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Professional Networking at Virtual Conferences: How to Connect Online

Virtual conferences help you build your professional network easily and affordably. Find out how and why to use virtual conferences to create a strong and supportive network.

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Are you looking for a new job, to make a name for yourself in the dev community or to advance your career? If you aren’t putting virtual conferences to work for you, you’re missing a big opportunity.

If you’re not sure how any why to use virtual conferences to build a strong professional network, here’s your chance. In this article, you’ll learn how to leverage virtual events as a unique opportunity to network and create personal connections — all from the comfort of your own desk.

What You’ll Learn

  • Why virtual conferences are such a huge opportunity for mobile devs.
  • How virtual conferences work, including how to find ones worth your time.
  • How to meet other developers online — and why you want to.
  • How to grow conference connections into a supportive professional community.

Why Virtual Conferences Are Such a Big Deal for Professional Networking

In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic changed people’s lives. As global lockdowns escalated, many developers started working remotely from their homes. Large gatherings like conferences were delayed or canceled.

Thanks to collaborative tools like Slack and Zoom, many organizers were able to pivot to virtual events. For the iOS community, one of the earliest big impacts was Apple’s WWDC 2020 going all-virtual.

This has had a major impact on who can attend and take advantage of the networking potential of virtual conferences. For example, when in-person gatherings became virtual, many also plummeted in cost, making these premium events suddenly widely accessible. Suddenly, devs who never would have been able to attend a conference due to costs, time commitments or accessibility issues had those doors opened for them.

Now that the developer community has experienced the convenience and accessibility of virtual conferences, virtual options are likely to stick around. Many conferences that are returning to physical venues now offer a hybrid option, where attendees can choose to participate online or in person.

For individual devs, this means that not only do they have more opportunities to attend conferences, but also that when they do, there is a broader spectrum of other people to network with.

Why Attend a Virtual Conference?

The shift to virtual conferences has made those events more accessible in many ways:

  • Attendance is more affordable because there are no travel or lodging costs involved.
  • Accessing virtual conferences from home makes attendance more feasible for people in remote locations. Don’t live near San Jose or Logroño? No problem; just log in from home!
  • For many with limitations or disabilities, virtual conferences present fewer accessibility challenges. Joining from the comfort of your own environment lets you participate in a way that works best for you.
  • Online events require a much smaller time commitment. This makes them feasible for people who can’t spend days away from home due to other responsibilities — like caring for children or other two- or four-footed family members. Rest assured, Rover would rather you attend virtually.
Pros and cons of attending virtual vs in-person conferences

Virtual conferences versus in-person events: pros and cons of attending online.

Above all, virtual events offer convenience. They allow you to fit the event around your life, rather than the other way around.

Finding the Best Virtual Conferences

So where can you find great virtual conferences to attend? Start by searching a conference list like cocoaconferences.com for upcoming online conferences.

From there, check the event’s schedule for a healthy mix of talks and networking opportunities. Look for networking events that include smaller breakout groups, because these offer the best chance at meaningful conversations.

Some conferences use software like Remo.co to place attendees at virtual “tables” that simulate in-person networking. That’s a great sign that the organizer is focused on your networking experience.

Here are some conferences offering great virtual experiences at the time of this writing:

  • iOS Conf SG currently uses Zoom and Slack and offers networking events like trivia games to encourage interaction with other attendees.
  • NSSpain offers a ‘remote edition’ that uses Remo.co to encourage attendees to socialize. They also include networking events between each talk.
  • try! Swift World is a weekly workshop. They limit workshops to ten attendees, resulting in a more conversational format. Networking opportunities are also built in, including a Slack channel for communication after the workshop.

Saving Money on Conference Tickets

If you’re unable to afford an expensive conference ticket, the good news is that virtual conference tickets are generally cheaper. For example, 2022 Swift Heroes online tickets go for 10% of the cost of their in-person counterparts. But what if that still isn’t affordable?

