Get the Most Out of Your Next IT Conference
Many technology professionals make time to attend one or more industry conferences or conventions during the calendar year. This can be beneficial in a variety of ways, from interpersonal networking opportunities to training and skills development. What I want to discuss today is how individuals can maximize the opportunities for professional development and personal growth at the next event they attend.
I am going to proceed from the assumption that most IT professionals don't go to conferences just to stay at a fancy hotel or collect some nice swag — although the swag available at some industry events is incredible. Most IT pros, rather, attend for professional or personal edification.
The most important point of attending is generally to improve oneself from an intellectual standpoint. Whether attending in person or participating virtually, don't just daydream or let the time pass. Indeed, the next time that there is an IT conference or convention on your schedule, use these tips to improve or enrich your overall experience.
Follow Your Interests
First, when planning your conference-going, pick an event with a focus that interests you. It doesn't have to be something you are doing at work or even something that falls within your employer's scope of operations. Be willing to step outside your path and learn for the sake of learning.
Do remember that pursuing an "off-track" interest may cause your and your current manager to disagree about who should pay for the conference — provided that cost is a factor. If your time at a given event is not directly focused on your job role, and does not necessarily fall within the roadmap for your company, then be prepared to pony up.
I attended a conference for Salesforce when I was an engineer, a C-suite thought leadership conference later in life, and a conference on physics somewhere in between. I think one of the best tips I could give you is simply to mix and match your professional and personal interests when selecting a conference.
Know Before You Go
My second recommendation is to do a little research on whatever conference you're planning to attend. Map out a game plan so that you'll know what to do and where to go as soon as you arrive. Such preparedness is second nature for some, but you might be surprised how many people just kind of casually show up for the likes of Microsoft Ignite or Oracle OpenWorld.
Such folks go in blind, planning to glance at the agenda and just wing it upon arrival. You often see such individuals hanging in the lobby during the show, aimlessly looking around to see whether they know anyone walking by. They may be dithering over whether to just walk into an interesting session, or they may be worried about not being admitted because they didn't preregister.
Don't be that person. Most event organizers provide an app to help potential attendees sort through the sign-up process and scope out the various sessions, speakers and schedule. Take full advantage of any such tools. Book your sessions, research the speakers that you want to hear from, and, by all means, set your schedule. Whether you are attending virtually or in person, there's no reason to just spin your wheels.
Maximize any certification opportunities. Many in-person conferences — which is what I believe and hope will once again become the norm for conferences in the near future —offer low-cost or even free certification exams. Going back to what I just said about making plans in advance, who is to say you can't cross the finish line of your current certification path at a conference?
For instance, if you are a Salesforce engineer, pick your Salesforce track, invest the time to prepare beforehand, and show up at the conference ready to take your next certification exam. You can even take more than one exam, depending on how energetic you are feeling.
Keep Track of What Happens
You should always plan to have amazing takeaways and milestones once the conference is over. Knowing what you want out of the event is probably the biggest tip I can give anyone. It's important to not only know what you will spend your time doing, but what you want to achieve from each and every session.
I don't care whether you are going to a session to get a free keychain. If that's your goal, then know it going in. Seek to achieve your goals during the conference, and know what will happen next once the conference has ended.
I worked for a company that had us do a write-up after every conference we attended. While I didn't always like it, the write-up had us determine what we got out of the attending, and how we were going to apply those takeaways to our current situation at the company.
I have come to love doing this exercise, even when it is not mandated by my employer. As I have gotten older, I find that I abhor wasting time. With days completely full of speakers and sessions, there's a lot to take in. You're probably not going to remember all of it when you get back to the office.
To that end collect your notes and information in a way that makes it easy to access when you return to the office. Regardless of your note-taking format of choice (pen and paper, laptop, tablet, smartphone; I use Evernote), at the end of each session you attend, write down your three key takeaways, as well as any follow-up you want to do on the topic or with the speakers. This will help jog your memory and give you specific follow-up items.
Virtual vs. In-Person
Should you adapt your plant of attack if you will be attending virtually, as opposed to in-person? While I believe there are not a lot of differences between virtual conferences and in-person conferences, I want to concentrate on one thing that you should always remember is the same in any context: professionalism.
Even when attending virtually, dress the part. I know you are at home, but you are going to need to fit into that suit at the next in-person conference. Put it on. Always use your video. You should be researching and talking to others in attendance, no matter what the format.
Here's a bonus random tip for attending conferences in person: I would always go check the wi-fi in that area, bandwidth, etc. I do the same for virtual conferences. Check your connection and do a tech check before every conference you attend. One other bonus tip: Socialize! Connect with the speakers and don't forget to schmooze!
As I sit here dreaming of the day that I get to see all of you attending a conference that both challenges and intrigues you, I want to wish you an amazing year — and happy attending your next conference!