speaker). This is probably atypical but I have had my reasons to place networking so high up in my list of priorities but for anyone that wants a head start or a leg up in a career it should be!
I’m a mid-career professional that is currently about to finish a graduate degree in data science. My prior experience gives me an advantage to other students which are at least 10 years younger but at the same time, it’s something that can make me seem overqualified for entry-level positions that they are more easily considered for. This is why for me it has been so important to connect with colleagues either in the same path as I am or already in the workforce because I have a compelling enough story to tell that can’t be derived as easily from my resume, and I hence need to tell it.
Networking is all about telling your story and learning from others told to you. You learn from these interactions no matter how short. And the relationships don’t stop there. I’ve you’ve told your story well, this creates lasting impressions which later on can result in opportunities, collaborations or even friendships. It’s not all quid pro quo and not meant to be seen as such. Just part of your learning and growth as a professional. And if it yields larger fruits, well, that’s a bonus!
So these are my tips to make the most out of conference networking:
- Build your professional narrative: storytelling is an essential skill in data science so embrace this notion because telling a story should be a skill you finetune throughout your career and networking is a great way of improving it. Even though it can be at times awkward, you must talk about yourself when meeting others if they are to understand what brought you to the career? the conference? the room? and what you want to learn? improve? what are your interests? your challenges? your goals? This understanding of your story can lead to interesting conversations you can learn a lot from. But since conferences are relatively short you want to make sure you have prepared the story to be:
- Right size, right density: shortly pack as much detail but without making it overwhelming.
- It’s not one size fits all: have a super short-form version that tells the story of why you at the conference (15-30 seconds), then a medium version of what led you data science (30-60 seconds) and then one longer that describes your journey and aspirations (1-2 minutes). Also, it doesn’t hurt to have prepared answers for questions they might ask independent from this story.
- You on steroids: make it funny or out of the ordinary but always authentic. No lies. So when painting this picture just broad and bolder strokes, but no made-up strokes. It’s not about bragging either so keep a good balance between challenges and accomplishments.
- Three-act structure*: since time immemorial humans have been telling stories in this structure so it makes sense to leverage this instinctual need to hear stories in this form. So specially for the longer narratives you have an introduction that connects you with the characters (you are the main or only one), some form of development that creates a level of interest or suspense and then a conclusion/climax of some sort but, in this case, don’t end the story because your story hasn’t ended (or so we hope…)
- *open-ended: your last act is one where you may have defied certain odds, learned from your experiences, made a daring change of plans, overcome some fears, etc but the journey isn’t over. There is not a climactic resolution. You can use this opportunity to ask questions and connect the audience, your interlocutor, to your story.
- Prepare well for the conference:
- Practice telling your narrative
- Research speakers, talks and attendees to get a sense of how you should prioritize your time
- Be rested so you are able to socialize without sudden bursts of yawns.
- Take your business card if it’s the sort of conference people exchange this or copies of your resume if it has a career fair (and your interested in job opportunities) or download/explore the conference app (if that’s what is encouraged by the organizers) or have an updated version of LinkedIn on your phone already open if your research tells you that’s what attendees are likely to use (lately, most conferences).
- Arrive early to the conference and plan your itinerary accordingly
- Post on your social media accounts (if and where you have professional contacts) that you are going to the conference since you might unexpectedly reconnect with contacts from previous conferences, school or work.
- Proactive exploration is key: once at the conference, gravitate towards talks that interest you. You will find like-minded people there. Promote in yourself a sense of curiosity for not just the talk and the speaker but also the audience. Be bold. Be proactive. Be personable. And when you have an opportunity don’t keep your thoughts and questions to yourself. This means:
- if someone walked into the room with a copy of a book you read or are reading or have the very same rare model of computer or are talking to someone else about a problem you faced, speak up! spark conversation!
- don’t be afraid to ask a question to the speaker in the Q&A portion
- after the talk engage the speaker and others that either asked questions during the Q&A or circled around the speaker at the end
- after people leave the room and go for coffee be aware of what their comments are about the talk, the speaker, the subject. If they resonate with you, weigh in!
- If you end up having more than a couple minutes conversation with anyone, ask them if you can connect with them via social media.
- Also, if you are interested in the topic discussed by the speakers, connect with them even if you didn’t talk to them as long as they promoted their social media accounts (they usually do).
- Don’t stalk. If you can’t reach the person you wanted to talk to or bud in a conversation you were interested in, try later or find another strategy to introduce yourself, but only do it if you have something to contribute. Don’t be a fangirl/boy.
- If the conference has a contest, participate.
- If they are promoting social media postings or comments or tags and have something interesting to add to the discussion, why not add it?
- Focus on Listening Intently: whenever you talk to anyone, you have rehearsed your introduction/pitch/story so you need not focus on this. Instead, focus on asking meaningful and relevant questions and absorbing as much as you can from those answers while you maintain eye contact and show positive body language (no arms folding). Pay close attention to names and repeat them back while conversing. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to repeat a name or a question.
- Learn to segway out/exit gracefully: Once a conversation has run its course and perhaps it’s time to mingle around the room, go to the bathroom, get some coffee or go to the next talk, you need to gracefully end it. Find a natural stopping point and politely affirm how nice it has been to meet them and if you deem it necessary mention why you need to leave (can often remain unsaid) then ask to connect via social media or exchange contact details if you want to and haven’t already.
- Go to after-parties and post-conference dinners/drinks: this is where a lot of the magic happens! Often acquaintances made during a short interaction during the conference can become friends or friendly-ish in these events. Don’t miss out. Go to these events – both the conference sponsored ones and those last-minute dinner/drinks with other attendees and speakers at local restaurants/bars.
- Follow-up: After the conference, make sure you keep in touch with the people you connected with.
- If you met with recruiters, send them your resume while reminding them of yourself and your conversation.
- If you met a speaker and are interested in their area of research or expertise, reach out with a quick reminder of yourself and some follow-up questions.
- If you met with other attendees, maybe send them a follow up if they have your dream job and you want to know how to get there but usually just engaging with them via social media (commenting, liking, etc) is enough to keep relationships active. No need to send absolutely everybody you met a message. If you made a strong impression, others you met will connect with you eventually in some way or another.
A lot of the preparations (step 1-2) shouldn’t be too difficult. Once you are at the conference (steps 3-6) though, if you are an introvert like I am, you might encounter a mental barrier since it seems somewhat unnatural to be proactively talking to so many strangers (and face-to-face 😮 )! But they are not people sitting at a bus stop or at a check out lane in a supermarket! They are at the same data science conference so they have a great deal of commonality with you. So try to break through the sense that they are strangers. See them more like neighbors – neighbors in your data science “career neighborhood”. And each one of them is a potential friend or, at least, esteemed colleague! In my experience over the last year going to 6 data science conferences, I’ve learned that this “career neighborhood” is an extremely friendly one so nothing to fear there. I’ve met some great folks which have shared with me their story and I have shared mine. And I have learned from them and they have learned from me. And I’m on to my 7th data science conference this Friday 27th of September in San Diego (Data Science Go, https://www.datasciencego.com/) which happened to be my first one October 2018 so I’m very excited to reconnect with people I met back then and if you are reading this and going, I’m happy to connect!
Let’s share our stories! 🙂
By: Serg Masis