Traveling to Technical Events

Over the past couple of years I have been traveling more, both for work and to attend and/or present at a variety of technical events. While I have yet to earn the esteemed grizzled road veteran merit badge, I have managed to learn a few things along the way. When presenting at a technical event, whether it is a user group meeting, a code camp, or a full blown conference, being prepared is critical to delivering a successful presentation (hey, you aren’t paying for this advice, so don’t expect it to be groundbreaking).

In this post, I would like to share with you a few things that I have found that can make the difference between a good event and a great event, at least as far as your presentation is concerned.

Before You Leave (a.k.a. Pack Lightly, But Carry An Armored Tank Division)

If you pack a multiple outlet power strip, you will make friends. Power outlets are like gold at any technical event and people will covet them to charge up their power hungry devices. If you encounter a full tap and plan to stay for more than a few minutes, pull it out and share the juice with your five new friends. I have a very compact one that turns 2 outlets into 6, as well as a slightly larger unit that provides 3-to-1 expansion along with 2 USB ports for charging iPhone, iPod, or other USB-powered devices.

If you will be driving during any part of the trip, pack a car charger for your devices. Small and compact usually wins, so I prefer something that gives me at least two USB connections from the 12V plug. That is usually enough to charge my phone and headset, and can help charge a friends phone at the same time (since they likely forgot their charger unless you forwarded them a link to this article).

Don’t forget to bring plenty of cables. I always pack at least one 14-foot network cable, two USB-to-mini-USB cables, one USB-to-micro-USB cable, one firewire 800 cable, and a 800/400 adapter. The power supply for your laptop is pretty important too, so bring that long as well.

Bring an additional mobile phone battery or a battery powered top-up charger to get you through the trip. Nothing drains an iPhone like watching a movie during the flight, firing up the GPS to find your way to the hotel, checking your email and flight status, etc. I bought an inexpensive unit from Monoprice (less than $20) that connects to the bottom and tops off an iPhone that is under 20%. It has another dock connector on the bottom and charges from the same cable as the iPhone.

Scope out your network availability and plan accordingly. If you are traveling alone and cannot tether your phone to your laptop, make sure wireless networking is available. If it is not available, be sure to have all the software you need installed and make sure your demo doesn’t require an internet connection. If you are traveling with others and the hotel charges for internet, considering bringing along a wireless router (the Airport Express from Apple is small and easy to setup) to share the connection with your friends!

A quick note about travel gear – carry on only. Do not check a bag, it will only slow you down. If last minute flight changes are needed when travel issues occur, being quick and unencumbered by checked baggage will help you out. Also, the 22” roller bags will not fit in smaller aircraft, so get yourself a smaller 17” one that fits under the seat (and in the overhead on the smaller regional jets). You can easily make a two day trip with a smaller bag, particularly if you avoid different styles of clothes.

En Route (cue Vacation theme music)

First things first — if you don’t have an iPhone (or some other type of reliable smartphone), get one. I have found that having an always available internet connection, full web browser, instant email access, real-time flight tracking, and live Google maps with GPS to be the most important tools when traveling.

Now that you have your iPhone, some great apps that will really help your trip are listed below.

  • AutoPilot from USA TODAY is a great, free application for managing your travel. It’s not the fastest or best, but it is free and includes TripIt integration for loading your flight information.
  • Flight Update Pro is a air travel focused app that is highly accurate in keeping you up-to-date on flight status and arrival/departure times. While expensive ($9.99), it also includes TripIt integration (saving you data entry) and an easy to read status.
  • The FlightCaster web is fairly accurate at predicting delays, and they also have an iPhone application. Again, integration with TripIt eliminates the duplicate entry of information.

By the way, if you aren’t using TripIt to consolidate all of your booking confirmations into a single site yet — do it. TripIt can parse the details from most booking confirmation emails and automatically updates your travel calendar (which you can subscribe to using iCal). I setup a filter in Gmail to forward my confirmation emails to plans@tripit.com, which parses the message and updates your travel calendar.

And hopefully this goes without saying, but when traveling — particularly by air — dress respectable, be courteous, and don’t lose your temper. Things happen during travel — delayed flights, road construction, missed exits, engine fires — most of these are out of your control. The last thing you want to do is be an ass to a person already under pressure. Being polite can mean the difference between getting the last seat on the last flight and sleeping on the airport floor. Oh, and when at all possible, use your phone since there are more agents at the call center who can help get you on the right flight then there are at the airport helping the people in line.

