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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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
Professionals

Providing opportunities for IT professionals to become more marketable
through education and networking.
E-mail: aitp_hq@aitp.org

Association for Women in Computing
A not-for-profit, professional organization promoting the advancement of
women in the computing professions.
E-mail: awc@awc-hq.org

Business Software Alliance (BSA)
The voice of the world’s leading software developers before governments and
with consumers in the international marketplace.
Email: info@bsa.org

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.
E-mail: admindiraa@bta.org

The Computer Law
Association (CLA)

A non-profit international association serving information technology
professionals worldwide.
Email: clanet@aol.com

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.
Email: info@cra.org

Computing Technology Industry Association
(CompTIA)

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.
E-mail: info@comptia.org

DigitalEve
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.
Email: info@digitaleve.org

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.
Email: info@eff.org

Independent Computer Consultants Association

A national non-profit trade organization providing professional development
and business support programs.
E-mail: info@icca.org

Information Management
Forum (IMF)

An international membership organization of senior information technology
and business executives providing interaction and collaboration with the
brightest minds in IT.
E-mail: imf@infomgmtforum.com

Information Technology Association of America
(ITAA)

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.
E-mail: hwarfield@itaa.org
Information Technology Industry Council
Representing leading U.S. providers of information technology products and
services.
E-mail: webmaster@itic.org

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).
Email: membership@computer.org

Interactive Digital Software Association
(IDSA)

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.
Email: idsa@idsa.com

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).
Email: isoc@isoc.org

Network and Systems Professionals Association
(NaSPA)

A non-profit organization promoting the advancement of all network and
systems professionals.
Email: mbrship@naspa.net

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.
E-mail: webmaster@comprof.com

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.
E-mail: info@sdforum.org