This is a collection of advice on how to get the most out of attending the Cisco Live conference (once, long ago, called Networkers). Some is applicable to any training event, but most of it is more specific to the Cisco event. I’ve been attending large vendor conferences like this for quite a while and I’ve learned a few things along the way help me get the most out of my conference attendance.
This is written from the standpoint of an attendee of Cisco Live US. Feel free to add international details in the comments and I may incorporate them.
If you have any other corrections or additional suggestions, please comment so I can keep this information up to date and accurate. I’d like this to be a resource for everyone.
The Unusual Situation for 2020
Everything is a little weird this year due to the COVID-19 situation. Many similar large events have been the canceled worldwide, including Cisco Live Melbourne. I’m optimistic that Cisco Live US will continue since it’s still a few months away. Nothing has been announced one way or another, though they are watching the situation. Maybe something else you had planned on attending was canceled and that freed you up to attend Cisco Live. One can only hope! Expect to see lots of hand sanitizer, some people wearing masks, and other unusual things during the event and on your way to it. If Cisco does end up deciding to cancel the live event out of an abundance of caution, expect to see some expanded form of the Cisco Live online event.
I always try to arrive in the conference city no later than mid-afternoon the day before the conference starts (or the day before my pre-conference session, if I am attending one). This way, even my flight is delayed, I should get there before too late in the evening. Even if I can’t check into the hotel until 3PM, I can always drop your luggage off at the hotel and wander around. The idea is to make sure I get there early enough to get a decent night’s sleep. I make sure I have a good pair of walking shoes because there’s always a lot of walking.
I like having the option of walking to/from the convention. I usually try to find a hotel that’s within 15 minutes of the conference because I don’t like being tied to bus schedules when I can avoid it. That said, it’s nice to have options if the weather is uncooperative or you are just plain tired. This is less of specific advice than just something to think about when choosing your accommodations.
For Cisco Live 2020 in Las Vegas, the only really short walk is from the Mandalay Bay or the Delano. However, both are already sold out as of this writing. The Luxor and Excalibur are a little bit more of a walk (20+ minutes), but they are covered and air-conditioned the whole way. You can walk from the MGM Grand or New York New York, as well. It just takes longer. Most of the rest of the hotels will require a bus. Myself, I’m planning to stay at the nearby Fairfield Inn because they have a shuttle, it’s less expensive than everything except the Luxor, and I prefer Marriott properties.
At Cisco Live, you want to sign up for your breakout sessions before you go. Some conferences just let you go to whatever session you want, but Cisco Live is a bit different. The purpose of signing up beforehand is not just to be a helpful schedule, but signing up beforehand gives you reserved admission for the session. This is primarily important for the most popular sessions, but you don’t want to be stuck waiting outside of a session you really want!
Here is how it works. At the entrance of each session will be attendants with a handheld badge scanners. They will scan your badge as you enter. If you are registered for the session they let you right in. but if you aren’t registered or are on the waiting list, you must wait. If it’s not full, you will have the opportunity to enter shortly before the session begins. I have stood in the back or sat against the wall in a number of sessions over the years because I arrived late or wasn’t preregistered. It’s much nicer to have an actual seat!
The NetVet Advantage
NetVets are conference attendees that have been to 3 of the last 4 Cisco Live conferences on a Full Conference or IT Management registration. NetVets have the opportunity to sign up for their sessions a week before everyone else. This is done because many sessions repeat from year to year and you may not have been able to get into a popular session in the past. This gives repeat attenders an opportunity to sign up for sessions they haven’t been able to attend in the past and ensure they can access new content. Some of the NetVet perks include: a special lounge (which usually has espresso), a complimentary Cisco Press eBook, and if they are CCIE or CCDE certified, a lunch reception with Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins.
When the session catalog opens up on the registration website, I suggest you get in as soon as possible to schedule the sessions you are most interested in. You can always go back later to change sessions. When I attended my first Cisco Live, I wanted to sign up for all kinds of sessions. After a while I realized that despite there being 4 days of sessions, you can only squeeze so much into your schedule. You must prioritize the topics that are most important. I also recommend you leave some room in your schedule for the World of Solutions Expo, but more on that later.
A common piece of advice that can be tough to stick with is to limit the number of different topics you try to take in. Sticking to a few key technology areas makes it much easier to absorb the related information than hitting many unrelated topics.
For Cisco Live US 2020, the session catalog is available for viewing now. Session registration will open for NetVets on April 7th and for everyone else on April 14th. They usually soft launch it around 8am Pacific time, so don’t wait for the announcement. Just check it!
Choose Your Own Session Adventure
Speaking of scheduling your sessions, I have some advice on how to improve your personal session choice algorithm. Don’t just read the session titles. If a session title sounds interesting then read the abstract to get more details about what the session will cover. You can also get an idea of the technical depth of a given session based on the session number.
