Looking to go to a professional conference any time soon? FutureStack14, perhaps?
Whether the event in question is something cool like FutureStack14, or a “soul crusher,” in the words of the Wall Street Journal, the right strategies, preparation, and tactics can help you make the most of your investment in time, money, and energy.
I know. As a long-time tech journalist, I’ve been to more trade shows and technology conferences than I can possibly remember, and I’d like to share a few of the things I’ve learned over the years:
- Do you need a spreadsheet to justify your trip? Sometimes it can be hard to quantify the benefits of attending these events to your boss. To help, one conference planning guide has put together a handy spreadsheet, should you need something more substantial to justify your trip. You can also download this handy PDF from New Relic if you are still trying to get the OK for FutureStack14.
- Have a plan of attack. Understand first of all the logistics involved: for FutureStack14, the conference is at Fort Mason, the other side of town from the conference hotels in downtown San Francisco. While New Relic will run shuttle buses back and forth, you have understand that you can’t pop back and forth between hotel and venue multiple times during the day. Second, review the agenda and make note of the sessions that you must attend and those that may be useful. And if the event offers a mobile app, use it (For FutureStack14, download the iOS app here, and the Android app here). You don’t want to miss the most important stuff.
- Learn the landscape. Spend some time the first day scoping things out so you can navigate to where the rooms you want to go to are located (FutureStack14 is in two different buildings, one for each conference track). If you have a lousy sense of direction, give yourself some extra time to get around the venue at first.
- Don’t forget the “unconference.” FutureStack14 has a “hallway” track that is akin to an unconference, where like minds can meet up and share ideas. Come prepared to suggest a few topics on your own (there is an online form to send in your proposals and you can do it on-site as well) and see what happens. Sometimes you have to embrace serendipity… unconferences can be great, if smart, passionate people show up and participate.
- Use Twitter and Facebook to get the word out. Know the conference hashtag (#FS14) and incorporate it in all your Tweets and Facebook posts. Try to find one pithy thing mentioned in each session that you attend that you can broadcast to your social networks. A good place to start is to look for tools and techniques that you and your team can use immediately once you get back home.
- Manage your power budget. If your phone and laptop are like mine, they won’t last the entire day on a battery charge, so if you’re not carrying a battery booster, plan on finding AC outlets in the different rooms or between sessions. At one recent conference keynote, several of the electrically challenged were sitting on the floor at the back of the hall because that is where the outlets were. Of course, you should always be prepared to take notes the old fashioned way (pen and paper), if need be.
- Know how to network better. We are talking the person-to-person kind of networking here, and you might be less than comfortable just walking up to people that you don’t know. One method to break the ice is to target one or two people who are alone at the breaks or at lunch, and strike up a conversation with them. Also, you don’t have to wander the halls: before you head to FutureStack, for example, use social media or email to connect with others who will be there, or schedule coffee with colleagues who may work in the Bay Area. (LinkedIn is a great way to remind yourself of people you know in a particular geographic area.) Finally, at FutureStack14, you can use our high-tech conference badges to connect with folks.
- Know your own schedule, get plenty of sleep, and drink in moderation. If you are a night owl, don’t insist on attending early morning events, and vice-versa. While a drink or two can help ease the anxiety of networking at event parties, there’s no need to overdo it. Don’t be that dude who has to spend the rest of the event apologizing for his behavior the night before.
- Vote with your feet. Don’t stick around in sessions that aren’t working for you. Sit near exits and bolt for something else if you’re sure you’re not going to get what you anticipated out of the session.
- Follow the people. Sure, the topic of the talks matter, but conferences can also be a great time to experience leaders and exceptional personalities in person, whether or not they’re talking about something of direct interest to you. At FutureStack14, for instance, even if you’re most interested in the data science rock stars from GE Capital, Nordstromrack.com | HauteLook, GitHub, and Etsy, two speakers I’d particularly recommend are New Relic’s own Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the wiki, and Jason Calacanis, who is always amusing and often insightful. And if a speaker really impresses you, it’s totally OK to introduce yourself after the session.
Bonus! Spend a few moments having some fun! San Francisco has loads of unique attractions, great food, beautiful views, and fun things to do (more on this later in the week). If you travel far to attend a conference, try to steal at least a few hours on either end to enjoy the place you’re in. And if the event has a great party with a hot band, make it a point to at least stop by before turning in.