3 Professional Reasons For Computer Professionals To Attend Science Fiction Conventions
Test and Monitor | Posted May 05, 2011

Sure, an SF fan might consider going to a con just to hear a favorite author speak or to participate in the costume contests. But developers and other computer techies can justify attending for business reasons, too. (Even if you don't program in Klingon++.)

Most people who attend science fiction conventions have plenty of social reasons for going, such as to have fun, make friends with like-minded literate people, or to see favorite authors and artists. Whether you attend a smaller con like PhilCon or a larger one like Atlanta, Georgia’s DragonCon (“the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film”), you can buy books, find an excuse to travel, or actively participate in SF singing ("filking"), costuming, live-action role-playing games (LARPS), and other activities.

But if you're a computer professional – programmer, computer scientist, sysadmin, web designer, QA professional –an SF con can also provide a lot for you professionally.

Learn from technology gurus

At an SF convention, you might expect to hear C.J. Cherryh talk about the process of building imaginary worlds, or Joss Whedon tease you with his next project. Maybe you’d expect accomplished writers to talk about the art and craft of fiction writing – a process that may seem relevant only to the construction of your next status report.

Yet, "There's often sessions – or informal schmoozing – on trends in computer science," says web developer Laurie Mann. “Science fiction fans tend to be four to five years ahead of the rest of the population in terms of using computer, network, and other technology. For example, we were using e-mail, web sites, blogs, and many other social networking tools very early in the game."

That’s certainly been true for me. Over the past decade, I've listened to Vint Cerf, one of the Internet’s main creators, talk about interplanetary TCP/IP, security uber-maven Bruce Schneier discuss encryption and security, Cory Doctorow explain his thoughts on copyright, heard from Eric Raymond, author of “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” on open source, gotten insights from the AI pioneer Marvin Minsky, and heard computer scientist and SF author Vernor Vinge’s current views on "the Singularity." I watched the video Get Lamp, about the early text-based interactive computer games.

In other words: At many conventions, you can listen to the people who define our industry – in a venue that is more relaxed and far less expensive than a traditional computer conference.

Connect with other techies who share your interests

If I was writing in a career context I’d call this section “networking,” though at cons that can be a lot more fun.

First, it’s a way to extend your knowledge. "Because convention attendees come from all around the world, I get to listen to people with a wider set of viewpoints and information than I'd normally get," says computer consultant Mike Willmoth. "You're exposed to a wider range of people who work and use software differently, just by chatting with people who are around you."

Also, notes Willmoth, "By talking to the people involved in setting up and running the conventions, you learn a lot about the software and web services they use to do this – often things that they created. A lot of technology is used for science fiction conventions, because they're events, like for registration and scheduling. I learn a lot about web-based tools by participating, and by talking with the organizers."

But let’s cut to the chase: personal advancement. "I got my first high-tech job from a fellow science fiction fan, whom I'd met through a local science fiction club and was a fellow volunteer at many conventions,” says Laurie Mann.

"Science fiction conventions are a great place to recruit employees," says Jack William Bell, principal at Splat Interactive. "I need to hire programmers with special skills…  At a science fiction convention, I can talk about what our company is doing, and get feedback from people are well-educated and informed on relevant areas, like about privacy issues.”

One Boston-area programmer notes, "At Boskone, one of the Boston-area SF conventions, a small web-hosting company had ‘seeking employees (and customers)’ flyers that included the note, 'We like to hire fen.' I'd been out of work for two years, following the dot-com bust. I met the owner at the con. My skills very closely matched what he was looking for, and I got hired very quickly following a phone interview."

"A lot of the people who attend SF conventions are computer professionals of some type," says Merryl Gross, a user interface designer and usability expert. "When I've been unemployed, I routinely take personal cards with me to conventions and hand them out.  The cards have a URL for my resume and other contact info. So when you're hanging out in the hallways or attending parties, you can also be networking! And nowadays you can do even more! Some folks I know from conventions are also in my network on LinkedIn. It's good to know that you can call someone you know from fandom and ask about something professional."

Back during the high-tech bubble, Gross recalls, one or two recruiters conducted interviews at the Boskone SF convention in Boston. “Though nothing ever came of my interview, it was sure cool," says Gross.

And while she hasn't yet gotten a job through a connection at a convention, "I've done some clandestine research on companies I was looking at by talking to current and ex-employees at cons," says Gross. "But the best reason to network at cons: If you do find a job that way, you know you'll have something in common with at least some of the people at the company!

Develop marketable technology skills

Even if you aren’t looking for a new job, cons can help you learn new technologies. It’s a good way to hone your technical skills by volunteering.  Sharon Sbarsky started her web development career coding web pages convention-related activities and serving as webmaster for Boskone and the organizing club, NESFA. “Through my SF convention contacts I was also asked to run websites for other conventions, including Worldcon and World Fantasy Conventions,” she says. “My first paying web job was via a connection at an SF convention. And since then I've often gotten other freelance, contract, and full-time jobs – for a variety of business, education and non-profit websites –- thanks to friends who I met at SF conventions."

Going to a SF convention can be good for your career. But unless you've been specifically invited for a professional reason, such as to be a speaker or do a presentation, professional reasons should be lagniappe – added value. You should go because you enjoy going.


    • Before you attend your first SF convention, familiarize yourself with the various informal social protocols and advice for how to attend, behave, and get the most from a con.

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