After Arriving (the night before)

Do not let any friends, co-workers, acquaintances, or otherwise get you drunk because presenting with a hangover is just not cool. And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

Presenting (drum roll, please)

If you are presenting to a Microsoft-centric audience and you are using a Mac, make sure you have everything you need to peacefully coexist in a Windows world. You will get the inevitable comments about running a Mac, so the last thing you want is to fail due to hardware or software issue. To help you out, here are a few tips:

Almost every projector you come across will use an analog VGA (d-sub) connector, so be sure to keep a Mini DisplayPort to VGA (or DVI to VGA for older Macs) in your backpack. It doesn’t hurt to have a Mini DisplayPort to DVI as well in case you encounter a more modern project (although I’ve seen more HDMI than DVI projectors this past year — all of which also supported VGA). I also pack actual video cables as well in case you end up doing an ad-hoc session in your hotel room.

Many groups like to record or broadcast their sessions so that members unable to participate in person can view the presentation. To make things easy, be sure to have LiveMeeting already setup and tested on your machine. If you are on a Mac, this means converting your presentation from Keynote to either PowerPoint (using the free PowerPoint viewer if necessary) or Quicktime and presenting the slides from Windows. If you are not doing any Windows-based demos (like if you were giving an iPhone development talk), well, the remote folks are out of luck!

If your talk is less about code and more about practices or principles, use the presenter display from Keynote or Powerpoint on your laptop. This helps you keep track of time, review your slide notes, and preview the next slide (which helps you avoid talking ahead of your deck). On the other hand, with code focused sessions stick to a mirrored display in the native resolution of the projector.

When presenting code it is best to use a white background with black text. While the dark themes are great for large screen monitors, they look terrible on projectors with monospaced fonts. Many editors allow you to save and load settings, so build yourself a presentation mode settings file. With a set of high contrast colors (the default Visual Studio colors are a bit too hard to read at 25 feet) and a font size of 12-14 you’ll be all set to show your code to a large room. Font choice is another thing. While Consolas is my favorite, at larger font sizes it looks terrible – particularly in bold. Consider an alternate font for your presentation settings that looks good at a large font size.

When presenting with slides, a remote is a great way to get out from behind the podium. I like to present while standing in front of the screen, so I always pack my Apple remote. I tend to avoid the higher tech solutions such as the Keynote Remote app for the iPhone as they tend to just get in the way. If you need to use the remote to control PowerPoint, there are some utilities that will make that work as well.

Choose Your Own Adventure (n, n, open door, n, e, melt wizard)

Most of the time, your presentation is going to be perfect for the audience. Assuming that your session description was accurate and a level of learning was indicated you should be set. However, your audience might not be prepared for the material being covered. In these situations it is best to have an alternative path that your presentation can take, one that is more appropriate for a general audience. In some cases this might not be possible, but it can really make the difference between an engaged audience and a bunch of people cleaning out their inbox (because there is likely was too much caffeine in their blood to actually sleep).

Wrap It Up (I’ll take it)

I hope the tips I’ve shared with you here will be useful if you decide to step up to the podium. There are many other posts that talk about slide design, demo subject matter, travel tips, and more but the items above are some of the ones I’ve had to learn on my own (and thankfully not always the hard way — well except for one).

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About Chris Patterson

Chris is a senior architect for RelayHealth, the connectivity business of the nation's leading healthcare services company. There he is responsible for the architecture and development of applications and services that accelerate care delivery by connecting patients, providers, pharmacies, and financial institutions. Previously, he led the development of a new content delivery platform for TV Guide, enabling the launch of a new entertainment network seen on thousands of cable television systems. In his spare time, Chris is an active open-source developer and a primary contributor to MassTransit, a distributed application framework for .NET. In 2009, he was awarded the Most Valuable Professional award by Microsoft for his technical community contributions.
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  • http://www.kevgriffin.com Kevin Griffin

    Fantastic advice. Especially about having a power strip and extra cords. Never assume you’re going to have access to power or wireless. I’ve been to many events where you could only get internet through a wall, and only if you had your own cord.

    The power strip is great if you’re trying to chat and network with folks. They have to be around you, since you’re sharing power.

  • Marc

    Ssssssh, do not tell everyone about the cords. This will lower my market value ;-)