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How to Attend a Technical Conference

Last updated Mar 28, 2003.

I can’t tell you how many technical conferences I’ve been to in my life — I started a really long time ago, when the conferences were normally held in small hotel conference rooms with only a few dozen folks on topics like “VT100 Terminal Emulation Software Methods and Techniques.” Over time these things have grown into Las Vegas-style events, complete with bands, pyrotechnics and thousands and tens of thousands of participants. I’ve attended events from IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft. I’ve also presented at local and global events, with audiences from 5 to over 3,000 people.

And over time, I’ve learned that there are real benefits to these conferences, and that many people miss out on those benefits. I’ve seen people come back from the same conference with the statements: “Wow! Best conference ever! I learned a lot, and I have so much to de-compress that I’ll be reviewing this stuff for months!” to “It was OK. It was too hot, and the food wasn’t that great. I probably won’t go back next year.”

What’s the difference? How could two people come back from the same experience with such different impressions? Well, that forms the basis of this article. But before I dive into how to be the first person and not the second, or how to decide whether to even go or not, let me cover some of the major conferences I’ve attended and what they cover.

Technical Conference Resources

There are multiple conferences on many different technologies. Some are from vendors, others are “independent,” although many of these also have vendor backing. In this article, I’ll focus on the conferences from SQL Server, but the information I’ll cover holds true for almost any technical conference you’ll attend, from small to large.

Let me list out a few of the SQL Server conferences I’m familiar with, and what their focus normally covers. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I think it represents the places where you should consider putting your time and money.

Microsoft TechEd

My personal favorite conference is Microsoft’s TechEd. Although this conference is not specific to SQL Server, it normally has a huge representation of SQL Server topics, speakers, demos, vendors and information. The attendance ranges from 3,000 to 13,000, depending on which country you’re attending in. There are conferences in every major region of the world, with the North American conference being one of the largest. The conferences are held at different times in different countries. Some speakers travel from country to country; others are local to each area. It’s a nice mix.

TechEd has a rich array of events and extra-curricular activities, and you could literally stay busy, in the conference center, from 8:00 A.M. to 2:00 A.M. I’ve done it. The event lasts anywhere from three days to a week, depending on whether you come just to the conference or attend the “pre” or “post” conference briefings, both of which cost extra.

The other benefit is that this conference covers more than just SQL Server, so if you’re asked to work with Windows, SharePoint or Exchange, this is a great place to do that.

Learn more about TechEd here. It’s a search, and will bring up the latest event at the top.

PASS

Although one of the benefits of TechEd is that it has more than just SQL Server, that’s a drawback as well. The PASS organization (More about them here) is focused specifically on SQL Server. They have two kinds of events they sponsor. The first is a large event called the “Summit,” held in the U.S. It draws around 3,000 people, and hundreds of top-notch presenters. You rank each presenter, and only the ones with high votes are asked back.

PASS lasts anywhere from 3-5 days as well, and also has pre-conference briefings that cost extra. There isn’t as much extra-curricular activity as in TechEd, but many of the vendors, Microsoft and other folks do have activities that go on in the evenings.

The PASS event calendar is here.

SQL Connections

Probably on the most deep technical side of SQL Server conferences is SQL Server Connections. This is an independent body that has some very high-powered speakers, and meets once a year here in the U.S., sponsored by SQL Server Magazine. Many times this conference is held at the same time and location as ASP.NET Connections, Visual Studio Connections, SharePoint Connections, Exchange Connections, and Windows Connections each with their own set of tracks and speakers. Normally you can roam between them to listen to presentations. This also has a few vendors and some outside activities.

You can find out more about SQL Connections here.

SQL Saturday

A recent addition to the conferences that I’ve attended and presented at is actually somewhere between a conference and a large user-group meeting, called SQL Saturday. These are very low-key one-day or even half-day events, held periodically in various states here in the U.S., and are a pretty local affair. They do, however, bring in some out of state speakers, and I try to drive to the ones in my state.

The attendance at one of these mini-conferences is somewhere between a hundred to a few hundred folks, but they are growing. And they are free! Which of course means that you’re not going to run into a lot of bands and outside activities, but it does have the advantage of being very focused to your area. Lunch may or may not be served, and you’ll probably meet at a community college somewhere, but in my experience the events have been very valuable.

