Warning: there is some name dropping. Okay, a lot of it. The only goal of it is to try and convey the extreem importance of attending smaller conferences like Sunshine PHP. Close knit communities in tight quarters breed very interesting opportunities to talk to people you normally might not have a chance to. Take advantage of it every chance you get.
First, show up early
If at all possible, come in the day before the event. Not only will you wake up rested for the conference, but you can take part in pre-conference festivities. The night before the conference, a rather large group of us all went out to dinner together. In no particular order (and please forgive me if I have left anyone out, or added anyone, it has been quite a few days): Jim Ruga, John Kary, Brian Fenton, Jeff Carouth, Sebastian Bergmann, Anthony Ferarra, Matt Davis, Damon Jones, Matt Frost, Beth Tucker-Long (and her family), and Lonnie Brown.
Now even if you’re not super community savvy, a few of those names should stick out like a very sore thumb.
Second, don’t forget the hallway track
I know, I know. You’re excited to go see all the speakers give their talks. By all means, if there are talks that look like they absolutely cannot be missed, then go watch them! However, don’t forget that you will likely be missing a rare opportunity to sit down and have a (near) one-on-one conversation with someone you normally may not run into. I lost count of the number of times I saw Cal Evans and Paul M. Jones talking at a table with a couple empty chairs, or Anthony Ferarra, or any number of people. If there’s someone you want to be able to have a prolonged conversation with, look out for them between talks and talk to them.
Third, be actively involved
The more you participate in the conference, the more you will get out of it. Join the hackathon, play jeopardy, or just Drink With Friends(tm) (seriously, how is that NOT a game yet??). Introduce yourself. Break out of your shell. As out of place as you feel, others feel the same and are just hoping someone comes and talks to them. If you talk first, then you don’t have to wait so long! Want to meet someone but not feeling up to introducing yourself? Come find me (or, if I’m not there, ping me on twitter and I’ll try to find someone to help you!) and I will go do the “hard awkward part” of the initial introduction.
Seriously. The PHP community is an amazing group of people. If you love the community, it will love you back. I’m not just talking about the publicly visible members, I’m talking about everyone. Each and every one of us contributes to the community in our own way, and it needs all of us to thrive. Coming to events like Sunshine PHP helps to foster the community feeling, because people stop being these faceless nicknames. It makes it easier to communicate with people online, and helps you feel like less of an “impostor” at future events, as instead of simply going to a conference, you get to go see your friends again!