By counting the number of crazy, jingling, battery-powered hats in the corner of my office, I have scientifically deduced that this year will be the 6th time I’ve attended Cisco Live (starting way back when it was officially still Cisco Networkers). Over the years, I’ve picked up a few tips on what to do, and what not to do, to make the trip valuable, educational, and enjoyable. In no particular order, here they are:
1. Wear comfortable shoes.
You’ll be walking a ton. Convention centers are huge, and invariably each of your technical breakout sessions will be on opposite ends of the facility, up or down 3 flights of steps from the one you are leaving. Then you’ll want to stop back at your hotel to drop off some schwag before heading out to meet some folks for dinner or drinks. Then you’ll walk around some downtown area with a gaggle of people for an hour looking for somewhere that everyone wants to eat. I’d be shocked if I don’t average 3-5 miles a day of walking at Cisco Live. Flip flops are probably a bad choice, and dress shoes are a poor choice unless there is a “C” in the beginning of your title and the helicopter will be picking you up for dinner.
2. You’re getting a new bag.
Lots of first timers travel out to Live with several pieces of luggage and then spend all week trying to figure out how to get the additional backpack/laptop bag you get at registration back home without paying $33,751.43 in airline bag check fees. Here’s a reminder: You’re getting another bag while you’re out there.
I’m a proponent of ultra-light travel, so this year I will again be one-bagging it out to Live. That’s right, I’ll have everything I need for the entire week in a single carry on that will fit under the seat in front of me. I just got a fancy new Tom Bihn Tri-Star convertible bag for the occasion. I pack extra light on the way out because I know I’ll have a spare bag and several additional T-shirts and whatnot for the return trip. By the way, if you meet me at Cisco Live and I’m wearing vendor T-shirts by late in the week, it’s because I was counting on them to have fresh clothes!
3. Register ASAP
Speaking of registration, the registration line on the first official day of the conference can be immense. If you’re arriving over the weekend, make a point of going over to the convention center and registering as soon as you possibly can. Registration is where you get your conference badge, your bag, and all sorts of other little goodies. You can’t get into any sessions until you have your badge, so if you wait until Monday morning to register you may well miss your first breakout session (or 2!) waiting in line.
4. Plan your visit to the World of Solutions
The World of Solutions is where you can speak to reps from just about every vendor of networking hardware, software, training, and accessory (as long as they aren’t a competitor to Cisco…). It’s also a place where it’s easy to get ambushed by sales reps and dragged into 10 minute video presentations on the promise of a light-up badge reel that makes funny noises every time you extend it. Suddenly you may find that you’ve lost a couple hours walking around, you have 300 stress balls, but no new ideas for solutions or vendors.
While picking up vendor schwag, making a 30 foot putt to win a T-shirt, and entering a contest for a chance to win a year’s supply of console cables is lots of fun, I recommend studying the booth layout ahead of time and making a list of vendors you are interested in making contact with. Make sure you hit all those booths first and get some helpful info. They may have demos or at least help put you in touch with someone that can answer your deep technical questions. Then it’s time to collect trinkets.
Also, be mindful that at the World of Solutions Welcome Reception (usually Monday night), the vendor booths will be crazy with activity. Folks will be very busy, so if you’re looking to tie up a sales engineer for an hour discussing your project, you probably ought to schedule some additional time during the week to go talk to that vendor. In fact, maybe you should stop by that booth, introduce yourself, and ask when during the week a good time to come back would be to have some one-on-one time with their expert.
Also, if you’re tired of drive-by badge scannings or booth girls trying to drag you into some preso, I find that holding my phone up to my ear and loudly saying things like “What do you mean the whole data center is down?!?!?!” as they walk up to you tends to keep them at bay.
5. Pick a theme for your breakout sessions
One of the best things about Live for practicing network geeks are the technical breakout sessions. These are lectures or classes typically 90-120 minutes in duration that vary from an overview of a product line to a in-depth session on troubleshooting problems with the forwarding table on a specific Nexus 7000 line card. While each session is packed with info, you can only learn so much in 2 hours. So my recommendation is to come up with a “theme” for your breakout sessions. Looking for Nexus training? Great, schedule most of your sessions around Nexus topics. Getting ready for a CCIE exam? There are plenty of CCIE-candidate courses on topics ranging from frame relay to IPv6 and BGP troubleshooting. Need to do a big security overhaul next year? Schedule breakout classes that focus on the issues you need to solve or features you’re looking to deploy.
