You need to attend conferences

I know a lot of IT people who never attend tech conferences, online webinars, online courses, or listen to podcasts, and those IT people are never going to be as good as those that do. They can’t call themselves professionals. That may sound harsh, but in this field, learning is everything.

Everyone who has chosen an IT career needs continuing education to keep up with modern ways of doing things. The development of peer relationships, the building of your personal community, and your participation in the wider IT community are what make this a profession. Without those things, well then, it’s just a job. You need to get out of your day-to-day job, experience new things, talk to new people and take the temperature of what’s going on. You just can’t do that by watching webinars and YouTube or reading blogs. Those online activities are also necessary, but they are no replacement for the experience of the in-person event. Online communities are best when they are an extension of an in-person community.

What’s the benefit of tech conferences?

Each time I attend an event, after a short while, a flood of new ideas starts to pour out of my brain. I write them down. It’s as if my brain is full of pent up solutions for problems, ideas for enhancing my business, ideas for enhancing my client’s businesses but they can’t get out until a shift occurs. This is a secondary benefit of attending conferences.

By the end, my brain is exhausted and feels stuffed full with new ideas. But it’s a different kind of exhaustion. It’s as if I’ve been to the gym and worked a muscle in a new way. The benefits of that workout continue to accrue to me for months afterward.

When I get back to work I’m tired from the travel, the meeting, and the learning but I’m also fully energized and excited about implementing the things I learned and the ideas I’ve had. Even if you think you don’t have the time or can’t afford it, trust me you can, and you must.

Which tech conferences?

You’ll want to find tech conferences to attend that are relevant to the market that you service. If you have a big budget then you can attend the big splashy expensive conferences. But for most of us, especially if we’re small consulting firms ourselves, splashing out $5,000 for one conference might not make sense. Instead, I believe it is more beneficial to attend several smaller ones. I’ve put together a list of free and low-fee conferences in the United States that focuses on SMBs. It’s available here. If you aren’t in the U.S. or SMBs aren’t your market, don’t fret, there are similar ones with an enterprise focus and Europe, UK, and Australia have plenty of conferences too. Ask around to your peers if you aren’t familiar with them. Ask your vendors where they are going to be too. Pretty soon you’ll have a long list to choose from.

Cost-saving tips

I’ve attended a lot of tech conferences over the years. Here are a few cost-saving tips that I and many others use.

  • Take the red-eye to save a day’s worth of hotel stay. Whether it’s leaving at murder o’clock in the morning or flying overnight, you’ll save not only on the hotel but also will get a cheaper flight.
  • Pay for the in-flight WiFi. Get your essential work done on the plane. Don’t work during the conference. Put on an out-of-office memo to let everyone know that you’re engaged in being a better IT person and they’ll understand.
  • If you’re out of your time zone, take advantage of those hours when you’re up and everyone else isn’t yet. Catch up on your email and a bit of work then.
  • Get a roommate. If you don’t know anyone who is going, post a roommate request to the conference on Twitter, Facebook, or whatever social media space it’s using. Many people share rooms at conferences.
  • Consider staying elsewhere. I prefer staying at the hotel associated with the event to avoid commute time and prevent the renting of a car, but Airbnb off-site can be a good cost-saving option in some markets.
  • Usually, a conference will feed you breakfast and lunch. Eat it!
  • If the conference has vendors, often they’ll be taking customers out for dinner. Find out if any of your favorite vendors are doing that. How? Contact them before the event and let them know that you’re going to be there. This might not only get you a free dinner, but you’ll be deepening and strengthening your relationship with that vendor and that’s always good for business.

Tech conference attendance tips

This is going to sound weird, but you need to know HOW to attend a conference. There’s a method and it’s not on the schedule that the conference organizers are going to hand you.

If you’re like me, an introvert, then be sure to bring aspirin. I get a raging headache at every conference and it’s clearly due to the stress of the forced socialization — but that’s not a reason not to do it. Here are the secret tips of conference attendance.

  • Always sit at a table where you don’t know anyone. Introduce yourself to everyone.
    • Once you’ve done that a few times, you will have met some interesting people. Find them next time and start to sit together. Seek out people that you want to be, not those that are you. Don’t be afraid to even sit with speakers whose sessions that you’ve attended.
  • Sit middle to front of the room. The people in the back might be cool, but they are also distracting because they are usually working on something else.
  • Ask a question at every session. Just one. People will get to know you and if your questions are thoughtful and on topic and not confrontational, they will begin to respect you and add you to their circles of community.
  • Head to the hotel bar after dinner. There will be lose groups of other conference attendees there for you to meet. Vendors will be there too. This is not for getting drunk. This is your chance to really get to know people. Seek out someone you wanted to meet and introduce yourself. Have a question ready to ask them to kick off the conversation. Consider this the golf course of the conference. It’s where the real relationships are built, and opportunities offered.
  • Attend sessions that are outside of your comfort zone. If you’re a self-employed business owner doing tech work for your clients, don’t attend the technical sessions. You can probably teach yourself those skills. Attend the business ones. If you’re a technical person attend sessions on things you don’t know anything about yet. You’re there to expand your horizons not reinforce existing ones.
  • In the vendor hall make sure to tell vendors that you already use that you’re there and what you like and don’t like about the product. Most of the time you won’t find technical people staffing the booth but the people there will carry your feedback home and can put you into touch with people inside the organization.
  • In the vendor hall, don’t waste your limited time collecting stamps. Visit vendors that you haven’t seen before and don’t know anything about. Focus your time on vendors that bring things you might need for your clients. Spend most of your time getting to know one or two of them really well.
  • When there are breaks or other downtime use them to quickly catch-up on work if you must do. But if you can avoid that then plant yourself somewhere public and watch what’s going on around you. You might say hello to people you’ve met earlier, and they might even join you. Just don’t look busy or no one will stop over.
  • If you aren’t having dinner with a group, then ask someone you’ve met what they are doing for dinner. Maybe you can join them. Often people are looking to get a small group together.

I can’t overstate the importance of attending tech conferences and doing it well. When I started attending them, a whole new world of opportunity opened up and my commitment to IT as a career deepened.

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