At first glance, conferences and conventions seem innocuous, just a bunch of like-minded people getting together to socialize and share tips and tricks. For the information technology population, however, these gatherings can be truly polarizing.
Such IT events consist of sales guys — who love being there — some tech people (many, if not most, of whom hate being there), and a host of vendors, who are probably tired from (and possibly tired of) putting everything together. Each group holds their opinions for a variety of reasons.
When it comes to regular, non-sales IT personnel, however, I'm of the opinion that these events are a great idea and have real, genuine purpose ... provided that you approach them correctly. Here are a few tips I've picked up by grinning-and-gripping my way through a host of tech gatherings.
Increase your Knowledge
Conferences and conventions are excellent opportunities to hear from IT subject matter experts, or SMEs. Classes and presentations taught by industry leaders always focus on new developments in the industry, as well as common challenges and, even better, solutions to those challenges.
Open access to these professionals is unparalleled at conferences. So go up to them and ask your tough questions, as well as your clients' tough questions. Make contacts that you can hit up for unpaid advice later on. Who knows? You may even make some true friends.
These events are just a great opportunity to stay abreast of your field. Just like a dull axe needs to be sharpened to cut effectively, an unsharpened intellect needs stimulation. There are times that it won't be "fun" to attend classes or smile and trudge through 50 handshakes, but think of it as "going to the gym." You may not like it, but give it a try. It will help you stay in professional shape.
Probably the best thing about attending these gatherings is the opportunity to network with industry professionals. Rubbing shoulders with peers and other like-minded people will instantly expand your professional network. Just be sure to go to the information sessions, browse the show floor, and INTERACT with people at every opportunity.
The more names, numbers, and/or e-mail addresses that you come away with stored in your smartphone or laptop, the better off you will be.
Besides gleaning knowledge and networking, there are other advantages associated with attendance. In addition to a worthless tote bag, you can count on picking up free T-shirts and lots of trinkets — some of which are actually pretty cool.
Such paraphernalia is nice, but an often-overlooked perk associated with attending major conferences and conventions is the opportunity to land vouchers for various certifications. For example, at a recent Salesforce conference, attendees were permitted to take two certification exams for free. Nothing like getting to notch two more certifications on your belt.
Free exams are surprisingly common at conventions. IBM Pulse, CompTIA ChannelCon, Oracle Open World, and Microsoft Build regularly offer an array of these learning and certification options while you are on site. Taking advantage of these opportunities enables you to maximize your attendance fee and gain some more credentials for your resume.
Be sure to bring a large supply of business cards for corporate giveaways. You don't need to be serious the whole time, and there is nothing that says you can't drop a card, or two, into every random drawing bowl you pass. While I have yet to win a boat, I have packed home a truckload of worthwhile giveaways.
Deciding on conferences and conventions
Deciding on which events to attend can be confusing to IT newcomers. My advice is to work your network, ask their opinions. A minute or two communicating with the local representative of your favorite product can help you weigh the cost and benefits of when, where, and how to attend an event; they know the landscape and can provide valuable advice.
For example, they already know that August in Florida isn't always the best setting for a suit-and-tie affair, and that sometimes even a Vegas bash may be poorly attended. Talking to vendors before deciding on an event is always a wise move. Who knows? They may even throw a free ticket your way to make sure you show up.
What conference you attend is up to you, and the boss who is paying for it. If you're the boss, great. If not, then there are plenty of sites on the internet to help you justify to the boss that you "REALLY" need to attend.
Want to be sure that your request is a legitimate one? Bring back useful info and contacts that will help you do your job better. No boss is likely to send an employee to future conferences if they failed to return with valuable intel from their attendance at a previous event.
Something for everyone
If you're an IT security pro, then there is no conference more fun or widely known than DEF CON in Las Vegas. DEF CON is on par with Black Hat, another Vegas-based conference. Honestly, both events are rites-of-passage and a career requirement for cybersecurity professionals who will be working "in the space" going forward. So, go to Vegas, bring your black hat, and keep an open mind — just don't activate Bluetooth on your cell phone.
For those of you working with networks and vendor-specific software, I recommend IBM Interconnect and Microsoft Build. I've been to both and they DO NOT disappoint. Along with SharePoint, these are some of the most intense conferences I have ever been to, and their high-value content is some of the best on the conference circuit.
If Big Data is where you make your mark, Strata+Hadoop World in San Jose, Cal. is the place to be. Besides great weather — it's in San Jose in March — Strata+Hadoop is a tremendous opportunity to learn about the No. 1 platform for managing Big Data as well as all the new trends and techniques. This conference is on my Top 10 list.
For the Cloud, you have Cloud Connect, also in Vegas. The City and the conference are both great. Toward the end of the year, there is always AWS re:Invent. If you haven't been to one of these conventions, register today. It will be well worth your time and money.
For inspiring insights into future hardware, hit up DELL EMC World, featuring some of the coolest Dell/EMC Hardware known to man. For a different take on an old flavor, try Green Data Center in San Diego. The new data center tech they showcase and how they are making the centers energy and cost efficient will blow your mind.
A couple of helpdesk, service desk and ITIL-focused related conferences will round out your portfolio of events. Check out Gartner Catalyst and The Call Centre & Customer Services Summit. The latter is based in the United Kingdom, so if you get your boss to agree to that one, please write and tell me how you did it.
Participating in any of these conferences and conventions can renew your career excitement and payback can be a hundred-fold. Newfound ideas and newly acquired certifications make an impression and should persuade your boss to let you attend future events, and before you know it, you'll be a hardened veteran of the conference scene.
Best of luck and happy attending!