This week there are a whole bunch of open source events in the city, one of which is our own FSOSS. Over the years Chris and I have been involved in running this and many other tech events at Seneca. In that time we've had hundreds (literally) of industry and open source people come and give talks to our students, speak at dev days, participate in workshops, and generally hang-out with us and our students at Seneca. A lot of the reason we do it (and I don't mind telling you that it is a lot of work) is so that we can create a community that reaches outside the classroom walls. It is our firm belief that you can't become a software professional without engaging with real software or real software professionals.
But we can only do so much. We can work with our friends and partners to put on some great talks and workshops, can arrange to have people fly and stay here, do all the logistical and technical setup we want, but none of that guarantees any of what I described above. The reason is simple: as an attendee, you get out of these events what you put into them.
I'm saying "attendee" and in my mind I'm really wanting to speak to the students who will attend. Going to these events as a student is a tremendous opportunity. It allows you to get to know who is out there and to hear about the work they are doing now and they work they plan to do. That's why you go to a tech event or conference, right? You go to listen, right? I think that's only half the reason, or maybe less.
Conferences and other tech events are about people coming together. As a student going to one of these events, it's easy to feel like you're just an observer or let intimidation silence you. However, that can't be your response to being among the very people you want to work with in the coming years. You have to decide that you belong there, and take the chance to meet these people.
So how do you do it? "What do I have to say to someone who knows so much more than me?" For starters, you could talk to them about the talk they just gave. What did you find interesting? What was surprising to you? People who travel far to give talks don't come so they can speak and then have no one give them feedback. They are looking to reach out to people, looking to connect with their audience. Obviously you don't want to be pushy or dominate a speaker when others are also trying to see them. However, it's quite acceptable to go and introduce yourself and have a brief conversation about what they have said. It might grow into a larger conversation, and it might end right there. Either way you've taken an important step and chosen to become part of the event instead of just an observer.
I've known students who have come away from FSOSS with jobs, and others who have sat there and gotten out of it exactly what they put in (i.e., nothing). It's not important that anything profound happen. It's enough to simply be present and to learn how to be among your peers in the industry. That in itself is a skill worth learning.