Staying on topic – speaking at conferences

Just to be entirely clear: I hate product pitches.

As I mentioned last week, I’ve recently attended the Open Source Summit and Linux Security Summit.  I’m also currently submitting various speaking sessions to various different upcoming events, and will be travelling to at least one more this year*.  So conferences are on my mind at the moment.  There seem to be four main types of conference:

  1. industry – often combined with large exhibitions, the most obvious of these in the security space would be Black Hat and RSA.  Sometimes, the exhibition is the lead partner: InfoSec has a number of conference sessions, but the main draw for most people seems to be the exhibition.
  2. project/language – often associated with Open Source, examples would be Linux Plumbers Conference or the Openstack Summit.
  3. company – many companies hold their own conferences, inviting customers, partners and employees to speak.  The Red Hat Summit is a classic in this vein, but Palo Alto has Ignite, and companies like Gartner run focussed conferences through the year.  The RSA Conference may have started out like this, but it’s now so generically security that it doesn’t seem to fit**.
  4. academic – mainly a chance for academics to present papers, and some of these overlap with industry events as well.

I’ve not been to many of the academic type, but I get to a smattering of the other types a year, and there’s something that annoys me about them.

Before I continue, though, a little question; why do people go to conferences?  Here are the main reasons*** that I’ve noticed****:

  • they’re a speaker
  • they’re an exhibitor with a conference pass (rare, but it happens, particularly for sponsors)
  • they want to find out more about particular technologies (e.g. containers or VM orchestrators)
  • they want to find out more about particular issues and approaches (e.g. vulnerabilities)
  • they want to get career advice
  • they fancy some travel, managed to convince their manager that this conference was vaguely relevant and got the travel approval in before the budget collapsed*****
  • they want to find out more about specific products
  • the “hallway track”.

A bit more about the last two of these – in reverse order.

The “hallway track”

I’m becoming more and more convinced that this is often the most fruitful reason for attending a conference.  Many conferences have various “tracks” to help attendees decide what’s most relevant to them.  You know the sort of thing: “DevOps”, “Strategy”, “Tropical Fish”, “Poisonous Fungi”.  Well, the hallway track isn’t really a track: it’s just what goes on in hallways: you meet someone – maybe at the coffee stand, maybe at a vendor’s booth, maybe asking questions after a session, maybe waiting in the queue for conference swag – and you start talking.  I used to feel guilty when this sort of conversation led me to miss a session that I’d flagged as “possibly of some vague interest” or “might take some notes for a colleague”, but frankly, if you’re making good technical or business contacts, and increasing your network in a way which is beneficial to your organisation and/or career, then knock yourself out*******: and I know that my boss agrees.

Finding out about specific products

Let’s be clear.  The best place to this is usually at a type 2 or a type 3 conference.  Type 3 conferences are often designed largely to allow customers and partners to find out the latest and greatest details about products, services and offerings, and I know that these can be very beneficial.  Bootcamp-type days, workshops and hands-on labs are invaluable for people who want to get first-hand, quick and detailed access to product details in a context outside of their normal work pattern, where they can concentrate on just this topic for a day or two.  In the Open Source world, it’s more likely to be a project, rather than a specific vendor’s project, because the Open Source community is generally not overly enamoured by commercial product pitches.  Which leads me to my main point: product pitches.

Product pitches – I hate product pitches

Just to be entirely clear: I hate product pitches.  I really, really do.  Now, as I pointed out in the preceding paragraph, there’s a place for learning about products.  But it’s absolutely not in a type 1 conference.  But that’s what everybody does – even (and this is truly horrible) in key notes.  Now, I really don’t mind too much if a session title reads something like “Using Gutamaya’s Frobnitz for token ring network termination” – because then I can ignore if it’s irrelevant to me.  And, frankly, most conference organisers outside type 3 conferences actively discourage that sort of thing, as they know that most people don’t come to those types of conferences to hear them.

So why do people insist on writing session titles like “The problem of token ring network termination – new approaches” and then pitching their product?  They may spend the first 10 minutes (if you’re really, really lucky) talking about token ring network termination, but the problem is that they’re almost certain to spend just one slide on the various approaches out there before launching into a commercial pitch for Frobnitzes********* for the entirety of the remaining time.  Sometimes this is thinly veiled as a discussion of a Proof of Concept or customer deployment, but is a product pitch nevertheless: “we solved this problem by using three flavours of Frobnitzem, and the customer was entirely happy, with a 98.37% reduction in carpet damage due to token ring leakage.”

Now, I realise that vendors need to sell products and/or services.  But I’m convinced that the way to do this is not to pitch products and pretend that you’re not.  Conference attendees aren’t stupid**********: they know what you’re doing.  Don’t be so obvious.  How about actually talking about the various approaches to token ring network termination, with the pluses and minuses, and a slide at the end in which you point out that Gutamaya’s solution, Frobnitz, takes approach y, and has these capabilities?  People will gain useful technical knowledge!  Why not talk about that Proof of Concept, what was difficult and how there were lessons to be learned from your project – and then have a slide explaining how Frobnitz fitted quite well?  People will take away lessons that they can apply to ther project, and might even consider Gutamaya’s Frobnitz range for it.  Even better, you could tell people how it wasn’t a perfect fit (nothing ever is, not really), but you’ve learned some useful lessons, and plan to make some improvements in the next release (“come and talk to me after the session if you’d like to know more”).

For me, at least, being able to show that your company has the sort of technical experts who can really explain and delve into issues which are, of course, relevant to your industry space, and for which you have a pretty good product fit is much, much more likely to get real interest in you, your product and your company.  I want to learn: not about your product, but about the industry, the technologies and maybe, if you’re lucky, about why I might consider your product next time I’m looking at a problem.  Thank you.


*Openstack Summit in Sydney.  Already getting quite excited: the last Openstack Summit I attended was interesting, and it’s been a few years since I was in Sydney.  Nice time of the year…

**which is excellent – as I’ll explain.

***and any particular person going to any particular conference may hit more than one of these.

****I’d certainly be interested about what I’ve missed.  I considered adding “they want to collect lots of swag”, but I really hope that’s not one.

*****to be entirely clear: I don’t condone this particular one******.

******particularly as my boss has been known to read this blog.

*******don’t, actually.  I’ve concussed myself before – not at a conference, to be clear – and it’s not to be recommended.  I remember it as feeling like being very, very jetlagged and having to think extra hard about things that normally would come to me immediately********.

********my wife tells me I just become very, very vague.  About everything.

*********I’ve looked it up: apparently the plural should be “Frobnitzem”.  You have my apologies.

**********though if they’ve been concussed, they may be acting that way temporarily.

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat.

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