As you put on your JAMF Nation User Conference lanyard around your neck, I'd like you to really soak it in. Yep, feel the weight of the lanyard and name badge. No, I don't mean the physical weight. That is your name and the conference logo laminated together, worn around your neck for three days saying to the world loud and proudly: I AM NOT AT WORK.
No, you are not at work. And honestly, that is a big deal. IT is a lynchpin role of any organization that values technology. Which these days, is practically every organization. So you have this super important role in your organization and yet they decided it was okay to survive without you for the bulk of this week. Now how you made that happen and what their expectation is about your attendance is between you and your employer. But hats off to you for pulling that off. Now you are in a special reality that I like to call The Conference Zone™ and as someone who has been to more conferences than I care to count, I welcome you!
Now what happens to you in The Conference Zone depends on a lot of factors. My colleagues at JAMF Software have been working quite hard to make sure the conference itself is a great experience with awesome content and lots of fun activities. But the burden really is on you. The weight is yours.
Maybe this is sounding all too heavy. But I really see conferences as a really important role in the success of an IT admin. Why? Because the IT community itself is one of the most powerful resources at your disposal. Resources like the MacEnterprise mail list, JAMF Nation, AFP548.com and Apple-focused IT admins on Twitter have proven time after time that the answers to the greatest problems and challenges often come from your peers. News flash: your job in 2014 isn't getting any easier. I hate to pull out the 'ole crystal ball but looks like your organization is going to throw more things your way for you to tackle. Not fair right? Are you the only Apple-focused IT admin at your organization, or is your team just a couple of folks? Look around at the conference, you have hundreds of colleagues who will be there for you. They've got your back, and you have theirs.
Now in regular life meeting people can be rather difficult and awkward. Even for an extrovert like me. But this is The Conference Zone. Everyone has their name hanging around their neck. Super convenient, right? Better yet, your name is hanging around yours. It is like these things were there for something like this to happen: “Hi, my name is Sarah. I am from Oakland. I just starting supporting Casper in April.” Rock on, Sarah. That might have been tough for her. Maybe Sarah is here with her team members. But maybe you have just become her first friend in her new community. Either way, the weight is now on you. But don't worry it is easy. Introduce yourself back. Ask her what session she is going to next. Tell her about a session you are excited to see tomorrow. Find out what her challenges are at her work. If you see someone you know walking by, grab them and say “Hey, this is Sarah”, and integrate Sarah into your broader network.
How do you make sure that interaction with Sarah isn't lost in the sea of people at the conference? Share business cards or email. Lately, I have been following folks on Twitter right on the spot. Who is this hypothetical Sarah? (They could have been a hypothetical Markus, from Europe as well.) Sarah or Markus could have the answer to the next issue I have. Or maybe Sarah will be my boss in five years. Or maybe I connect with them on LinkedIn and Markus knows someone who can help me on a project about PKI integration in two weeks and I ask Markus to introduce me. This sort of thing has been invaluable to me the last few years, and I feel like we are just scratching the surface of utilizing and growing our network of Apple-focused IT admins.
Having said that, I have been going to IT and tech conferences for many years and I personally love seeing old friends. It is easy to end up hanging with the same group of folks. Cliques happen. I am guilty of this. But lately at conferences I have been actively trying to get new folks I meet to be included in these old guard groups. A few weeks ago at the MacSysAdmin conference in Sweden, I realized one night that I was hanging out with a group of conference speakers from North America. Why? Because I know and like them. My ego was like, hey, these are your peers and that means Something with a capitol S no doubt. But on realizing this, I excused myself and randomly introduced myself to some Nordic Mac admins who were super into metal bands. I had some great conversations with them and they introduced me to three or four different guys they had met there at previous conferences. There may have been vodka shots involved later in the night.
Vodka shots. Oh man, this brings up an important topic. Now keep in mind, nobody at JAMF asked me to write this piece. So this pretty much falls into the category of Jody's personal advice because he has probably made a mistake or two in the past. When I first started entering The Conference Zone I may have been rather lax about this, but I am getting better. My current rule of thumb at the bar during conferences is: don't have any more beverages than I would drink with my spouse or my co-worker after work on a Monday. Sometimes it seems like a conference is different and you can be a little freer with the beverages or food for that matter. But that always sets you back the next day and is pretty much never worth it.
Plus, it is really important at conferences to take care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Drink lots of water. If you are into the whole vitamin thing, keep it up. Exercise regularly? Utilize that hotel gym or get a run in. Now I am not a doctor so take this advice with a grain of salt. But you know what I am getting at. To be ready to absorb info for 3 days is not easy. You need to be at the top of your game and that usually involves making the right decisions throughout the day. And night. For the whole week.
When you are in the groove at a conference it can be a lot of fun. It seems like this is your universe. This is where you exist. But I highly recommend you create a plan regarding checking in back at work. And home. Yep, it still exists. I don't recommend checking your email all day long. That is what your well planned out of office message is for. Find a specific time to block off and go through the emails or ticket queue. Or find a time to check back with your boss, team lead, or the poor contractor you left back at work, drowning in tickets. Now some folks might think it is a horrible idea to check in with your boss. But dropping an email or voicemail that states “Hello. Having a great time at the conference, learning tons about [insert something relevant to your environment] and can't wait to get back and try a few things out. Just checking in to make sure everything is going fine back at the office.” will be greatly appreciated. Otherwise they might imagine that you are doing karaoke with me. Which, could happen. But we'll keep that between me, you, Sarah, and Markus… in the safety of The Conference Zone.