The Virtuous CIO  

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February 19, 2012 — What about all these conferences?

Do you, as an aspiring CIO, need to make the trek to the various educational / motivational / industry specific conferences that dot the map like ever-expanding spores of mold? And if you do, how do you select from the myriads of meetings that advertise themselves are the most important event you could ever attend?

This topic has not come to me cold, as it were. I recently enjoyed a very pleasant lunch with a good friend who is a consultant / educator / CIO mentor / etc. He is thinking about expanding his offerings by producing an executive conference for CIOs. The purpose of the lunch was for him to pick my brain. I proceeded to rain on his parade by offering all sorts of advice (and let me remind you, once again, that free advice is usually worth about what you pay for it). But the encounter got me thinking about this topic.

Let's focus today on conferences which have specific interest to CIOs. This reduces the numbers for discussion from mind-boggling to merely huge. Within this universe we can break things down further.

At the bottom of the food chain are the peer conferences. These range from informal gatherings of local CIOs to those promoted by organizations in the “events” business. They are usually either free, or cost only a nominal amount. The presentations come from other CIOs, and there are generally opportunities for free form discussion. There is value in meetings like this. If you are one to take advantage of networking opportunities, then they are useful. The downside is that the really top-drawer CIOs usually do not show up at events like this. CIOs are as class conscious as anyone. So, the useful take-away ideas from these conferences are relatively small in number.

There is a class of mid-level CIO gatherings. These are often sponsored by regional or large city professional groups. These groups often have the leverage to bring in high-level brain power for their meetings, and they can be highly profitable. The people who run these events are usually serious IT professionals, and the quality is correspondingly higher. Attendance at these events is rarely free. In fact, many of the organizations have dues in the range of $5,000 to $10,000 per year. Membership usually consists of Fortune 1,000 CIOs.

CIOs are busy people. As such, they do not have time to take the incessant phone calls from vendors, survey farms, and industry representatives. So, therefore, the vendors have scratched around to find ways to get face time with CIOs. We are seeing conferences sponsored by vendors and trade groups, designed to provide decent content to CIOs, but also to get CIOs in a room together with individual vendors. They are usually held at a resort hotel, and include such amenities as golf or theme park attendance. The conferences are either free, or cost a nominal amount. In terms of value received, these tend to be mediocre, but CIOs find it hard to turn down a free day's golf on a well known course.

The most valuable conferences are those created by the large industry research organizations. Gartner's Symposiums are examples of this genre. Presentations are made by industry analysts – people who not only have good analytical and writing skills, but also heavy industry experience. The focus of these conferences is to drive as much content as possible to the attendees. There is usually some form industry sponsorship, but that is not the main thrust of the meetings. Conferences such as these are not inexpensive, and many of the attendees are also clients of the research companies (with six figure retainers).

So as the practitioner (as the industry groups call the CIOs) looks at options for conferences, any one of these can provide value. The next question is, why attend?

In a connected world, much of the content provided by these conferences can be found in the trade press and blogs, such as this one. Most vendors now have regular web meetings of some sort, and rarely charge for them. Why leave town when you can get everything you need by sitting in front of the computer? There are benefits, but they tend to be intangible.

Getting out of the office for three days or a week allows you to catch your breath, slow down, and gather perspective on your job and your company. Going to a Gartner Symposium is not a vacation – you march from one session to the next, absorbing content until you feel your head will explode – but the change of pace is liberating. Getting face to face with other IT professionals, as well as with presenters and sponsors will educate the CIO on things she has completely missed. And, truth be told, it's fun.

And to those who reply that they don't have time to get away for things like that, let's paraphrase Lee Iacocca and ask why you are such a lousy manager that you cannot plan three to five days away to enhance your career? Of course, that is being mean and nasty, and I would never suggest such a thing...