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Tips for attending virtual IT conferences like a pro

The coronavirus pushed all physical gathering events into the digital realm for public safety. But this completely disrupts our prep patterns. Here are some tips to help.

As the COVID-19 pandemic carries on throughout the end of 2020, IT conferences continue to go virtual. When tech events occur in our personal living spaces rather than major cities, preparation and setup can be confusing and alienating. Without flights to plan or hotels to book, what kind of prep is there to do?

Here are six -- and a half -- important tips to attend virtual IT conferences like a seasoned digital pro.

1. Plan your schedule

Every tech conference has more sessions than any one person could possibly attend. Before the show starts, peruse the offerings and plan out your day. Build out priority lists and have backup plans in the event you can't get into the first session you wanted.

Make note of which sessions are live, and which can be watched on demand. For schedule prioritization, on-demand sessions are easier to push off in favor of single-viewing sessions in the same time slot. Try to attend a variety of sessions -- from keynotes and case studies to technical tutorials -- to mix it up and keep things interesting.

1a. Don't skip lunch. It's impossible to focus when your stomach makes all that racket.

In seriousness, however, it's easy to miss the signs of growing hunger and discomfort when absorbed in a conference, until it's mid-afternoon and the crash is imminent. Build at least a half-hour break into your day to refuel away from your computer screen.

1b. Build in breaks. Video conferencing is mentally draining, not to mention a significant source of eye strain, which in turn leads to serious headaches. Leave small pockets of time in your schedule to use the bathroom, get a beverage or even just walk around the room. If you struggle with eye strain, look into blue-light blocking eye glasses, which perform a similar job to your cell phone's "night mode" orange light, to wear at the computer -- no prescription required.

Editor's note: KubeCon + CloudNativeCon North America 2020 -- among many other tech conferences relevant to IT operations teams -- is virtual this year. If you're building a schedule specifically for that event, which takes place November 17-20, check out our session roundups for Kubernetes beginners, experienced Kubernetes users and Kubernetes experts.

2. Get familiar with the video conferencing tool

There are a variety of video conferencing tools, and not every conference uses the same one. Whether it's Zoom, BlueJeans, GoToMeeting or any other app, learn how to navigate its settings and functions. Customize as many settings as possible to avoid last-minute scrambles. For example: How do you set your display name, and can you set it to display automatically? What are the input and output devices the app registers -- and do they work? It might not be prudent to try out a new webcam on the first day of the conference.

3. Block off your calendar

In the time of self-quarantining, many people share small spaces with family and juggle other responsibilities. While unavoidable, these factors can disrupt the conference experience. In advance, work with those around you to establish boundaries for the duration of the event -- whether it's as simple as requesting texts in lieu of physical interruptions or a full-scale "pretend I'm not home today" arrangement.

But before you let this conceptual separation create stress, remember that everybody has some variation of your daily struggle. Just do your best to create a balance. It can be far more distracting to deter a cranky toddler than to have one in your arms while you participate.

4. Set up meetings early

One of the primary benefits of in-person IT conferences was the ability to strike up conversations with both presenters and other attendees while in line for lunch, the bathroom or the next session. But digitization has eradicated such providence. Consequently, everyone will have unique demands on their time when scheduling appointments. Reach out to potential contacts in the days -- or weeks -- leading up to your conference for the best chance of connection.

5. Grab a buddy

Like the cinema and restaurants, conferences can be intimidating to approach alone. Your conference buddy can be another remote participant with whom you chat via instant messaging systems, or somebody close enough to share your physical space. But regardless of how you connect with peers or colleagues, find at least one other person attending the virtual conference and try to share some sessions -- even if it's only the daily keynote presentations without specific technical information in them. Any interaction makes a big difference against the social isolation of virtual conferencing.

And many virtual IT conferences create dedicated social media pages or channels, as well as digital collaboration spaces for attendees to connect. For the KubeCon + CloudNativeCon North America 2020 in November, there is a Slack workspace, which will feature a variety of topic channels and the opportunity to chat one-on-one with other attendees and presenters.

6. Take detailed notes

Who among us hasn't tried -- and failed -- to remember the events of a meeting in which we forgot to take notes? Even if you're convinced that you'll remember the important bits, bring some form of note-taking apparatus. Our computers have a wealth of apps to fill that need, but when your conference stream takes up your computer screen, it's helpful to take notes in a separate place. There's strong science in favor of pen and paper, but don't kneecap yourself for the sake of idealism: If you can type four times faster than you can handwrite, there's no reason to relegate yourself to the pen.

6.5. Take a deep breath

It can be just as exhausting to attend a virtual IT conference as it is a physical one. Travel expenses are waived in lieu of homelife invasions -- and that means your lunch is still on you, unfortunately. Sometimes, daily job duties aren't excused for the duration of the show, either.

Regardless of how well you prepare or how many precautions you take, expect something to go wrong anyway. Even with technical or situational issues, it's possible to carry on. Attend sessions with your baby on your hip. Pet your dog while you learn about industry changes. Keep snacks close -- and water closer -- and approach trials with patience and pizazz.

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