I would like to announce that I am now an Aussie! Well... an honorary Aussie. At least, that’s the designation Michelle Ockers was nice enough to bestow upon me as the first non-Australian guest on the Learning Uncut Podcast. I recently joined Michelle, Karen Moloney and Emma Weber to discuss the value of L&D conferences for professional development. We chatted about our past experiences, tips for making the most of an event and who can benefit the most from the wide variety of activities available within our industry. As you can hear in the recording, the conversation really got me thinking about how the value of conferences have changed for me over the years. Now, with DevLearn just a few weeks away, I find myself once again thinking about my past conference experiences and what they have come to mean to me in real life.

Let’s turn the clock back 10 years and explore a few highlights of my conference adventures. While this will mostly be a self-indulgent story about me, I hope it will trigger some of your own reflection and help you make the most out of your professional events.

My first conference

I remember when I was offered the chance to attend my first conference. I had just left my full-time position with Disney and was observing call center agent new hire training with my new company when my boss called me into the hallway and asked if I wanted to go to Chicago in two months for the ATD International Conference and Expo (ICE). I had heard about this event from people at Disney but really didn’t know much about it. I had also never really had the chance to travel for work, so I immediately said yes. That May, I found myself running around McCormick Place trying to attend as many sessions as possible … because that’s how learning works, of course.

The first session I ever attended was facilitated by Lance Dublin. What else do I remember from my first ATD ICE? Absolutely nothing. But it was the first time I realized that I was part of a larger community. Before that conference, I had existed in my own L&D bubble. In Chicago, I discovered just how many other people were trying to solve the exact same problems.

My first speaking session

Fast-forward four years to my second conference experience. This time, I am speaking for the first time at an industry event during the Learning Solutions Conference & Expo in Orlando, Florida. My session was called “Breaking Down Silos: How Social Learning Changed Everything.” Looking at the deck from this presentation six years later makes me cringe a bit (Wonka meme, really?!?!). But we all have to start somewhere. I honestly didn’t expect anyone to attend my session. While I spent the first half of my career engaging with large groups of people in both operations and L&D, I had been working almost exclusively behind a desk for the past four years. I needed a change, and a local conference felt like a good opportunity to flex a few unused muscles. Plus, the only way I could afford to attend was as a speaker because the registration fee was waived. It worked, and I have spoken during every conference I have attended since.

My challenging moment

My first DevLearn was in 2014. The eLearning Guild had invited me to speak and host a learning stage in the Expo Hall. I had never been to Las Vegas before, so I was looking forward to the experience. Then something happened. I won’t overshare the details, but I experienced a significant loss in my personal life. Suddenly, everything stopped. I couldn’t go to work. I couldn’t eat. I just sat at home and watched House reruns for weeks leading up to the day I was scheduled to leave for DevLearn. On the morning of my flight, I was debating whether or not I should go. Whether or not I could go. In a moment straight out of a Rocky film (I’m from Philly so the reference is required), I picked myself up, packed my bag, and got on the plane.

It was the best decision I could have made at that challenging time. I reconnected with a peer group that I mostly know from the internet, but they quickly became a lifeline. They didn’t know it, but they got me through a really hard time. I returned home from DevLearn ready to move forward.

My new job

I was a member of the planning committee for ATD TechKnowledge for three years. For the first two events, I attended as a corporate practitioner. But in 2016, I attended as an L&D professional looking for a new gig. I exited my previous role three weeks before the conference and was deep into exploring new opportunities. So far, I wasn’t having much luck with the job application machine. I contacted a few people in my network to ask for their advice. I knew I wanted to do something different, but I wasn’t sure exactly what type of role would be a good fit. One of my contacts was the VP of Marketing for Axonify, who I had gotten to know as a client a few years prior. They happened to be a sponsor at TK, so I met with the team on site to discuss my interests. Three days later, I was on a plane to Toronto to visit the office in Waterloo. Two days later, I was Axonify’s principal learning strategist.

My altered perspective

The 2016 Training Conference & Expo was a new event experience for me. It was the first conference I attended as a vendor. That year’s event just happened to be in my hometown and began on my first day in my newly-created role with Axonify. I was already scheduled to present, and the company wasn’t part of the Expo. So I didn’t have any real Axonify-specific work to do at the conference. But I started to look at the industry from a different perspective.

Before, I hadn’t spent much time in Expo Halls. I wanted to stay up-to-date regarding new tools but wasn’t really interested in anything vendors had to offer. Now, I started to look at the messaging vendors were using and how they articulated their value to L&D pros. I had also habitually avoided education sessions led by vendors because they inevitably turned into sales pitches and demos. Now, I started going to these sessions specifically to understand why they felt the need to hide a sales pitch under a thinly-veiled promise of education. Needless to say, experiencing my first conferences in my new role both opened my eyes to the importance of vendor partnerships and annoyed me with the way so many suppliers fail to meaningful participate in their own professional community.

My next event

That brings us to today as I prepare to participate in my sixth DevLearn and my 12th conference of 2019. Yes, I’m in an enviable position within the L&D professional community. For most of my career, I could only attend events that were local and/or affordable because I registered as a speaker. Now, they are a big part of my roles with both LearnGeek and Axonify.

My relationship with conferences has changed a lot over 10 years. They introduced me to the larger L&D community. They helped me find a new job. They provided a reason to spend time with a lot of smart and interesting people. They provided me the opportunity to share my ideas and experiences with my global peers. They helped me get through some pretty significant personal challenges. Plus, I’ve learned a bunch of new stuff along the way … but that’s not what stands out the most.

I’d love to hear about your conference experiences and the value they bring to your personal and professional life. Are you new to the industry and just getting started with conferences? Or have you been around for a while and seen your relationship with events change over time? Please share in the comments or tweet me @JD_Dillon.

Here’s a summary of my DevLearn 2019 activities. I hope to see you in Las Vegas—or at another L&D conference in the future!

? AI & Learning Summit - Tuesday, October 22 (all day workshop)

? Morning Buzz: The Real Potential for AI in L&D - Thursday, October 24 @ 730am PDT

? Getting Started with Adaptive Learning - Friday, October 25 @ 10am PDT