If you are experienced with a given technology and you choose a 1000 level session, you are likely to be disappointed at the lack of depth. For sessions that are not new, you can also look at the slides on Cisco Live On-demand Library to get an idea of what the session will cover. You have to rely on the abstract for new sessions. Shortly before the conference, you should be able to download the session PDFs and you can double check your choices at that time. Lastly, popular sessions are often repeated. If you have a schedule conflict between two sessions, you may be able to attend one at a different time.
Meet the Engineer
You might want to scheduling a Meet the Engineer (MTE) session. It’s time with just you and an engineer who is a specialist in a Cisco technology. They can help you with analysis of a technology, comparison of a Cisco solution with a competing/alternate solution, difficult TAC cases, and more. It’s a great opportunity to spend some quality time with someone who can help you solve those difficult problems and answer the hard questions. You can try stopping by the booth to talk to whoever is available, but if you schedule it before hand you can choose the engineer you want. This is the kind of access you can only get here! There is also a Meet the Engineer button in the session abstracts. This is a great feature to help you find the right person to schedule. If you don’t think you can fill an hour with your questions, schedule an engineer and find some other attendees to accompany you. I’ve found this to be an excellent way to get more out of the MTE sessions!
Don’t forget to sign up for your free certification exam and don’t forget to schedule your sessions around it. I recommend doing it first thing in the morning so you are fresh. Eat some fruit for breakfast that morning and save the carbs for later. If you aren’t taking a pre-conference session and can come in early enough, taking the exam on Sunday is a good way to get it out of the way without it distracting from the rest off the conference.
Don’t forget about Cisco Live On-demand Library. This site has all the PDFs and recordings of most sessions from the last several years of Cisco Live, including international Cisco Live conferences. Some sessions recommend that you have attended another session as a prerequisite. You can view some of these virtually (or at least browse the PDF) before the conference. I like to look through the PDFs of sessions I am considering to help decide if I want to attend. This library is an excellent resource. Even if you don’t go to the conference you should be using it. I’ve written about it before here.
To be Early is to be on Time
I had a band teacher in junior high who used to say, “To be early is to be on time. To be on time is to be late. To be late is to be left.” I’m not very good at following that advice, but it’s good advice! Whenever possible, try to get to your sessions early. Arriving late, only to find there is nowhere to sit, is a bummer. Don’t be afraid to sit in the front, especially if you are late. There are often open seats in the front and in the middle of rows while the back and edges are packed. Be prepared for a good speaker to make light of you and others that are arriving late, at least during the first few minutes. They may even invite you to sit in front. Go with a smile. There are always late people, especially in the morning sessions. You won’t be the only one.
Of course, being in the front can backfire if you decide you want to leave. You can feel very conspicuous if you get up and leave. That said, do you pay any attention to other people leaving? Just do it quietly and don’t waste your time in a session that’s not what you need.
Stay on Task
Why are you or your employer paying for you to attend the conference? Obviously, it’s so you can spend all day “networking” on Twitter/Teams/Slack/Facebook. OK, maybe not. That’s not to say that the proverbial hallway track and social media aren’t valuable. They definitely are. In fact, I recommend following the hashtag #CiscoLive on Twitter. However, while you are in the midst of the Advanced Troubleshooting of Wireless LANs session is probably not the ideal time to be watching your Twitter feed. Otherwise, you will hear something you really care about, come out of the distraction, and realize you’ve missed it. At least, that’s the way it goes with me, so that is the suggestion I make. On the other hand, most sessions will have a dedicated Spark room with real-time Q&A and the ability task ask questions of the presenters for a few weeks after the conference. That’s a resource worth taking advantage of.
Another thing to avoid is the temptation to look up that new feature you just learned about, or even remote into your favorite networking device to see if it supports the new bell and/or whistle. Make a note and save it for later!
It’s easier to stay on task if you are comfortable. If heavily air conditioned spaces feel cold to you, you may want to bring a light jacket. Also, you may want to check the weather at the conference location to ensure you pack correctly. If the conference is in San Francisco in May, you may need to pack very differently than if it’s Vegas in June. Vegas is always hot outside and pretty comfortable inside, but don’t forget the “heavily air conditioned spaces” comment.
World of Solutions Expo
This is the trade show. It’s big. You can definitely spend some time here learning about new products, talking to vendors, and picking the brains of Cisco TAC engineers. I have found at least one useful vendor at every WoS that I previously had no idea existed. You can ask Cisco people, both technical and non-technical, those tough questions you have saved up. There’s a special section of the show just for asking TAC people that question that’s been bugging you or that you thought of because of a session you attended.
There is also a booth we affectionately refer to as “The Fishbowl.” This is a transparent booth located inside the WoS where podcasts are recorded live. You can listen from outside the booth and sometimes the audience can even participate by asking questions of the guests. These session often cover the latest products being announced at Cisco Live and can be a great opportunity to meet those who produce your favorite technical podcasts.