More on SQL Saturday here.

There are other events that I haven’t covered here, including the events Microsoft and other vendors hold for free in their local offices, but I think this gives you a good starting point for your research.

The question is, how do you make sure that you get everything you can out of one of these conferences, free or not?

What to Do Before You Go

You’ve heard before that a college class, lecture, church sermon or just about anything else is “what you put into it.” And that’s true of a conference as well. If your preparation for a conference is limited to submitting a budget request and arranging travel, then you’re well on your way to the “it was too hot” side of the fence.

So what should you do other than arranging travel? Quite a bit, actually.

First, you should evaluate which conference you want to attend, and why. Start with those web sites I referenced above, and read what the conference has to offer.

Next, research the needs your organization has that matches the topics covered at the conference, the vendors that are there, and experts on hand. This means more research on the sites, and perhaps even sending an e-mail to the conference organizer. Hey, they are putting these things on for a reason, so the odds are good you’ll hear back from somebody. I’ve even received e-mails about the sessions I plan to deliver that asked “are you going to cover X and Y?” When I’ve received those, I’ve even modified my briefing to include information.

With a list of the current architectures, problems and future directions your organization has, you can now develop a list of questions you would like answered, such as “how do I make that go faster?” or “how will the upcoming release make it faster/cheaper/better to solve this business problem for my company?”

Now you can map those questions to the sessions you want to attend, the vendors you need to interface with, and develop your schedule. Most of the larger conferences even have an “itinerary” creator, and the TechEd site can even download it to your Outlook Calendar. In fact, I do this even before I have approval to go – more on that in a moment.

And you should pack your calendar with things that make it beneficial to be there. Many of these conferences are held in fantastic locations, so there’s always the temptation to skip a briefing or two and hit the beach or the local sites. If you want to do that, take a day on either side as vacation and do that. But don’t plan to be on vacation while you’re there — the boss doesn’t want to pay you for that, and why should he or she? If you’re up front and say “I’m going to go a day early and stay a day late — I’ll cover hotel and food on those days, but I want to be able to focus on the tech while I’m there,” you’ll get the nod to go faster than having them think you’re skipping out during the event. I see this happen at every conference, and it’s one of the main reasons bosses don’t pay for their people to come.

Don’t forget to check out the presenters and vendors, and check their blogs and other publications. You might even be able to score some personal time with them to create a good contact.

Finally, put together a value proposition for going to the conference to begin with. Even if you know your boss will foot the bill for you to go without any convincing, this will help keep you honest, and will help you in the last step, when you’re wrapping up the experience. Put down what you think you’ll learn, and how it will help your organization. Write down the questions you have, the people you’ll meet and the parts of the event you plan to make use of. Don’t neglect this step – it’s one of the biggest keys to making the event a success for you.

What to Do While You’re There

So you’ve done your homework, and you’ve gotten the budget to go. You’ve developed your schedule, booked your flight and you’ve researched how to get back and forth from event and your hotel. It’s now just a matter of attending the sessions, right?

Hardly. You’ve still got work to do.

Of course you’ll attend the demos, presentations and other events at the conference. But while you’re doing that, be ready to take notes and ask questions. Participate in the event! Be active. Your presenter will love it, and you’ll get a lot more out of the session. Don’t focus on the refreshments, the accents, the lighting and other incidentals — focus on learning and interacting with the presentation. If your laptop is distracting, leave it at home and use good old paper and pencil. Turn off the phone. Be present in the moment.

Be sure and make as many contacts as you can. Don’t eat alone — sit at a table full of folks and say “so which presentations have you liked the best?” or “I’m a DBA. What do you do?” and find out if they have the same challenges as you do at your location — odds are they do. And carry lots of business cards, and ask for the cards of others. As soon as they give them to you, write down what you learned from them on the back. That way when you get back, you’ll have a list of contacts. Who knows — you might be working with (or for) that person someday!

Get as many of the materials as you can from the presenter, vendors and contacts. That might be links, lists, or scripts. Who cares if you need them right now — just get them, and keep them in your notes.

Visit the vendor exhibits. Sure, they’ll try to sell you something, but you’ll learn more about what they have and how it might be helpful later. Yes, they’ll get your contact information and pester you constantly, but that’s part of it. You always have the right to block them later, and you may find they actually have something useful for you.

