Random thoughts from an unusual company

Conferences, Speaking And A Question For Those In The Audience

Gabriella Davis  21 October 2009 11:32:59
.... stick with it the question is at the end....or just scroll down

Like most of us who do this for a living I love to learn new stuff but it's not often in my everyday job I get to do that.  As a consultant I continually set myself hurdles for technologies to learn  as I need to know the technology inside out by the time a customer asks me for advice and that's partly why I several years ago two friends (Andrew and Rocky) encouraged me to try my hand at speaking.  The idea was that if I was going to spend weeks of time learning something why not share that with other people who may not have the time to start from scratch themselves.  Since I got over my original nerves I've discovered I love speaking, not the standing up on stage part but the part where I HAVE to know something if I'm going to stand up in a room and talk about it and the part where I can share ideas about technology with people that sit through my sessions.

Each conference is very different and I enjoy them for different reasons, user groups tend to be small enough that I get the chance to talk to people outside of the session and hear why some very odd sounding implementations make sense for specific countries or companies :-)

This year I got to speak for the first time at the Danish User Group which was had a great turnout who were very patient with the English speaker in the room and the organisers arranged to have the sessions videoed for those who couldn't attend.  In August I spoke at the IAMLUG the new US user group in St Louis, where several attendees I met were transitioning jobs or newly unemployed and really appreciated the opportunity to attend a free conference, stay engaged with the wider community and keep improving their skills.  Two weeks ago I spoke at UKLUG in Edinburgh which sets the gold standard for user conferences with nearly 400 people turning up , 4 concurrent sessions in each time slot and an opening keynote by Bob Picciano.  It was educational (i got to actually attend a few sessions myself and talk to customers), fun and ultimately exhausting - you can't ask for anything more than that.  Next week is my final user group of the year when I go to Amsterdam for the NL LUG2009 conference - giving sessions on ID Vault and Websphere.  

Amongst all the user groups I also spoke at AdminCamp in Germany (who are again very tolerant of the woman trying to slow down her English speaking, and who serve great beer) and Collaboration University which is very much like a user group of technical experts in the Sametime , Quickr or Connections fields.  We repeat the CU conference in Chicago and London a week apart and it's always fascinating to me to note the different interests for attendees in each region.  In London for instance we had a lot of interest in Sametime 8.5 and all the new components whereas the Chicago audience was more development focussed.  Of course once the user groups are finished for me at the end of October, the Lotusphere preparation begins.  I am currently waiting like 9999 others for news of my abstract submissions for Lotusphere but, if your session is approved, you only have 3 weeks to write and submit it.  Since I spend weeks learning the technologies I speak about and deploying them in various test scenarios, I've already started my learning on sessions that may not happen but worst case scenario is I get to learn anyway.

OK so here's the question. Whenever I finish a session at any conference I ask for questions.  Occasionally people put up their hands but mostly they form an orderly queue around me and next to me as I'm packing up and exiting the room to make space for the next speaker.  The problem is that my topics tend to be about infrastructure or system architecture so if you walk up to me with a napkin with a hand drawn sketch of your planned cluster infrastructure for Sametime and thrust it into my hands saying "does this look right to you" I'm going to ask you to email me.  The same goes if you try verbally describing a very specific problem your environment has with SSO or mail routing.  The reason I ask for the email is not because I'm trying to brush you off or because I've no idea it's because
  • I don't know enough about your environment to offer advice and whilst you're telling me what you think is pertinent it's not the whole picture
  • I've just spoken for 60 - 90 minutes and my brain is fried plus I'm trying to get out of the room to make way for someone else or to go to another session or appointment and I can't think of ALL the questions I need to ask you to give me a fuller picture
  • I'm violently opposed to pulling ideas off the top of my head based on minimal information and sending you off to try them, it's dangerous, it almost certainly won't work, it doesn't fix your problem and it makes both of us look bad

So I hand out my email address (which is also always on the last page of my presentation) and I ask you to email me your question so I can help or to email me your plan so I can give it the once over to see if it makes sense.  I tell you I have no intention of charging you to answer your question or take a quick look at your plan.  So why do so few people ever follow up with the email questions?  I actually look forward to looking at some of the problems that are brought to me but then the person disappears and the email never arrives and I never get to follow through.  I've considered if my spam filter via Postini is too aggressive but one or two people usually manage to email me, just not many and never the ones with the plans on napkins they want me to review.

My question to you then is what am I doing wrong?  What could I do differently to help answer those questions or to make sure I get to follow up with people?  It's difficult finding time during a conference to sit down with people but I'm happy to do so remotely afterwards - problem solving is the part of my job I enjoy the most after all.

All suggestions gratefully received although I do risk in posting this getting a response telling me that my personality prevents people from following up (my presentation style is very schoolmarm) , I'm prepared to hear that.