I wrote this list of tips for networking just after I visited my first conference, where networking was supereasy! And it was FUN! Although Troopers 2017 was an industry conference, the tips should work fine for academic conferences too.

I talked to so many interesting people, people working in infosec from all over the globe. I even managed to help some of them, by answering questions on social media, introducing people to each other, and pointing people to good self-education resources on the internet. I love to help people, so that made the networking activity feel very natural for me. It was not like the picture I had in my head at all (people in suits loudly talking about themselves while scattering business cards at random). I also loved to exchange horror stories about employers or infosec-gone-wrong. And the most fun thing is to form a spontaneous group of conference-friends and explore the local cuisine.

All the tips in no particular order:

  • Take advantage of the social activities that are offered at the conference. They are meant to facilitate fun and relaxed social interaction. So register for the social dinner, participate in a Capture The Flag competition, visit the craft booths (lock picking, soldering, …), fiddle with the conference badge, hang around the coffee machines, and talk to random people. Academic conferences often have a social dinner, and game conferences might have a meet-and-greet with local game developers, or demo sessions where you can try out new games!
  • Find people with the same job as you and exchange experiences and horror-stories. Exchanging stories is also a great way to scout for potential future employers. At the same time, you get to know which companies you should avoid.
  • Use the information you can find online. Follow the live tweets (or posts on other social media) via the conference hashtag and see what other visitors are up to. Do they tweet about particularly good talks? Have they tried activities you haven’t tried yet? Do they tweet about locations (either at the conference or in town) you haven’t visited yet? Do they tweet requests, questions or invitations for additional activities? Maybe you can help other people too, by sharing your own experiences, or answering their questions. This post has more tips about using Twitter during conferences.
  • At the end of every day, write down the names of the people you’ve met, what they do, where they come from, and how you can help each other. You meet so many people at a conference that you really won’t be able to remember this after one or two days.
  • Feel free to exchange business cards, but only if at least 1 party can do something for the other.
  • Speakers and crew members are not demi-gods. If you have questions, or you think you can help them or tell them something that they might find interesting, don’t be shy and talk to them! However, if you run into them after their talk or during their ‘off hours’ during the conference, be respectful of their time and energy. They are normal people who also need coffee, sleep, down time, etc.
  • Registration desk people and other crew members know a lot about the conference. Remember that they are often locals! Make use of this.
  • Fun conversations arise most easily during a random meeting in the hallway, ie. at the coffee machine, at a pinball machine, in the cloakroom row, at a dinner, etc. The “hall-way track” is often my favorite conference track!
  • If you’re attending a conference with an international audience: PLEASE, do not, by default, converse in your own language with colleagues or fellow countrymen. You immediately exclude a large part of conference attendees, and you prevent new people from entering the conversation. It is rude. It is also to the detriment of yourself: you might deprive yourself of new acquaintances, friendships or interesting information.
  • Take some time to recharge in between conference days or in-between talks. Take a walk, sit outside in the sun, find a quiet space at the conference venue to relax for a while, or enjoy some alone time in your hotelroom. My favorite coping methods for conference fatigue are (1) having dinner in a nice restaurant in the delightful company of my e-reader, or watching a movie in my pyjamas.
  • Dare to show yourself; being on a business trip doesn’t mean you can’t be yourself. Be representative AND authentic. Yes, that’s perfectly possible. One of my favorite memories from Brussels is a CTF-team member, a serious infosec consultant in daily life, showing off his crazy coloured, unmatched socks. I think one was orange with tiny avocados and one had a bicycle print. “Look!” he declared, “I always wear these to clients. Compliant, yet defiant!” Great socks, great quote.
  • If the conference is at a different location than where you’re staying, talk to the conference attendees stay in the same hotel. Maybe you can walk to the venue together, share a taxi, or meet up for breakfast in the hotel.
  • Ask questions to start conversations. It’s easy to find a suitable question for anyone. New people: is this your first conference? Locals: do you have any tips for good restaurants or places to visit in town? People you met earlier during the conference: Hello again, how is your day so far? What was your favorite talk so far? Connecting with people is not that hard. Be considerate and friendly, and people will remember your face.
  • If you’re shy: lots of people that visit a conference for work visit the conference alone. Chances are that other person near the coffee machine feels as disoriented, alone or shy as you.
  • Be attentive in your follow-up to people. Do what you promise. If someone you meet asks for a brochure, a link to a website, a tip, an introduction, write the request down and contact them as soon as possible. I try to handle all these requests either the same day, or I deal with this todo-list the first workday after I return from the trip.

I hope you liked this list. I certainly would have liked to read it in 2016! I remember eagerly scanning the internet before my trip, searching for blogposts that could tell me how conferences “work” and what you’re supposed to do when you’re there. Feel free to share your favorite conference experience or coping method in the comments.

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photo of Judith van Stegeren
About the author

Judith van Stegeren, PhD is a Dutch computer scientist specialized in natural language processing and data science for two domains: investing and video games. Despite her expertise, no part of her PhD thesis was written by a computer program.