At some conferences, vendors have their own presentations. They might be during breaks or at night. I’ve attended lots of these, and normally they have some “meat” (useful information) along with the “potatoes” (sales pitch). Take one and evaluate the other.

Did you know that at certain conferences you can even get certified? You’ve got a long plane ride and a hotel you’re not going to be able to sleep in anyway, so why not use that time to cram in that last little bit of info you need to get certified? Sometimes there is a huge discount for taking the test right there at the conference.

At the TechEd conference, Microsoft always has a “hands on labs” area. This is a bunch of machines with a bunch of trainers Microsoft hires, along with a pre-set series of exercises that you can use to wander through the examples you never have time to do at work. After the lab, the machine resets and you can take another. All free!

If more than one person from your company goes to the conference, split up. DO NOT take the same sessions, and don’t talk to the same contacts. Make the most of the time, and treat it like a military reconnaissance exercise. Divide and conquer.

Even though you’ve made some contacts and some of the presenters are willing to talk to you, don’t expect them to do free consulting. Have your questions ready and pointed, and plan to spend no more than a few minutes with any single presenter. Sure, they may offer you more time, but remember that they just gave a presentation and are probably wiped out. Give them a quick question or two, or ask for resources on X or Y, and move on. In that mode, they’ll be glad to help you. For free consulting, not so much.

What to Do When You Get Back

Now you’re exhausted. You’ve got pages and pages of notes, you’re certified, you’ve had way too much coffee and free ice cream, and you have a stack of business cards that needed its own set of luggage on the plane ride home. Believe it or not, you’re still not done.

You need to let your boss and your colleagues know how the conference went. Most of the time a single page, high-level report on “Here’s what they announced, here’s what I learned, and here’s how I think we can use this” is good enough, but don’t neglect this step.

Next, share the materials you’ve gathered. I made a SharePoint site with all my materials posted there. Many times it’s only a repository for me, but from time to time I’ve had other members of the team access it.

By the way, if you picked up any little vendor give-aways, give them away. Don’t keep your conference bag, hats, t-shirts, toys, or anything else. Give them to your other team mates, the ones who didn’t get to go. Trust me on this one.

And now it’s time to implement what you learned. Take that information, and put it into practice. Remind others that you learned this trick or that technique at the conference. And it doesn’t hurt to dash off an e-mail to the presenter to tell them that — they have to justify going to present to their boss as much as you had to justify going to yours. Ain’t nothin’ free.

Review your materials. In many cases, such as PASS or TechEd, you get a login with your attendance that will let you view some of the presentations on line or listen to podcasts of them. Make sure you review those.

And as a final step, send a “thank you” to those who paid for the trip. Sending someone to a conference isn’t cheap, and they will be totally shocked when you thank them for it. Sure, your knowledge is helping them, and doggone it, they owe you the trip, and all that, but it’s the right thing to do. Just be ready to pick them up off of the floor when they faint. They aren’t used to employees being polite.

Is it Worth the Money?

Conferences aren’t the only way to learn or make contacts. Web sites, podcasts, user groups and your local Microsoft office will all trickle in similar information, many times for free. So why not just do that?

The largest argument for me is focus. My schedule is probably like yours — unreal. I mean really unreal, like I’m booked for multiple tasks in multiple locations at the same time. It simply isn’t possible to do all of the things I’m asked to do.

So if I try and focus on a webcast at my desk, I’ll never finish it. That little e-mail message will ghost up in the bottom right hand corner of my screen, my eye will wander to the word “catastrophe” in the subject line and BAM! My concentration on Index Tuning is gone. It’s just the way it is. Being on-site at the conference with only a notepad and a pencil and the phone turned off means I’ve got a better chance of actually learning something.

But at the end of the day, you have to take that value proposition document I mentioned at the top of this article and sit down with your team and your boss and honestly evaluate whether you should go or not. However...

You’ve got a better shot at getting your organization to pay for your trip if you made the last one useful for them. And if you do what you’ve learned here, you will.

InformIT Articles and Sample Chapters

Are you aware that we have lots of podcasts for free here at InformIT? Check them out here.

Books and eBooks

If you do decide to learn on your own, or even if you go to conferences, you definitely need to check out Safari. It’s a rich resource of the very latest technical books, available anywhere, anytime.

Online Resources

Microsoft’s event site is here.