It’s been a long, cold and particularly wet winter here in Scotland, but as spring has finally sprung, the IBM i conference season is about to descend on us once more across the Northern hemisphere. Speakers are polishing their new material (and old jokes), vendors are dusting off their booths and buying yet another set of roll-up banners, and the incredibly hard-working group of volunteers that make these events possible are preparing not to see their families for the next few months.
Towards the end of the last decade, it seemed that conference attendance was in decline; however, the last few years have seen a revival in interest, particularly across Europe. Events like International iPower in the UK, Data3’s Höstkonferensen in Sweden, BeNeLux Power and IBM France’s Université IBM i will each attract between 100 and 200 attendees – as well as vendors, sponsors, speakers, organisers and volunteers. Attending these events can be encouraging, educational and entertaining – but leaving the office comes at a cost. Whether the event is free of charge or carries a registration fee, the cost of spending at least one day away from the office is almost always the biggest issue. It’s very important, therefore, to ensure that the event is worth your time, and while it’s easy to think that this is the responsibility of the organisers, that’s only half of the story.
Let’s say you receive an invitation to an event that has everything you can possibly hope for: all the IBM i royalty are speaking; there are workshops to get hands-on with technology; and technical sessions are available for all your areas of interest. So you go along, attend the sessions, and spend all the time in-between catching up on emails, avoiding vendors, and making small talk with the equally uncomfortable person next to you. You leave the event encouraged by the sessions and with a determination to implement some of what you learned – and you may even have met someone friendly that you look forward to seeing again next year. But within a week, you’re back into the same routine and firefighting as before, and little has changed.
This promised to be an amazing event, but on reflection, has it really made any tangible difference to you? All the ingredients were there, but you’re the chef! How did YOU approach the event? How did YOU ensure it was worthwhile? What did YOU do to make it great?
Well, as a vendor I attend about ten events every year, and while I’m usually there with a sponsor’s hat on, I’ve seen a variety of principles in action that can make the difference between an event being time well spent or time wasted. Here are my top seven:
- Make a plan: If this event is to be worth your time, you need to use your time effectively. Plan what you want to learn, what your areas of interest are, and what vendors you want to speak with before you turn up. This gives you an objective way of evaluating the success of the event from your perspective.
- Don’t waste time in the wrong sessions: The expo area is always quietest during sessions, so you will get much more attention from vendors at these times than during the breaks. If none of the sessions during a particular time slot match your key areas of interest, spend that time talking to the vendors that do. They won’t bite and will always be happy to talk to you (particularly during what is often a very boring period for them).
- Write down your vendor questions in advance: It’s easy to get into lengthy discussions with vendors, and each will have their own view on how you should approach a project. If you’re looking for a product or a solution, you want to make an objective decision. So write out a list of questions and ask each vendor to answer them – you can then evaluate their responses on the basis of what you really need, rather than the vendor’s sales pitch.
- Arrange meetings with the experts: Conferences are an excellent opportunity to get some free advice from a subject matter expert. Study the agenda, research the speakers, and reach out in advance to arrange a coffee or an appointment with those who can make a difference to you. These people are all on LinkedIn, and their email addresses are not hard to come by. They will almost always be willing to give you some time if they think they can help you.
- Ask the organisers for advice: The event organisers will generally have broad knowledge of the market, and they can identify the attendees who have environments similar to yours and who have overcome the challenges you are facing. Ask them who you should be speaking with, and ask them to introduce you. Again, they will always be happy to help if it will make the event better for you.
- Collect business cards: Events are an opportunity to meet a wide variety of people and, collectively, the attendees will have the answers to almost every IBM i challenge you will ever encounter. Networking is a clichéd term, but you don’t need to be pushy or extroverted to build a great list of contacts. Simply ask those you meet for their business cards, and when a problem arises in the future you’ll have a long list of people who may well be able to help you.
- Evaluate three months out: The typical time to evaluate the benefit or effectiveness of an event is either during the closing session, when they ask you to fill in a form (and possibly win yourself an Amazon voucher), or within a few days of returning to the office. Does this really give you time to assess the impact the event has had on your business, though? The best training providers will evaluate the training after one, three and six months to measure the impact on trainees’ behaviour and performance, and this should be true for conference evaluation too. So set a task in your calendar and do the evaluation after three months. Reflect on the impact the conference has had on your business in that period – how did you apply what you learned? Did you buy any tools? Did you meet people who have been helpful? This will give you a firm basis for deciding whether your time was well spent, and whether you should attend again in the future.
So there we have it – seven ways to improve the value of attending events. None of these is profound, nor are they well-guarded secrets. But they could be the difference between your time being wasted or well spent. Either way, I hope you enjoy whatever events you attend this year – and if you see me at one of them, please come and say hi! :)
<---That's me, by the way.