Greg Enright: More to conference lunches than food

The most useful information coming out of conferences and trade shows is often gleaned not on the floor or in a seminar, but around the lunch table. Taking nothing away from the people who spend weeks, and sometimes months, meticulously preparing their booths and PowerPoint presentations for their moment in the spotlight, but you just can’t beat the banter that comes out while stomachs are being satisfied.

An informal air often marks these chicken-or-fish forums; IT pros commiserate on their plights in the presence of colleagues who are fighting similar wars. After usually listening to a keynote while battling to hold in the three large coffees injected into your system because you had to get up at 5:45 in the morning to get to it on time, and after sitting through three hours of informative yet interminable seminars, the guards come down over lunch. Tolerance levels for corporate spiels and hollow assurances that everything is going to turn out alright are next to nil. The truth comes out, usually by the time the salad is done.

I saw a fine example of this while attending a SQL Server database users’ forum this month in Denver. Sitting with six database administrators, it didn’t take long for the gripe machine to heat up. One guy kicked off the discussion by asking the others what they liked about the show to that point. Another said with a smirk, “Well, it’s nice to be out of the office.”

Heads began to bob round the table as mouths, too full of chicken filet to form words, formed smiles instead.

It was not long before stories of ill-informed CEOs “just not getting it” were bandied about. One gentleman made the point that because Microsoft was selling SQL Server with the message that it was easy to use and deploy, it was that much more difficult to convince his boss that it was still a database, for goodness sake. More people and monetary resources than he had were needed to manage it, but no matter how blue his face got explaining this circumstance, the boss wouldn’t budge.

When asked whether other IT managers in his company faced the same roadblocks, he replied, “No, not at all. The networking guys never seem to have any trouble getting all they need.”

Perhaps that’s how it is at his company, I thought, but I bet there’s a lot of network administrators facing the same challenge.

Although these informal roundtables might not solve this type of problem, they’re an invaluable tool for conference attendees. You might not pick up as many useful tips about how to better work with routers or firewalls as you would in a seminar, but at least you’ll come away knowing that there are others who are grappling with the same problems as you are.

And the food’s usually good, too.