Yes, there’s the various tchotchkes and receptions with food and beverage, but it really is a great place to make contacts. If you want to have a real conversation with any of the vendors, don’t count on doing it during a reception. It’s just too busy. Devote a breakout session to the expo. There will be a lot less people in the hall and you can actually have a real conversation with the vendors. If you want a tchotchkes, usually you have to get your badge scanned. You’ll get a call from them in a few months. Sometimes they want you to sit down and listen to a spiel. Make sure it’s worth your time. If you haven’t been to one of these before, you may be tempted to collect all the free t-shirts and junk. Don’t forget you’ll have to get all that stuff home or abandon it in your hotel room!
While I still suggest focusing on the session while you are in a session, there’s still plenty of time to participate in social media. I suspect the occasional tweet about something fantastic in a session won’t hurt, but only you know if that’s too distracting. Social media has become a much bigger deal at #CiscoLive over the years and is a great way to meet people who are worth spending time with and learning from. Don’t forget that social media includes blogging, so take a moment to start a blog and use your sessions notes and experiences as sources for material. Perhaps the conversations you have during the hallway track will spark a great post. Maybe you don’t feel like you have anything to add with all the CCIEs around, but only you have your perspective and there’s always new people learning. Be it on Twitter, blogging, or whatever else works for you, participate. It’s worth it. You might even be able to apply to become a Cisco Champion!
You can check out the Cisco Live Social Media page for all the ways to participate.
“Scotty, I need more power!”
Most of us are heavy users of mobile devices. While you are attending Cisco Live you will probably spend a lot of time using your smartphone, tablet, and/or laptop. Most sessions will have a place for you to plug in to power/charge your devices. If you want to use these plugs, remember “to be early is to be on time…” The days are very long. I typically will start out by heading to breakfast around 07:30 and won’t get back to the hotel, after dinner and conversation, before 21:00. More like 23:00-00:00 on the night of the CAE (see below). This is a long day for your devices, let alone you. Having some sort of portable charger for your devices is really nice, especially if you are using it for social networking and pictures. The Anker Power-Bank products are popular and I’ve use the micro-USB charged version of Anker PowerCore 13000 C in the past. The new one is nicer because it is USB-C. USB-C all the things! The last few years I’ve been using the Ventev Powercell 6010+ because it is super convenient with a built in charging cable and it plugs directly into the wall to charge the battery. Unfortunately it appears to be less available now.
Food for Thought
As a conference attendee, your breakfasts and lunches will be provided. I suggest you use some of this time as an opportunity to meet and talk with new people. I’ve never had anyone at a table who wasn’t willing to at least talk shop once someone got the ball rolling. Show up at the table and strike up a conversation. You never know who you might meet. I’ll admit that while I do meet some new people, I have a tendency to move between the groups I know through social media to get some face to face time with people I primary interact with online. Don’t forget to meet some new people while you’re catching up with old friends!
During lunch on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, there are also Table Topics. There will be a section of tables in the dining hall set aside for this and all of these tables will have a card with a topic on it. That doesn’t mean that’s the only topic you can talk about at the table, but it will help you connect with people who want to talk about the same thing. So, if you want to discuss the impact of SDN in enterprise networks over lunch (I mean, who wouldn’t?) then you know where to go. There’s lots of topics, so head over and see what you can find.
Another great networking opportunity exists at dinner, so find some people to go to dinner with. Dinner isn’t included, though there are vendor parties and receptions that have food, most of them aren’t a good dinner. It’s also hard to sit down and decompress from the day’s events in a crowded and noisy space. A relaxed dinner with some other attendees can be just the thing. Just don’t forget to go to bed at some point, as it’s really easy to keep talking late into the night. If you can’t find anyone to join you for food, check the #clus hash tag on twitter. You might even find me there looking for someone to eat with!
The Cisco Live Celebration, formerly the CAE, is a giant social gathering for all the attendees. A large venue is filled with food and music. The music for the event is usually pretty good. Devo, Journey, Weezer, Aerosmith, and Imagine Dragons are some of the examples from the past. It’s a great time to relax and just socialize with people you’ve met at Cisco Live. You can buy a pass for your spouse or SO to accompany you. Sorry, no kids; CAE attendees must be 21. Depending on where the event is going to be held, you may want to have a jacket. Watch the Cisco Live website for details.
For Las Vegas 2020, the Cisco Live Celebration location has yet to be announced. My guess is that it will be at T-Mobile Arena, but we’ll have to wait and see. There will be a ton of food, activities, and a couple different bands. Every year, the bus rides back from this get crazy. Leaving a bit early may save you a ton of time. Depending on where you’ve chosen to stay, it may be within walking distance and the weather in the evening is quite comfortable.
So that’s my advice for getting the most out of Cisco Live. It’s a great place to learn, network, and get questions answered. You’ll meet people from all types of environments and some will even be similar to yours. You can find out how they do things in their shop or how they solved the same problems you’ve been trying to solve. Sometimes you’ll just share war stories, which can be therapeutic, as well. I find the sessions useful, but the conversations and people you meet can be just as useful, if not more so, than the sessions you attend.