DSCN0091We’ve all been there, you start a new job and you have to learn new technology, new processes, new office politics. But after a while you settle into a routine, you get the hang of the technology, you get to know the people and the procedures. It is easy to settle into a rut. The first time my boss offered to send me to a conference, I’ll be honest, I was excited because it was in Orlando and I had never been to Disneyworld. But that changed very quickly. But when I came back from my first TechEd at my next salary review, instead of asking for a raise, I asked to be sent to TechEd every year and that had nothing to do with visiting Donald and Goofy.

The first thing that strikes you at a conference is the people. This may sound strange, but at a conference with several thousand people it is easy to feel alone. At a technical conference there are a lot of fellow introverts out there so you may have to be the first one to say hello. But if you make an effort to connect to a few like minded people at the show you will be well rewarded. Now I’m sure you are expecting me to tell you how meeting someone else is good networking, because they may work with the same technology you do, or have contacts that may be helpful to you. But all that aside, don’t underestimate the simple value of having a friend at the show. Connecting with anyone at the show is going to give you a better conference experience, even if they work with Active Directory and don’t understand our desire to go on about the benefits of MVC vs Web Forms.

The next thing you will notice at a big show like TechEd is the sheer number of learning opportunities. There are sessions doing deep dives on products you work with, sessions giving you sneak peeks of the features in the next version, sessions giving you an overview of products that you want to learn. There are birds of a feather and interactive discussion panels where you can ask questions or just listen to the questions asked by others. There are hands on labs where you can sit down with a product and try out different features. There is an entire area devoted to certification with coaching sessions, practice tests and a testing area to help you pass that certification exam you have been meaning to take. There is a Technical Learning Center where you can talk to product experts one on one to get answers to questions or just an overview of their product, they are *always* happy to show you what they are working on. There is a partner expo where you can find products that will help you at work (some of them are even free!) There are other attendees working with the same product as you. It’s incredible!

You can’t possibly do everything, so you prioritize, you spend a little time in sessions, you try a couple of labs, you spend a little time the exhibit hall, the entire time you are discovering features you didn’t know, best practices you can apply at work, new features coming down the pipe that will help your project, new tools that you want to try out. By the end of the show you are geeking out to the max! I always come back from a show with a mental to-do list of trial versions I want to download, sessions I want to go back and watch again online, code I want to modify, proofs of concepts I want to try out. My boss used to laugh that you could always tell when I had come back from a conference because I was full of ideas and initiatives I wanted to get underway.

So why am I telling you all this the day *after* TechEd? Well, partly because I am all pumped up about the show and dying to share the experience with you! The other reason is because there is always next year (which is back in Orlando by the way, time to go back and say hi to Goofy Smile, or there is the “name to be announced “ Microsoft developer conference September 13th in Anaheim, there are the TechDays conferences here in Canada this fall (keep watching dates will be announced soon), there is the upcoming DevTeach/ SQLTeach/ MobileTeach conference May 30th in Montreal there are the IE9/WP7 code camps, user groups, there’s the AzureFest in Waterloo, Prairie DevCon in Regina, the list goes on and on! There is no shortage of opportunities to learn with like minded people. And by the way you can access a lot of TechEd content online.

But you will get more out of these shows if you make an effort to connect with the others attending the event. Which leads me to this week’s My 5.

My 5 ways to connect at a conference

  1. Say Hi – sometimes that is all it takes, a small conversation where you ask where they work and what technology they work with is all it takes to find a conference buddy. You are not looking for a best friend, just some conversation and comraderie during the event.
  2. Twitter – Many conferences have twitter hash tags you can follow. You can join in the talk about and around the show, and there are often impromptu get togethers or tweet ups during the show. I loved the fact that I met several people at the conference who only know me as @HockeyGeekGirl
  3. Community luncheons and areas – A Women In Technology luncheon (men are welcome by the way), a SQL User group dinner, a Canadian meet up, are all great chances to meet a new ally.
  4. Breakfast and Lunch – sit at a table with someone new. There is a good chance someone sitting alone at a table would welcome an ally.
  5. Stand out – This is for the more brave of heart, but let me tell you walking around a conference center in the US wearing an NHL hockey jersey allowed me to meet lots of new people this week. Total strangers were yelling Go Sens as we crossed paths on the escalator.