For those that need them, many conferences provide scholarships or discounts. For example, 360iDev offers a women-in-tech discount, while try! Swift World provides diversity and economic hardship scholarships.

Furthermore, good planning can save you money. Most conferences offer early-bird discounts.

If you don’t see the right financial aid for you, don’t be afraid to ask — there are a lot of great people out there that don’t want economic barriers to limit your growth!

How Virtual Conferences Work

Most virtual conferences consist of scheduled, livestreamed talks. They typically provide some form of question-and-answer (Q&A) sessions to allow attendees to engage with the presenters. Places to chat, such as Slack, enable discussion and networking.

Most conferences provide a variety of technical talks covering things like language features, new frameworks or architectural case studies. Many try to include a few nontechnical talks on professional growth or other topics important to the developer community. Schedules are usually provided at the same time tickets go on sale.

Selecting Your Conference Sessions

Once you’ve picked some conferences to attend, you need to know how to get the most out of the experience.

Since virtual conferences are open to a global audience, they take into account that not everyone can attend at the same time. NSSpain 2021 had a cool take on this, scheduling a continuous 36-hour conference with emcees across different time zones. That conference, like most others, provided attendees with links to recordings of all sessions so no one missed out due to timing.

Having a lot of attractive sessions at a virtual conference is both a blessing and a curse. It’s easy to end up with a backlog of talks you want to listen to. While you might learn a lot from watching recordings of presentations you can’t attend, your ability to use these sessions for networking is limited or non-existent.

Attending live lets you participate in the Q&A, chat with fellow attendees and engage with others in real time on social media — all vital parts of networking at a conference. Therefore, be sure to prioritize the sessions you can livestream.

Before the conference, take note of the talks you’re especially interested in and book them on your calendar. Give as much weight to those scheduled sessions as you would in-person appointments. When possible, keep some time open between sessions for chatting and networking.

So now that you’re ready to attend a virtual conference, it’s time to think about how to get the most out of the professional networking opportunities you’ll have.

What Is Professional Networking, Anyway?

Having a strong network of fellow developers is a valuable tool. It can help you keep up to date with industry trends, assist you with hard-to-solve problems and provide career guidance and support.

Careers in software development are dynamic: programming languages mature and sometimes get replaced, SDKs change routinely and best practices evolve. One of the best ways to keep tabs on and sift through all of this information is to have a strong network of peers. You don’t have time to dive into everything new, but if you have a strong enough network, you’ll have a connection to someone with experience on any given topic.

Man staring at laptop screen

Sometimes even Google can’t help you solve an issue. That’s when you need a professional network. Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash.

Your network consists of the people you go to when you’re stuck on a problem that even Stack Overflow and hours of debugging can’t solve. They’re also there to give you career advice, because they know you and they’ve experienced similar things. And when you’re feeling frustrated or doubting yourself, they’re there to lift you up.

And of course, these are the people who will provide job referrals and keep their ear to the ground when you’re looking for work. According to Payscale, up to 85% of open positions are filled by networking. Even if you’re not looking for a job now, having a strong network is invaluable when that time comes.

Keep in mind, however, that your network is most effective when you’ve established a history of all of these other types of support. If you seem too self-serving, it will be a turnoff for other devs.

Instead, build your network to be part of a community and make some friends with common interests. Be sure to be a good member of the community and give help and advice as often as you seek it. Your support structure will become stronger with time.

With the developer community more physically isolated than before, networking is even more vital to your success and well-being. At the same time, the methods of growing and maintaining a network have changed. Next, you’ll learn how virtual conferences fit into these new ways of networking.

How Virtual Conferences Foster Connection

In-person conferences are hard to beat for building personal connections. A lot of people with shared interests come together in one location where there’s downtime for discussion between talks and plenty of opportunities for meetups. Striking up personal conversations is natural in these situations.

Natasha Murashev, iOS developer and founder of the try! Swift Conference, said: “The online experience just cannot replace the in-person feeling of the community coming together in the same city, meeting the local developers, and singing karaoke together. This type of experience forms deep long-term bonds, so it is ideal.”

