If you’ve never been to a conference before, the PASS Summit and Dev Connections events seem like things that happen to Other People. This year, I wanna help make you one of us. You’re a geek, right? Let’s break this down into numbers.
What It Costs to Attend a Conference
People usually think conference attendees fall into two buckets: people who paid everything, and people whose company picked up the tab. Truth is, there’s a lot of gray area, and when you’re getting ready to attend for the first time, you want to aim for that gray area. You don’t want to pay the full costs plus take vacation time to attend. We need to make your attendance as easy-to-digest for everybody involved, so let’s break out the three costs to attend:
1. Your salary for the week. I bring this up first because it’s your negotiation tool. Companies love paying your salary because it’s already built into the budget. They don’t have to do any extra approvals or paperwork to get you paid. It’s already happening. Your goal is just to keep it going during the conference week.
2. The registration fee. Registration for a 3-day conference is around $1,500 for early-bird discounts and around $2,000 for late registrations. Focus on the $1,500 number because we want to get you registered as fast as possible.
3. The travel & hotels. Companies hate paying for travel, and managers hate asking companies to pay for travel. There’s a lot of opportunities here to save money by staying at cheaper hotels and eating fast food value meals. Add these two things together, and this is actually a huge benefit for your negotiations. Watch how this works….
How to Pitch It To Your Manager
Think like a boss: cost #1 is already covered, and they want to avoid touching cost #3. Let’s make negotiation easier by starting from a place they might just approve immediately:
“Good morning, your highness, how’s it going? Wow, you look fabulous this morning. That combover takes fifteen pounds off for sure. Just fifty more to go! Comb harder. Hey, I was thinking about going to training next quarter. It’s not available locally, and I know it’s hard to get travel approved, so how about if the company just pays for the $1,500 registration and I’ll pay the travel? Nobody needs to know it’s out of town. Here’s the list of topics they’re covering, and I’ll brief everybody on what I learned when I get back.”
See what I did there?:
- You erased the money and political problems of travel
- You didn’t even mention your salary – it’s an assumed win for you
- You’ve reduced the entire discussion down to $1,500 for a training class, which isn’t unreasonable
- You didn’t say it was a conference – I know, it’s a little slimy, but negotiations are usually slimy
- You gave a list of topics the manager wants his staff to learn more about
Now that I’ve got your attention, I have to admit that I’ve skipped a few things. Before you talk to the boss, you need to be armed with a few things ready to go. When you walk into that office, you need to have the following:
A printed list of the most high-value sessions you’re going to attend. Don’t just print out the entire session list and dump it on your boss’s desk – cull through it to find the sessions that give the most value to your manager. There’s no need to tell him that you’ll be attending those professional development sessions or the after-hours vendor parties. Just keep it to 10 session abstracts max, one page front & back, and for every session, have one sentence about what the business will gain from you attending that session.
The registration link for the session. There is a slim chance your manager will say, “Sure, let’s do it,” and you want to be able to strike while the iron is hot.
Your next half-hour free. He may ask you to fill out some budgetary approval paperwork, and you’re going to need to track down the right people to do it. Offer to do everything for him – just get the contact name of the person in accounting who manages this kind of thing, and hound that person. Introduce yourself as the guy who makes sure their servers run. (I play dirty.)
The Three Most Common Ways to Say No
Here’s some of the most common management objections to sending you to a conference, and how to neutralize them:
“I can’t have you gone for a week.” I’ll have my cell phone with me the entire time. If there’s an emergency, I’ll leave the conference and walk across the street to my hotel where I’ve got free WiFi, and I’ll spend as long as it takes to fix the problem. Work always comes first. (If they continue to object, remind them about the last vacation you took.)
“We’ve already used up our training budget for this year.” Well, I really want to learn this stuff to do my job better. How about we split the costs – I’ll eat the training cost as long as I don’t have to take vacation for the week?
“Let’s talk about this in a couple of months.” Only if you agree that the company will pay registration. If I have to pay registration out of my own pocket, I need to have an answer this week because registration cost goes up.
After The Boss Says Yes
Register as fast as possible. Ideally, you’ll get someone with a company credit card to pay the registration fee, but if not, use your own card and submit an expense report right away. You don’t have to wait for the event to send an expense report. You worked hard to get to yes for this cost, and it’s the single biggest barrier standing between you and a week of happiness. Knock ‘er down fast.
During the registration process, you’ll be asked if you want to attend any pre-conference or post-conference sessions. These are day-long events taught by a single instructor, so they tend to go much deeper into a single topic. At the PASS Summit 2011 in Seattle, for example, I’m giving my day-long session on Virtualization and SAN Basics for the DBA. These pre-cons typically cost around $400 and I think they’re a huge bargain. You don’t have to sign up for these right away, but if you can get the company to pay for one, I’d highly recommend it. It’s usually an easy sell to bosses, too: “I can spend a day learning about virtualization and SAN storage for just $400.” Bam, out comes the credit card.
Block that week out in your group calendar. When people try to schedule team meetings, software releases, projects, whatever, you want to be able to say, “No, I’m going to training that week, and I’ve had it blocked out in my calendar since June. It’s already paid for.”
Book your airfare. My personal favorite travel booking tool is Bing Travel because it has nifty sliders to change your arrival and departure times. I would recommend flying in at least one day early, preferably two if you can afford it. You’ll either decide to attend a pre-conference session, or you’ll want to join in as other geeks roam around town doing things like photo walks and tweet-ups. It’s a great way to meet your fellow Twitterers in a relaxed session, and it pays huge dividends in your career.
Reserve your hotel room, but don’t pay for it. Hotels will let you reserve a room with a credit card, thereby locking in your room and your rate, without charging your card. It’s called guaranteeing the room. You usually have to cancel by 6pm on the day of the arrival, but that’s plenty of time. By prepaying your room, you get a discount, but you lose flexibility. If you get the chance to share a room with someone else and they’ve already prepaid their room, you’re out of luck.
Finally, when it works, post a note here in the comments. Your fellow geeks are just as scared as you are to approach The Boss, and they need encouragement to know it can be done.