FAQ for First Time ISCA Attendees
Attending a conference for the first time can be a little daunting, especially since there are many questions that you cannot simply google the answers to. This page is an attempt to collect and answer some of them, based on the experience of me (Lena Olson) and others. Some questions/answers are from twitter conversations, with credit given.
Obligatory caveats: All opinions are my own and do not represent Google (my employer). They’re also based on my experience, as someone who attended a number of conferences as a grad student. Seek out advice from multiple people! A few such links are included at the end. And if you disagree with my advice, feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org), tweet me (@zehlyi), or send a pull request.
Questions are not presented in any particular order.
What do people wear?
There is no official dress code and you will likely see clothing ranging from shorts / old t-shirt up to a suit. However, the majority of people dress one step up from student/tech job attire. Many people wear slacks or nice jeans; most people do not wear shorts. Button down shirts, polos, or blouses are common. Authors who are presenting papers sometimes will dress up even more nicely, in a suit or a blazer.
Conference venues are often very aggressively air conditioned, so it is wise to bring a sweater. It is totally normal to bring a backpack or bag.
What happens at ISCA?
This year’s schedule is here: https://iscaconf.org/isca2019/program.html
The main activities include:
- Workshops and tutorials on Saturday and Sunday. You need to register for these separately from the conference itself, and they usually have a limited scope: a tutorial on how to use a tool, or a workshop with peer-reviewed papers on a specific topic.
- Keynotes and plenary sessions. Invited speakers give talks about the state of the field. These are generally higher-level than paper presentations, and even if you are not interested in the specific topic, are usually worth attending.
- The paper sessions. Authors present their papers. Typically, there are two sessions going on at once, and attendees choose based on their interests.
- The business meeting. This is open to everyone and includes information on the paper selection process, finances, and generally how the conference was organized.
- An excursion. Despite the fact that these are often to somewhere like a museum, in actuality, you will probably not particularly experience the museum. You will, on the other hand, have an opportunity to interact with people in our field and talk about research.
What does a conference talk look like at ISCA?
Each paper has a 20 minute slot, and is typically part of a session with papers on similar topics. One of the authors (usually the first author, often a grad student) will give a presentation on the paper. Since papers have far more content in them than can be covered in 20 minutes, the presentations are the highlights of the paper. The presenter will not take questions during the talk, but afterwards there will be a few minutes for audience members to ask questions.
Should I attend every single talk?
It is impossible to attend every talk, since multiple sessions happen simultaneously. It can also be difficult to really pay attention to these often dense talks for hours on end. Feel free to choose the talks that are most interesting to you, and if there is a time when neither session interests you, this might be a good time to go out in the hallway and network with other conference attendees, or to go catch up on email.
Do I need to read the paper before attending a talk?
No, although it can be a good idea to skim the paper titles before the conference and read a few that look particularly interesting. (For example, if you are flying to the conference, you could consider choosing some papers for airport/airplane reading material). Having read the paper ahead of time (or at least skimmed it) can make it easier to follow the talk.
On the other hand, presenters aim to give talks at a level that will make sense even for those who haven’t read the paper, and it may be that after hearing the talk, you will be so interested that you will want to read the paper. Attending just the talks can also help keep you up to date with high-level insights in areas outside of your own research.
If I have a question during a talk, how do I ask it? (Ramon Canal, Scott Beamer)
Authors will not take questions during their talk, but usually there is time for a few questions afterwards. You can go up to the mic and ask your question, but keep in mind that there are hundreds of ISCA attendees, and if every person asked just 1 question at just 1 talk, each talk would have 10+ questions.
If you want to make sure your question is a positive contribution to the conference, ask yourself:
- Is it actually a question? Or is it, in fact, a statement, perhaps about your own research? If it is not a question, consider saving it for a one-on-one talk with the presenter.
- Is it relevant to others in the audience? If not, consider asking the question later, one-on-one, where it is easier to talk about subtle details.
- Is it possible the answer was in the talk, but you missed it because you were checking email or otherwise not paying attention?
- Are you only asking the question to try to make the presenter look bad or embarass them? That isn’t very nice, and other audience members are likely to notice and be unimpressed with you.
If you have a question but you aren’t sure it is appropriate to ask at the end of the talk, never fear. There are other opportunities to ask. For example:
- The poster session. Go find the author at their poster and ask it there.
- In the hallway, at meals, or otherwise in person at the conference.
- Over email. The advantage of asking in person is that you can have a whole back-and-forth conversation.
Do I need to take notes? (Scott Beamer)
No, but some people find it helps them focus on the talks (as opposed to getting distracted by email). Be aware that the papers will be available online, and frequently the slides are as well, so you will not need to write down every subtlety. But noting insights or unexpected results in the talk, questions (to ask later or to look up in the paper), or general outlines can help you get the most out of the talk.
Can I attend the business meeting?
Yes! The business meeting is open to all conference attendees and has nothing to do with “business” in the sense of, say, companies like Microsoft or Intel. The business meeting is about the logistics of running the conference: what new things were tried this year? Where did conference funding come from and where was it spent? How many attendees are there? How many people submitted papers and how did the PC meeting go? It’s a great way to learn more about how conferences are run.
Are there gender neutral bathrooms?
There are several restrooms designated family restrooms. There is one by the entrance to the North Ballroom, one across from room 131A, one by room 128B, and one off the Metro Marche (the food court).
I’m intimidated about meeting and talking to academics I don’t know. How do I strike up a research conversation with someone I’ve never met before? (credit: Akshitha Sriraman)
Most academics love to talk about their research. So if you have attended a talk by them or read a paper by them, one way to start a conversation is to tell them something you found interesting about their work, or ask them a question about it.
