What is the first thing you think of when someone says “technical conference”?
Those who have attended a few technical conferences think of hours of session material, hands on labs, networking events, and coveted swag from the vendor Expo.
Those who have not attended a conference may not know what to expect. Managers, who may have been out of the technical field for a while, may not know what to expect either. Worse yet, they may have a negative impression from a conference that hasn’t delivered or an employee who used a conference as a glorified vacation on the company’s dollar. Many think conferences are for selfless promotion from vendors, all flash and bang with little content.
In some cases, they are right.
My first experience with a technical conference was with the 2010 IDUG North American Technical Conference in Tampa, FL. I was so overwhelmed with material that I came home with a 3 Page “to do” list of tips, tricks, performance improvement material, and contacts to follow up with. I also gave my manager an immediate return on investment with a new DB2 certification. That first conference left such an impression on me that I immediately volunteered with the organization just so I could give back. Two years later, I even had a session topic accepted and gave back by presenting a session at the 2012 conference.
How do you think I met Ember Crooks, DB2 guru and author of this awesome blog? That started with a networked friend from the previous IDUG technical conference that said, “Hey, I’m not making it this year – but reach out to this friend of mine…”. A group of us met for dinner the night before the conference started, and a friendship was formed.
Many of you may be struggling with selling your company on the value of a technical conference. Your manager, who may think this is a pitch for a gambling trip to Vegas, may be a harder sell. How do you effectively justify the cost, provide return on investment, and succinctly deliver your message?
The first objection a DBA usually has to overcome is “this isn’t education” or we have “education credits”. But when looking closer, some things immediately jump out.
Let us look at a cheaper alternative like an IBM instructor led e-course. According to IBM’s site, the “DB2 10.1 for LUW New Features and Database Migration Considerations” course is 2 days long and costs $1,340.00. Using IDUG’s technical conference as a comparison, the conference fee of $1,845 delivers 102 separate sessions on various topics over four days (including v10 sessions). A $500 difference brings 101 more sessions and 2 additional days of content.
In my specific company (which will remain nameless), we had education credits for on-line pre-recorded materials. I thought this was a gold mine! I could dive in and pour through hours of education material. That was until I realized the material was on a version of DB2 that was four years old and unsupported.
Compare that to sessions covered in the technical conferences delivered by one of two types of people:
- A DBA, developer, or architect who has actually given blood, sweat, and tears in his own shop and is delivering a case study on the ins and outs of their implementation.
- An industry leader – the guys who actually write the Redbooks, white papers, or develop best practices.
Although I can’t speak for the DB2 Symposium, IBM develops a working relationship with user groups like IDUG. So details on new releases of DB2 are often delivered at the conference before the general population is even aware. Essentially, conference sessions are on the cutting edge of the field.
This is a no-brainer. DB2 DBA Certification comes after two tests of $100.00 each. At an event like IDUG not only do they have crammer courses but the tests are also delivered for free or at a steep discount.
I remember at my first conference I took a free certification exam and was then a certified v9.7 DBA. I couldn’t have been prouder. That evening I ran into a gentleman who introduced himself as Paul Zikopoulos. I remember staring in disbelief as I stammered “Paul Z? I just used your Certification Guide to pass my test!”
At these events IBM sends those who develop DB2 itself or work on best practices for DB2. The big names in the DB2 field also attend and present sessions. I’ve made friends with presenters who helped me with my own issues and provided support to those who needed my expertise.
There isn’t a shortage of people in the DB2 field who want to make connections and develop a symbiotic relationship. The “pay it forward” mentality really exists here.
Compare this to an e-course where you don’t interact with others or an actual live course where you have a teacher who may or may not be an expert.
Sessions are not just about learning new syntax or about a new feature. Many sessions are real-life case studies. This is extremely valuable. Having someone give a presentation on how he solved a HACMP implementation with all its benefits, unexpected obstacles, and quirks can dramatically shrink my learning curve.
It is not just what you gain from a session or case study, it is also the knowledge learned over dinner with a new friend from another state or at a network event hosted by a vendor. The details you learn from others just like you are invaluable.
There are top people in the field at the conference. There are some popular bloggers and DB2 personalities. At least in IDUG’s case, IBM is networked to the conference and sends teams of people who create and support the product. Attending technical conferences like IDUG, there are team leads and subject matter experts who actually code the kernel of DB2 and are elbow deep into DB2’s programming. They set DB2 best practices for various disciplines (Backup and Recovery, High Availability, Data Warehouse, etc ..). Not only do you learn from them, but they learn from you – taking back tidbits of information to help shape the next release of the product.
Return on Investment
ROI (Return On Investment) is absolutely key to securing sign-off to attend and will lay the groundwork for the next year. It is critical to show what ROI you intend to provide when you come back from the conference and when your manager can expect to see it
- Get Certified – The first thing you can do to provide immediate ROI is to prepare in advance of the conference, sit in a crammer course at the conference, and get a certification. As soon as you return, the conference has already started to pay for itself. Even if you haven’t had the time to study, squeezing in a test or two can be a good idea.
