Wednesday, October 16, 2019
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Maximizing Your Symposium Experience

Parent Category: 2015 HFE

By Tom Perkins

There have been many articles written on the subject of attending conferences and symposia. Most of them are specific to an event that is scheduled shortly in a particular city. Although there are many conferences and symposia held worldwide throughout the year, it just happens we are in a peak season now.  Many good suggestions are usually put forth with regard to specific presentations, maps, room locations, nearby things to see, and good restaurants. That’s all very helpful, particularly if it’s your first visit to that location.  This article is more general and intended to give some newcomers some “sage” advice, and veterans a few memories and possibly, chuckles.


Getting There
Well in advance, get approval to go to the conference from your employer. If you are self-employed, check your wallet and work backlog. Register as early as possible to take advantage of “early bird” pricing opportunities. Fees will generally be lower if you are a member of the sponsoring organization such as AOC or IEEE. Also, book a hotel early as rooms go fast, particularly if you want to be within walking distance of the convention center. If you can get into the headquarters hotel, you will generally have less hassle in getting to key events on time. In some cities, particularly where your language is not predominant, that’s even a safety issue.

The expense for registration will likely be less if you are a member of the sponsoring organization. The savings may exceed the annual dues and you will reap other benefits by being a member.

If you need to go by air, make your flight reservations early. Consider the savings sometimes offered if you fly at certain times of the day or certain days of the week. The savings might even more than offset the cost of additional night at the hotel. When you arrive at the host city you will need transportation to the hotel. The cheapest way is usually a shared ride van service or hotel courtesy bus. A subway or train can be a hassle if you have much luggage. Taking a cab or renting a car are more expensive options.  Unless you have other business or pleasure while there, or have to travel more than 20 or 25 miles from the airport, the rental car just becomes another expense and perhaps a challenge in itself in an unfamiliar environment with possibly different driving regulations.

Get to Registration Early
After checking in at your hotel, go complete registration (if it’s open) and pick up your materials, such as badge, flash drive with proceedings/digest, and other handout materials. It’s helpful to get this material as early as possible as lines are shorter and there are often more people to provide assistance. Besides you may not want to carry all the material you receive around at any one time. Use any pre-event time wisely to get familiar with the layout and location of events as well as planning where you want to be at any given time. If you have a smart phone or similar device, you can place your schedule in there as well as, in some cases, download key papers. Convenient kiosks are also sometimes available to print out technical papers. At the conference ending, before you leave for the airport, maybe a day in advance, you might want to get advance tickets at the hotel. Most hotels have this computer access capability with printers in a controlled access area for their guests.

1504 HFE conference

Be Courteous and on Time
When and if there are parallel technical sessions, even though scheduled and conducted in good time sync-start and finish times, I see too many folks walking in and out while a speaker is giving their (relatively) short talk. This seems to be a somewhat new phenomenon, not so common years ago. It sort of reminds me of birds seeking the least-crowded feeder. Not finding exactly what they want, the attendee moves onto another room, sometimes encouraged by a colleague whispering something in their ear.

This is rude and distracting to the coordinators, speaker, and audience. This same advice goes for panel sessions, workshops, short courses, plenary sessions and such events. Plan ahead and once you select a presentation, stay there until it’s over. Be on time also. Walking in late is distracting. At the Q&A session, if you ask a question, make sure you use a microphone, unless not available. Otherwise almost no one will hear you, including the speaker.  Consequently time is wasted in repeating questions. Occasionally the Q&A session at the end will get confrontational or at least controversial. It’s the job of the moderator to control this activity.

Speakers often are available after the session for one-on-one discussion. If you are visiting a poster session, be discreet about joining into a conversation or presentation that is already in progress. If the author(s) are already having a discussion, you should listen politely and ask your questions in an orderly and non-disruptive manner. If waiting seems tootedious, move on to other posters and come back. Student design competitions can be quite interesting as you will get to see real hardware being tested with some of the latest and best test equipment.