Advice from Margaret Martonosi: My favorite all-purpose conversation starter is: What have you been working on most recently? (Because no matter how junior/senior/famous/unknown someone is, this question is relevant to ask them at a conference.)
Advice from Matt Horsnell: “What was the last surprising result/failure you had?” Probably not good as an ice breaker, but if you’ve got a conversation started and worked your way through the basics of what you/they do then this can lead to some really interesting conversations and learnings.
Advice from Biswabandan Panda: If you are in awe of someone in the architecture community (mostly the big shots from students’ perspective) and you want to meet him/her badly then my two cents for you. Big shots usually get occupied throughout the conference; so what should you do? In my case, I did fail initially. This is what I did. I went to him/her directly; introduced myself, and then said I have been trying to meet you from the last two years at various conferences and started the conversation.
Do I need to contact the people I want to meet beforehand? (Mohamed Zahran)
You don’t need to contact people beforehand, but if there is someone who you are particularly hoping to meet (say, because you read their paper and you think it’s incredibly interesting), you could email them before the conference to reach out. Otherwise, you can often find presenters at their poster during the poster session, and you can look for them during breaks.
What do I do if I want to talk to a presenter? (Ramon Canal)
As above, you could email them, or just look for them at the conference. A good opening is to tell them something you learned from their work, or ask them a question.
Should I drink a lot of alcohol?
From Daniel Jimenez: My first conference was about 100 years ago so it’s hard to remember. But one serious question could be “should I drink a lot of alcohol?” and the answer is “no, at best you’ll look like an idiot and at worst you’ll put yourself and others in danger.”
Note from Lena: Some amount of networking at conferences does happen “after hours”, often at bars. Going to these events is a good way to meet others in the field. However, this is a professional event, not a party. I frequently will not drink anything with alcohol, or will have only one drink over many hours. I would encourage people not to drink more than they are comfortable with, and also not to pressure others into drinking.
Someone is acting in a way that makes me uncomfortable: unwelcome sexual comments, racist comments, trying to follow me into my hotel room, etc. Help?
I sincerely hope no one needs this answered at ISCA this year. However, some of us have had bad conference experiences in the past.
If you are physically unsafe (e.g., someone breaking into your hotel room), do what you need to do: make noise, call emergency services (911 in the US), enlist help from those around you.
For cases of harassment where you are not in immediate danger: you can contact the SIGARCH CARES committee. They can be a sounding board and help you decide on next steps if you experience discrimination or harassment at the conference.
How do I meet people? (Scott Beamer)
Advice from Daniel Jimenez: In a social situation (e.g. the hallway, lunch, the excursion) seek out people you don’t know. Everyone there is interesting. If it seems hard, ask your advisor to introduce you. If he or she isn’t good at that, find someone else to help you. I’ll help :-)
Advice from Matt Guthaus: I always make it a point to talk to someone whom I don’t know that may be sitting/standing by themselves.
Note from Lena: I have noticed in the past few years that now that people have phones, it is tempting to hide the awkwardness of standing by yourself in a big group by looking at your phone. But this is counterproductive if you want to meet people, because they think you’re busy! I encourage people to fight the awkward feelings, stay off your phone, and instead look for others who are alone to introduce yourself to.
Also, once you’ve met a few people, you can join conversation circles with them when you see them later. That will allow you to meet even more people.
How do I find people for getting meals?
One way is to use the whova app, which will allow setting up groups for meals. Another way is to seek out people you have met, and ask if you can join them.
From Gabriel Loh: “do you mind if I join y’all for dinner?” Vast majority of the time, people are more than happy to have you join. Sometimes a group arranges a meeting to discuss specific business and will politely inform you. Just go ask another group.
Note from Lena: more advice welcome here! This is something that is much easier when you attend with others whom you know, or when you’ve been attending several years and have met people.
How do I choose a session to attend? (Scott Beamer)
Look through the papers for titles that seem interesting to you. And interpret “interesting” broadly: papers on topics that are close to your research interests, of course, but also papers in areas you don’t know as much about.
How do I follow up with the connections I made at ISCA? (Mohamed Zahran)
One thing to do is to email them after the conference, saying that it was nice to meet them.
Advice from Gabriel Loh: Connect on LinkedIn (YMMV). Twitter, too, but the majority of comparch seems to not be here. Some people use Facebook, too, but many folks minimize the number of professional “friends” there (esp. ones they just met).
Note from Lena: Further advice welcome here. I myself am not great about following up.
Do I always need to talk about research with others during meals? (Mohamed Zahran)
You definitely don’t. I have learned many interesting non-academic things about my colleagues during conference meals, such as which ones run triathalons. Feel free to make normal small talk with your tablemates.
At the same time, this is a research conference, so be aware that people might tend to want to talk about their research. It’s also 100% okay to do that. You can learn a lot from these discussions, and it is really fun to get a chance to talk to others who are as excited about research as you are.
Although you don’t only need to talk about research, please do keep it professional, though. In particular, don’t hit on other conference attendees. Academia has various power imbalances, and people may not feel free to shut down unwelcome attention for fear of career impacts. So just don’t make it an issue, and appreciate other attendees as the scientists and researchers they are, rather than as potential romantic interests.
Can I get some advice from others?
- Geoff Kuenning’s tips on attending your first conference. Not architecture specific, but good.
- Intentionally bad –but funny– advice. Written by architects Mark Hill and David Wood 22 years ago, but still relevant.
- Advice from Michael Ernst and David Notkin.
I have a question you didn’t answer!
Send it my way. Email (email@example.com), tweet me (@zehlyi), or fill out this form (anonymous submissions allowed).