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Guide to Your First Conference

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:36 PM


For first-time conferencegoers, the thought of attending a large, multi-day event like SHARE, IBM Think or IBM Tech U can be overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With the right tools and preparation, conferences can become invaluable resources for building new skills and making new connections.

With this in mind, we asked three mainframers experienced with events—Troy Crutcher, IBM Z Academic Initiative; Holden O’Neal, senior associate software developer at the SAS Institute and director, leader development with SHARE; and Frank De Gilio, CTO for IT Modernization, IBM Systems Group—to share some of the tips and tricks they use to successfully navigate the conference world.

Before the Conference Begins

To help lay a foundation for a rewarding experience, some of the most important steps take place before check-in time. Look over the list of sessions, create a schedule of the ones you want to attend and do some background research on each of them.

“In the weeks that lead up to SHARE, I try to take time to view the technical agenda and plan out my week,” O’Neal says of his own preconference routine. “I pick multiple choices per time slot and narrow the options as it gets closer. Understanding which sessions are available and what topics are being highlighted, ahead of the event, helps me prepare questions I want to dig into.”

If there’s a mobile app associated with the conference, consider syncing up your schedule of events to your phone to make sure you always have your itinerary handy. And don’t forget to include backup sessions in your plans, O’Neal suggests, in case your first choice doesn’t meet your expectations.

When packing for the conference, be sure to include business cards, comfortable clothing for travel days and note-taking tools.

During the Conference

During the conference, skill-building should be one of your top priorities. But it’s important to remember that conferences also provide an opportunity to forge new connections with colleagues in your field. According to Crutcher and De Gilio, this can be the most valuable part of the entire experience.

“My main key goal when attending a conference is networking,” Crutcher says. “The bigger your network grows, the more opportunities you allow yourself.” He focuses on making connections with clients that either need skills or can help foster new ones.

“In our business, whatever data you learn has a lifespan, very little of it stays the same, but when you make connections, those endure,” De Gilio adds. “Yes, you need to learn, and yes, you know you’re going to get valuable stuff, but it’s the people that are most important.”

As you meet people, O’Neal suggests collecting recommendations from more experienced attendees to help curate a conference experience better tailored to your needs. Asking other attendees about which speakers they recommend and which sessions they have enjoyed most can be a good way to avoid a learning curve as you become more familiar with how a specific conference is structured.

Last, don’t forget to take some time to recharge. It’s important to remember these multi-day conferences are a marathon, not a sprint, O’Neal says. Burning out early will only make it harder to absorb important information in later sessions.

After the Conference

Following the conference, it’s time to begin transitioning your experience into skills and connections that can benefit you in your day-to-day work. Compiling information for coworkers who didn’t attend the conference can be a good way to start putting your new knowledge to the test.

“Even if your boss isn’t forcing you to do it, it would be a good idea being able to go back and tell other people, ‘Here’s what I learned. Here are the sessions. Here are the handouts I got,’ “ De Gilio says. “Nothing solidifies what you’ve learned like teaching it yourself.”

As for all the networking you did, De Gilio advises following up on those connections soon after the conference as well. Whether it be a short email to touch base or a prearranged phone call, regular communication between conferences can help build a collaborative relationship and keep the line of communication open should you ever need it.

“Take a couple of minutes, follow up, send a note, ask your question and build that connection,” De Gilio says. “This is a person who you're going to be able to rely on for help with other questions as you go down the path of whatever it is you're interested in.”

Nick Daniels is an intern with MSP TechMedia.