Conferences for Enterprise Architects

Brenda Michelson asked the blogosphere, “What does a ‘would & could attend’ IT conference look like?” In her post, she suggested some items that are ones that are required for establishing initial interest (i.e. things that make us say, “I would like to attend that), including credible speakers, compelling topics, peer interaction, immersive experience, participatory programs, etc. She then called out some constraints that come into play when answering whether or not we could attend. Those constraints include cost, proximity, dates, etc. The premise is that the finding the right intersection of attributes creates the “would & could attend.”

First, let me describe why I attend conferences. I don’t normally use conferences to learn about new areas. Instead, I go to conferences to extend my knowledge in an areas. Sometimes it may be an effort to go from “100-level” knowledge to “200-level” and sometimes it may be in areas where I know a lot, and I’m just hoping to find some nugget through sharing experiences. Given that, the conference sessions that interest me the most are almost always ones that involve a panel of practitioners. By practitioners, I mean corporate IT employees and not consultants, analysts, or vendors. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think that consultants, analysts, and vendors have anything good to contribute, it just means that their presentations have less potential value for me. While any speaker should view the effort as a marketing opportuntity, it obviously has more of an impact on the bottom line for consultants, analysts, and vendors. A practitioner must understand that their speaking does have an impact on recruiting efforts for their employer, however, it’s typically not a primary concern and unlikely that anyone is tracking the number of recruiting leads that came out of the speaking engagement. The practitioner is there to share best practices and hopefully engage in conversations with peers about their efforts in the same space. Unfortunately, these are frequently few and far between.

Other factors that come into play on the “would” portion are the agenda. I’ve never attended an “un-conference,” and I think this would be a bit more difficult to pull off in the EA space than it would be in the general development space. I’m not against the concept, but I think you need to have a very strong base of people committed to ensuring that conversations on interesting topics will happen. My experience with items in the middle, like birds-of-a-feather sessions are similar. Unless there’s someone in the discussion committed to keeping the conversation going, the sessions are duds. At the same time, there’s a risk that such a person becomes the sole presenter. A facilitator that ensures discussion, rather than presentation, happens is critical. I’d err on the side of having defined topics, pre-planned questions, but then structuring the sessions in a way to allow lots of time for interaction. Here, the moderator/facilitator is key. If the audience isn’t willing to participate, the facilitator must fill the time with relevant questions. This is a big risk, because for every 1 person I find that is willing to share experiences, there are probably 10 or 20 who are only interested in receiving, whether due to their own personality, level of knowledge, restrictive information sharing policies of their employer, or one of many other reasons.

The other challenge with all of this is that someone needs to pay for all of this. Practitioners don’t have a marketing budget to fund IT conferences like a vendor, consultant, or analyst firm might. As a result, I think you’re more likely to find these type of conversations through local user groups, however, the issue I have with those is that they always occur during evenings, time which I spend with my family. I’d rather be doing this during my work hours, as these conferences are work-related. Addditionally, unless you work in a very big city, there may not be enough participants to sustain the discussion. I live and work in the St. Louis metro area, and there are still many large organizations here that don’t have an EA practice, so sustaining something at a local level would be difficult. Therefore, I’m willing to sacrifice some portion of the conference time to allow vendor, analyst, or consultant presentations that would offset the costs to me. That being said, I’d like to see at least 50% of the sessions be from practitioners, and I’d be willing to give up frills (meals, conference schwag, evening entertainment, etc.) to keep that balance.

As for other factors, location, dates, costs, etc. all of them have been less of a decision factor for me. Obviously, in today’s economy, the cheaper the better, and it’s always nice when I can consider bringing my family with me and let them be entertained by the area while I go learn things, but it usually all comes down to whether or not I’m going to learn something and have some facilitated interaction with my peers. By the way, I also think that so-called “networking sessions” where they group people at a meal according to their industry vertical or some other attribute don’t cut it. While, you may have a good conversation about the weather at the conference site or current events, and may meet some nice people, they’re unlikely to result in information sharing relevant to the conference topic unless someone steps in as a facilitator.

Note: I just read James McGovern’s response to Brenda’s post, and I like his idea of a “Hot Seat” question. I would have no problem being asked questions without knowing the questions in advance, with the appropriate restrictions on discussing intellectual property and keeping questions on the topic at hand.

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