Make the most of conferences and shows

It's easy to lose track of time at a conference. Making a plan before you leave, outlining what you want to accomplish will help.

Things move so fast in the corporate IT world that if you want to stay current, it's almost a full-time job seeking out the information you need. But you fortunately already have a full-time job keeping your security up to date and deployed, your networks operating as expected and your users, and corporate superiors, happy. It's a challenge to stay up to date.

Trade shows and conferences offer you that opportunity. A fact of life in the fast-paced high-tech world, they provide venues where researchers and developers can let you know what they have available right now, and they can inform you of new technologies coming down the pike that you need to be aware of. But you must use the time at any industry gathering wisely and well. So, how do you go about it?

In a word, organize. Organize your schedule, yourself and your time at the conference or show. If you can do this, then you will spend your scarce time profitably. If you don't, well...

"Planning is most important," says Don Flinn, managing partner of Flint Security, in Marblehead, Mass. "Make sure the conference is in your specialty, and look at the sessions that are going on. Rank those sessions: How close is this to what I want to look at? Read the abstracts of the sessions. And finally, I look for sessions at a conference where I know the people giving them are good."

Organizing yourself and your schedule is not so difficult. Most conferences that you'll be interested in have a schedules of events posted on their Web sites. Visit the Web site in advance to determine sessions you'd like to attend. You're looking for information, so invest time in the schedule to get that information. If there are two sessions at the same time you need to attend, team up with another person from your company to cover them both.

David Linthicum, chief technical officer of Grand Central Communications, in Reston, Va., amplifies. "Check out the agenda, and read the description of the sessions and the speaker bio. You'd be surprised how many people just look at the session titles, and then find the session is very different from what they thought it would be."

If you're a seasoned show/conference attendee, like Flinn, there are some things you've learned by experience. For example, suppose you hear about a conference that really looks like a sales pitch for some product. Your first thought might be that it's a waste of time, but Flinn points out he still might want to attend if he wants to learn about that product and the venue is close.

However, don't over plan. You could find yourself so scheduled that you cannot take the time to "go walkabout" as Jim Keohane, an independent software developer from Long Island, New York calls it. That means going onto the exhibition floor of the conference to see what's new. This can be a valuable experience, and you'll find many new products and technologies.

Linthicum offers an alternative here. While going walkabout can be productive, you don't know whom you'll be talking with at any given booth. Send an e-mail to the sales staff at the company you're interested in and ask for an appointment at a specific time to talk with a technical person about a product, for example. This can maximize your time use.

In addition, don't think that just because there's an overall price for the conference (so many days, conference and exhibition, etc.) that you have to buy the whole package. If all the session topics you want to attend are on one day, why buy three days of a conference? "Back the appropriate fee into your plan," says Linthicum.

When you're all done, see if you have gathered these items, which Flinn offers as the takeaways you should aim for:

  • New ideas in technology
  • Innovative ways to work with the technology
  • A good set of notes for yourself
  • Face time (with the presenters of sessions at the conference).

Make sure to write up your notes, observations, and so forth. Pass these around to co-workers (and don't forget to include your boss in the distribution list; might as well spread the knowledge, and get some credit for so doing).

Remember that many conference speakers provide their contact information as a part of their presentation. Most people don't take advantage of that. "I hardly get follow-ups," Linthicum acknowledges. Be different. Follow up. These expert speakers are offering their expertise for free. Take advantage.

And have a good conference.

David Gabel, who has tested and written about computers for more than 25 years, has attended more trade shows than he cares to remember.

This was first published in March 2004
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