For many CIOs, IT conferences fall somewhere between Vendor Hell and Golf Junket. But such thinking sells the value of a well-planned conference short.
"I have two main reasons to go to conferences," said John A. Matelski, chief security officer and deputy CIO for the city of Orlando, Fla. "One is to go and learn about product road maps of current vendors we have relationships with, and the other is to build relationships with other C-level people, and network."
Those two very different goals should drive very different event strategies, according to career experts who say targeted preparation is the key to getting the most out of IT conferences.
1. Target the right conference. If your goal is to learn about the pros and cons of a project management office, you shouldn't go to a general CIO conference. Instead, look for conferences that focus specifically on that topic.
"If you have to get a problem solved, why [go] to something that has topics that have nothing to do with this?" asked Martha P. Heller, managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at Z Resource Group Inc., an executive search firm in Westborough, Mass.
If, on the other hand, the goal is to network for a new job, a different approach is needed. "A CIO conference can be a valuable source of career search planning, but you might be even better off going to a vertical industry event where you can meet CEOs and CFOs who do the hiring," Heller said. She also recommends executive education courses as great networking tools, and the professors in those courses as invaluable knowledge sources.
2. Plan your schedule before the keynote address. While it's not uncommon for CIOs to get their first glimpse of the conference proceedings when they pick up their welcome kit, smart executives will take the time to go online well before the event.
"Every time I go out, I very carefully look through session tracks booklets and identify all the different things I'm interested in, and I also try to find out who else within the industry will be there," Matelski said. "For the entire show, from first keynote to the last session, I have something lined up."
Heller advises job seekers to use the program to find the speakers and attendees associated with their targeted industry, and to make sure to introduce themselves.
"One goal for any CIO at a conference is to meet at least five people who are relevant to your particular goal and to follow up with an email," she said. "To attend a conference and not develop a few new networking opportunities is a waste. You may as well go to a webinar."
3. Hone your networking skills. Buttonholing strangers at conference sessions and event parties may not be easy, but CIOs can increase their chances of success if they talk to the right people. Again, preparation is key.
As a general gambit, come up with a business challenge or problem that your company is currently working on, and use it as a conversation starter. "You'll get two benefits," Heller said. "One, you will get smarter on that topic, and two, you can share your knowledge -- say, 'Oh, that's similar to what Joe here does, but he has some differences.' It gives you a tether to ground yourself through the whole event."
For job seekers, the attendee list is an invaluable resource. Heller advises CIOs looking for a new employer to go through the list, dividing attendees into three groups: Group 1, those with whom it is imperative to make a connection; Group 2, those who are important but not vital to approach; and Group 3, those who would be nice to talk to, but not necessary.
"Avoid people who are not in those groups," Heller said. "They're taking up your time."
4. Enlist the help of event staff. The people who run IT conferences often prove a surprisingly effective support group. For example, Matelski will often ask the user group or vendor host of a conference to put together a roundtable of peers on a certain topic he's interested in. "Nine times out of 10, vendors are keen on doing that," he said. The result is a knowledge-gathering opportunity that's tailor-made for his challenges.
Event staff likewise can prove helpful in pointing out important sources in a crowded room. "You can find a trusted staff member and say something like, 'Hey, I want to make contact with this person. Don't mention my name, but if you see him, could you point him out to me?'"
In the end, CIOs get out of any IT conference what they put into it, and those who prepare best will reap the rewards. As Matelski put it, "When I'm out of the office I want to leverage all the time there, and sitting in the hotel room does me no good."
Carol Hildebrand is a contributing writer based in Wellesley, Mass.