Let's All Go to the Conference

Tobias just got back from Siggraph all jazzed up about machine learning, and it got me thinking about how vitally important it is to spend time around like-minded creators. Be it at conferences, user group meetings, or even just post-work beers, having an outlet for talking and thinking about your work is essential. Today, I’d like to talk about conferences.

A few years back, I worked at a development studio where managers refused to send their artists and programmers to GDC—not because they couldn’t afford the tickets, but because they were afraid that their employees would be exposed to recruiters and try to land new jobs. But the reality is quite the opposite, in my opinion: Sending your employees out to network and learn new skills actually helps your company retain them longer. Most people want to develop their careers and become influential folks in their respective fields (on your company’s behalf!), so sending them out to conferences like GDC, Siggraph, CEDEC and E3 benefits everyone.

Think of this as not just an employee perk, but also a great investment for your company. Your team will have a chance to:

  • Learn about new tools. Sometimes going on a website and checking out videos just isn’t the right way to evaluate the flood of new tools that are constantly being released for game development. More often than not, middleware companies unveil new features or new products at shows, so this is your time to get ahead of things for an evaluation, or simply learn more about it. Send your team that will actually be responsible for learning and potentially working with these tools, so they can talk directly to the developers that created it.

  • Meet people. It’s nice to be in a room with people working on similar products, or with similar work experiences. It’s also advantageous to meet competitors, other experts, and people that are different from you to gain other viewpoints on development topics, office policies, and other opinions that might help give your team a fresh perspective.

  • Take courses and check out panels. I know—sometimes it’s a crapshoot with courses and lectures. I’ve been to quite a few seminars over the years that I was excited about based on the topic, only to be let down by a speaker that didn’t deliver. That said, I don’t feel like it’s a waste to go and learn about new things that you otherwise wouldn’t. In my experience, employees want to improve their skills and learn new techniques or understand their customers better by attending sessions that are relevant to their jobs.

  • A break from work is nice. It’s also worth noting that it’s wonderful to get out of the office and take a break from what you’re doing on the day-to-day, while being engaged with the work. It can recharge your employees and get them excited about their projects because they either discover a different way to solve problems, or have their ideas vindicated (or bettered!) by their peers.

I know conferences can be expensive with flights, hotels, per diems and the rest, but I’m telling you—it’s a good investment! If your budget doesn’t allow conference attendance, try to get your team to attend local user groups or smaller local conferences that make sense for what they’re doing. Gameconfs is a great resource, providing a list of many of the worthwhile events happening around your country. (As a bonus, many passes now come with access to videos of lectures, so even your employees that don’t fly out for a particular conference can access the talks.) Oh, and don’t forget about conferences that may not be specifically for game development, but are gaming-adjacent and may serve to broaden horizons; art and technology events like Eyeo in Minneapolis, Minnesota springs to mind, for instance.

There’s such thing as too much, of course; I know people who seem to spend all their time flying around the world to attend conferences, and frankly I think that’s often self-serving and generally a waste of time. You don’t need everyone to attend everything, but let your employees tell you which conference opportunities would be most fruitful and rejuvenating for them, and do what you can to help them get there. Invest in your team!