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Some conference are a waste of time...

Context why write this blog
I lost confidence in conferences a long time back, and sort of gave up on them. Maybe it was around the time when I changed from being a full time developer to more management roles, and there was less tangible information to be gained from such conferences. So I cannot claim to be a conference expert or veteran but I have summarised by own experience below. However, I did attend the ZeroDay conference in March 2017, which has eventually tested my presumption that most conferences are orchestrated sales events that you pay for at so many levels. I highly recommend it when it comes to Dublin in March 2018 and Washington in September 2018. www.zerodaycon.com

What is the problem
Almost weekly emails appear in my inbox about the newest “must-go-to” conference, I’m sure your inbox is similar. The latest buzz that every conference organiser is flogging is GDPR. Now there is a lot to learn and a lot of questions around GDPR so it is a valuable subject to dedicate a conference, but not all conferences are worth attending.
Early in 2017 I was called by a conference organiser, who wanted to know what I would like to see at a high-end security leader’s conference. The rep continued to name drop a number of attendees who were going to attend, and a number of speakers. After 30 minutes I had hoped that the rep understood that attending this conference was not a priority for me. A few weeks later I received another call from the rep, explaining how I was being given a VIP discount, and only a few places were remaining. Even after informing them I did not wish to attend they contacted me two days later. Eventually after I sent them another email and confirmed in writing I did not wish to attend they stopped contacting me. Here’s the thing, I would have happily shared my decision making process with them if they asked me, even by email, why I decided not to attend. However, I didn’t receive as much as a courtesy email acknowledging my decision, and “hope to see you next year” response, nothing… radio silence!
So there was nothing in this for me, and it was obviously a sales effort to get attendee numbers up so organisers could justify the cost of the trade stands for the vendors in the exhibition hall.

What a conference should be
A conference should be about learning. Conferences are a key resource to learn on multiple levels, but what attending a conference explicitly does is force you to take your head up from day to day activities, and take the wider context into account.
Tactical Learning: Learning can come in a number of forms such as learning directly from the speakers at the event, the content they share in their respective sessions, learning from the panel discussions and genuine workshops (more on this subject later).
Strategic Learning: Learning by taking the pulse of your respective industry role and networking. Understand what the big trends are and what direction your industry is moving and why. Having a speaker population that is diverse (but relevant) in terms of geographic markets and background is a really valuable aspect to strategic learning. There is a technology adoption life-cycle where early adopters will share valuable lessons learned which is a great way to learn. I am a big advocate of learning from other peoples experiences (mistakes possibly) so that you can avoid and fast track your own implementations.
Network Learning: Learning from your peers and colleagues who work in the same industry space is incredibly valuable. Of course your mileage may vary on this one, depending on how intimate or large the conference is.

How ZeroDayCon nailed it:

  1. The physical environment
  2. Focus on the big issue
  3. Respect people’s time
  4. Provide clear takeaways
  5. Vendor stands not market stalls

1) The physical environment
It may seem obvious and hard core techies may thing the environment matters less than the content, but the thing is that if the environment is not right, then the learning impact of the conference will be reduced.
So what do I mean when I say the physical environment, I include a number of aspects under this heading including the following:

  • Ease of access to the venue
  • Quality of the venue
  • Environment fresh air quality
  • Sound quality and volume.
  • Good visibility of speakers on stage and on large screens
  • WiFi quality, say no more
  • Food quality and speed of serving.
  • Space to chill out, do some email, ad hoc meetings etc.
  • Spacious exhibition area, so you’re not kidnapped while trying to make your way to the restroom.

    2) Focus on the big issue
    We can all stay abreast of major developments in our respective areas of focus by tuning into newsfeeds on twitter, Facebook and other channels. However, one of the purposes of a conference it to take your head out of the day to day focus and get your head up to look at the horizon. What is coming down the track, where are things going. This is one of the benefits of attending conferences, you get absorbed into a big issue or topic that soft of themes the conference. You return from the conference after absorbing that theme and start to apply it to your own organization.

    3) Respect people’s time
    It takes time, planning travel and work schedules to attend conferences. The least a conference can do be arrange efficient and full sessions. There is nothing worse that sessions that don’t start on time and don’t follow the agenda. Well actually the only thing that is worse is an agenda that is protracted for no good reason. Again, conference organizers need to ensure they respect people’s time in schedules and simple things like keeping breaks to the allotted time.

    4) Provide clear takeaways
    Like focusing on the big issue, it is important that there are key takeaways from the conference. A sort of call to action for the attendees. Sessions that learn should leave attendees with plenty of tools, techniques and information to be followed up for deeper analysis post conference.

    5) Vendor stands not market stalls
    This is my biggest gripe. How vendor stands are arranged can vary greatly. I’ve been to some conferences where the organisers will call (pester) you in advance and insist on booking your time with exhibitors in a rather forceful manner. Of course, we all understand that vendors are there to sell their wares and they also help in terms of the cost of the event. However, it is far more respectful of the attendees if they can walk around without being kidnapped by vendors as they try to get to the refreshment table.

    Anyway, these are my thoughts and as you plan your 2018 conference attendances hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought in terms of getting the most for you conference visits in 2018.

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