Config 2023 Recap

What’s really special about in-person conferences.

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Around 6 minutes to read

I just got back home from 5 days in San Francisco for Figma’s Config. At 8,500 in-person attendees (and many more online), it was the largest conference I’ve ever attended and spoken at. I’ve been to almost 300 conferences since I started speaking in 2008; this post contains my reflections on Config 2023 as well as some general tips about how I make the most of a conference experience.

My talk

I meet with many people who are discouraged about their design systems. That could be because they’re just starting and they foresee a daunting mountain of work ahead of them. Or, they’ve had a design system for years and are disheartened at the lack of traction against their expectations or see steadily accruing design or technical debt. I wanted to do a talk that encouraged everyone that it may not be as bad as it seems, and I wanted to share actionable tips that attendees could put into practice immediately. I’m honored that my talk was selected among thousands of submitted proposals.

The preparation process to give a talk at Config was rigorous. They assign a content reviewer that helps you prepare your talk for the 2 months leading up to the event. Luckily for me, I was paired with my longtime friend Rogie King.

It usually takes me about 3–4 weeks to create a talk from scratch. Fortunately, this was a talk that I’ve given before a few times, so I only needed a few tweaks to get it tailored to the audience at Config.

A few days before the event, Rogie messaged me to ask if I’d be willing to take part in a design competition on stage that turned out to be Figmatch. Given that I’ve had practice doing this kind of thing before, I happily obliged!

My team was amazing: I was partnered up with Clara Ujiie, Anna Fine, and Joey Lamelas. I hadn’t met any of them before, but I’ve been admirers of their work for a while. In our initial prep, I sneakily volunteered to take on any onstage presentation duties so they could focus on designing. I brought my best dad jokes and trash talk. The strategy paid off: the audience voted us the winners!

The best part of in-person conferences

I used to relish in-person conferences as a way to learn and teach (not to mention a great excuse to travel).

Then COVID-19 happened.

Many conferences moved online, and I became a quick convert. I loved the idea that I could still attend events and present my own stories from the comfort of my home office without leaving my family for days.

After a few years of this, it dawned on me that the beauty of in-person conferences was never the talks for me. It was always the experiences I could have with other people. (I got glimpses of this from Dann Petty’s Epicurrence events, but it really solidified for me over the last few years).

When I attend in-person conferences now, I’ll try and attend at least a few talks, but I also make it a point to linger a bit in common areas and strike up conversations with whomever’s around. This is great for catching up with old friends I haven’t seen in a while, but I find that it never feels like enough time to catch up with everyone for long enough. This time, I tried to be content with just a few minute catch-up and made a point to follow up and schedule some Zoom time with people I want to talk more with.

What I like even more is being able to meet new people. Over the last few months, I’ve made a concerted effort to share more online, especially on my newsletter, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube, doubling down on what I’ve done for years on this blog. It often feels like shouting into the ether, without much response as to its value. But meeting new people who tell me how much a specific article or talk has meant to them in their career development is a sweet salve to the otherwise disenchantment that my efforts mean nothing to anyone. It really fills my cup.

Dan Mall and Bonnie Kate Wolf Dan Mall and Ben Cline
Dan Mall and Jonathan Ruiz Nolan Perkins, Dan Mall, and Kim Alban
Chee Seng Leong and Dan Mall Config basketball players
Alex Danilowicz, Dan Mall, and Teddi Ni Dan Mall and Sonali Agrawal
Dan Mall, Alex Yakir, and David Martinez Juno, Dan Mall, Jonathan Ruiz, Jaci, and Matt De Silva
Aida Gorgani, Nicole, and Dan Mall Mike Deal and Dan Mall
Levi Jones and Dan Mall Alex Yakir, David Martinez, and Dan Mall
Clara Ujiie, Joey Lamelas, Anna Fine, and Dan Mall Mckenzie Bradshaw and Dan Mall
Kiley Rundle, Maggie Mesel, Dan Mall, Dami Dina, Mordechai Hammer, Kevin Domingo, Katie Meza, and Yash Mittal John Rodrigues and Dan Mall

When my cup is full, I love using that energy to fill others’ as well. This is the beauty of in-person experiences that remote ones don’t always make room for by default.

I did two things at Config that I’m going to try to make a habit at every in-person conference I attend from now on:

  1. Host a basketball game
  2. Host a special dinner

🏀

Conferences tend to be fairly sedentary experiences, so I like the idea of doing something active somewhere within them. I got 10 people together for some 5-on-5 full court action at a local outdoor court. Afterwards, one of the attendees (Moghid Saad) shared a sentiment from the Config zine that I thought summed it up perfectly:

It’s been said “you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

Here are the highlights from our game:

🍽️

Similarly, I’m a big believer that you can learn a lot about someone by sharing a meal with them. Conferences can be intimidating if it’s your first one or you’re attending alone or if you’re an introvert. They can also be really special and memorable too.

I offered to host a special dinner for folks who haven’t had an experience like this before. I ended up doing a tasting menu with 7 other Config attendees at Sorrel, and the food and company were spectacular! Here are the amazing dishes we got to eat together:

The window at Sorrel
The menu for our night at Sorrel
Cured rockfish with kelp, strawberry, and pressed cucumber Mushroom toast with morel, teleeka, and egg yolk jam
Summer squash with polenta, basil, and cherry tomato White asparagus with black garlic, katsuobushi, and xo
Gnocchi verde with fava, whey, and mint Tortelli with scallop, artichoke, and green strawberry
Mt. Lassen Trout with green garlic, turnip, and watercress Sunchoke cheesecake with beluga caviar
Dessert trio Dessert trio Dessert trio
Rhubarb with rose geranium, yogurt, and mara de bois

Conferences are about community

Overall, I had a great time at Config. Yes, Figma announced some amazing new features and I learned a lot from the talks I attended. But I loved being able to meet so many new people and make some great new friends. For me, that’s what makes an in-person conference so worthwhile.

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