I promised to detail my strategy to start attending conferences.
Actually, it’s pretty simple.
1) Get involved in a local user’s group. Meet colleagues, discuss ideas, help other people solve their problems, give presentations and/or join the leadership team. If you don’t have a local user’s group, found one. (No, it is not that hard – I founded the Grand Rapid Perl Mongers in 1998, a user’s group that is still around. How to do that is a different post.)
The value in the user’s group is networking, but I disagree with a lot of people about networking. Some think it is about collecting a large rolodex or making acquaintances to ‘get’ a job or contract. Well, that might work; there are specific techniques people use to jump from lead to lead.
Personally, I don’t buy it. Why would anyone want to connect to a leach? To network effectively, you need to get to know other people at least well enough to know what they are interested in. Once you do that, you listen to the problems they have and see if you can help. Eventually, people in your network will look forward to calls from you because they know you will be offering to help them in some way – or at least have something interesting to discuss. Perhaps, some day, a sense of reciprocity kicks in, and they mention an opportunity for you. Perhaps not. The point is, now a lot of people know you and your reputation grows.
—> And you’ll use that sidebar reputation in step two.
2) Put your local reputation to good use:
You could …
2a) Look for a regional conference or a national conference in your area.
If you live in a big city like Chicago, Indianapolis, Denver, or Portland you are sure to find a regional conference staffed by volunteers. This conference is probably close enough that there will be no travel costs and no hotel costs. It will be short enough that you can miss a day or two – a max of three days – not a week. And you can get in free in two different
ways; you can either speak or volunteer to help run the conference.
For that matter, there are a lot of big national conferences that are in the same place every year, like the Twin Cities, Minnesota area, the Orlando Florida Area, the Boston Area, SanFranciso , Orange County California, and so on. Again, you can get in by either speaking or, in many cases, even the big conferences allow a limited number of volunteer slots. Also, the big conferences may be as long as a week, but you can usually sign up for “Just the conference days” or “Just the tutorial days” and only miss three or four days of work.
If you live in the United States or Canada and can’t find a local conference, drop a comment on my blog and I will see what I can do.
2b) Eventually, someone in your user’s group will know someone else who is hiring. And if you are an active member of the group, they will have some ability to evaluate you, and possibly recommend you. So here’s the secret: Go to a company that regularly sends it’s technology employees to training. Really, some do exist, especially companies with a rule like “One week
of training every two years.”
In my experience, companies that have some training offered to employees are either better places to work or at least tend to pay better.
Plus, by knowing the people that work for the company, you’ll know a lot more going on. You’ll know the technologies they use, the problems they have, and you’ll know if the employees there like it or hate it. In short, you will know if you want the job or not.
2c) Found your own regional conference. Again, I’ve done this, it’s not as hard as it sounds, but this one actually does take some work. If you check out my comments from around November of 2006, you’ll see some the results of our after action review from our first year of GLSEC.
(Option 2D is to attend a free peer conference, such as WOPR, LAWST, or IWST, but I suspect again that is an entirely different post.)
3) By the end of step two, you are attending a conference, probably every year. The next step is to move up from a regional conference to a national one. A few ways to do that …
3a) When you move to the new job, make training a part of the hiring negotiation – at least every-other year. Ask about the training budget. Be specific. Be firm. Don’t jump to a company that has recently made commitments and then suddenly had a hiring freeze.
3b) Find a national conference that you can drive to and get accepted as a speaker (or volunteer if possible). Then your company only has to kick in the fee for the hotel room.
3c) Based on your ever-expanding network, find a third job and … you get the picture.
3d) Start writing or blogging enough to boot-strap demand. Then ask the conference company to cover your travel expenses. (If you speak for two or more hours, they are much more likely to do this. Speak for a half day and you’ll get some kind of support, anyway.)
To sum up:
If you make attending conferences a goal in the same way that some people make “increasing salary” a goal, you’re pretty sure to get it. If you really want salary, attending conferences is a decent way to get it – you can build connections, reputation, and companies that send people to conferences tend to have more money to spend.
There are possible exceptions.
You could have a niche role small enough that you can’t find local conferences. (data modeling or business intelligence, for example) You could live in a “one company town” in the deep Midwest or mountain area. Outside of the US, you could live in a large town with very little in the way of IT jobs, or you might have to bootstrap a development or testing community.
It’s late. I’m starting to ramble. Anyway, that’s the strategy.
Next time: How to generate ideas …