Your mailbox fills up every week with invitations to one conference after another. But your dollars are precious, and your time is limited. So how do you decide which events are worth your while as an independent information technology consultant?
"I must get a half a dozen fliers for conferences and trade shows in the mail each week," says Ric Goldman, a sole proprietor doing business as Spellbinder Systems Group in Palo Alto, Calif. "And most of them are either so generic or so narrow" that they're useless, he says. "(They're) just large, expensive gatherings of people talking about the same old things."
One way of sorting through the clutter is to avoid the madding crowd. Instead of attending a general trade show like Comdex or PC Expo, focus on conferences aimed specifically at consultants. Those are your best bet for sharing war stories with other consultants and picking up valuable advice about how to run your independent practice.
Then round out your yearly schedule with a key technology show that's relevant to your client base or your skill development goals. A vertical industry show may also be useful if you work in a specific niche.
Goldman and other consultants shared with Computerworld how they choose the conferences and trade shows that give them the most bang for their bucks. They also offered tips on how they allocate their time and budgets.
The yearly confab of the St. Louis-based Independent Computer Consultants Association (ICCA) is far and away one of the most well-attended and useful events for independent IT consultants, past attendees say. Whether you're new to the 1099 life or an old pro, the conference is a must.
"I felt like I came away with friends, not just networks of people," says Sandra Story, who attended her first ICCA conference in Boston in June. "They turned out to be colleagues rather than competitors."
Now, if a client asks for a recommendation on a technology with which Story has no direct experience, it's no problem. "I have people who I could call up if I need someone with a specific area of expertise," Story says. "In the end, that makes me more valuable to my clients."
Story, who started consulting in February last year, also picked up tips on how to choose a lawyer who specializes in reviewing IT-related contracts. Another take-away was learning how to devise an effective marketing road map that forces you to do the things that usually fall to the bottom of your priority list.
Technology Trade Shows and National User Group ConferencesWhile general technology trade shows may not prove very useful to consultants, vertical technology shows and national user group conferences can be, Goldman says. They offer an inside look at a vendor's strategic direction, as well as up-to-the-minute news about new products. And such conferences can be a useful resource for addressing specific technology problems such as leveraging certain product features in a unique environment.
Choose technology trade shows and user group conferences based on the technologies you work with on a regular basis, Goldman advises. For example, he frequently works with sites that use Lotus Notes, so he attends the annual Lotusphere conference in Orlando whenever possible. And because he specializes in working on Hewlett-Packard Co. platforms, HP World - hosted by Interex, an international HP user group - is also part of his annual agenda.
Goldman especially appreciates conferences that have special interest groups for consultants, such as HP World. "Most vendors nowadays are realizing that consultants are extremely vital and useful resources for them as one of the best ways to get their products out into the marketplace," he explains.
If you specialize in a particular niche, consider going to the leading trade shows in your area of expertise. Story, for example, belongs to the American Society for Quality because software quality assurance is a key part of her practice. The organization hosts a national conference locally, so she'll likely attend that next March.
"Not only would I meet other consultants, but I'd also meet other professionals in my local area," Story says. "That could be good for picking up new clients and learning the latest in the (quality) industry."
While industry shows aren't necessarily technology-oriented, they usually have at least one technology track, as well as vertical vendors on hand on the exhibit floor. And because they're well-attended by business executives in the field, the shows provide a great forum for meeting the movers and shakers who may have a hand in bringing consultants on board. Moreover, they offer a concentrated opportunity to identify new trends in your main field of interest.
Goff is a freelance writer in New York. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tips and Tricks
Ric Goldman, sole proprietor of Spellbinder Systems Group; IT consultant Sandra Story; and John DiNunno, sole proprietor of Dynamic Techniques Inc. in Norcross, Ga., offer the following advice for getting the most out of conferences and trade shows:
-- To decide if a conference merits your time, review the previous year's proceedings on the conference's Web site. Papers, presentations, transcripts of panel discussions and other materials are usually posted once an event is over. If it piques your interest, check out the current year's agenda.
-- Save money by signing up for the "early bird" registration. Not only will it usually save you a percentage of the regular registration fee, but it will also increase the chances that you'll make attending the show a priority and schedule the time. In the event that you can't go, most conferences provide a prorated rebate on the fee if you cancel in advance.
-- Try to schedule a conference in conjunction with a vacation. That way, you can deduct a percentage of your vacation costs (airfare, hotel or car rental) that otherwise would just be nondeductible personal expenses. Of course, if the sole purpose of your trip is to attend the conference, all of your business-travel-related expenses are deductible.
-- To cultivate a long-term relationship with a client, consider spending a day at an appropriate conference. A show may not have a direct benefit for you but may offer some beneficial information for the client. Focus on finding solutions tailored to that particular client. If the conference is local, you may even be able to accomplish your goal in half a day.
-- Don't expect lead generation to happen overnight. Usually, you meet someone at a conference who refers you to someone who needs advice, who in turn refers you to someone with a job. It may take several months, but the process all starts with the initial exposure from attending a conference.