Conference or Course? Where Should I Spend my Training Budget?
I started work in the era of Stephen Covey and the ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ craze. Heck I was even sent on a 7 Habits course and given a 7 habits daytimer! One of the 7 habits was to ‘Sharpen the Saw’ which amounts to the importance of spending time improving yourself and learning. The IT world changes so fast! You have to keep learning to keep up! The smartest employers recognize this and invest in training for their employees.
I am busy getting ready for TechDays Canada, and also preparing to present to Microsoft Certified Trainers (MCT) at the MCT Summit. I spent 10 years teaching Microsoft courses and I have presented and attended numerous conferences over the years. I know that most of us are faced with limited budgets and time for training. You have to make the most out of your training time! Sometimes you are forced to choose between attending a conference and taking a course. I want to give you an honest comparison of the two options so you can make the best decision!
|Cost||Tend to be $200-$400 a day, but often have significant early bird discounts or promo codes. Tip: Decide and book early!||Tend to be $300-$500 a day, Tip: Check websites or call and ask the sales staff if there are any promotions and discounts.|
|Travel||The bigger the conference the more likely you are to need to travel. Many user groups will organize events locally, for example TechDays may be in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver this year, but we are sponsoring locally organized events like DevTeach in Ottawa, Prairie DevCon in Winnipeg and Calgary.||The more specific the course and the more obscure the topic the more likely you are to need to travel. If you are just looking for the basic how to code .NET, how to use SharePoint you should be able to find that nearby.|
|The Wow factor||Imagine if you had attended Build and received the free slates with Windows 8 installed! Keynotes with big names and announcements! Product booths where you can play with the newest tech toys!||The wow factor in a course comes from your desire to learn what it taught in that course and having those ‘aha’ moments when you finally get it!|
|Topic Breadth||Conferences will cover a broader array of topics than a course||Courses will cover a lot of material on one specific topic|
|Topic Depth||Due to the length of sessions, you rarely get great depth in a conference, but keep an eye out for pre and post-conference sessions that frequently offer deeper dives for an extra fee||Courses will go into much more depth on a specific topic|
|Current technology||Conferences are generally the best places to learn about the latest and greatest tools and features||Because it takes time to develop courseware, and you need a certain momentum in the market with a product to sell a course, courses tend to be one version behind the current release. But occasionally you can find a one day new features course or a seminar on a new release.|
|Immediate help with your current role||If you pick the right conference and attend the right sessions, you will definitely walk away with something you can use the moment you get back to work. When we pick sessions for TechDays that is actually one of our criteria. If a conference has a partner expo that can be a goldmine as well, those partners have some great tools and resources, not just t-shirts and pens! Check the conference website and look at session lists to make sure this is the right conference for you.||If you have selected the right course, you should be able to use what you learn right away. Read the course outline to make sure this course is going to cover topics that apply to you. For example there are a dozen SQL Server courses, do you want to learn how to write reports with Reporting Services? or do you want to master T-SQL? or do you want to learn how to do backups? Each skill is in a different course. Even if you have already worked with the product for a while, taking a course can be worthwhile to pick up a few new tricks! But if you have 3 years experience with the product, you shouldn’t expect to get as much from the course as someone with 2 months experience with the product.|
|Help with your career long-term||If you are looking to move into a senior technical role, you want a conference that talks about design, architecture, application lifecycle methodologies like Agile (hint: TechDays Architecture track) If you are looking to move into a management role you may want to complement those design and ALM skills with a conference aimed at managers and project management.||If you are looking for a senior technical role, you want to try and find a course that talks about design, Application Lifecycle Methodologies, and architecture. I’ll be honest, these courses are tough to find, so if you find one that works for you, re-arrange your schedule and take it! If you are looking to get into a management role, there are lots of courses out there to teach you project management skills.|
|Asking Questions||Conferences will have a Q&A at the end of each session, and a good conference will have some sort of open area where you can talk to speakers (some sort of Ask The Experts zone) but you may have to miss a session to find time to talk to your expert. However you can usually get email addresses for the speakers to follow up with them outside the conference.||You will have much more opportunity to ask an instructor questions than a speaker at a conference. It’s simply a question of time and the number of people learning. It’s easier to take questions over a week across 12 students than when you are presenting a session to 150.|
|Hands On Time with Product||More conferences are discovering the value in giving attendees hands on time with a product. For example we have Instructor Led Labs at TechDays where you get to actually walk through an exercise on your laptop during the session. But not all conferences offer hands on product time.||Most courses will include lab exercises so you get a chance to reinforce what you learn.|
|Networking||Conferences have more people attending and are generally better for networking. They often have social events, or luncheons where you can talk to other attendees. Keep an eye out for opportunities to network with the speakers as well at Product booths and Ask The Expert areas||You meet a smaller group on a course, but that smaller group is interested in the exact same topics as you, so you are more likely to find a kindred spirit who has faced the same challenges as you, and don’t forget the instructor is a good contact as well. If you ask nicely, many instructors are willing to share their contact information, as long as you promise not to ask them to debug your code, or architect your next solution for them by email.|
THE WINNER IS…
It depends! You knew that was coming didn’t you? Hopefully I’ve given you a few things to consider if you have to choose. If you just started on a new team and have never used the tool, maybe this year you need a course, but if you are simply looking to grow in your current role, get excited about your job again by picking up some new tips and geeking out with some fellow fans of Big Bang Theory. Join us at Techdays! I’ll see you there!