08 June 2013

How to Attend Conferences On A Budget (Part Two)

In a previous post, we discussed how to build approval for attending a conference of your choice, based on using technology to find the best-priced venues and travel. This post is a follow-on that focuses on living within a budget while at a conference and what to do afterward to ensure that you can attend more in the future.

M&I/E (Meal and incidental expenses):
M&I/E typically only apply to those working in the public sector and includes a daily meal per diem (directed by the OPM) but may include any other required expenses such as tolls, parking, valet service, and bus/train fare. I find it easier to eat these costs than to try and push them on an employer. Ensure that you maintain receipts for any and all expenses during your trip. Even with a receipt threshold of $25 I, personally, was involved in a long battle over a $21 gas charge that I didn't keep a receipt for. 10x that cost was spent on billable hours arguing over the charge, but it could have been avoided by simply keeping the receipt.

Meals are an important consideration based on the region. While in Las Vegas, meals will eat a large portion of your budget, especially with alcohol charges. Barring this, try to crash every vendor party that you can find, many providing free food and drinks.

Know that a certain vendor is throwing a party? Hit their booth, sound extremely interested in their product... then take a fake phone call. Offer sorrow that you have to leave, and that you really wanted to ask them more questions, but that your schedule is full until day X and Y o'clock (the same time as the party). Many companies hold a few party passes back for potential customers, and they will likely forget your face by the next time you see them. While some may consider this social engineering, it's simply taking advantage of sales tactics. Worried about getting flooded by emails and sales calls? Make a new email address for yourself and print up your own set of business cards to hand out.

In many areas, such as Las Vegas, taxi costs will also eat up a large amount of your budget. For Vegas, I've found it sometimes easier to map out a route using shuttle busses. A quick walk to a neighboring casino could net you a seat on a shuttle to a sister casino, that is a few blocks away from your destination. Additionally, when approaching a massive taxi line, there's no shame in going down the line to see if anyone is going to, or near, your destination. As a culture, Americans are hesitant to share, including cab rides, so if you find someone who is hesitant steer them toward the cost savings and volunteer to pick up the tip. You'll still get to your destination cheaper, and faster. Additionally, it never hurts to make friends with someone there on business. This allows you to tag along on taxi rides that are just going to be expensed by someone else (but buy them a beer if this becomes common).

Note Taking and Building Content
The most critical process while attending conferences is to simply attend the talks, a step that many somehow forget. If you do find yourself actually in attendance at a talk, and hopefully one that you pitched to your management ahead of time, it is now somewhat critical to take notes on the talk. There are many ways in which this is done, depending on your style and typing speed.

A natural typist will have no problem transcribing each and every slide as they appear while following the conversation. Others may just focus on the high level points, while some just lean back with their eyes glazed and try to keep up. There is no problem with any of these approaches, nor any person who exhibit these styles. Get what you can down on paper during the talk, and a little bit more between talks.

To make the best of your time, it's important to determine within the first few minutes if the slide deck can be made available to attendees afterward or not. If you can get your hands on the verbatim slide deck, then your note taking will be greatly reduced. Want to make sure? Ask the speaker before they start. Don't be an askhole and introduce yourself, just bark the question as they're setting up and wait for a yes/no answer. Larger conferences have policies in place for sharing power point decks already established, and some (e.g. DEFCON) provide the slides on a DVD at registration well before the talk. But, do your due diligence. Many times you see a Powerpoint file on the DVD and expect it to be complete, only to find that it's a simple one-slide placeholder. Don't fault the presenter, these decks are due sometimes months before the conference, while most development occurs in the hours, or minutes, before the actual talk.

Your note taking should complement the slides but also correlate back to your own work practices. The notes should contain excerpts from the talk mixed with situations from work where the processes could be applied.

Avoiding the Backpack
A typical view when walking around many conferences is that of backpacks. Heavy, lumbering, cloth bags containing massive amounts of electronics. Backpacks blocking pathways and adding another two feet of floor space to a group that's already known for being overweight. While it's tempting to bring along your 19" laptop to a talk to bang out notes on a full size laptop (which, honestly, I tend to do), pack lighter. Cheap Chromebooks and netbooks can be easily carried, and the many Android tablets are the perfect size to fit within your pants pockets while being a fully functional tablet. My favorite fall back is the very inexpensive Nook Color, which has a web browser and notepad while fully fitting in within my front pants pocket.

Miss a talk?
It happens. A talk you really wanted to attend, and you missed it. Maybe it was rescheduled, you couldn't get in to find a seat, you had to take a business/home phone call, or you slept through it. It's not the end of the world, and you can do your best to catch up. Try to find the presenter and acquire their slide deck. Hunt them on Twitter and try to buy them a few drinks in exchange for 15 minutes of conversation. Find others who sat through the talk and get their opinions and perspectives on it.

