Lessons Learned from the Halls of VMworld

Last week, Session Builder for VMworld 2014 went live. This is always an exciting time of year and seems to mark the beginning of the highly anticipated ramp-up to the conference. This is when I start to ponder what each day will look like, what I’ll be focusing and how I’ll utilize my time. There is so much crammed into this conference: general sessions, breakout sessions, hands-on-labs, Solutions Exchange, Hang Space, Tech Talks, media events, conference events, customer appreciation events… the list goes on. Many attendees will run non-stop from early morning to… early morning. This will be my fifth VMworld this year (wow – five years!) and I must admit, I’m still trying to figure out how to squeeze everything I want to accomplish into five very fast days. But I have learned a few things that I can share to get the most out of this event.

Put off today what you can do tomorrow

This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned.  And no, I’m not promoting procrastination. What I am promoting is prioritizing one’s time based on what is available after the show and what is not. The breakout sessions and hands-on-labs make up the biggest draw for conference attendees and obviously create the central focus of training at the event. But the recordings of most of the sessions and even the labs will be available online after the event. We’ll have the opportunity to take them at our leisure at any time. These are absolutely incredible training resources, but if we’re spending all of our time focusing on them during the show, we’re missing out on other activities that will not be available once the show is over, such as all the incredible networking opportunities (see below).

Just an added personal note – I’ve spent year after year trying to figure out my breakout session schedule, and it never fails that I end up switching around my sessions at the last second. I often end up in one session and then I spend part of that session second guessing my choice for the next session and thus missing out on some of the content in the session I’m currently in. This year, I plan to minimize that.  I will still make it to a select number of these sessions, but it will primarily be to hear a particular speaker or pick up information on a critical topic. Otherwise, I will be spending more time in the Hang Space or on the Solutions Exchange floor meeting up with other folks and chatting with product experts. I’ve discovered that some of the best education takes place one-on-one. And those opportunities cannot be put off until tomorrow.

Speak up

As I said, some of the best ideas will come from our conversations with our peers and experts in the industry.  Advice to anyone: Spend time in the Hang Space, talk to your neighbor while dining or in the breakout sessions, attend the customer appreciation events… It really pays to strike up the conversation. It’s so much more enjoyable when we connect with others and there is so much to learn from our peers’ experience in the trenches. But we need to open our mouths. For introverts like me, this can be uncomfortable, but there are so many attending that would welcome a conversation and would love to share what they’re doing in the data center. Feel free to approach a speaker after a session. They love to share what they’re doing and what has worked for them. And take full advantage of the industry experts in the Solutions Exchange. That’s why they’re there!

Tweet up

I joined Twitter prior to VMworld several years ago and quickly discovered the real value of this social media outlet.  I realized that so many announcements and insights come across the Twitter feeds. It’s also a great way to connect with other folks at the event. So many folks have conversed on Twitter and then come to meet each other in real life at the conference. “Tweetups” for example, are informal gatherings where those active on Twitter meet up and enjoy the real face to face interaction. You can find a list of folks here who will be tweeting from the event. Or you can simply follow hash tags such as #VMworld or the hash tag for a particular session. These hash tags are usually listed with the description of the session in the Content Catalog. There is so much to be discovered by simply following the constant feed during the show.

Get comfy

Wear comfortable shoes. I hear this over and over again, but it’s solid advice. You’ll be on the move for 16-18+ hours each day. Wear what’s most comfortable while still being professional.

Travel lightly

This goes with dressing comfortably.  Leave the bulky laptop in the hotel.  I know we’re IT pros and need to stay connected.  There are no user workstations these days at the conference so if we want to get online to solve a problem back at the office, we need our laptop to connect.  I get it and I’ve been there.  However, if you have a light-weight laptop like a MacBook Air, make that your companion or even a simple tablet.  There’s nothing like lugging the extra weight of a huge laptop when you’re on the go from 7AM-7PM.  And there’s not as much room for all the trinkets.  Of course, if your hotel room is a block away, that helps if you need to run back and hop online.

Keep home base close by

This has been another huge lesson for me. This will be the third year I’ll be staying at the Mosser Hotel, just a block from Moscone West. I love the convenience of the super short walking distance from my hotel to the event. I will warn anyone though, the rooms are tiny and if you go with the economy class, you will be sharing a bathroom with your hall mates. But if you need to drop off an overloaded bag of swag or retrieve something during the day, it pays to have your room just two minutes away.

By the way, I find it interesting that this hotel is never on the list of recommended hotels with the reduced conference rate. However, here’s a secret tip: Year after year, I’ve been able to get a cheaper rate at the Mosser than the conference rates for the other nearby hotels. Granted there are a couple more convenient options like the Mariott right across the street, but the cost is at least 2-3x the nightly rate. The lower rate at the Mosser helps me get the budget approval for this trip each year. Another trick I use is booking my room early in the year (Jan-Feb) before the rates start going up. I know that if I end up not going, I can always cancel with no penalty. I just wish I could do that with airfare too!

Party on

There is something going on every night of the conference (besides Thursday) – the official list of community gatherings and events can be found here. Take part and register for these events early as some of the more popular events will get sold out (like the hugely popular VMunderground event, traditionally held on Sunday night before the conference gets under full swing). These are additional great networking events and of course allow us to unwind after a day of hard training and “drinking from the fire hose”. A couple big notes of caution: be professional and exercise moderation. Believe me, you will need the physical and mental stamina the following day.

Roam around

Finally, making the most out of this trip means getting out on the town.  I always try to venture out to explore after the show is over.  What a great way to wind down.  San Francisco is a neat city.  It’s a little shabby in spots but so rich in character and history. The Wharf, Alcatraz, Embarcadero, Coit Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, trolley rides… there are so many sites to see and things to do.  It’s not a complete trip to San Fran without hitting some of these spots.  And for the family, Crystal Lowe has organized Spousetivities each year — exciting activities around town for spouses, family and friends of conference attendees.  This has been a tremendous success each year and has really gained quite the following.

So there it is.  Just a few lessons I’ve learned over the years to get the most out of every minute at VMworld. Although, in the end, you really can’t go wrong with whatever you do. There is so much to take in and there’s no way to leave at the end of the week without a gathering a massive amount of knowledge to take back to your team at the office. It’s just an awesome event and it keeps getting bigger and better each year.  Can’t wait!

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