I've just returned from the last of my spring conferences. And, I'm struck again by how much training is available to people at conferences and how cheap it is. You may be shaking your head, saying, NO JR, Conferences are expensive, about $5000 per person for the week, once you factor in travel along with the conference fee. How can you say they're cheap??
The value of a conference is partially in the tutorials, partially in the sessions, and partially in the networking you do with other attendees. Here's a way to qualitatively measure value of a conference, assuming you attend for 5 days, taking 2 tutorials, and 2.5 days of sessions:
Days 1 and 2: Participate in a tutorial from 9-5. Take away three things from each tutorial you can apply next week. Network with and meet 3 other people (in each tutorial) in similar circumstances to you. Days 3, 4, 5: Attend sessions, some in your area of expertise, some not. Attend one session with interactivity of some sort. Meet 3 new people each day. Take away 3 ideas each day. At the end of the week, you have 15 new ideas, and 15 new people in your network. If you just stopped there, you'd have received plenty of value for your money. It will take you months to try each of the 15 ideas and see how to adapt them to your environment. If you also continue to correspond with your 15 new colleagues, using them for support, mentoring, and coaching (which goes both ways), you'll received peer consulting of tremendous value. I don't know how to quantitatively measure this, but it seems to me that 15 new ideas and 15 new colleagues can help you make at least some progress on what appear to be your intractable problems. If you can even partially solve one problem, you've regained the cost of the conference.
But you can use conferences in other ways too. You can meet experts in your field, learn what you can from them, and continue to contact them throughout the year for quick feedback. At the conferences, the speakers and famous experts meet with people at mealtimes formally and informally, through BOFs or Open Space or other informal discussions. I had an Open Space session last week that only had 3 people (one of which was Esther, so the participants got to hear from two of us how to identify appropriate skills and questions (and write ads) for bringing people into an agile team and into a highly technical test team. One-on-one consulting for 2 hours — included in the price of the conference. That's unbelievably cheap.
Conferences re-energize people. Conferences with highly participatory sessions, such as the AYE conference help you learn by practicing while you confer. But as long as there is space in the conference to discuss issues with new-found colleagues and speakers, you have the opportunity to learn at a conference.
Don't dismiss conferences as a waste of time or a boondogle. Speakers (whether they are consultants or not) use conferences to articulate techniques to solving problems. They may even be able to help you adapt their solution to your problem.
So try a conference this year. Local one-day conferences are extremely cheap (a few hundred dollars at most). If you do attend one, make sure you know how to contact the speakers, so you can follow up with questions later. If you want more than one day, but you're not sure about an entire week, try a shorter conference, or go for just part of the week. Wherever possible, choose interactive and experiential sessions because you'll learn more by discussing the problem with your peers and practicing solutions than just by thinking about or listening to how someone else solved the problem.