With so many industry conferences to choose from these days, it’s difficult to determine the best investment of your time and money. I’ll outline the various factors you need to take into account, including conference topic, time period, and who should attend, to ensure that your next conference selection is a good decision for you and your staff.

Step 1: Dealing with the cost issues
IT managers must be frugal these days, as everything comes under scrutiny. Obviously, the best scenario is investigating conference needs and the related costs, and then budgeting the necessary amount into the next fiscal year.

If that’s not possible in your current situation, you’re likely going to have to look into pulling money from other pots (projects put on hold, discretionary department funds, etc.) or face the task of making a strong argument for the additional money from the fiscal office.

No matter which scenario, IT managers have to factor in staff attendance and related costs (travel, food, etc.) and weigh those costs against lost productivity to determine the true value of the expenditure. The cost obviously impacts which conferences are chosen, since some are much more expensive than others. This fact may help you make the final conference choices. That’s why it’s good to have a base figure to work with before making conference decisions. If you don’t, you could waste a lot of time researching conferences that are, ultimately, out of your price range.

Step 2: What need do you have?
Part of the conference budget equation requires that you decide what kind of training or conference you and your staff will need during the year. This decision is tied to the IT projects and business goals. You’ll also need to think of staff skill sets and identify future technology needs.

For example, if you’re looking at upgrading to Windows 2003 Server, certainly you’d want to get some of your network people to one of the Microsoft conferences. I recommend having staff attend conferences on issues and technologies related to upcoming projects well in advance of any project planning start date. I know this sounds like an obvious point, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve attended a conference or training a week or two before a project starts and come back to work with so many to-do’s that the project goes off schedule in order to deal with the various issues that will crop up.

At the same time, don’t limit conference and education solely to projects. Keeping up with industry trends and learning about new approaches, even if you’re not planning to implement the same, can prove beneficial to you and your staff.

Step 3: Time and timing factors to consider
The time requirement is often a big factor when it comes to attending weeklong conferences, since most IT professionals don’t have a full week to spare. And sometimes the travel for even a one-day conference seems too costly or time-consuming. Also, everyone has project deadlines, meetings, and other day-to-day tasks that have to be taken into account, since they’ll be impacted by the time away from the office.

I personally prefer end-of-week conferences (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday) because they give me time after the conference (the weekend) to wind down and evaluate the information I’ve gathered.

Step 4: Making the best choice
Now that you know how much money you can spend, who’s going, what conference topic to seek out, and what time issues you might have to consider, it’s time to start evaluating conferences. The first step is reading about the conference sponsors, the speakers, those running panels, and the subtopics being focused on.

You want reputable, knowledgeable sources, and you don’t want to waste your time at conferences that offer a lot of good topics but little weight in terms of the presenters’ expertise. You know that you’re getting a good conference when you see Microsoft certifications tied to some of the training. Also, Cisco, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard are usually tied to reputable conferences. Speakers who have written books and presented at other similar conferences are indications that the conference is likely solid. And always keep in mind the many reasons you’re looking for a particular conference:

  • You need exposure to a specific technology or product.
  • You need to make a decision relating to technologies in the next year or so and require knowledge to make that decision.
  • You’re ready to start planning a project and need your staff skills prepared in advance.

Tips for getting maximum results
I’ve had the opportunity to attend conferences and training while in many different IT positions—from healthcare CIO to director of IT. At all levels, I’ve sought to find the right fit for the position and level of responsibility I had at the time.

There is incredible value in choosing a conference that allows you to meet and share information with colleagues working in similar industries or tackling new technologies. I believe the people you meet at conferences are every bit as important as the conference information provided in talks and seminars.

Never attend a conference unless you intend to absorb every bit of information and meet as many people as possible. Even at the worst conference, you can gain valuable information about other organizations and fields that may interest you.