However, virtual conferences are using creative methods to introduce similar opportunities. try! Swift World, the weekly virtual workshop version of the conference, has done a great job at this.

Virtual conference participants with national flags in screen names

Change up your screen name to share more about yourself in a virtual conference. Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash.

Natasha continued: “At try! Swift World, we try as hard as possible to connect the workshop attendees by having an ice breaker at the beginning of the event so attendees can see everyone and interact together in a fun way. We also encourage everyone to turn on their cameras so it feels personal and to change their Zoom name to include their location to make it feel more ‘worldly’.”

Workshops or talks with smaller live audiences often dip into a conversational format. A conversation with others interested in similar topics is a great jumping-off point for further connection. If you connect with someone during a discussion, be sure to pick up the conversation again outside of the conference and stay in touch.

For larger talks, discussion usually takes place in text chats, either within a chat tied to the stream or via a separate avenue like Slack. Presenters usually take questions from the chat, which encourages audience participation and gives you a chance to hear from fellow attendees.

Speak up when you can add value in a conference talk chat. Make note of attendees you’d like to follow up with later, including their contact details. You may need to search for those details on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Organizers typically sprinkle social opportunities between talks. Some examples are breakout rooms with small groups, happy hours or games. These events are a great place to find others interested in networking.

You’ll learn some ways to make the most of these social opportunities below.

Essentials of Successful Networking

Here are some vital guidelines to set yourself up for successful networking at virtual conferences:

  • Turn on your camera on: Seeing the faces of the people you’re speaking with provides a stronger connection, while also allowing more cues to prevent speaking over one another.
  • Speak up: In virtual conferences, you may have to push yourself outside your comfort zone by speaking to a larger group. But whenever you have the chance to introduce yourself, take advantage of this time to make an impression. This might be by plugging your skill set or mentioning your favorite pet projects — or even mentioning you’re looking for work.
  • Tell people how to reach you: Consider putting your social media handle next to your name on video conference software. If you’re speaking, direct people to the best place to reach you with questions.
  • Take notes: When you have a good exchange with someone or discover they’re working on something interesting, be sure to grab their contact information and jot down some notes on what you talked about. This makes it easy to follow up with them meaningfully.

Put in the Work to Build Your Professional Network

To make connections virtually, you need to put in the work. While it might be tempting to attend talks at an event and then sign off, skipping the ice breakers and happy hours, you’d miss out on those invaluable networking opportunities.

Malin Sundberg, an independent iOS developer and frequent conference speaker, described networking opportunities at iOS Conf SG 2021: “They did a really good job engaging the audience. They had a quiz at the beginning of the day and another after lunch with prizes to keep people’s energy up. The conference also had a live chat for everyone to be able to engage. I do find many conferences have adopted that and are trying to continue the conversation after the talk is done.”

These networking sessions give you the opportunity to learn about other attendees and let you share something about yourself. But learning what you have in common is only the first step in making a connection.

In the next section, you’ll get some ideas on how to move beyond this initial connection and build something lasting.

Growing a Contact Into a Connection

Making a good impression at the virtual conference is great, but to build your network, that connection needs to extend beyond the time you’re attending. Here are tips on how to nurture that relationship so it grows over time.

If you find someone that works at a company or in a role that interests you, reach out. Focus on making the connection, not on what you might want from them. Some ways to approach someone you meet during the conference include:

  • Reach out to a speaker with an insightful question about their talk or a compliment on their content or presentation style. “Hey, I really appreciated what you said about navigation in SwiftUI. Your “Gotchas to Watch Out For” slide already helped me get some child views working better in a shopping app I’m building”.
  • If a fellow attendee is working on something of interest to you, let them know you’d love to stay in touch to share ideas.
  • If someone mentions their company is hiring, they’ll expect people to reach out. If you’re interested, briefly introduce yourself and your background and share that you’d like to learn more about the opportunity.
  • If you’re familiar with a topic someone else mentioned they’re learning, reach out and ask if you can help.

