In Defense of Conferences
Security conferences get a lot of grief. Part of this I think I understand. If I’m being honest though, much of it I don’t. First, let me point out areas where I find some real concern about cons and con attendance Second, it may be helpful if I explain what I get out of various conferences and shows.
I’m going to start by writing something a bit antagonistic. If your employees or direct reports can’t jump in the car or on a plane and be responsible at a conference, you have an HR issue. You probably aren’t great at attracting talented people and my guess is you don’t have a particularly vibrant environment that attracts and grows A players. At this point, you should start evaluating your own operation.
With that out of the way though, I get it. Conferences and training are expensive. As a manager or cost center owner, you feel like you’re sending people to training and then they leave your organization. Or you feel like they go and come back to work with little to no appreciable skills. As a guy who attends these events, I understand. We all know the person who says, “Nah, I’ll watch the talks on YouTube or on the DVD.” Or we know the person who treats the con as a vacation and then proceeds to get robbed while “entertaining” some new friends. Further, not all cons are alike and maybe the people you sent just didn’t connect with the content.
Fair points and fair concerns.
For me though, I really love cons. I always have. My first was RubiCon back when I lived in Detroit. I was younger and way out of my league technically. But it was great. I felt like I belonged and I felt truly inspired. I felt like I had a purpose. After that was DefCon. I still attend DefCon and I suspect I always will. I like the regional cons as well and occasionally, I enjoy a Gartner-style conference. So what is it I like and why are they a good use of my time?
Content and Focus. Yes, I’ve heard that you can probably consume all of the information from a con at your desk. That may be correct to some extent (maybe.....). It misses the point. I once watched a colleague attempt this task. Between visits to his desk from peers and management and some strangers, conference calls (even though his calendar was booked for the “remote training”), IMs, texts, and yes, some production problems, how much do you think he got done? Could he have done it at night? Sure. He does plenty of professional growth stuff on off-hours. Again, it misses the point.
The point is this. A conference is a place and a time, usually away from work, to focus on the material presented and your personal & professional growth. You are not in the office and the expectation has been set that you are out unless something is on fire.
Relative to “content,” there is plenty out there and much of it is good but some is bad. It’s a marketplace and you should choose wisely. But when you find those cons with good content, you can focus and learn.
Finally, a conference gives you the opportunity to talk about presentations with either the presenters or your fellow attendees in person.
Networking. I’m going to create two distinct categories for this one. First, meeting new people. Second, catching up with old friends and colleagues. I’ve met some truly amazing people over the years in getting out to conferences. I’m talking about life-changing relationships. Some of these were just happenstance and some were introductions. I’m eternally grateful for these relationships and I can’t see them happening in another environment. And when do I see these people, new friends and old? Sometimes there is only one time and yes, that’s at a con. …usually DefCon.
New thinking. When you’re sitting, listening, exploring, asking questions, and talking, you’re growing. What on earth is the point if you’re not? I find much of this happens – especially in concentrated doses – at conferences. And again, if this isn’t you and it isn’t your employees, you have a problem and it ain’t conferences.
Inspiration and a refreshed mindset. When you’re all set and done you should be inspired. You should feel refreshed and ready to get back to work. You should have a new skill, a new outlook, a new project, potentially a changed opinion, or maybe all of the above.
Yes, I get that some conferences aren’t great. And yes, I get that some people don’t consume the information and the opportunities from these events in the way we’d all like to see. And yes, I get there are other ways to consume useful information relevant to our field. But for me, I get a lot out of conferences. I’m going to continue to adjust and modify what I attend; I’m going to drop some and I’m going to add others. But I’m not going to stop getting out and attending conferences.
I’m writing this on my way to maybe the largest conference in my industry. I don’t necessarily want to go. But it’s my job and that's ok. This post doesn’t apply to cons that are part of executing your duties for an employer.
Yes, the story about the guy getting drugged and robbed is a true story. A manager at a large integrator was at DefCon to party and proceeded to get drugged and robbed. They took all of his work electronics. He then blamed it on housekeeping which was pretty classless. Classless guy though.