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Should You Volunteer for a Professional Conference

Posted by Kathleen Smith

When you volunteer for a conference or professional organization, whether you’re a part of management, fund-raising, giving a presentation, or even participating in a competition, you’re gaining valuable skills and network connections.

Very few professionals look at these activities from a career development perspective. Instead, many simply get involved because they like the people they are working with, but they soon recognize many other advantages to volunteering.

Cindy Jones, known as a conference registration expert, among many other accolades for her conference management skills, shares her background and path to becoming so well known in the community that it ultimately landed her a really great day job!

Cindy: I’m currently working as a principal security consultant with Rapid7 in addition to working with my local community and with the CyberPatriot program. I assist with a couple of other cons during the course of the year including DerbyCon and running registration for BSides Las Vegas. I have been volunteering at DEF CON for about eight years now, working with workshops. Prior to that, you might have seen me if you bought a T-shirt at DEF CON, as I worked in Swag about six years. Rapid7 is also active in the community. I do a lot of speaking engagements as part of my day job, but it’s pretty much on a volunteer basis. They said, “Who wants to do this?” and I raised my hand, because that’s what I do.

How do you engage employers in your volunteer efforts and communicate how much of your time BSides takes to participate in?

When I started BSides San Antonio I was working as a contractor for the DoD. For those of you who have done contract work for any large organization, you know your PTO is relatively limited. A lot of times you don’t get any at all, but I was fortunate enough to actually have PTO with each of those employers. I sat in the same chair for five years with six different leading organizations above me.

Every time a new organization would come in, I shared with them that there’s an event that I do each year and that the majority of my PTO is going to be used for it. I would further share that the event is directly related to my job, working as an information security officer and as a certifying authority for the Air Force. I shared with my employers that this event is very important to me. This is how I spend my time off. I dedicated about 20 hours a week leading up to the conference, and then there’s the actual conference itself. Luckily it’s on the weekend so I didn’t take time off work, but there is a lot of time invested nonetheless.

It’s important that I explain the extent to which I am involved with the conference. The amount of time that I put into these events is more than anyone would ever expect. I’m the sole supporter to get the conference running. One thing I do among many other things is chasing sponsors. Of course, I always ask my employer if they would like to sponsor, as I have an opportunity to promote their name.

I later moved to Rapid7 and have been really involved with the community since. The company is just about everywhere, and we tend to sponsor a lot of things. One of the reasons I was actually recruited for Rapid7 is because of my community involvement.

As for communicating my volunteerism with my current employer, they wanted me to be involved with the security community. They are very encouraging of all community involvement. They want me to promote the organization and a lot of times they pay for my travel.

How did you learn and grow the many skills it involves to be a conference organizer?

First, I’m a horrible delegator. When I said I ran BSides San Antonio solo it was because I didn’t have much experience delegating my first year. I learned so much and became much more skilled in that arena. I was able to talk to other volunteers and say, “If you want to take this on, yes, let me help you do this and here are the tools.” This is something that’s really been beneficial.

As far as managing a budget goes, I’m grateful to say that I don’t have to do that in my day job. But it is something that I had to be very concerned with for the conference. Many people don’t know what goes on behind the scenes of a BSides event—you’re working on a shoestring budget. Every penny you get is coming from sponsors and you’re just hoping to be able to cover the bills. I was very lucky that I never had to pull money out of my pocket, as I would always come in right at my budget. Your reputation is also on the line, because you’re the one running the conference.

So conference management did teach me a lot about how to best leverage money. It’s helped me keep things in mind in my day job when I see Rapid7 paying for me to travel to Nashville for instance or to go to DEF CON. It makes me appreciate my employer more.

If you’re an individual contributor and you’re interested in moving into conference management, ask yourself if you’re good at delegating, or seeing the big picture and also all of the details. If this is something you wish to pursue, volunteer at conferences and start seeing what goes on behind the scenes, because as Cindy says, each one of these conferences are put on by volunteers and not everyone has an MBA in management.

A critical aspect of volunteer management is leadership. Not everyone understands how to inspire volunteers. Many people think that volunteering and working in non-profits is so easy, but getting volunteers to do what they have to do, so that you have a successful conference can be quite a challenge. When managing volunteers, you’re not paying them and there is no demerit you can give them for not showing up.

So understanding what goes on behind the scenes of conferences is the first step when asking yourself, “Is this something I want to do?”

This entry was posted on Monday, January 07, 2019 2:38 pm

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