In 2015, speaking at 21 conferences and 37 user groups around the world, I had the tremendous good fortune of meeting over 1500 members of the PHP Community. What is perhaps most amazing about this is I was able to do so despite a near paralyzing fear of being the “ice breaker” and of making cold introductions in social situations.
So, how did I manage this? Well, certainly at some point, being a relatively ubiquitous presence at conferences and user groups, it got a lot easier as people began to introduce themselves to me rather than my having to introduce myself to them. But it obviously wasn’t that way in the beginning. How did I manage to navigate this social awkwardness?
In 2014, I attended my first multi-day, multi-track conference, php[tek] in Chicago. Larger and longer than any community activities that I had participated in previously, I was determined not to allow my anxiety over meeting new people undermine the experience. With a little creativity and planning, I was able to identify five different groups of people that I could connect with organically, without the potential awkwardness of a cold introduction.
The first thing that I did was to reach out to all of the people that I had already “met” on Twitter who I knew would be there and tell them what I looked like and asked them to look out for me. This put the onus of a personal introduction on them and I knew conversation would come easily, having already grown our friendships on Twitter.
Second, my friend David Mosher had begun organizing a side trip to see a Cubs’ game, so I volunteered to handle collecting the money and distributing the tickets at the conference. This meant that nineteen people would be seeking out and introducing themselves to me in order to claim their tickets. It also meant that I would be joined by these nineteen people for a multi-hour activity, an opportunity to easily make conversations with otherwise strangers without feeling awkward.
Similarly, several members of the community had organized a Magic: The Gathering tournament for one evening of the conference. By signing up to participate, I was assured an easy introduction and several hours of conversational opportunity with another dozen or so attendees.
I also realized that perhaps the easiest people to meet would be the developer evangelists – people who were essentially being paid to meet people like me and who were obviously well suited for their roles, friendly and outgoing and good conversationalists. I made sure to spend time in the exhibit hall making their acquaintances at times when it wasn’t unusually crowded, giving them ample opportunity to break the ice for me.
Finally, I made sure to join in the extra-curricular activities at the “conference bar” during the evenings. Rightly or wrongly, I knew from experience that even if two socially awkward people find themselves seated next to each other in a bar, eventually one of their inhibitions will loosen to the point of breaking the ice and making an introduction.
My strategies could not have possibly worked out better! During the three day conference, I slept a total of 8 hours (!), spending the vast majority of my time working the “Hallway Track” forging the basis for relationships with people who today I count among my best friends. Looking back at the traditional php[tek] after conference group photo, I somehow managed to meet over two thirds of the attendees over the three days. Samantha Quinones, who I met there for the first time and who is probably my best friend in the PHP Community tweeted this following the conference:
I offer my vote for @coderabbi as #phptek MVP for 2014
— Samantha Quiñones (@ieatkillerbees) May 25, 2014
While I’m not sure that my performance at the conference was valuable to anyone but me, I appreciate her sentiment and agree that despite being very hesitant to break the ice with strangers or make introductions, it’s doubtful that anyone was able to bleed more out of the social and networking aspects of that conference than I did.
It’s my hope that by sharing these strategies, others who share similar apprehensions will also be able to take full advantage of the fantastic human opportunities that conferences present and more easily form relationships within our incredible community.