Is it worth attending an academic conference or workshop?

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

If you work in industry, is it worth attending an academic conference or workshop?

The following observations are based on my attending around 50 software engineering and compiler related conferences/workshops, plus discussion with a few other people from industry who have attended such events.

Short answer: No.

Slightly longer answer: Perhaps, if you are looking to hire somebody knowledgeable in a particular domain.

Much longer answer: Academics go to conferences to network. They are looking for future collaborators, funding, jobs, and general gossip. What is the point of talking to somebody from industry? Academics will make small talk and be generally friendly, but they don’t know how to interact, at the professional level, with people from industry.

Why are academics generally hopeless at interacting, at the professional level, with people from industry?

Part of the problem is lack of practice, many academic researchers live in a world that rarely intersects with people from industry.

Impostor syndrome is another. I have noticed that academics often think that people in industry have a much better understanding of the realities of their field. Those who have had more contact with people from industry might have noticed that impostor syndrome is not limited to academia.

Talking of impostor syndrome, and feeling of being a fraud, academics don’t seem to know how to handle direct criticism. Again I think it is a matter of practice. Industry does not operate according to: I won’t laugh at your idea, if you don’t laugh at mine, which means people within industry are practiced at ‘robust’ discussion (this does not mean they like it, and being good at handling such discussions smooths the path into management).

At the other end of the impostor spectrum, some academics really do regard people working in industry as simpletons. I regularly have academics express surprise that somebody in industry, i.e., me, knows about this-that-or-the-other. My standard reply is to say that its because I paid more for my degree and did not have the usual labotomy before graduating. Not a reply guaranteed to improve industry/academic relations, but I enjoy the look on their faces (and I don’t expect they express that opinion again to anyone else from industry).

The other reason why I don’t recommend attending academic conferences/workshops, is that lots of background knowledge is needed to understand what is being said. There is no point attending ‘cold’, you will not understand what is being presented (academic presentations tend to be much better organized than those given by people in industry, so don’t blame the speaker). Lots of reading is required. The point of attending is to talk to people, which means knowing something about the current state of research in their area of interest. Attending simply to learn something about a new topic is a very poor use of time (unless the purpose is to burnish your c.v.).

Why do I continue to attend conferences/workshops?

If a conference/workshop looks like it will be attended by people who I will find interesting, and it’s not too much hassle to attend, then I’m willing to go in search of gold nuggets. One gold nugget per day is a good return on investment.