• Academic conferences are good for understanding research trends without any particular product in mind. You can engage with any leading expert in the field to get to the bottom of a particular problem.
• Developer conferences are very useful to sense the level of adoption in the field. They come in two flavors: products and practices. In terms of products, every major software company holds an annual developers conference, such as OracleWorld, Sun's JavaOne, and the IBM Technical Developer Conference. Besides the new product announcements, it's interesting to see demos and talk with small companies that are building new software on top of a particular vendor platform. In terms of practices, the SD Best Practices Conference and Expo tends to have very good keynotes with lots of experience in the field.
• Last but not least, user group meetings are formed around particular vendors or products. These are usually local events put together by a lot of volunteers. The good thing is that you meet the people in charge of live systems.