Choosing the right technology conference to attend each year should be a simple task, but it's not. There's just too many events available, making selection a tough choice. Each conference has its own unique perspectives. For some, it's about messaging and roadmaps, while others dig deep into technical functions to help attendees get a better handle on their current IT needs. There are very few that offer both.
There are those lucky individuals that attend multiple events each year, but the majority of IT Pros are required to choose only one due to budget restrictions, time constraints for being away from the job, and other things.
I've been involved with technology conferences since 1998. Over this period, I've seen all sides of these events. I started as an attendee, graduated to speaker, and eventually helped manage and run them. This means I'm afforded a pretty unique point of view when it comes to finding value. By reviewing a few simple areas, I can generally tell you if the event will provide value or not.
Here's my list of areas that I give the highest scrutiny to. So, no matter how cool or over-the-top it looks, you, too, can see through and determine if it’s the right conference for you.
Obviously, applicable content is a huge factor. Make sure to review the content catalog very carefully. If session abstracts use too many industry buzzwords, you know it's more of a messaging and roadmap event than a technical one.
Also, make sure that the content actually matches what you need. Does it address what you are currently using in your organization and will it help make you better at your current job? Or does it focus too much on pieces you might or might not use within the next year or so? Quite honestly, most messaging and marketing events are summed up the first day during the keynote, which you can watch for free streaming over the web (live or in replay) without spending company money to attend. Then, the subsequent days and sessions are tailored to dig deeper into the messaging. For these types of events, the general message is developed months in advance so that the session catalog can be manipulated to match.
One other telling piece to the content is the timeliness of the session catalog release. Many companies are forced to invest attendance dollars without even knowing the topics that will be presented. Once the content catalog is released, some find that the sessions don't even meet the needs. And, of course, there are those that have to wait for the catalog to be released before approaching management to get attendance approval, which means the company ultimately pays more for the event because early bird savings deadlines have long since passed.
Some people just love large conferences, and I agree they do have a certain mystique. But, personally, after spending so many years working through various events, I find the larger events extra tiring. Maybe I'm just getting old and the big conferences are for all the youngsters, but what I've found (and some of you may, too) is that an event with total attendance from 800 to 2,000 individuals is just about right. The sessions don't overflow, the labs are always available, and the Expo is much less of a circus. I prefer a smaller event that affords me the ability to move about freely, meet people and network.
I love conferences that promote a User Group feel where sessions are smaller and more intimate, allowing sessions to be driven sometimes by attendee questions. In this way, you get to shape the content you receive instead of just being preached at from the stage.
Location, you might be surprised, is a very important aspect of any conference. I'll talk about community in the next section, but the proper location of the conference can make or break community and networking. A good location, particularly for the mid-sized events (upwards of 2,000 attendees) is a venue where the hotel is either attached, or in very close proximity to the conference center. This one thing alone is the best driver for strong community, allowing folks to gather instead of scheduling offsite meet-ups.
I've been to many places during my conference years (Gold Coast, Berlin, San Diego, Orlando, New Orleans, Houston, Chicago, New York, and others), but from my experience, the single best location for a community-defined conference is Las Vegas, and that's because almost every hotel has an attached conference center. This allows attendees to drop off their bags in their hotel rooms to attend after-event functions without having to walk a few blocks, take a cab, or sit on a long bus ride.
The single most important thing that makes a conference and builds loyalty, memories, and friends is the community. Sometimes the best solutions to existing technology problems are derived from a chance gathering of like-minded technologists. That could have come from a conference supplied lunch or breakfast, a casual moment checking email, or even by participating in an after-event impromptu dinner with other attendees.
Every conference offers a technical side, but the best conferences provide opportunities for community to thrive. Throw a bunch of geeks into a room and it'll take a couple hours for a good conversation to gel. But throw a bunch of geeks together and offer structured community events, and the fun starts. Memories are made, friendships are ignited. Some of my best friendships were made at conferences and I can call or email them at any time I have a technical question and get an almost-immediate response.
Look for conferences that put a lot of emphasis on community building, or at least provide opportunities to get attendees out of their hotel room and start participating.
I'm sure I've not covered some pieces that are important to you and I'd very much like to hear about them. Feel free to post your ideas and tips in the comments, or drop me a line directly.