January 14, 2012, 7:05 AM — Justin F. Bastin attends just a few conferences a year, but he still manages to parlay these occasional events into crucial career-building sessions.
"As far as the value return on conferences, it far exceeds going to the classroom. I'm able to look at various technologies in different fields, and I'm able to dabble in different areas," says Bastin, an IT analyst at The Sherwin-Williams Co.
That doesn't happen by chance, though.
Bastin says when he goes to a conference, he knows what he wants to get out of it and plans ahead to make sure he hits his targets. He volunteers and networks. He has given presentations, too. As he puts it: "You get out of a conference as much as you put in."
But what, exactly, does it really take to turn conference attendance into a career-enhancing opportunity? It takes more than just showing up with business cards in hand. Career coaches, networking experts and experienced IT professionals say it's really about being strategic and following some key steps:
Know Your Purpose
Conferences are great places to network, pick up new skills and learn about the latest technologies. Devora Zack, president of Only Connect Consulting, and author of Networking for People Who Hate Networking, says most professionals attend for all of those reasons, as well as others, but you must still have clear, concise goals to accomplish for each specific event.
So articulate what you want to get out of attending. If you're being sent by your company, ask for your manager's input. "Ask that person in advance: 'If I get one thing out of this conference, what do you want it to be?'" Zack says.
Knowing that will help you zero in on how to spend your time while there. "Carefully pick the things that are of interest to you," she says. Determine what's useful and relevant to your goals and stick with those.
Do Your Homework in Advance
CIO Larry Bonfante says he sets an agenda based on what he wants to accomplish while attending a conference. He decides what topics he wants to learn about while there and picks events that align with that objective. He scans attendee lists and vendor rosters in advance to see whom he wants to meet, and he reaches out ahead of time to schedule one-on-one meetings. He says he also seeks out colleagues who'll be attending who can make introductions.