On The Exhibit Floor
First, know that there are vendor exhibits. These displays of hardware, software techniques, educational opportunities, or paper media may be a small “sideshow” in the hallway or atrium. At larger events they can be a collection of 600 or so entities in a large exhibit hall. Those companies with their simple or elaborate and comfy booths did not just fall out of the rafters on Monday or Tuesday morning.  Most of these companies (some are colleges and universities) have been planning their booth for months. Set-up is not particularly a pleasant experience. Tear-down goes a bit faster, but by then the participants are exhausted. The actual setup can begin several days before you see it. Often the exhibit area is not air-conditioned during set-up.

Microwave Mall
Don’t ignore this great “eye candy” opportunity.  At a large event it’s like visiting a giant microwave mall.  Sometimes I’ve gone to an event at just the right time to shop for parts for a new project. Although you actually cannot buy the parts at the show, you can discuss needs in great detail with factory experts and get commitments for quick follow-up. You might even get to meet with some sales representatives from your area. Sometimes you can even arrange for free samples to get a project started. The face-to-face encounter definitely helps make that possible. The best day to visit the exhibits might be the closing day of the show. By then a great deal of the activity has dwindled and is light. I never fail to see at least two or three things that stimulate new thoughts and ideas.

Don’t be Afraid to Greet Others – Also Ask Questions
We are a small community. Being friendly is a big deal as it often reaps opportunities to meet people and have incredibly interesting discussions. If you are a first-time attendee, and feel out of place, remember that everyone there was once a first-timer, too. And most of the “big names” in our field actually want to meet newcomers. After all, that’s the only way our profession will continue.

Take advantage of every possible opportunity. For example, in 1975 I had an opportunity to meet Phillip H. Smith of Smith Chart fame. He was a very humble man. At that time he was 70 years old. I was less than half his age. In the back of my mind I thought, I could delay this until another time, he’ll be around!  Well, although he lived until 1987, I never saw him again. Another time in the mid 1970s, having heard a very interesting talk by Dr. Martin V. Schneider, an IEEE Fellow, I asked him a question in the hallway between sessions about packaging microstrip circuitry in beyond waveguide cutoff channels.  He said nothing, or maybe mumbled something, smiled and quickly wrote BSTJ May/June 1969 on the back of a business card. Upon looking it up the following week (not too easy in those days) I found an equation that kept me out of multiple difficulties throughout the remainder of my designing career.  Having a good educational foundation in waveguide techniques, I immediately “got it.” I never had to use absorber or deal with cover effects, just because of that “smile”. In case you wonder, BSTJ stands for Bell System Technical Journal, published by AT&T – one of the best ongoing publications in our field for at least six decades.

Attend Social Gatherings
Attending social functions, within reasonable timeframes, may be valuable as they present an opportunity to meet people and discuss technical issues and business opportunities. You will also realize that folks engaged in our business with other companies face similar challenges. You’ll get a perspective on industry trends, company mergers and acquisitions, marketing opportunities and the latest technology.

Free Food and More Sleep
I have never seen an attendee starve to death at a technical conference. There is usually more “free” and low cost food available than one could possibly consume. You don’t have to spend large sums of money to survive a 3 or 4 day event. Many hotels offer complimentary breakfasts. Vendors offer evening events and special sessions and box lunches are available. The notion that you need to spend big on meals or even use up your per diem allocation (if that’s the case) is overblown. With the long hours you’ll be putting in, make sleep a priority. I’ve found that the further your room is from the elevators, the quieter.

Dress for Success (or at Least Acquiesce)
Until a couple of decades ago, almost everyone attending conferences wore a jacket and tie to symposiums. Exceptions were some vendors and possibly steering committee members, who tended to wear shirts with company or event logos. As years passed, like in business venues, dress down, business casual and such became the norm. Conferences in warm climates even encouraged this trend. I’ve seen folks in shorts and sandals lately. This seems to be an inevitable and irreversible trend. I would just say that going to extremes to draw attention to oneself might not be a good idea, depending on the event.  Also some “VIP” and dinner events still demand suit and tie. Bear in mind that some folks may be your customer in the future.  You might have only met them at a conference. How you appear in their memory might affect future dealings.

