Is There Value in Meetups and Conferences?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m going to start off this post with this assumption: the usual working hours for a typical office job is 9am to 6pm, with an hour of lunch break in between. The start and end times may vary, but it’s still 8 working hours plus 1 hour lunch. The lunch break would usually involve 5 mins of walking out to the nearest hawker centre, 5 mins to find a seat, 5 mins to queue up and get your food, 30 mins to eat it (I’ve tried gulping down a full meal in 5 mins in the army – don’t try it), 5 mins to get a drink and drink it, 5 mins to walk back to office and finally, 5 mins to space out and settle down.

Recently, I had a job offer for an IT role in a non-IT company and was discussing the terms with the other party. The working hours was stated as about 9 hours, excluding lunch. That means if I were to start work at 9am and have a 1 hour lunch, my day would end at 7pm. Factoring 30 mins for morning exercise (thanks to IPPT), 30 mins preparation, 30 mins for breakfast. 1.5hrs travelling time, 30 mins for dinner and 8 hours of sleep, I would be waking up daily at 6am, leave the house by 7.30am, reach home by 9pm and sleep by 10pm. And this is for a normal workday, not accounting for overtime or days when the train breaks down ๐Ÿ˜›

Family and personal time aside, I realised that I would not be able to attend any meetups any more. Meetups usually start at 7pm and I need at least an hour of travelling time on the more affordable public transport, barring dinner and risking gastric problems. So I asked if the working hours could be negotiated. The short version of the reply was no. I also asked if it was possible to take unpaid leave to attend conferences, subject to work schedule of course. The answer was unpaid leave should be reserved for emergency cases. Now, all these were understandable as they involved company-wide policies and preferential treatment might not sit well with the other employees also. This got me thinking about the question put forth in the title of this post, and my answer is…

The value of meetups and conferences exist only for those who value lifelong learning and take pride in what they do.

To be clear, I’m not targetting anyone or any company in particular – it’s just fodder for whoever is formulating their HR policies. A few definitions need to be made as well as meetups may not mean the same to everyone. When I mention the word “meetup”, it’s referring more so to tech meetups like those curated by WeBuild.SG. One of my clients from the banking industry told me their version of meetups is more like networking events where they pay for the venue and food, pass around namecards, connect with one another and make business deals. I told him our tech meetups are different – we go there more so to learn from one another, give moral support to one another, it’s open to all and it’s usually free – the admission, the venue and the pizza ๐Ÿ™‚ We are more like a community than a marketplace.

I’m not sure about the other industries but in the IT industry (or if you are in an IT role in a non-IT company), things move pretty fast. New technologies, new methodologies, new security vulnerabilities, EVERY SINGLE DAY. What I know or recommend now may be obsolete tomorrow or worse still, have a security risk. I learnt a bit of Adobe Flash during my varsity days – woe to me if I were to recommend it for some animations on a client’s website now just because I did not keep myself up to date on the latest news ๐Ÿ™ Triple woe to me if I was a system administrator and have not thought of migration out from Windows XP.

And reading news or articles is not enough – a typical tech news site would have a variety of topics ranging from hardware to coding to security, how would you know which is important to your job? With regards to new programming languages, CMS, frameworks, libraries, do you have time to try them all? At meetups, we usually would have a variety of speakers and topics, and they would share about their experiences, knowledge and projects. You will feel like you have read tons of articles on the topic and put them into practice – within a short span of an hour or so – how’s that for efficient use of time?

Earlier today, I was viewing the video recording of Michael Cheng’s “How to Refactor Like a Boss – Part 2” talk at the Singapore PHP User Group February meetup on Engineers.SG. On that website, you can find video recordings of local tech meetups and events, and it’s free! I attended the January meetup where Part 1 of his talk was on. I missed the February meetup, but boy, am I glad that it was recorded! Of course, just like a football match, nothing beats being physically there, and you get to ask questions ๐Ÿ™‚

That’s for meetups – how about conferences? Think of it as one whole year of meetups compressed into a few days – the benefits are unthinkable! Back in 2012, in my previous company (which was an events company), I approached my manager to see if I could apply for 1 week of unpaid leave to attend ZendCon 2012. This conference was important to me as they were announcing Zend Framework 2 and it was also my first time attending a conference. To my pleasant surprise, the company sponsored my air ticket and conference ticket ๐Ÿ™‚ Over at ZendCon, I learnt for the first time Git, Composer, PHPUnit, testing, domain models, how to mix and match components from different frameworks, the concept of being a software craftsman, and more importantly, I was so infected by the enthusiasm and passion of the speakers and attendees that I actually started practising what I’ve learnt there! In fact, I created my GitHub account on the last day of ZendCon. And right now, as I’m penning this post, I’m wearing the T-shirt from PHP Conference Asia 2015, the first PHP Conference in Asia ๐Ÿ™‚

I’m not looking for the same level of support and sponsorship in my next job with regards to conferences (although it would save me a lot :), but at the same time, I do bear in mind that I have to be responsible for my own training and upgrading of skills. It would be tough to expect a company to provide in-house training for me, which is why I use my personal time to attend meetups and am willing to take unpaid leave to attend conferences (of course, if I have enough paid leave left after reserving for my family, I would probably use it). Btw, isn’t that what our Government had in mind when they introduced SkillsFuture, to encourage continual skill upgrading?

Paraphrasing one of my earlier posts, Happy National Day โ€“ A Letter To Computer Science Students, passion will die but passion for learning will keep the flame alive. I started programming in my teens and I want to stay passionate about programming and IT. If I were to take up an IT role somewhere and lose my passion because I have no time or energy to continue learning, I would no longer be able to contribute effectively to the company and in time, lose interest in the job.

As for the job offer? I turned it down. The CEO did finally reply with some points, but frankly speaking, it’s hard to change a company culture and its policies – I wouldn’t want to create a disturbance in the force on my 1st day ๐Ÿ˜› All I can say is that I’m probably not suited to that company’s culture. Meanwhile, here’s wishing all a Blessed Chinese New Year ๐Ÿ™‚ Adhuc!

[UPDATE 19 FEB 2016]

I may have grossly underestimated the travelling time. I have been going back to camp for my reservist training in the past week, which is in the same area where I was supposed to work (interview was at the head office elsewhere). I typically wake up at 4.30am and catch the 1st/2nd bus to the MRT by 5.45am, in order to report to camp by 8am – 2 hr 15 min or 2.5hrs with buffer time. A cab would take about 40 mins and $40 – I usually would take one on the 1st day of in-camp training so as to report by 7.30am in Full Battle Order. So for that workplace, I would be leaving the house daily by 6.30am and reaching home at 10pm, barring overtime – as for the wake-up and bedtime timings, go figure ๐Ÿ˜‰