Training Back Brief
The most important part of the process of the Back Brief, a/k/a the After Action Report (AAR), a/k/a the information sharing. Want to ensure that you are chosen to attend other conferences? Then make sure that you bring back the con experience for others, sans alcohol.

Based on the size of your team, it's implausible that the entire team will be attending the same conference. The worst thing you can do is to take a week off to attend a conference, just to return and get back into your normal routine while telling stories of all the parties you attended. This helps no one and makes you look like a jerk.

Based on earlier advice, you should have taken copious notes during the presentation, or have possession of the slide deck with your notes. Now it's time to apply this to your environment. Let's explore these applications in terms of least effort to most.

  1. Provide verbatim slides to coworkers (inform) - The least amount of effort is to acquire the slide decks from the conference and provide them to your coworkers on a file share. While this quickly supplies the content to your team, it provides no additional context for sending you to the conference. Everyone on the team already has the ability to acquire most of these slides without spending $1000 and lost work time to send someone on-site.
    1. Video recordings fall into this same category. They capture your experience, but only from the perspective of the speaker. As more conferences record and store videos, or even live stream talks, the benefit of sitting in the audience holds less importance than it did in earlier years.
  2. Provide your raw notes to coworkers (inform) - Earlier, I suggested keeping live notes on talks as you view them. While these notes encapsulate the main topics of the talk, they may not be as clear and detailed to the reader as it is to the note-taker. They are best applied as context to a slide deck, or provided in a more fleshed out narrative style. But, they are useful for time sensitive topics.
  3. Provide briefings back to coworkers (inspire) - While this requires a penchant for public speaking, one of the most visible and effective methods of sharing information is to simply give the presentation again. Often, a one hour presentation can be reduced to simply 15-30 minutes when it is focused on your actual work processes, once all of the "scaffolding" to the talk is removed (speaker bio, why this is important, how we got here, etc). A tool presented at a conference? Run the tool against actual data from your environment and show off the results. Use it as a teaser to inspire others to take up the project and do more with it. 
  4. Update your work processes (empower) - The most difficult effort, but the most effective, is to use knowledge gained to reconstruct your processes and work flow to be better and more efficient. While your team may be good at forensics, a recent talk on Plaso, and further experimentation, may show that you would be able to close an examination faster by days. Instead of just providing a briefing, work the new information into formal Standard Operating Procedures. Update your internal wiki pages to note how to use the tool. Write automated front-end scripts to run the tools directly against data in your environment. Use conferences as a means to improve your day-to-day operations!

Back Brief Example:

In late 2006, I was invited to attend the first Microsoft Law Enforcement Technology (LE Tech) conference. The conference was put on to provide deep-dive forensic details on the new Microsoft products (Vista, Office 2007, etc) that were coming out a few months later, at a FOUO/LE Sensitive level. While I was at Microsoft Campus in Bellevue, senior management at my day client were having a retreat to discuss upcoming challenges and how to address them. During my 8-hour flight home, I was able to formalize my raw notes into an indexed Word document (with table of contents) and quickly sent them to the project lead upon landing. This 20-page Word document instantly became required reading for the retreat.

Upon returning to work, I immediately broke down the topics into six distinct portions. For example, Vista, DOCX file formats, UAC and its impact on forensics, etc. For each, I worked with two colleagues who attended with me to put together a basic Powerpoint slide deck based on the notes we took. We then scheduled and gave a weekly one-hour presentation on each topic. These "brown bag" sessions were well attended and were also recorded, with the videos hosted internally for others to view.

All told, it was a lot of work, but one that paid off. It not only helped me go to more conferences on the customer's dime, but also helped pave the way for others to attend similar conferences. It also set the bar of expectation: if you're going to a conference on the client's tab, you will be expected to share what you learned.

Keep the ball rolling:
The hardest part of this whole process is that of enduring to the end. It's easy to want to show off for the first few trips and design excellent training upon your return. Many people become lax over time, however, and start to take advantage of the privilege of a training budget. While your brief back from 2011 may have been ground breaking, what have you done lately?

By careful planning, price-conscious logistics booking, and a studious effort to take notes and share information with your coworkers, you should be able to break ground in an industry where employers may be hesitant to send you to training. Be mindful that the entire purpose is to provide a return on investment to your employer for sending you. 

1 comment:

  1. Brian,

    I really enjoyed everything after the note taking header...this is stuff I tried doing when attending conferences, and would even do for the sales staff after we'd completed an engagement, sharing information like, "...the CFO has $350K to spend, but he's once-bitten-twice-shy by vendors..", or "...go for the small sell to build trust, don't swing for the fences the first time at bat...".

    "...you will be expected to share what you learned."

    This should be an expectation regardless of whose dime you travel on.

    A great way to keep costs down is to keep your alcohol expenses on your own dime.