The Nerd’s Guide to a Conference (Don’t Panic)

Nerds worldwide descend on multiple conferences throughout the year and although each one is different, there are a few universal tips that can get you through each one with relative ease. Many people have written guides on individual conferences but I’m putting together 10 tips to get you through virtually any conference out there.

Tip 1: Comfortable shoes are a must

Do not forget this no matter what. At a conference you will spend more time walking in one day than you do during most weeks at work. If your shoes are not comfortable, even slightly, you could end up being incredibly miserable and potentially nursing the wounds for a few days after everything ends. And for the sake of your feet, do not buy new shoes just for the show without giving yourself ample time to break them in.

I usually carry a few types just to be covered (see my bonus tip at the bottom) for any occasion. Sneakers, sandals or flip-flops (in warmer climates), dress shoes, boots (in colder climates), you should know what you’re getting into.

Tip 2: Know your way around

There aren’t many things worse than getting lost in a city or conference center when you need to be somewhere now. You or your company (or both) has probably shelled out a lot of money for you to be there. Why risk missing something? Take some free time before the conference gets started to wander around or study the maps provided and note the locations of what you’re going to be attending. Do you want to be the person running full speed through the hallways because you’re missing that one important presentation, the entire reason you came? Even worse, do you want to be the presenter that’s late to his/her own session?

Tip 3: Carry a unique bag

These days, chances are you’re going to get a bag with your conference registration. In a sea of 10,000-20,000 people, how are you going to distinguish yours from the rest? Even worse, if it gets swapped and you haven’t dug around in it for a while, you could end up back in your hotel room with someone else’s bag and possibly no way to identify them. I also bring multiple bags; a small messenger for when I only need my camera, iPad, MiFi, and sunglasses, a backpack for when I need all that plus my laptop, sometimes even a large bike messenger bag if I’m on the hunt for massive amounts of swag.

Tip 4: Know the location

Weather, customs, best travel methods, cost of the area. These are all things you can find pretty easily and you should definitely put forth the few minutes of effort to find them. If not, you could end up like me on arrival day at VMworld 2012 in shorts and a t-shirt with a brisk 50° wind blowing.

Tip 5: Travel smart

Arrive in town the night before, get a good night’s sleep, and possibly learn the area by walking it for a little while (see Tip 2). Leave the morning after everything ends. Make sure you have enough time to account for traffic, flight delays, missed connections, etc. If you don’t, you may end up missing some important part of the conference due to an accident on the freeway.

If it’s just not possible because of budget or timing of the conference, try to schedule the events you’ll be attending around your travel, leaving room for error.

Tip 6: Be connected

Get social. A hashtag has become the unofficial badge of a conference goer, but that’s not the only time to use it. Tweet often, tweet effectively, get involved in your community whatever it may be. You just might end up getting some follows that could go on to become real friends. The companies that throw these conventions are also starting to recognize the power of Twitter and community. If they see you as an influential independent, there could be a lot more in your future.

Tip 7: There will be swag

A lot of it. You just have to remember, every swipe you give to those vendors in exchange for their pin/sticker/entry into a contest will turn into a phone call and email, possibly several.

You’re also going to have to find a way to get it all home. I’ve been fortunate enough that the last 3 conference I’ve attended have been close enough for me to drive so this was a non-issue. Keep in mind, some of that stuff may also not be TSA friendly (like the glowing ninja swords from Cisco Live 2012). If the only reason you sat through that 30 minute session to get that awesome {insert wacky prize here}, make sure you can bring it home.

Tip 8: Remember to nourish and replenish yourself

Food. Water. Sleep. (Beer). Repeat.

Don’t get side tracked, don’t skimp. Remember to take the time to take care of yourself. Chances are that if you’re in IT, a conference is going to take a toll on your body. The more you do the above, the less that toll will be.

*Side note: Pack Advil.

Tip 9: Be prepared to get online

We’ve all had it happen. A work outage and you’re the only one that can fix it but you’re 3,000 miles away. Plan for it. Make sure your VPN access is working and you have feet on the ground back home to assess the situation and report back. Make sure you can talk those back in the office through any catastrophe that you can think of short of a nuclear detonation.
If you have a major outage that extends out for days and requires you to leave the conference early, do you think your boss is going to approve it next year?

Tip 10: Have a backup plan

Backup credit cards. Backup internet connection (I carry a Mifi, stay hotels with internet, plus have the ability to tether to my phone). Backup shoes. Backup underwear. Be prepared for anything, you’re most likely a long way from home.

Bonus Tips:

  • Dress to impress (maybe): You never know what you’ll get invited to or who you’re going to meet. Make sure that if needed, you can at least be in business professional attire (jacket and khakis, possibly a tie). People understand you’re at a convention, but what if the guy from Vendor X who just invited you out for dinner to chat more about some of the work you’ve done could end up being your boss? What if he’s trying to sell a new solution to you? Is he going to be more serious about negotiations with a guy in t-shirt with unicorns on it or the guy who’s dressed to the nines ready to hit the scotch and cigar bar?

  • Prepare to drink your face off: Conventions are not only learning and social experiences, but a lot of us in IT don’t really get vacations. A tech convention offers the best of everything; exciting technology, new town, new people, and time out of the office. For a lot out there, this includes running up bar tabs on the company dime. And dont forget about the sales guys who want to create a new contact by buying a few beers (it’s cheaper than actually marketing and most times works better, a loosened up engineer will divulge virtually everything they want to know to determine if they should pursue the client).

    If you don’t drink, be prepared to defend yourself. Alcohol loves company.

This was written from VMworld 2012 on Day 1 while sitting in my hotel room after a crazy day. Forgive any sloppiness.

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