Surprise surprise, there’s a backstory to today’s post. Almost twenty years ago, I was accepted to present a paper at a somewhat significant technical conference. I won’t bore you with the details. Since this was my first time presenting at this level, the conference organizers assigned a “shepherd” to me. This man reviewed my presentation and helped me focus on the important issues so that I could better deal with the time constraint. The conference was in Vancouver, BC, and when I arrived, I took my shepherd to dinner as a thank you. He is a wine connoisseur, and when he noticed a favorite, albeit hard to get wine on the menu, we indulged – yes, I skipped the Canadian beer I was looking forward to.
Several years ago, my boss was going to Vancouver for an important meeting and wanted to treat his boss to a nice dinner. I told him the story and he asked me for the restaurant name and the name of the wine. I contacted my shepherd and was able to provide both pieces of information. My boss laughed at the idea of getting a restaurant and wine recommendation from me – a fast-food and beer guy. When he returned, he thanked me for both.
My point isn’t about food or wine. My point is about the importance of a face-to-face meetings such as the conference I attended, given that there will be very few of them in 2020. Many of these large conferences were already struggling with companies that are trying to reduce education and travel expenses and a generation that seems to feel all answers can be found on-line. I will always appreciate the fact that my boss saw value in my attending these conferences and understood the intangible benefits that came from making contacts and interacting with my industry peers.
Of course, the technical bits I learned twenty years ago are mostly obsolete and of very little value to me in retirement. However, the experience of participating taught me many lessons of lasting value. In addition, the contacts and friendships I made over the years are, as the credit card ad used to say, priceless. I met some of my best friends at industry meetings and conferences. The list is long and the people on it range from vendors to peers to speakers I was impressed with and to people I met at the bar after the conference sessions were over – today, they are all friends.
I looked forward to meeting these people at subsequent industry events, I remain in contact with many of them, and I may well attend one of these events in the future, just to reconnect with some of my friends. More important – for my employer – these were people I knew I could turn to for advice. Advice on what products to buy, what techniques to learn, and what emerging technologies were worth my time. They also served as a sounding board to whom I could describe a problem and the approaches I was considering. They helped me make the right decisions.
How we (i.e. the world) conducts business is certain to change in the wake of the Corona virus. How we learn, how we interact and certainly how we travel will be changed for years, if not forever. The likely transition from real to virtual events will be charted and hyped and will launch new businesses. It will also be a loss that data scientists will never understand.
Fortunately, for me, the virus waited until I had retired.