Your goal is to connect via social media or a chat server to nurture that initial spark into an ongoing relationship.

Keep in mind that you’ll meet a lot of people, so it’s wise to take notes about how you met and what you discussed so you can follow up later. Continued contact is vital in maintaining a professional connection, particularly in the absence of face-to-face conversations.

Building a Strong Network

Don’t approach professional networking as a process of building up your contact list or finding someone to immediately ask for a job referral. Instead, focus your energy on building strong, long-term relationships.

Victoria Park, a self-taught iOS developer now working full-time, said this about networking: “I like to speak to people whose qualities I admire and enjoy. I think that might lead to opportunities which might be a good fit, but for me, it is all about connections. More than just getting a job, I think staying connected to the community leads you to interesting topics to learn and personalities that align with the kind of person you want to be.”

Consider someone you met at a conference, then spoke with over Zoom about a project, then kept in touch with via Twitter. You have a personal connection with this person far deeper than a brief intro at a happy hour. They’ll be more likely to think of you when their employer is hiring than someone you briefly traded LinkedIn profiles with.

After learning to write apps, Victoria landed her first iOS job at a major retailer thanks in part to her virtual networking efforts. “Through virtual events and through communication on Twitter, I found mentors who showed me what to study and helped me through the interview process. I saw someone I’d met at iOS Dev Happy Hour tweet about a job. I inquired about it and got a referral. He said that he had seen my apps and progress I had shared online. I passed the tests and interviews there and I got the job.”

You can’t force a meaningful connection, and every person and situation is different. But here are a few suggestions to strengthen virtual relationships with fellow developers:

  • Engage with their content. Let them know how their blog post resonated with you, share your experience when they tweet looking for opinions and celebrate their victories with an encouraging message or thumbs up.
  • Help out when you can. This might be beta testing an app or making an introduction when they’re looking for someone with certain expertise.
  • Seek their advice when you have a question within their area of expertise. This depends on the size of the question, their bandwidth and how well you know them. Many people are happy to help with topics that interest them, and thanks to the Ben Franklin effect, it actually makes them more likely to want to help you again!
  • Be present in the community. Show up at developer conferences and events. Be active on social media. When you bump into your contacts in multiple contexts, it gives you more to talk about and strengthens your relationship.

Some of these things may take you out of your comfort zone — that’s often a sign of growth. Still, be sure to watch social cues to avoid focusing unwanted attention on a new contact. A good indication is that healthy interactions should be two-way. If your new contact doesn’t engage with you, it’s best to limit how often you interact.

The key point is to look for opportunities to maintain contact after the conference so you’re not just another faceless connection. This is particularly important when you consider meeting someone at a virtual conference is literally a two-dimensional experience. You need to keep in touch so your new relationship doesn’t fall flat.

Where to Go From Here?

Now that you’ve learned the power of a strong network and how to leverage virtual conferences to build one, it’s time to put that knowledge to work! Here’s your challenge:

  1. Find a virtual conference that sounds interesting to you.
  2. Register.
  3. Attend.
  4. Make a lasting connection with at least one person.

If you run into problems, brainstorm what went wrong and try again!

Extra credit: Let us know how this went for you in the forum discussion below.

Key Takeaways

  • Many conferences have gone virtual or hybrid, making it easier for many to attend from all over the world.
  • Networking at virtual events requires some effort on the part of attendees. Keep your camera on, speak up when appropriate, share your contact info and reach out to fellow attendees after the event.
  • After the conference, be intentional about maintaining and growing your virtual relationships via chat servers and social media.
  • You’ll have the most success if you approach networking as building long-term relationships versus gaining quick benefits.

Resources

To find virtual and hybrid conferences, check out cocoaconferences.com. Keeping an eye on social media and iOS development newsletters is another great way to learn about new opportunities.

Do you have a great professional networking tip, a success story or a good what-not-to-do to share? Have a favorite virtual conference you’d like to spread the word about? Please join in the forum discussion below!

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