My really cushy job at Quest Software required me to attend conferences.  Lots of them.  All over the world. Whenever a new conference was announced, I’d submit a few abstracts to speak, because speakers usually get their registration paid for.  Then I’d whip out the company credit card to book my flight, hotel, and rental car.

It's like plastic Jagermeister.
It's like plastic bacon.

At the conference, I’d whip out the card again to take care of my dinner, drinks, and sometimes even a round of drinks for my fellow SQL Server professionals.  After I got home, I’d grumble about having to fill out pages of paperwork, but that was it – the tab was just taken care of.  The PASS Summit in Seattle.  SQLBits in Wales.  PASSCamp in Dusseldorf.  TechEd in New Orleans.  The Microsoft Certified Master program in Redmond.  My card racked up a lot of use.

Now, everything’s different, and I see conferences in a whole new way – as a very expensive hobby, not a free perk.  Sure, I have to foot the bill for the airfare, the hotel, the car, the meals, and the Jagermeister, but that’s not the worst part.

When I attend a conference, I’m not getting paid.

If you’re a company employee, your company probably continues to pay your salary while you’re off getting trained.  As a consultant, I don’t get those luxuries.  That means I have to look at the ROI of attending each event, because I really am making an investment.  Is this conference going to build my skills?  Is this session really worth my time and money?  Am I going to meet cool people that I can’t meet anywhere else?  I’ve always heard other consultants like Adam Machanic, Gail Shaw, and Kathi Kellenberger (who now works for MS) making these same decisions, and now I have to make ’em too.

I’ve had a bizarre luxury – I’ve been able to travel the world and test-drive all kinds of conferences and training.  I know which ones produce the most value to me for education, for networking, and for building new clients.  Here’s the part I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around: even though they cost me more money, I still want to go to almost all of them!  For example, I just submitted sessions to SQLBits in the UK knowing full well it’s going to cost me transatlantic airfare and a lot of downtime, but it’s still worth every penny of my own money.

Over the next few months, I’ll blog more about:

  • How to convince your boss to send you to conferences & training
  • How to get the most out of conferences & training
  • How to avoid unnecessary expenses
  • What to do when you get back so that your boss sends you again

See, I have a selfish interest – I’ll be selling training sessions, and I want you to be able to get the funds to pay for all that fancy learnin’!

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13 Comments. Leave new

  • Surely Quest wont notice one last trip … ?

    Hope to see you in York,UK in September. Will be more than happy to buy you a beer to help out the budget.

  • I think everyone should think of conferences that way, even full time employees. ROI, risks, paybacks, etc.

    Conferences and local events are my primary method for face-to-face networking. The time to network is when you AREN’T looking for a job, not when you need one. The most inexpensive way to attend a conference, at least personally, is to have your employer pay for your time, your registration, and your travel expenses. However, I’ve seen more and more IT pros being forced to pick up some of those costs – either by having to take time off, pay for their travel, or pay for the registration.

    I attend about 10 conferences/events a year and like you, prefer to attend as a speaker so that at least my registration is provided for. That’s why I rarely attend events where I have to pick up the tab for the entire thing: speaking, travel, and time. That’s a major reason why I find it hard to justify attending events where I’m not speaking or have a reduced rate for registration. In fact, one of the benefits of my social media activities is that I’m offered greatly reduced or free attendence to events. Orgs know that I’m going to cover the event more than a traditional journalist would, over a longer period of time.

    One other method to get some costs covered is to volunteer. Some conferences and events allow volunteers to attend for free, sometimes even picking up the cost of the travel, too. Signing up now as a volunteer for a conference can pay off for the next one.

    • Great points Karen!
      I constantly have to force myself to consider conferences. I usually pass on them because of the attendance costs and the loss of pay while I’m not working for clients! You bring up some good reasons on why I should make more of an effort to attend.