Spouse and Guest Events
Some conferences offer excellent opportunities for spouses or families to tag along and visit sites that they might otherwise never plan to partake of. My wife has accompanied me many times and made many longtime friends who in turn introduced me to attendees at the conference that I otherwise likely would not have become acquainted with. I think she with some of her friends are more adept than I am at collecting exhibit handout material. They can be very influential in connecting people.

After the Event, Do a Trip Report, Even if Your Employer Doesn’t Ask for One
No, I don’t mean an expense report, although completing that in a timely manner with accuracy is important. I’m talking about preparing an overview of what you did, who you met, what you learned, new products and trends, possible business opportunities.

Give a Synopsis of the Conference Back at the Office
Demonstrate your appreciation for and the value earned from your experience. Arrange to do a “lunch and learn” or similar event for your colleagues within a month of returning from the conference. This will go a long way towards recognition of the value of attending the conference. Highlight technology that may have added value to the future of your organization. Also talk about contacts made as they might lead to new business or good feedback on current activity. This may stimulate a desire for others to attend future conferences and reinforce what you learned. It will also improve your presentation skills and respect from your peers.

Consider Writing a Paper
Want to attend again? One way to punch your ticket is to respond to the call for papers and carefully follow all instructions. Make sure your work is original and has not been previously presented. Also, allow sufficient time for your company to approve your submittal and issue the appropriate releases for publication. This may include consideration of classified information, company proprietary material, information that may be patentable, and even cases where the author changes employers prior to the actual publication and verbal presentation at the event. All of these can become big and painful issues if not handled properly.

If you inadvertently get a paper into a digest, or on a CD or flash drive and there is sudden desire for paper withdrawal, a big problem can ensue. I’ve seen pages removed from a digest with razor blades at the last minute prior to distribution. Not fun for the organizers and even worse for the authors. With electronic media the problem even becomes more complicated.  The media has to be destroyed and publications folks have to produce new material in time for handout at registration, which can be a nightmare.This could be a way not to ever go to another conference, so due diligence is the operative term. If your paper is to be given in a classified session, again make sure you have all the requirements covered, including conveying your material to/from the conference venue.

If you do successfully submit a paper and get it approved, it’s best to take advantage of all opportunities including a “dry run” in front of some of your peers, prior to the presentation session to meet with your session chair or co-chairs. Many conferences provide a preparation room and sometimes a speakers’ breakfast. Whatever you do, make sure you are not late to the session you are presenting. Nothing can make a session chairperson more uncomfortable than not knowing where his speakers are. Juggling schedules (sequence of talks) from those published is a big no-no because many attendees depend on that schedule being accurate. They don’t like to walk in and find out they missed a paper. I’ve even seen speaker no-shows which is certainly awkward as once people leave a session, they generally won’t return. Chances are, if you do this, you won’t get a paper accepted again.

Volunteer
Particularly when a symposium comes to a city near you, volunteer to help the steering committee. This will be very rewarding. You will make lifelong friends in our field and get to know more engineers and other colleagues outside your immediate workplace circles. You may also find an immediate benefit in that you now have a better excuse to attend the symposium and may likely get reduced cost or even free attendance as a reward for your volunteer efforts. Your involvement will be rewarding and you’ll learn a lot about teamwork.

Half a Year
Having attended approximately 35 conferences over my career, I realized that I spent about half a year of my life in this pursuit. For me this includes many activities – attending hundreds of papers, several workshops, presenting papers and poster sessions, assisting with exhibits, visiting with hundreds of vendors, serving on steering committees, editing digests, representing my IEEE MTT chapter at Chapter Chairs’ meetings, and twice chairing a Ham Radio Social. It’s all been highly worthwhile, and I look forward to even more in the future.

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