Sysadmin blog Tech conferences have real value to sysadmins, something that goes far deeper than the cynical tropes of expensing beer out to the company or a free vacation. The excuse used to sell conference attendance to the brass is that they provide valuable training and a good look at upcoming technologies. The real value is in the intangibles; the people you meet and the "non-technical" knowledge you gain.
The training and preview line we sell the boss on a conference has the virtue of being true. You can and do learn a lot, even at a conference lasting a single day. In today's world however, the "raw knowledge" end of the conferences are all recorded and posted on the vendor's YouTube channel for consumption the week after. Tech sites like The Register send their best and brightest to distill the information for the truly time-crunched. In general, the case for going "to learn things" is starting to get pretty weak.
That isn't why you should go to these things. You go because of the professional, personal and - dare I say it - social networking opportunities. You could spend years on Twitter and Facebook and never achieve the kind of relevant contacts that you will achieve at VMWorld or Build in 15 minutes with a fist full of business cards. Dead tree and a handshake; it's more important than you think.
Let's take a look at the upcoming VMWorld for some real life examples. VMWare is releasing a new web client. Every sysadmin that works with VMWare will need to know the ins and outs of this software by the end of the year. If you have to deal with VMWare "at the coalface," then register for Justin King's session 2749. This is the knowledge part of the exercise and you won't be disappointed.
The other critical bit is the man himself. If you get the chance, introduce yourself to King. My one and only conference so far has been a small VMWare event; it was here I got to spend some time with King. He's patient with rookies, has wide-ranging experience within multiple layers of IT, and has proven to be an all around great guy. I learned more from him in a day than I have among others with whom I've spent years.
You'll meet other sysadmins while you're there; today's example is Bob Plankers. Plankers is a sysadmin for a fairly large American university. His experience with large deployments dwarfs my own, and he is kind enough to freely share his knowledge and insights. He is a veteran of the junket circuit and has even prepared a handy guide for those of you going to VMWorld this year. Plankers will be at VMworld this year; find him and buy him beer. You want someone this smart on your contact list.
Here are two individuals where encounters in meatspace are likely to be worth more than friending them on Facebook or following them on Twitter; they are both unbelievably busy people. I can't pick their brains for everything; but they are worth keeping on the contact list in case things go horribly sideways. They are both good people and I'm sure that they'll help me out if I'm really in a bind. They are also merely two random business cards I picked from among a dozen I came home with; each individual having taught me something new independent of the conference itself.
The flip side of this conversation is cost; conferences are mind-bogglingly expensive if you have to pay for the event on your own. You can get an MCITP-level vendor cert for the price of admission to some of these events, and that's before we start tacking on flights, hotels and so forth. If your employer isn't paying your way, this is a significant financial commitment.
On a purely personal level, the big conferences are worth it as well. As the old saying goes "it's not what you know, it's who you know." This is where you encounter those people. If you've a desire to advance your technical knowledge, grow your "what-do-I-do-now" contact list, or further your career research a relevant conference and register...and make sure to attend the after parties. ®