  • I’m looking forward to you blogging more about this Brent. I hope that you blog all at once the topics you highlighted at the end of this one. I’m always looking to go to conferences that will educate me and benefit my company at the same time. Problem is my company don’t see the value in it. They only see the cost that it takes to go to one of these. I’m only going to VMworld 2010 this year because I won a contest with them and another user conference I attended last year I won an entry to this years conference. I’m not always going to get that lucky. I always email management of how going to certain conferences will help our department and the company but I never get any responses back. They tell us that they encourage training for us but when I request it all I hear is silence. Good read by the way Brent.

  • I attend one conference per year (usually PASS) which my company pays for provided i take my laptop and stay on top of work issues. I believe that is enough information/networking for a year. The free events like sql saturdays i go on my own. I believe we have to balance learning and networking with actual assimilation and usage – in my user group we are still watching last year’s PASS conference DVDs, there is so much there that you can’t attend even if you are there in person. Lots of people who can’t go use the DVDs instead, of course it can’t make up for the actual conference but it does give you the technical content. Of course as speakers and trainers you would benefit from every event that is otu there but for the rest of us from what i have seen more than one or two big events is a sure overkill.

  • I am very lucky that I work in the company who is willing to invest their $$ in their employee by sending me to all kind of training, but it all started by me saying – if you send me to one, i’ll bring the traning back. And I did. I did mini presentation to our dev team of what I learn and apply that directly to our environment, using our own code. Then it really open my boss’s eyes on the value of it.

  • Brian Corcoran
    July 6, 2010 9:20 am

    Brent, I’m amazed that you continue to talk about topics that are extremely relevant to my young career in SQL Server and I can’t thank you enough. I’m just starting to lay the groundwork to convince my boss to send me to Seattle for the PASS Summit in November, so I’m really looking forward to those articles in the next couple months. I’m even more excited to hopefully get to see you speak in November. Best of luck to you in your future consulting work.

  • Andy Galbraith
    July 6, 2010 12:12 pm

    I live in the same world as Shane – all my company see is the $$$ and not the value – of course here they just see IT as a cost and not a benefit, let alone IT training.

    The day will come when managers realize that without IT their world stops turning….but it hasn’t come yet.

  • Mike Decuir
    July 6, 2010 1:22 pm

    Like so many of the other comments, I am excited for this blog series. I have had some success convincing my company to send me to events, but have been struggling a lot with how to show the direct connection between me attending the event and benefits to the company. Especially tough when offers to teach people at the company some of the things I have learned gets dismissed as unnecessary.

  • Hey Brent, it sounds like you’ve really made the transition now! Coming to the realization that, “When I attend a conference, I’m not getting paid.” is a huge change. There’s nothing quite like being self-employed to crystalize the trade-offs between options. I remember having to decide between, “stay home, work, and make money” OR “PAY MONEY to travel somewhere and PAY MORE MONEY to learn” when deciding to attend the PASS Summit. Tough decision at the time, but it was worth it!

  • I’m sure you’ll find a way to book clients around each conference you want to attend. I haven’t paid for a vacation in several years that way, well airfare at least!

  • Edwin Sarmiento
    July 8, 2010 8:20 pm

    This is a great blog post, Brent. Maybe I should write my own series of “sending yourself to conferences” inspired by this blog post 😉

    I started out having to pick up the tab for conferences that I attend. Back then, I come from a third-world country where the cost of airfare is equivalent to two-and-a-half months of salary. Take that together with the cost of accomodation, meals, additional transportation, conference registration and the revenue loss while I’m at the conference. I am still trying to convince managers and organizations to send their staff to training because IT and tangible assets are not the most important assets of any organization – it’s the people. Conferences like the annual PASS summit are more than just training opportunities, they’re doors of opportunities. My personal financial accounting (yes, I do account for my personal finance ever since I was in the third grade) has proven that these types of conferences indeed provide return on investments. But one has to be strategic and wise. It’s not as simple as attending a conferences and learning. You need to build a business case, treat it like a business and operate like a business. Rest assured, whether it’s for your personal growth or your organization’s, there will be a return on investment if the investment is used properly.


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