Now, all that said, the other great thing is the breadth of classes available. Don’t completely pigeon-hole yourself into just one type or topic of breakout session. Find a few that look interesting, or discuss a new topic, or cover something your employer wouldn’t otherwise send you to to training to learn up on. Typically you can get 11 or 12 breakout sessions into a week of Cisco Live, so I usually aim for 1/2 to 3/4 of them being on one or two main topics. This year I’ll be mainly focusing on Nexus and mobility classes, 3 of each, and then I have a few others for some interesting topics like network architecture models, the CSR 1000V, and some security-related sessions.
6. Don’t force yourself to stay in sessions that aren’t interesting
Sometimes a session isn’t what you thought it would be. Or the speaker reaaaly annoys you. Or it turns out that learning the mathematic details of IPSec phase 2 encryption ciphers just isn’t as thrilling as you expected it to be (I found that out at Networkers 2004). Give every session a chance, but when it’s clear that a session isn’t going to provide you a good value for your time, don’t force yourself to stay.
Do, however, make sure you leave quietly and respectfully if you do decide to leave. There’s nothing more distracting to those of us who are paying attention than the jerk that mutters “this sucks” plenty loud for everyone to hear and then makes a relative scene as he gathers up all his stuff, unplugs his laptop, and trips over the person next to him on his way out. Don’t be that person. Quietly gather your things, exit through the back, and make sure to close the door gently so it doesn’t slam. When I’m coming into a session I’m unsure about I usually try to pick a seat off to the sides or near the back so it’s a little less obvious if I decide to slip out.
If you find yourself having just departed a class with an hour or two to before the next event, it’s a great time to head back to the WoS for some face time, meet up with some contacts, or do a little lab time at the Walk-In Self-Paces Labs in the WoS. This brings me to my next point:
7. Be productive.
Unless you won the contest for a free pass to the conference, are unemployed, and live in Orlando, chances are someone (either you or your employer) is spending thousands of dollars in conference fees, travel, lost work time, and other expenses to send you to Cisco Live. Make good use of that money. There are endless opportunities to learn, find contacts, engage with your customers or vendors, etc. If you spend the entire week sitting in a beanbag chair outside the WoS liking pictures of cats on Facebook, you probably won’t be back next year. Go to your sessions, learn as much as you possibly can from them, and talk to those you meet to gain as much perspective and knowledge as you can. Then demonstrate that new knowledge when you return from Cisco Live. By doing this, you’ll prove to whoever is footing the bill that it was a well-spent week of time and money and you’ll be more likely to return soon.
8. Take advantage of opportunities to meet Cisco’s experts.
I’ll admit that this is one I usually don’t get as much out of as I should. But Cisco offers opportunities to meet and engage with top experts in a variety of products and technologies. You may find that if you are having a problem with a specific product or feature, you just might end up talking to the person that designed it!
They also have less formal events called Table Topics at lunch several of the days where you can just go sit at a lunch table with one of Cisco’s experts on that topic for sort of an informal round-table discussion.
These events provide access to levels of expertise within Cisco that you usually can’t easily access through your local account team or via a TAC case.
9. Don’t be hungover.
This kind of goes with my “Be productive” tip above, but it’s worth a mention. There are plenty of opportunities at Cisco Live to have a good time and go out for some drinks. There are usually adult refreshments at the WoS receptions, the evening parties, and myriad other official and unofficial gatherings. It can be easy to get into a total party attitude, but unless you want to relive your college years and miss your first 2 classes of the day while you nurse a wicked headache, be responsible when you’re partying at night and get some rest. The days are long and draining.
10. Meet as many people as you can.
Everyone attending Cisco Live is something like you. They are professional network geeks who love to talk about their craft. Meet them! Strike up conversation with the person sitting at your lunch table. Say “hi” to the person in line next to you for whatever it is. If you’re active on Twitter, by all means attend the official Tweetup. Since the social networking revolution came about, my Cisco Live experiences have been absolutely stellar. It’s really amazing showing up at an event like this and knowing 50 or 100 or 200 people from all over the world that are also there. It’s great to put names to faces, see old friends, and make new ones. I hope to see you there too, dear reader!