Watch iAdmin on-demand: A virtual conference for the IBM i professional

Watch Now

Conferences, volunteering and maximizing your value

As conference season approaches, ensuring you’re getting the most out of your experience is essential. Explore tips you can use before, during and after attending a conference.

Written by   Steve Pitcher | April 22, 2024

Before the conference

Focus on growth

Growth should be the goal for anyone attending a conference. Having a narrow scope of things to learn is the antithesis of growth. The track has been narrowed, and the blinders are on. You’re only going to see what you’ve been directed to see. That’s not growth; that’s receiving instruction. That’s coloring inside the lines with a predetermined couple of crayons. You must learn about things you know nothing about. Otherwise, what’s the point of going? 

I remember my now colleague and fellow IBM Champion Larry Bolhuis doing an entire 75-minute session on the Change IPL Attributes (CHGIPLA) screen. It’s one screen! I had done hundreds, if not thousands, of IPLs by then. I figured if Larry was going to talk about one screen for 75 minutes, there must be more to it than what I knew. And that was exactly the case. Start by focusing on what you don’t know or only think you know. 

Set expectations 

This one is for the managers sending people to conferences. Sometimes, people attend a conference expecting to answer emails, voicemails, texts and Teams messages during downtime. However, that’s when growth happens: the unexpected conversations during meals or breaks where attendees pick up the real gems. Even if they don’t get a gem, they may get a good idea to pursue when they return. And hopefully, they’ve spoken to the presenter and made a new contact. 

So, if you’re sending people to a conference, then make sure there’s backfill and the expectation is that they’re going for the entire experience, not just to take in 14 or 15 narrowly focused sessions. If you want a narrow focus for an attendee, buy them a manual or sign them up for a specific course. Take the leash off. You’ll be surprised what a knowledge-hungry sponge picks up. 

Choose your sessions wisely

Attend sessions on subjects you know nothing about and consider how you can apply them. I recently had a developer reach out to me saying they didn’t know if they’d get something of value from my recent three-hour security session, but they attended anyway and were glad they did. That’s probably one of the best compliments I could receive as a speaker. 

Developers with fundamental security literacy are super important. They can ensure that the things they put in production follow a standard or are at least not wide open. The last thing I’d want as a developer is to put a new table full of secure information into production that wasn’t actually secured. 

Remember to have an open mind even if you see a session topic outside your day-to-day work. You may come away with something you can use to take your work to the next level. 

Pack the necessities 

Bring socks. Lots of socks. Good socks. I bring two pairs for each conference and travel day. A five-day conference? Bring ten pairs with an extra pair for good measure. Change into fresh socks after lunch or dinner. I’m dead serious. And don’t forget to wear some comfortable shoes that are well-loved. Don’t buy new dress shoes the week before. Your feet will get a workout, and the last thing you want to do during a conference is to break in new shoes. Remember, you’ll be going through airports and wearing them on flights, too. Take care of your feet because nobody else will do that for you. 

Bring a mini drugstore in your bag — antacids, painkillers, nail clippers, saline solution, bandages or anything else you might need. I remember a few conferences in Austin and San Antonio where we ate Tex-Mex daily for a solid week. A bottle of Tums or Rolaids is well worth the additional travel weight when heartburn hits at 2 a.m. 

Bring a power strip. It never hurts to have the ability to extend your power. Depending on the hotel room setup, your power options will vary drastically. Even more so if you’re presenting. 

Bring a laser pointer because I almost always forget one of mine, and I will likely be hunting for a spare. Your cooperation is appreciated, and I’ll be your new friend.

At the conference

Prepare for success 

I tend to unpack, iron and hang my clothes immediately when I get to my hotel room. Get it done first and once. Don’t waste time ironing in the morning when you could be networking over breakfast. Get up early, shower, put on your badge and get out the door without a care in the world and an open mind. 

Help by volunteering 

The foundation of any community is the volunteer effort. Most often, presenters aren’t compensated for their time. Vendors at the expo aren’t compensated for their time. Everyone gives something to be there — their time, sponsorship dollars or both — and wants the conference to be a huge success. That’s why volunteers go above and beyond every single time. 

If you’re at the event early, find someone with a badge and ask to help. Conferences usually appear seamless on the surface and are often absolute mania below it. Ask to set up chairs or be a speaker assistant. Maybe you know audio/video to help plug in some equipment. Help fill up the conference backpacks with goodies. There’s plenty to do. Nobody is going to refuse help, especially in a volunteer-run event, and it’s a great way to see how everything works and build new relationships. 

