It is slightly paradoxical that since I left networking for the student life I’ve actually been reading more about networking than I was able to during the last years of my working life. Similarly, I’ve had more time to follow the goings on in the social media, especially when the big conferences were on.
Over my career, I never was a big on conferences. Part of that is because I’m not comfortable in crowds, and in person I’m much more withdrawn than on-line. I don’t drink, I’m not one for socializing, and I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a Cisco Live hat. Apart from my own issues, my employers in the past were always either short of funds, or were unwilling to let me out of the building for too long. Conference attendance was always classified as part of the training budget, and even with various discounts, a big conference would destroy that budget instantly. Since I moved on, my previous employers have been better in this regard, but it can still be a juggling act.
And just from a personal perspective, I often found that when things were moving a little more slowly in the industry, there was little of interest to tempt me to go to the same conference year after year. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would peruse the Cisco Networkers (see how old I am) or Cisco Live session list and cross off breakout after breakout as “been there done that” to the point where there wasn’t much left on the agenda.
All of that being said, my advice to everyone at all levels of the industry regarding conferences is Go. I’ve written before about the difficulties of working solo or in a small team, but this applies to big teams as well. It is easy to get tunnel vision about your environment, and conferences (good ones at least) allow you to expand your horizons.
Here I would split conferences into two types, and I would usually alternate between the two.
First is the big vendor conference. At these events, in addition to bowing down at the altar of your locked in vendor deity, invariably there will be partners, integrators and people from all kinds of industries. So many times I would go to an event and find a light bulb going off about how I could think differently about a problem or how I could change the way I was working for the better. This isn’t all about the shiny baubles, and if you think it is you will be sorely disappointed – it is easy to get downhearted when you see all the cool new stuff but in your heart you know that the guardians of the layers above 7 will not fund it or be convinced it is useful. Rather I could be walking past, say, a vendor selling monitoring software and realize that hey, that metric is interesting and I can do what they are doing with my current gear. Or someone could be talking with a vendor or SE at a whiteboard and the conversation catches the ear so I stop to listen and perhaps pick up something new. Talking with a range of partners, vendors and people with different ideas can achieve so much more that regular sit down with your friendly SE.
The other type of conference I would recommend is the industry specific conference. When I was working in higher education, there was (and still is) a small conference with a few hundred attendees organized by and for the networking departments of universities in Australia. This type of conference is hugely valuable because in most cases, although we often believe that our problems or situations are unique, usually they are not. This conference is a mix of vendors and new tech plus a significant track essentially comprising the war stories: problems encountered and overcome, strategies and techniques for all kinds of situations, usually with a theme for that year. It is also a place where the participants have an opportunity to present and a another key part is a series of workshops on new technologies which would be determined by user interest beforehand.
I suppose the key thing I’m trying to highlight here is that amongst all of the professional benefits of conferences, the one that I’ve come to appreciate is the serendipitous discovery. In most other methods of training – formal training, searching the net, trolling the social media – I find I end up searching for the specific topic, the reference solution. Wandering around something like the Cisco Live WoS, listening in on the whiteboard conversations, having lunch with people from different perspectives and backgrounds – there really is no other environment like it.
So Go, if you can. Skip a year, or go to a conference with a different focus if the same conference gets too repetitive. But get out there and broaden your horizons and let other peoples’ experience inform yours. And just as importantly, share your experience. You never know; you might be the catalyst for someone else to go back home with a great idea.