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Getting the most out of UCON

May 10, 1999
by Pat McClellan

As UCON approaches, it's probably a good time to talk about getting the most out of industry conventions, trade shows, and seminars. There are enormous costs associated with attending a trade show -- whether your employer covers it or you foot the cost. Either way, there's the actual fee for the event, travel, lodging, food (and entertainment), not to mention the cost of NOT being back in your office working. It really adds up fast, so it's important that you plan your time on site so that you get the best return for that investment.

What can you expect to gain by attending?

Training

A quick look at the UCON schedule shows that there are ample opportunities for training. In fact, it's almost too ample. The tough part is selecting which classes you should attend. There are so many variables: Do you have the pre-requisite knowledge? Is it applicable to your job? Are there other interesting classes at the same time? My experience has been that these seminars tend to be easier than advertised. That means that if you're not careful, you'll be hearing stuff you already know. So, challenge yourself and slightly overestimate your experience level when choosing classes.

With these training sessions -- whether they're hands on or not -- you can't expect to gain critical skills in just over an hour. Rather, the goal should be to expose yourself to areas of special interest. Think of it as a way of finding out new possibilities, and during the session, focus on identifying the resources you'll need to really learn more in-depth about the topic. Go to the session early and introduce yourself to the presenters. This is your opportunity to network with the recognized experts -- don't waste it.

From the training sessions, look for exposure to new tools and techniques, not in-depth learning.

Keynote Sessions

This year's UCON roster includes AOL's Marc Andreessen (that still sounds strange), Tom Jermoluk from / at / Home, Web design expert Lynda Weinman, and Macromedia's own Rob Burgess and Norm Meyrowitz. I'd expect each to give their particular perspective on what they think will "add life to the web" (this year's UCON theme).

Notice in the schedule that they've slotted the "big guns" to start each day. That's their way of motivating you to get your butt out of bed, ignore your hangover, and limp over to Moscone. Don't let that message go unheeded. These people have something to say, and you're wasting your money if you skip it.

Maybe one or the other of these speakers holds some special intrigue to you, but in general, I wouldn't spend much effort focusing on any specific predictions about the industry. Those can all change with the next big merger or acquisition. Rather, digest their messages as a whole and in the context of the entire week. Try to walk away with one or two over-arching messages for the week. Otherwise, there's just too much to take action on.

From the Keynote addresses, you should gain perspective, not knowledge.

Technology Exhibition

That's what they're calling the expo area where all the companies with Director-related products will be displaying their goods. (We'll be there too.) As trade shows go, this one is really good because it's not overwhelming. I don't know if you've ever been to one of the "big shows" like NAB or Comdex, but those shows are so huge that you feel assaulted by the competition for your attention. Luckily, at UCON, this audience is targeted enough that the exhibitors that are here are the ones you most need to see. The expo area will be open all three days of UCON, so there's ample opportunity to spend some time with the companies that interest you.

What you may not know is that these companies spend mega-bucks to travel to this show, pay for their booth space, rent equipment, prepare print pieces, t-shirts, and other givaways... all for the opportunity to meet you. These companies really do value the chance to talk with you about how you use their products, or why you don't. In order to remain competitive and produce the products you need, they need to hear from you.

Yes, I know that we're all wary of "being sold to". But in my experience, the folks that exhibit at UCON aren't of the pushy-used-car-salesman ilk. So, take advantage of this opening. Introduce yourself and find out about products you haven't heard of. In many case, you may find new possibilities for how you're using Director and what you can offer your clients.

From the Technology Exhibition, your takeaways are free stuff, expanded ideas for how to use peripheral products, and at least two new contacts -- not just names of people you know, but contacts who will know you by name if you call.

People's Choice Gallery

This is one of the coolest things about UCON. The People's Choice Gallery is a bunch of kiosks and art displays where you can see what the top creative talents in the world are doing with Macromedia products.

When you work on the same kinds of projects, or for the same kinds of clients, or with the same team of creative people, it's very easy to fall into some habits in the way you approach your work. Habits can be good, because they help you develop efficient processes, economies of scale, etc. However, from a creative standpoint, habits can lead to stagnation. The People's Choice Gallery is an opportunity to break out of habitual ways of looking at projects. You owe it to yourself to spend some time pondering each and every piece of work in the gallery.

The People's Choice Gallery should give you creative inspiration. Use this as an opportunity to recharge your creative juices!

Gatherings

I'm grouping together all of the formal and informal gatherings where you'll find yourself eating, drinking or hanging out. Whether it's the daily lunches or the late-night hacker sessions, these gatherings can be the most valuable part of UCON. So many of us work in relative isolation, where the only contact we have with people who understand what we do is via email. It's easy to feel somewhat disconnected from the "mainstream" of development.

Part of what we've tried to do with Director Online is to put some faces with the names, and to help build a real community among Director developers. We've been successful, but only to a virtual degree. UCON is the chance to make it real.

It's easy to feel like you're the "new kid" at UCON because you'll see many developers who know each other -- and they don't know you. But you're in the majority. This will be the first UCON for a great many people there, and most of them don't know anybody. Take some initiative and introduce yourself. By the end of UCON, you'll be one of the "old-timers". For those of you who are a bit under-developed in the social graces, here's a step-by-step scenario:

Where do I sit at lunch?

  1. You enter the ballroom where they're serving lunch. You see lots of tables with a few people at them, and some completely empty tables over to the side.
  2. You fight your gut instinct to run for the empty tables, and instead you appoach a table where there are several people talking.
  3. They look up and you say "Mind if I join you?". The say "sure."
  4. As you sit down, you say "Hi, I'm <insert name here> and I'm a Director developer from <insert city here>."
  5. You discover that they don't know anybody either and are relieved that you took the initiative.

I guarantee you that if you do this at each opportunity, you'll meet someone at UCON who will become a friend or professional contact that will be important to your future. (Trust me, I'm good at this networking stuff.)

Warning

If you're attending UCON with a friend or co-worker, you're in danger. You're in danger of spending all your time eating and hanging out with people who you already know. This will not help broaden your perspectives. And it won't help you expand your network of professional contacts. Be aware of the dangers, and exert some effort to break out of the clique mentality.

Summary

You're spending a lot of money and effort to come to UCON. In a sense, UCON is like the college experience... you control just how much value you'll get out of it. If you choose to spend your time hanging out with the same people you already know, drinking and partying too late, you'll reap hangovers and you'll miss some important opportunities. However, if you invest your time meeting new people and exposing yourself to new perspectives, new products, and new ways of thinking about your career, you'll go away from UCON creatively revitalized and excited about your work. Let's make UCON '99 one to remember!

Patrick McClellan is Director Online's co-founder. Pat is Vice President, Managing Director for Jack Morton Worldwide, a global experiential marketing company. He is responsible for the San Francisco office, which helps major technology clients to develop marketing communications programs to reach enterprise and consumer audiences.

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