For most people, networking is the main reason for attending a conference. This is also the most difficult motivation to justify to your boss. It’s intangible, it will certainly help you, and it may help the company. The great thing about networking is, it never stops. During session breaks, workshops, evening events, even at check-in and checkout, there is always an opportunity to meet and talk to people.
Social networking is an uncomfortable experience for many of us, but a conference setting is different. There are so many areas of common interest, that develop during brief conversations, that networking just occurs naturally. If you are one-man band, or work in a small team, it’s great to get out and see that your challenges, are in fact, shared challenges.
I belong to the FEA community, and it’s surprising how small that is. Over the years, developing contacts and mutual areas of interest has been extraordinarily beneficial. There is a natural serendipity effect. Your next job, or area of interest, might well be a result of conference networking. That, however is not something you can put on your expense justification!
Presenting a conference paper is a daunting prospect to many. I get nervous after 40 years. However, if you can overcome inhibitions, then it is the pinnacle of networking activity. A good paper, well presented will stimulate interest and get you known amongst your peers. It is a good way to try out new ideas, or run through an analysis process. My favorite papers tell an interesting engineering story. What was the challenge, how did the engineer tackle it, and the punchline – how were those challenges overcome. If it is an analysis technique I’ve seen many times before, I don’t care. It’s always interesting to hear it in a new context. Many colleagues share that viewpoint. So, if you have a paper germinating, then nurture it. As a counterpoint, I stopped going to research orientated conferences a long time ago. 15-minute summaries of esoteric theories usually give me a headache.
Many people attend conferences to reinforce their knowledge, in particular areas. It’s a good idea to target papers of interest and have a roadmap. Good abstracts really help nail relevant papers. This is where multiple track conferences can be a mixed blessing. There is a lot more content, but the logistics of getting from hall A to hall Z can be challenging. Well organized conferences with a good track record of timekeeping give the best opportunity for cherry picking. I have been to conferences where quantity of papers seemed to be the primary objective, with only 10 minutes per paper. For me, they became just a frenetic sea of activity.
My first conference was many years ago at Swansea University. My company was exploring new methodologies in fracture mechanics. I attended a paper given by a recent PhD, and the work reported fitted exactly with our objectives. The net result was photocopying a bound copy of his 400-page thesis (no electronic copies in those days). For the next 18 months, this was our bible as we turned the theory into a working method.
Two friends impressed me at a conference a few years ago. They were on a mission to find best practices in a specific FEA technology area, and find out what competing companies were doing in that field. They had a plan which included targeted papers, vendors and the scope of a report back to their company. I’m sure that promised deliverable had a lot to do with the expense justification!
The expense justification is often the biggest hurdle of getting to a conference. That’s one reason I like presenting mini training courses at NAFEMS conferences. My hope is that it helps the justification, for at least some of the engineers attending.
Keynote speeches vary, from pedestrian state of the union addresses, to stimulating and occasionally startling revelations of new technology directions. I’ve been very impressed with the last three NAFEMS World Congresses. Leading automotive companies have laid out their visions for analysis, underscoring the new drives towards safety and efficiency. Any engineer working in this field could not fail to get a grasp of the directions that industry is taking. A careful look at the abstracts and the speaker bios can you give you some sense of what type of speech you’re going to get. Do bear in mind though, that a groundbreaking speech means it is going to be tough to get face-time with the speaker!
Association conferences, such as a AIAA, SAMPE, NEFEMS, etc. bringing together a range of vendors in one place. If you’re trying to get a handle on available technology, or shopping for a new FEA solution, it’s a great place to start. You’re not going to complete a full evaluation in half an hour, but you will get a good sense of the software’s look and feel and broad capabilities. If you get lucky, then you may find engaging technical staff, who will be keen to tell you more about their products. This could be used as a first round, to make contacts and then follow-up for more in-depth evaluations. If you are on this kind of mission, go armed with a clear set of bullet points to address. Timing is important, if you can bear to cut out some presentations, then you will be very welcome in the exhibition hall, during the dreaded slack periods.
So, a conference experience is very much about deciding what you want to get from it. If you want to have a fun few days, meet up with old colleagues, make some new friends and maybe pick up some information in passing, then in my book, there’s nothing wrong with that!
On the other hand, if you’re on a mission and you want to get maximum payback from your attendance, then with good planning and execution you stand a good chance of success. If you find the conference doesn’t deliver for you, and that sometimes happens, then treat that as a lesson learned. It just won’t be on your calendar next year!