Ask questions

Ask speakers questions during the session, after the session, in the elevator, if you spot them at Walgreens, etc. That’s why they’re in town. 

If you have a burning technical question, just ask anyone. At a conference, there’s almost a guarantee that the person you ask can introduce you to the person who may have the answer. Often, there are panels with a named moderator. If you’re too shy to take the mic and ask in front of a couple hundred people, find the moderator in advance and give them your question. That’s what they’re there for. Be sure to attend the panels. 

Network with vendors 

Go to the expo and meet every vendor. Get their souvenirs, stress balls and t-shirts. Yes, they’ll likely contact you afterward. I’ve experienced the expo as a customer and as a vendor. As a customer, you might not be able to use the product or solution today or tomorrow, but you can pass it along to someone down the road who may be in the market for it. Additionally, the vendor may give you solid advice you can use immediately. Not everyone at the expo is there to sell a product per se. They’re there as a vendor to show what they can do for you, not what they can sell you on

I remember I went to an IBM Lotus conference as a customer in 2007 and attended a Domino performance session. I was having performance problems and asked what the speaker thought while visiting his booth at the expo. He gave me simple and solid tech advice. I went back home, and it immediately fixed my problem. I didn’t buy anything, and he didn’t sell me anything. But I remembered his name. Several months ago, I saw him post on a Facebook group question, so I thanked him nearly 20 years later. I’ve even sent people to his company for different solutions over the years. 

Vendors have so much value to share with the community. There’s give and take. They do more than just sponsor events. And you never know when a contact like that will come in handy. 

Attend social events 

Don’t stay in your hotel room. Conferences are full of introverts, especially in the tech world. Get out of that comfort zone as best you can. Find out which social events are happening and show up. I guarantee you’ll make far better use of your time than scrolling through your phone alone in your room every night. 

Conference attendees often wear badges well into the night to identify themselves. Find a group or even someone standing alone and introduce yourself. You’ll be surprised how fast people accept you because they’re often afraid to make the first move themselves. 

Speaking of introverts, I’m very much an introvert who’d be happy most days not talking to anybody. I’m an “extrovert on the outside” after years of practice, and most people can’t tell now. It’s paid off because of the friends and contacts I’ve made at conferences. 

Provide feedback 

Be sure to give honest session feedback. Good speakers are constantly fine-tuning and changing their sessions. They’re always wondering if their content is too easy or difficult or if they’re talking too fast or slow. Did you expect 75 minutes of solid content and only get 30 minutes of decent content with 45 minutes of irrelevant banter? Did you go to a technical session but were disappointed when it turned into a product marketing session? Did you feel engaged? Did a speaker miss the mark entirely? What were your expectations, and did it match the session title and abstract? 

Fill out feedback sheets or online surveys. Tell the presenter face-to-face what you think. You’d be surprised how much a little constructive feedback helps shape their next effort. Moreover, you may get some immediate value from them one-on-one because they’ll likely want to make it right and send you home happy. And be sure to tell speakers what they got right, too. We like to hear we’ve made people happy. 

After the conference 

Consider becoming a presenter 

If you think you can present a session, submit one for consideration! It’s not rocket science — you’re just telling a story. That’s all a presentation is when you boil it down. Just present what you know. If I do a session on penetration testing an IBM i, you’ll get exactly that from start to finish. If I do what I call Rapid Fire Admin, it’s me stapling you to the wall with 150 tips in 75 minutes. Pick your title and abstract, then tailor your content to match it. It’s very straightforward. 

Presenting will often help with your travel and hotel costs. You bring formal value. Why do you think I started speaking to begin with? It’s not because I loved standing up in front of people with a microphone. When I started, I was terrified. Presenting what I knew and sharing my stories helped me grow professionally and as a public speaker. Most importantly, it reduced my company’s cost to send me for education as a customer. 

Share your knowledge 

Lastly, share what you’ve learned and the value you received with your company after you come home. Tell them who you’ve met and what tips you picked up that will save your company time and money. It’ll make the next conference far easier to get approved if they understand it’s an investment, not an expense. 

Put these tips to work! Use what you’ve learned from this blog to join us at an upcoming event. 

About the Author

Steve Pitcher | Service Express Steve Pitcher

Steve is a Sales Consultant and Security Engineer at Service Express with decades of IBM i and security experience. He’s also a longtime IBM Champion.

More by Steve Pitcher

Additional resources