Esri 2014 – Recap

The Esri conference is over for another year. I wanted to write something about it.  It is almost a requirement to write a recap of a conference. At the same time, there are really enough of those, and who honestly wants to read another missive about what sessions, or parties, or workshops I went to?
Fortunately, while at a networking meetup for So Cal URISA, someone asked me a question that is a perfect subject for a recap post. He is currently a student in a certificate program, and only had a day to attend the conference. He asked, “From your perspective, what would be the best use of my time, as far as what to see, where to go, who to talk to, etc?”
I hope I gave him a good enough answer at the time, but let me try to improve upon it a bit here.  Keep in mind that these are really applicable to any conference, not just Esri.
  1. First and last days – In general, these are setup and takedown. Some places will be closed, there won’t be as mangy sessions, and people will be preoccupied with arriving and seeing people, or getting ready to leave and won’t have time for you.  The caveat to this is that the keynote speeches are these days, and they can be a great intro and overview into what is happening in the industry as a whole.
  2. Exhibit Hall – Make sure you give a good pass through. This is a great way to see what companies and organizations are involved in the industry. Don’t be surprised if the vendors don’t have much interest in talking to you. For them, this is a job, and they are selling their services. You are not their target audience. On the other hand, if you know a company is going to be there that you are interested in an internship with, or possibly working for, definitely go up and talk to them, introduce yourself, drop off a resume, etc. Definitely take some time to soak in the energy of the exhibit hall. Walking through and hearing snippets of conversation about topics from hither, thither, and yon, yet knowing thy are all related to GIS is exciting in its own way. I use that energy as a refresher to know I’m not alone, and other people are excited about GIS too. Now, time to leave. There is much to do, and very little time.
  3. Map Gallery – If there is one. If there are a lot of maps, or just a few, take some time to look at them. Think in two ways:  First is the design of the maps. What jumps out at you and grabs your attention. Is it the colors, the symbology, layout, balance or lack thereof?  Figure out what these things are that grabbed your attention, as it is likely they will grab others’ as well. The second part of this process is to look at the maps from the perspective of the topic they represent. Do the parts that reach out and grab you, help forward the purpose of the map or poster? It is all well and good to have something with a lot of bright colors and flash, but unless they help get the point across, they are just distractions. Now granted, this may not matter to a lot of you if you have no interest in cartography. I think there are elements that are applicable across the board. Look for examples of work similar to what you do want to work on and try to figure out what makes them good, or not so good.
  4. Sessions – This is where you will probably end up spending a lot of your time. Make sure to look a the schedule. Most of them are available online now. Make a list of what tracks look interesting, or simply what individual sessions look good.  There are a couple of ways you can go about making a schedule here.  The first would be based on you having a career path already in mind.  In this case, find the tracks that contain sessions that match up with topics you are interested in, and want to learn more about.  Also, look for companies that you may have some interest in possibly interning with or working for.  The second path would be to simply find sessions that look interesting and cover a breadth of topics.  One thing to take into consideration is the layout of the conference.  The Esri conference, for example is in a large convention center.  If you choose a variety of sessions to attend, you may end up doing a lot of walking.  Don’t let yourself feel rushed, as these sessions are good places for meeting people doing projects that you may like.
    Once you are attending the sessions, see if you can come up with questions about the presentations.  From the perspective of a presenter, I like it when someone asks good questions as it shows that people are paying attention and are interested.  This is also a good time to see what works and what doesn’t work in presentations.
  5. After the conference:  Dinner, afterparties, etc.  There is a saying that most of the business at a conference gets done after the sessions are over for the day.  This is the time when you can get to know more about people than just what they do at work.  People relax and let off a little steam.  Be involved, partake, but definitely don’t overdo it.  First impressions last a very long time.  No preaching here, just know your limits, and make sure you get home safe.
There are a lot of things going on at conferences, a lot of things to see, people to meet, etc.  Don’t get overwhelmed.  It is supposed to be fun.  If nothing else, take a minute to stop and absorb the energy in the room of all these people who share a common interest, and passion for maps, GIS, cartography, etc.  For myself and a lot of other people, going to conferences is a way to renew our excitement for the profession we have chosen.  Hopefully you will have the same experience if you are able to attend a conference for the first or even the first few times.  Part of the power of GIS is in the community of practitioners.  Going to conferences affords you the opportunity to meet others who you can then ask for and also share expertise with in the future.
Hopefully this gives you some things to think about when attending a conference.  I am in the United States, so there are undoubtedly differences in how conferences run in different countries.    If you have any other tips or ideas leave them in the comments, I’d be glad to hear them.

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