What I’ve learned going to conferences

With ODTUG 2009 just around the corner now, I thought I’d do a quick reflection on some of my observations and feelings about the (now many) conferences that I’ve attended in recent years.

I first started going to (Oracle related) conferences a few years back, firstly as an attendee then I took the jump and started presenting (and have immensely enjoyed presenting…even when laptops die, projectors don’t work and demo’s fail dramatically…).

Anyway, here are a few rambled thoughts about attending conferences (from an Oracle conference perspective).

Regimental Planning…or Go With the Flow?

If it’s your first conference, it’s going to probably be a bit overwhelming at first (particularly if it’s a big one like Oracle OpenWorld), however take a deep breath and make sure you check all the daily updates. Priorities change, sessions get cancelled etc, so don’t get too hooked up on trying to meet your original ‘schedule’, sometimes going with the flow is a better approach. My first OpenWorld conference I felt like I’d ran a marathon by the end of the week, because I’d been literally running between East and West Moscone to catch different sessions.

Presentation Nightmares

If it’s your first time as a presenter, expect something to go wrong. Laptops die, projectors sometimes don’t work, I’ve even seen ‘clickers’ seem to get possessed by demons. However remember, the audience is there to see you succeed, we want you to do a good job. Anyone who has presented before knows that horrible feeling when you go to run a demo and the machine just hangs (or blue-screens), don’t get too chewed up about it…try and ad-hoc for a couple of minutes and you’ll be surprised how often taking a mental step-back can stop you panicking into a worse mistake (I once saw someone almost do a full DB recovery during a session because something hadn’t worked).

Don’t be Shy!

It can be very overwhelming when everyone else seems to already know each other and nobody knows you. But do make an effort to introduce yourself to people (how else will they ever know who you are?). At ODTUG I’m looking forward to meeting lots of ‘old friends’, but they’re only ‘old friends’ because we’ve previously taken the time to get to know each other!

This also extends to introducing yourself to some of the more ‘famous’ Oracle types (you know who they are), remember it’s a rare opportunity to actually get to speak to some of those people who wrote the books sitting in your office, or whose blog you read daily etc. I remember a few years ago I was chatting to Jonathan Lewis about something and almost as an aside mentioned something about a problem I’d been having (some very obscure issue with pipelined functions and the CBO) and he mentioned something which gave me a ‘lightbulb moment’, as soon as I got back from the conference I fixed an issue that had been causing problems in production for weeks.

Remember, we’re all at that conference because we share a love/passion/interest for something (even if we might disagree about certain aspects of it!).

Early Breakfasts and Early Nights

A lot of the Oracle conferences are in the US and when they’re on the West coast it means one thing…a lot of very jet-lagged Europeans (and antipodeans etc). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve woken up, bright eyed and ready for the day ahead only to  look at the clock and seen that it’s 3am. It can be quite funny to play the “Where in the world is my hotel room neighbour” from, based on what time their shower goes on in the morning.

This of course has a side effect, if you happen to be talking to someone and they yawn during the conversation, don’t be offended, it’s probably not personal! A lot of people have probably travelled quite far to attend the conference and it takes some of us a while to figure out what day it is, let alone what the time is.

Plan some extra time for sight-seeing

If you’re not on a tight schedule, try and fit in an extra day or two to at least see some of the local sights. Admittedly this can be a difficult one to swing by your boss (or whoever else is footing the bill for your trip). However I always take the view that it seems silly to travel all that way and either sit inside a conference centre, a hotel room or a bar all day and never step out into the sunlight.

I remember one of the most memorable times I’ve had at a conference was when Carl Backstrom took me around San Francisco and gave a great guided tour (including some great bars and food).

Pack light (during the day at least)

Sure, that 17 inch laptop looks great on your desk, but let me assure you…you’ll soon get tired of lugging it around the Moscone Centre for 8 hours a day all week long. Remember also that at most conferences they’ll be giving you ‘goodies’ to take back with you (often another bag/rucksack).

Behave in a presentation how you would want people to behave in yours

This one always amazes me, I have been in presentations where someone has –

  1. talked pretty much non-stop to the person next to them
  2. repeatedly received calls on their phone (and never switched it onto mute).
  3. actually had a phone conversation which was so ‘urgent’ they couldn’t bear to leave the presentation throughout.
  4. brought in a contender for the world’s loudest bag of crisps (chips for American readers)…seriously….if you need to eat in a presentation try bringing in something quiet!

I just can’t understand why someone would go to a presentation and not actually want to pay attention to it? Why waste your own time (as well as potentially denying that seat to someone who did want to see the presentation?).

Be social (or ‘beer is a great social leveller’)!

Sometimes, actually I’ll go so far as to say almost always, the best parts of the conferences happen in the evenings.

Again, this can be a very difficult one to swing by your boss to convince them to send you to the conference. However socialising with your peers at these events can be a huge benefit to your company, not only in the knowledge and extra insight you might gain, but also from the contacts you’ll build up.

As the title says, beer can be a great social leveller, everyone there is there to enjoy the experience and socialising in the evenings is a part of that experience.

There can be some great technical debates, discussions and disagreements going on in the corner of that bar, you might overhear that single snippet of information that makes all the difference to your project when you get back home, or you might hear something blatently incorrect that you can challenge and correct (it’s just as important to dispel incorrect information as to propagate correct information in my opinion).

Wrap Up

Perhaps one of the most important things, once the conference is over and you get back home is to make use of your new found knowledge. Dig back through your notes (you did take notes right?) and find those 2 or 3 things that made it worthwhile for your boss to send you to the conference, because that is the best way to make sure they agree there and then for you to go again next year.

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