- Improve Performance – There will be multiple performance improvement sessions. The sessions may attack performance from an indexing level, DB CFG level, or holistic level. Attend multiple sessions and draw up a 5-10 point plan of attack for actions to take when you return home.
- Look to the Future – Look at your environment before you leave and select 1-2 sessions on technology or methodology that may benefit that specific environment. For a data warehouse, sit in a Smart Analytics session and see how it applies. In an OLTP environment, does PureScale make sense?
- Build Your Skillset – You will always be a more valuable employee when you increase the breadth or depth of your knowledge. Sit in on how to use Data Governance or DB2 Security even if you don’t use it. Learn how to use IBM’s OPTIM and how it would benefit performance. Touch as much as you can while you are there.
Effectively Deliver Your Message:
Have you ever been in a home improvement store and have someone from a gutter installation booth say “May I have a minute of your time”? You stop out of politeness and decide you will give them 30 seconds to grab your attention before you leave.
Pitching to management may not be *that* bad, but it is close. It is important to be to the point and immediately show ROI (or how you plan to provide ROI) as well as how you plan to save costs.
Here are some suggestions I used in my own justification.
- Get Organized. I developed a spreadsheet with multiple tabs to show my manager and the educational approval committee.
- Tab 1 – ROI from Previous Year or expected ROI (and when I should be able to deliver).
- Immediate – DB2 Certification ($200.00 Value)
- 2-3 Months – Performance and tuning, 10-15% Improvement as goal on Project X
- Long Term – Investigate DB2 PureScale, assess if Project B is a good candidate .
- I also listed a “tit for tat” of successes linked to a previous IDUG – “Improved Performance 25% by applying sessions in Session X”
- Tab 2 – Link Environment or Project to specific sessions.
- Project A (Data Warehouse) – Course 101, DW Backup and Recovery Strategies
- Project B (OLTP) – Course 102, Effective SQL writing
- I showed my planned sessions for all four days and how the all day education seminar on the 5th day (at extra cost) could be applied.
- Tab 3 – Cost Breakdown line item list of costs – call and get accurate plane ticket costs, hotel costs with tax, cost of taxi or shuttle, food and beverage costs, tips, etc. Leave no cost unturned and don’t let a cost be unexpected.
- Tab 1 – ROI from Previous Year or expected ROI (and when I should be able to deliver).
- Go the extra mile to save money and show value. I actually pitch to stay at the conference hotel because it helps me eliminate the need for a car rental. I look at the per-diem for my company and see if I could shave a few bucks off for meals. Do I really need $12.00 for breakfast when I can spend $7.00 on a muffin in the morning? Can I get dinner for $20.00 instead of the per-diem of $30.00? (Better yet, eat the cost of one dinner yourself; show you are willing to go the extra mile). Remember that you can really save money in the IDUG Mentor program. If paired up with someone who has been to a conference three times, a first-time attendee can get an 80% discount.
- Don’t phone in the effort. Take your manager to lunch. Get on his or her calendar a week in advance and meet at their desk for a face to face conversation. Have a 30 second “elevator pitch” of what you want to do and what you think it can provide and then pull out your spreadsheet.
- Polite Persistence. Sometimes this needs to get multiple levels of approval. Make sure to follow-up after giving sufficient time to allow each stage of approval. In short, follow-up to keep things on the radar, but don’t be a nag.
You don’t have to be a salesman. In most cases your manager and company want to help you grow your skills and they want a well rounded employee. The key is showing value. The cost of hotel, flight, and food adds up quickly on top of conference fees. The objective is to effectively show the company that the money is well spent.
I know that I find a trip to a technical conference invaluable. So much so that I don’t think I would work for a company that didn’t at least provide a chance to go – even if it meant more money. As I was writing this article, a friend summarized my feelings in two sentences “I also tend to think that going to a conference is more important to me than getting a good raise. Seriously, I’d be happy most years if they just took the cost of the conference out of any raise I might be due”. To some that may be crazy talk, but to others the long term benefit of going is as valuable as a pay increase. That should say something.
As we start a new year, training and travel budgets are reset and personal development plans are rehashed; look into the future and consider getting to a technical conference this year.
Michael Krafick is an occasional contributor to db2commerce.com. He has been a production support DBA for over 12 years in data warehousing and highly transactional OLTP environments. He was acknowledged as a top ten session speaker for “10 Minute Triage” at the 2012 IDUG Technical Conference. Michael also has extensive experience in setting up monitoring configurations for DB2 Databases as well as preparing for high availability failover, backup, and recovery. He can be reached at “Mkrafick @ bellsouth.net”. Linked-in Profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelkrafick.