IT tall tales and why they’re told, or, why I stopped going to conferences

by Peter Kretzman

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.

Sign up to get future posts (for free) via email:

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

jfbauer May 7, 2010 at 7:00 am

Peter,

I do agree that IT industry conferences tend to offer presentations that depict a “we are awesome at doing X with Y! Let me drone on for another 30 minutes” style. Knowing this going in can be useful in managing your own expectations. If your goal is to network with peers to get useful war stories and practical feedback, then these formal presentations will be less useful with “break out” sessions potentially being smaller and more open to practical Q&A.

If you are looking to get a quick overview of the vendor landscape, then industry conferences help you create a short list of vendors to establish further dialog with. I recall a security/authentication conference a few years back where a vendor that had a flashy web site and the on-line appearance of viability couldn’t get a stand/booth at the conference and thus had a representative walking around with a trench coat full of glossy brochures to hand out. Clearly, that company was easily forgotten.

In speaking myself at large venues such as CA World, Digital ID World and OpenWorld, it was hard to really connect with audience members that wanted to know more than just what was in the PPT deck. I was able to be much more transparent and helpful after sessions in the hallway, dinners, etc.

In general, I agree with your assessment of IT industry conferences, but if you have those expectations I indicated in mind, you can approach a conference and not be overly disappointed. Plus, isn’t there value in just getting out of the office and the day to day in order to have a few minutes to be surrounded by alternative information to formulate new ideas and approaches to your daily challenges?

Peter Kretzman May 7, 2010 at 9:29 am

I hear you, John. I went to conferences for many years, even chaired a couple of them, and I had some good experiences, as I mentioned. I’m certainly not suggesting that they all shut down! I’ve just found that at this point, I personally get much more utility out of organized local peer groups, where there are typically monthly meetings, continuity of relationships, and somehow a greater tendency to check egos at the door. And yes, that gets me out of the office too.

As for getting an overview of the vendor landscape at conferences, I’d have to respectfully disagree. Today, sitting at my desk and doing some careful searching, I can get a much more dispassionate, balanced view of vendors in a particular space, compared to going to a conference and walking through the kind of “meat market” that the vendor areas typically feel like to me. (You know how it is: where people look first at your badge before they start talking to you). One of the advantages of today’s internet-driven world is that you can get up to speed on a technology or toolset spectrum rapidly and at extremely low cost/overhead. Thankfully.

Thanks for commenting!

Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist May 7, 2010 at 11:36 am

Hi Peter, if there ever was a time I wish you were wrong, it is in concern to this subject. Unfortunately, I have come to many if not all of the same conclusions as you.

I have belonged to a number of Professional Associations for years – PMI, ISACA, ISSA, itSMF. I have constantly and relentlessly challenged each of them to continually prove the value they deliver to members. One of the greatest catalysts for my concerns are their professional conferences. I am constantly disillusioned by a pervasive self-serving nature to these gatherings.

Now couple this issue with the widespread use of these venues to deliver poorly veiled sales pitches under the guise of thought leadership. It has always driven me nuts.

Your post reminds me of how incredibly lucky I am to have my current product-agnostic position with CA. Working for a software vendor that has chartered me with helping their constituents understand the power and promise of IT Governance, devoid of their influence, continues to be a dream-come-true. I don’t pull any punches, hide any blemishes, or downplay the long list of obstacles in the way of success.

Maybe much of what you note above is due to many folks working in positions that don’t afford them the luxury of saying exactly what they think, and telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Nice post Peter.

Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist
http://community.ca.com/blogs/theitgovernanceevangelist/

Peter Kretzman May 7, 2010 at 1:25 pm

Funny, I was just reading your fine blog post of today, where you talked about looking forward to seeing people at various conferences in the coming weeks, so I thought you’d disagree more. Without a doubt, it’s not a black-or-white situation, but you point out something I didn’t, at least explicitly: conference organizers and professional associations could do much more than they are to improve the utility of the sessions that are offered.

As for your own position, I agree that you’re fortunate, but you bring much of that fortune with you in the form of your approach. Your approach, as exemplified by your latest blog post, does exactly what I wish so many of those presentations did: discuss obstacles and ways to surmount them, without claiming omniscience or guaranteeing it will all be perfect.

Thanks for commenting.

Dexter Siglin May 19, 2010 at 10:47 am

Peter – interesting post. I’ve had the unique perspective to view these conferences from both the vendor and IT buyer sides. While at CIO Executive Council (part of CIO Mag), I was educated on how these conferences come together. When an underwriter and other sponsors pay hundreds of thousands $$ – they get to have a lot of sway on conference content (has to have value to them – understandable – but vendor marketing status quo hard to overcome). Best value we found was to build in sessions for council members only within larger conference – driven by their agenda, with no one else in the room. That said – joining the council was/is not free! Getting it straight from your peers is proven time and time again by CIOs to be of most value. And with today’s social networking tools – its getting easier to do without travel. Mark Hall (founder of CIO Exec. Council) started a new venture for IT leaders – for many of the reasons outlined in your blog. Beta launches in a couple weeks: http://bit.ly/9tCjaO Should be fun!

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: