How to choose which IT conferences to attend

Tech conferences can provide practical insights and invaluable networking opportunities — or be a waste of time. IT pros discuss what they look for from the ideal tech event.

From user symposiums to vendor-neutral events, there’s no shortage of tech conferences to sign up for. Each offers unique upside, whether it’s strategic insights into how another company implemented a new technology or simply an opportunity to grow your network. But with the need to learn almost everything in a fast-paced profession, and the time that conferences take away from pressing work, how do you know which ones are worth attending?

For many IT professionals, the decision starts with money. “If it's too expensive, it's too expensive,” says Joe Devon, founding partner of application developer Diamond. With events like Atlassian Summit charging up to $1,700 for a single registration, this is an easy concern to understand. If your employer pays or if registration is free because the sales department got a booth, the price issue gets easier. But Adam Amrine, lead consultant for developer Adro Solutions, points out, “If I'm paying for it out of pocket, cost is obviously a major factor.” Most employees paying their own way don’t have that couple extra thousand to spare.

Of course, expensive conferences often offer more bang for your buck. Atlassian Summit, for example, provides meals — something smaller events don’t always do. And larger tech conferences frequently include what’s called a bash — a final night performance from a celebrity band du jour. This year’s Adobe Summit, for example, will feature The Killers and SAP Sapphire Now has booked Lady Gaga.

But Eric Gauthier, director of technology and information security officer for HR tech provider Scout, could care less: “A conference’s success comes from the new insights into or solutions to problems I face that I could not otherwise have found, and not by the quality of the food, uniqueness of the entertainment, or the title of the vendor executive I meet.”

Based in Boston, Gauthier is close to several local meetups and one-off events. Ohio-based Amrine also says his favorite summits are within a two-hour drive. Travel aside, Gauthier goes to three major conferences a year: O’Reilly Velocity, SecureWorld, and Gartner/Evanta’s CISO Executive Summit. He says that price doesn’t affect his decision so much as the benefit any given event can bring: “My job doesn’t stop when I attend a conference, so any conference I consider needs to offer substantial value and content that I cannot otherwise obtain — either on demand or in a dedicated customer meeting.”

Product roadmaps, feature deep-dives, and vendor presentations — which often monopolize session schedules at both user conferences and heavily-sponsored events — are all things Gauthier can find for himself online. But he says events that offer opportunities to learn from “others trying to address the same challenges” as well as “frank discussions provided in a vendor-neutral atmosphere” are worth leaving the office for.

Marcus Bastian, CEO of Clouductivity, an Amazon Web Services guidance tool, agrees, saying, “Sometimes figuring out which conference is worth it can be challenging.” Whereas sales and marketing teams can rely on prior events’ ROI to determine where they go, for IT, the decision is a lot harder. “This,” Bastian explains, “is especially true when neither you or your fellow engineers have been before,” adding the good news is deciding gets easier over time.

As an Amazon partner, Bastian says Clouductivity attends AWS re:Invent, the company’s annual user conference, to get “a much better idea of the ecosystem [they’re] working in.” But the real benefit of any event, he notes, is “meeting other engineers out there that are trying to solve similar problems. You'll likely meet other engineers that have solved the issues your business might be facing today or somewhere down the road.”

Amrine also contends this education is critical: “I ask myself whether I'm going to learn something new or be stretched in a different way that I may not be if I don't attend.” Bastian says, “Quality sessions are invaluable.” And while Devon looks for events where “hardcore techies teach you something new and deep,” he also says this doesn’t always happen during sessions, explaining that at some events — especially NAB Show and Consumer Technology Association CES — the best learning comes from other attendees during the networking breaks: “NAB or CES have technical tracks, but the expo floor and drinks, lunches, and dinners are more important.”

The vendor floor also matters to Bastian, but for a different reason: “[It] gives you a chance to check out some relevant tools that could help you do something more efficiently,” laughing that a room full of monitoring and adaptive packet marking (APM) tools make him feel like a kid in a candy store.

Of course, conferences with big expo areas do tend to have sponsors who understandably want schedule spots for promoting their products. While Bastian prefers a blend of sponsored and neutral events, Devon, Gauthier, and Amrine prefer attending vendor-agnostic ones: Devon rarely goes to user conferences and Gauthier says he doesn’t go at all unless a summit is peer-focused with “little to no vendor pitching on the agenda.” And according to Amrine, too much vendor involvement can actually preclude an event’s educational quality: “I tend to look for vendor-neutral conferences where the speakers are providing real-world examples of how they solve everyday problems.”

In other words, before most IT professionals pick a conference, they have to believe they’ll learn something useful from it. At a really great event, Amrine says, “You're generally surrounded by other people with a common interest who you may run into in the future or be able to help you advance your career or a project you're working on” — people from whom Bastian says, “You can also pick up cool tips or approaches that you may not have considered.” It’s not enough for this information to only help you now, as Devon says he looks for “learnings [that] are useful for many years.”

So, with due respect to location, budget, and Lady Gaga, the reason most IT professionals choose one conference over another has less to do with place, money, or music and more to do with something of much greater importance: Education.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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