Most senior technology executives have a good sense of the huge value that comes from comparing notes and impressions with one’s peers about industry trends, techniques, project approaches, even vendors. Networking, appropriately handled, can enable you to find out all sorts of “lessons learned” without having to go through the pain of learning them the hard way.
But as with most things, there are effective and less effective ways of going about that sort of networking. For a long time, I looked to industry conferences to provide this sort of connection and exposure to a wider and wiser set of peers. But despite a few positive experiences, I’ve changed my mind in general about the utility of conferences.
Aside from technical exposition and tutorials, most industry conference sessions revolve around case studies. And oh, what cases they are, according to the presenters. Quite typically, everything is golden, nothing has ever gone awry or possibly could. Their own approach is the only one conceivable for success. “This one goes to 11” seems to be their slogan. The presenters seem to think that the more enticingly they portray their project and approach, the greater value they’ll provide to their audience.
And as for dialog? I’ve found, through painful experience, that the kinds of questions typically asked at conference sessions are most often designed to make the questioner himself look really smart. They’re often not even real questions, more lengthy expositions. We’ve all encountered that sinking “captive audience” feeling you get when you realize that such a questioner, a zealot of one flavor or another, has commandeered the audience microphone and is out there grinding his or her axe, and that someone is going to have to deal with it. Awkwardness pervades the session until a moderator or a fellow participant finally speaks up and shuts it down. That’s not dialog. That’s not networking. Even hallway conversations at such conferences can be filled with similar self-aggrandizing.
But this syndrome is actually deeper than something you just see at conferences. I would submit that it is unfortunately characteristic (admittedly in the extreme case) of what often plagues IT spokespeople in general, as they present before senior management or their board. We all want to be valued and highly regarded, and somehow, many of us decide that the best way to achieve that is to tout the bright side of our coins and leave any dark sides unmentioned or glossed over.
Let’s look at an example, in the form of a recent article about the fabulous success of Agile approach at eBay. Read the article; you won’t find a single wisp of a thought about any downsides, any blemishes, that occurred along the way. It was all golden, apparently. You see only references on how “to out-think and out-execute the competition”; or, “deliver useful information in days instead of months.” Can you say “silver bullet”?
Presenting any complex endeavor in nothing but glowing terms is to willfully forge an illusion, of course, not just at a conference or in an article, but at a board meeting as well. Somehow, the “case study” style of presentation tends to feature just that sort of dubious strutting, an implicit declaration that “everything went great.” Yet recognize that the people you’re presenting to are accustomed to piercing through that sort of bullpucky every day from vendors they deal with; you’ve lost your audience as soon as they figure out that you’re of similar ilk. It’s a similar deaf ear to the ones that teenagers turn when their parent tells them again and again about trudging ten miles through the snow to get to school, uphill, both ways. It’s a fish story.
The broader issue of how to present to one’s own management is something I’ve discussed elsewhere. But on the specific issue of finding a better solution to accomplish most of the goals that people hope to achieve by attending conferences? Local peer groups with regular meetings. Well-facilitated and attended peer groups, in my experience, can provide benefits that most conferences can’t or don’t: far greater continuity, candor, dialog, and, yes, screening. Most are participation by invitation only. And in such a setting, people stop having their principal goal being to impress others, and turn to looking to glean and impart useful information and tips above all. The best of the ones I’ve participated in adopt a tenet of “what’s said in the room stays in the room,” which greatly encourages candor and maximizes the true practical utility of the discussion.
Case studies and anecdotes are interesting, but my point is that conferences typically consist of lots of these, all golden, implausibly strung together back-to-back. And as I’m fond of saying, the plural of anecdote is not data. Many conference presentations are, at least in some sense, nothing but elaborate sales jobs. And if you really went to the conference for networking and learning, you want dialog, not sales.