This is a collection of advice on how to get the most out of attending the Cisco Live conference (old hands may still call it Networkers). Some of it is applicable to any training event, but most of it is more specific. I’m a NetVet and have been attending large vendor conferences like this for over a decade (and smaller conferences for even longer). I’ve learned a few things along the way on how to 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.
Plan to get to the conference city no later than mid-afternoon the day before the conference starts. That way even if you have a delayed flight, you should get there before too late in the evening. Even if you can’t check in until 3PM you can always drop your luggage off at the hotel and wander around. The idea is to make sure you get there early enough to get a decent night’s sleep. Don’t forget to pack a good pair of walking shoes because you’re going to be doing a lot of walking.
I like having the option of walking to/from the convention. I always try to find a hotel that’s within 10-15 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 take into account when choosing your accommodations.
Cisco Live is the only conference I’ve attended to where you need to sign up for your breakout sessions before you go. You may have been to conferences where you can wander in & out of sessions if one turns out to be uninteresting or you have a sudden change of heart about which you want to attend. Cisco Live is different. The purpose of signing up beforehand is not just to be a helpful schedule, but you need to sign up beforehand because it’s your reserved seat 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 doors for every session will be attendants with a computer and a scanner. They will scan your badge as you enter and you will see a green or red light on the screen. If you are registered for the session, you get the green light and you are good to go. If you aren’t registered or are on the waiting list, you have to wait. If it’s not full, you will get the opportunity to enter shortly before the session begins.
NetVets are conference attendees that have been to 3 of the last 5 Networkers on a Full Conference or IT Management registration. NetVets are given 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 get into. Some of the NetVet perks include: a special lounge, a complimentary Cisco Press eBook, and if they are CCIE or CCDE certified, a reception with Cisco CEO John Chambers.
When the session catalog opens up on the registration website, I suggest you get in as soon as possible to schedule the sessions you care about most. 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 interesting 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.
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 it’s number. If it’s in the 1000’s, it is introductory. If it’s in the 2000’s, it is intermediate. The 3000 level sessions are advanced. 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. For new sessions, you’ll have to rely on the abstract. 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
While you are scheduling your sessions, you might want to schedule a Meet the Engineer session. It’s time with just you and an engineer who is a specialist on 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 get some quality time with someone who can help you solve those difficult problems and answer the hard questions. You can stop 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! I’m not sure if this option was there before, but I noticed this year (2015) they have added a Meet the Engineer button in the session abstracts. This looks like a great feature to help you find the right person to schedule.
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.
Also, 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/Facebook/IRC (some people still use it, really! Check out #packetpushers on Freenode.) 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 #clus on twitter. However, while you are in the midst of the Multicast Troubleshooting 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.
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 need to pack very differently than if it’s Vegas in June.
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.
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 have to get all that stuff home. :)
“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 (the New Trent products seem popular) for your phone is really nice, especially if you are using it for social networking and pictures.
Food for Thought
If you are a full conference attendee, your breakfasts and lunches will be provided. Use this time as opportunities to meet and talk to 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 who I know primarily through Twitter. 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 covered, and while 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 Customer Appreciation Event, but referred to as the CAE (pronounced “see ay ee”, not “kay”). This is a giant social gathering for all the attendees. A large venue is filled with food and music. The music for the CAE is usually pretty good. Devo, Journey, and Weezer 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 CAE is going to be held, you may want to have a jacket. Watch this blog and the Cisco Live website for details.
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.