(This post is largely stream of consciousness after a short conversation I overheard recently. Hopefully it is at least slightly coherent.)
I was recently pondering the difference between sponsoring a development conference versus sending speakers to the conference. It started to dawn on me that your action as a company may say a lot about what you're looking for in your technology department.
Let's first level the playing field and say that your motivation for doing either is probably to bring some sort of recognition to your company. I'd say it's most likely a recruiting effort. You may be building software that you hope developers will use to aid their work, but it's far more likely that you build a product and you're hoping a few of them may want to come work on making your product bigger and better(tm).
And what better place to do it? You have a building full of developers who clearly are interested in personal development.
The Message You Send
If you have employees that present at the conference, they have a chance to connect with developers on a deeper level. They'll talk about the challenges they've faced and highlight solutions they've come up with. They might even give a talk about how they tried something that did not work out and the lessons learned from doing so. They'll have a chance to highlight what makes your product technically engaging. And while that may be the last of your concerns as a business owner, that's what makes many developers tick.
On the other hand, simply sponsoring an event shows monetary support. That's the only value proposition that is delivered - that you're a thriving company. Some people like to know that their prospective employers have capital and stability.
The Message Received
This post isn't actually about trying to stereotype a company based on their participation at a conference. It's also not an attempt to enlighten companies on which ways they should participate. It's really just a call to think about how your company's participation is perceived.
This goes beyond conferences. As a company, you need to sit down and determine how you want to market yourself. Are you solving interesting technical problems? Are you delivering value to a targeted industry? What types of developers are best suited to help you in your pursuit?
As a developer, you need to figure out what motivates you. Is it money and stability? Is it solving interesting technical problems? Is it learning an interesting domain? None of these are mutually exclusive.
Both sides have to think about their marketing plan. How do you market in order to bring in the type of developers you want or need?
Or perhaps the point is that you should try to showcase all of your value by both sponsoring conferences and empowering your employees to give a talk! :)