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Getting $WORK to pay for LISA

The LISA conference is an incredible value: six solid days of tutorials, workshops, presentations and new research, all in a vendor-neutral setting and with more than a thousand of your peers in attendance.  But I'll be straight with you: it's also a significant cost.  Travel, hotel, registration, time away from work - it all adds up.  Wouldn't it be great if you could get your employer to pay for the trip? After all, they're going to benefit from this investment too.

You'll never know unless you talk to your manager.  But like anything else, the better prepared you are, the more likely you are to get what you want. Your job is to translate the things you want - the technical training, the intellectual stimulation, the "I never knew you could do that!" moments - into things your manager wants: problems solved, on time and under budget, and maximum benefit to the team.  It can be a stretch to speak Manager instead of Geek, but a little preparation will pay off handsomely.

Let's start with unprepared.  I'll give you the quickest way to get a "no" from your boss.  Here goes:

"Boss, can you give me $CASH to go to a conference for a week? I'll learn ever so much, and there will be lots of things for me to do!"

"Sorry, there's no budget for it this year. Have you finished the outline for Project X yet? It's due Monday, and you know we're out of our depth here..."

What went wrong? Simple: you didn't say anything about how this will benefit your boss or your organization. It's okay to propose things that will benefit you - but you've got to think about how everyone else can win, too.

It's all about preparation

Line up your arguments in advance. Start thinking early about how a trip to LISA addresses the goals and problems of your boss and your org. For example:

  • We've been asked to cloudify the org's business stack next year.
  • We can't decided which identity management system will work for us.
  • My team is shorthanded, and we haven't been able to find the right candidate.

Now work backwards, and figure out how this conference is going to help:

  • I can take training on the tools we'll use to powerburst our synergy.(*)
  • I can consult with peers to find out which solutions work and which are snake oil.
  • I can do passive recruiting in the hallway track, or active recruiting by volunteering for the vendor booth.

Finally, translate this into terms your manager will respond to:

  • By getting training in advance, we'll save ourselves two weeks of fumbling around with a tool we haven't used before.
  • I'll gain a network of people who have used this tool, so that when we do run into problems we'll have someone to turn to.
  • The author of one of the tools we're considering is presenting at the conference.  I can ask questions, and maybe even ask about recruiting.

Budgeting: Your Secret Weapon

If you're in a position to prepare your own budget, or contribute to its planning, you're halfway there.  A budget is more than a shopping list; it reflects your plans and priorities for the next year. Of course, these still need to fit in with your org's goals - bu there's no reason you can't look for ways to align these with your own, too.

Will you be upgrading the web server next year, maybe switching to a load-balancer with a couple of spiffy backends? You'd put hardware and support into your budget - so add a line item for training as well. Or maybe you're looking to take on the team lead position you've been told is coming up. Sounds like this'd be a good time to learn those soft skills you've heard about - and start looking for your replacement. You see where this is going, right?

This approach definitely needs advance planning; it's unlikely you'll get to change the budget the day before registration ends. But that lead time also lets you prepare your justifications, schedule coverage while you're gone, and scout for other allies.

Allies? Oh, yes: you're not the only one who wants you to go to LISA.

Friends in high places

A funny thing happens when you start looking at LISA attendees: you begin to notice a lot of people who aren't sysadmins. Marketers, sales folk, executives, researchers, head-hunters, and managers have all been known to put in the not-so-occasional appearance. And why not? There are lots of opportunities for everyone - to tell the world about a new product, to hire for that position that's come up, or to find out what's around the corner.

So look around your org and think hard about who else might like to go:

  • Can your org present training on its product? Start talking to trainers and sales engineers, and see if the sponsored vendor track might be up their alley.
  • Walk up to the fine folks in Marketing and ask if the chance to talk to 1000+ potential customers appeals to them.
  • If your own department doesn't have the budget to send you, maybe there's another department in the same boat. Talk to them about cooperating - one person goes, takes lots of notes, and cross-trains the two departments when they get back. Next year, the other department sends someone. (Here's hoping you win the coin toss!)
  • Check around for professional development funds that could be used to send you.

Put it all together and what do you have? A plan of attack that's a lot more likely to work.

Take Two

Now that we've talked, give it another try.  Aaaaannnd....action!

"Boss, have you got a minute to talk? I'm concerned that the team is being asked to take on Project X without the skills we need to make it succeed."

"I've been thinking that too. What do you suggest?"

"Turns out there's a good place to get training for this - it's called the LISA Conference. They've got a day-long session on the tech we're evaluating, plus a lab for us to try things out."

"I'm gonna stop you there - we don't need training from the vendor, we need to know what we're getting into and whether it'll work."

"Way ahead of you, Boss - the conference is vendor-neutral. In fact, I hear the author of that open-source tool we were looking at is going to be presenting. Better than that, though? Turns out it's pretty well-attended - over a thousand sysadmins attend every year. That's a lot of people who've gone down this road before us."

"A thousand? That's interesting...I wonder if anyone there would be looking for work. -But our budget's tight, and I just don't think we can swing it. Maybe next year..."

"Funny you should mention that. I was talking to Trish on the Dev team about this, and she said they're worried about this project too. If you and her boss were to put some money together, maybe one of us could go and cross-train everyone when we're back. After that last outage, I think everyone knows we could use more training."

"You know, they still owe us a favour from that...Have you talked to Marketing about this?"

"They actually drooled."

"Really? All right, this is sounding pretty positive. Can you get a proposal on my desk by Monday?"

See? A little bit of preparation, a little bit of speaking Manager, and wonderful things can happen. High-fives all 'round - we'll see you at LISA14!

* WARNING: synergy powerburst training may be illegal in your jurisdiction. Consult your natural health practitioner.