I just came back from a technology conference and while the conference itself was good, the real value of going to conferences is the networking and brainstorming that can occur spontaneously when speaking with colleagues from across the state, region, or country.
While there are some in management who view attendance at conferences as glorified vacations—and to some, they might be—I believe conferences are what you make of them; the more you put into them, the more you take away.
Recognize the opportunities
Networking: Meeting people outside your organization is important. Not only can it foster beneficial partnerships and other relationships, it also gives you a chance to meet people that face the same challenges as you do, but you get a chance to see solutions from an entirely different perspective.
Knowledge transfer: Whether as a result of a seminar, panel discussion, white paper, or simple networking conversations, great ideas are born and often get passed among participants at a conference.
Getting away from the office: Sometimes, stepping away from the office can recharge your batteries, renew your commitment to the work back at home, and allow you the time to ponder questions, in relative peace and quiet, so that you can get to the core of the issues.
Recognition: If you have a special achievement or idea you wish to share, a conference is one place to do it and invite important feedback.
Make the most of it
Earlier, I said that you get out of a conference what you put into it. The obvious place to start is the conference agenda. Make a point to review the agenda in detail and plan your time so that you can attend the seminars, breakout sessions, and panel discussions that interest you the most; also, make it a point to attend one session on a topic that you know absolutely nothing about. This will often open your eyes to a whole new way of thinking or at least, give you a better appreciation of an unfamiliar topic.
You can't make the most out of a conference by being a wallflower. This can be hard for IT professionals who often are more introverted than extroverted (myself included), but you have got to get out there and socialize. For one, it will allow you to practice your social skill (and it is a skill) in a safe environment; you can't network without socializing.
Volunteer to present a paper or to moderate or participate in a panel discussion; at the bare minimum, you should ask questions in the sessions. You have to be curious and be a knowledge seeker—knowledge doesn't frequently get dropped in your lap.
Bring something back
A conference can be a virtual gold mine of knowledge and ideas, and it is especially gratifying to come back with some nice nuggets. For example, here are some things I learned about at my last conference:
- I learned about the Unified Compliance Project that is a product of the IT Compliance Institute. I had a chance to play with the premium Excel matrix on the laptop of a new acquaintance, whom I met at a panel discussion. Let me tell you, this is a MUST HAVE for any IT shop dealing with compliance issues. It is a really sweet tool that helps you manage your regulatory environment along with your specific IT objectives.
- I had a really interesting and lively discussion with a group of individuals at the conference regarding the storage of social security numbers. It sparked an idea that is still in its infancy but it could be the seed of a white paper or another article. I was pumped about this when I left the conference.
What conferences should you go to?
In summary, contrary to what many people think, conferences are invaluable for gaining new information, fostering relationships, forging new partnerships, and developing many of the social skills that are important to upper management. While travel budgets are often the first to get slashed, there is a cost associated with that cut and it is one that is not obvious to many. So when you are putting your budget together for next year, make sure you can set aside a few dollars to attend at least one major conference. (You will be glad you did.)
There are national conferences for many of the major products that make up the equipment in your department, as well as associated user groups. Additionally, there are many professional organizations out there as well. Here is a list to begin with:
Association of Information Technology
Providing opportunities for IT professionals to become more marketable through education and networking.
Business Software Alliance (BSA)
The voice of the world's leading software developers before governments and with consumers in the international marketplace.
The Business Technology Association (BTA)
An international organization helping business equipment and systems dealers, value-added resellers, systems integrators, manufacturers and distributors in the industry profit through a wide variety of services.
The Computing Research Association (CRA)
An association of computer science and computer engineering laboratories and centers in industry, government, and academia, strengthening research and education in the computing fields.
Computing Technology Industry Association
Provides a unified voice in the areas of public policy, workforce development and electronic commerce standards for the computer hardware and software manufacturing, sales, training and service industries.
A global, non-profit organization for women in new media and digital technology. Its rapidly growing worldwide network of local chapters creates a united voice that recognizes and emphasizes the influence of women in the field of new media technology at all levels of involvement.
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
A non-profit, non-partisan organization working in the public interest to protect privacy and freedom of expression in the arena of computers and the Internet.
An international membership organization of senior information technology and business executives providing interaction and collaboration with the brightest minds in IT.
Information Technology Association of America
A trade association representing a world-leading U.S. IT corporations. ITAA provides information about the IT industry, its issues, association programs, publications, meetings, seminars and more.
Information Technology Industry Council
Representing leading U.S. providers of information technology products and services.
IEEE Computer Society
The world's leading organization of computer professionals. Founded in 1946, it is the largest of the 35 societies organized under the umbrella of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
Interactive Digital Software Association
Exclusively dedicated to serving the business and public affairs interests of companies that publish video and computer games for video game consoles, personal computers, and the Internet.
International Data Warehouse Association
An independent, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the knowledge, theory, and applications of data warehousing open to all qualified professionals.
International Webmasters Association (IWA)
A nonprofit professional association providing educational and certification standards for Web professionals.
The Internet Society (ISOC)
A professional membership society representing more than 6,000 members in over 100 countries. ISOC provides leadership to groups responsible for Internet infrastructure standards, including the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Architecture Board (IAB).
Network and Systems Professionals Association
A non-profit organization promoting the advancement of all network and systems professionals.
OpenView Forum International
A non-profit corporation formed by the largest licensees of Hewlett-Packard OpenView to represent the interests of HP OpenView users and developers worldwide.
Society of Computer Professionals
Membership benefits include recognition of members as qualified professionals, peer interaction for exchange of ideas, and reduced rates on services.
Software Development Forum
A member-governed, non-profit organization providing software industry professionals with timely, accurate information exchange on issues, opportunities, people and products. The organization sponsors a number of Special Interest Group activities, speakers and events.