Thursday, October 7, 2010

Icebreakers for a Multinational Technology Conference

Posted on behalf of conference attendee Ben Payne

I'm not sure if it is because I'm a stereotypical Physics student, but I always find starting conversations at conferences difficult. However, at this meeting I have it somewhat easier compared to a general Physics convention because the main body is composed of other graduate and post doc people working in the field of High Performance Computing (HPC). With that in mind, I worked out a common set of conversation starters. These may be useful if you have difficulty figuring out what to say. Conversations are important because they are practically the main purpose of a conference: real time, face-to-face interaction with other people working on the same issue as you. In contrast, I spend most of my day sitting at my computer where I "interact" by reading papers and email.

The following questions are ranked from "introductory" to after you have established some contact.

1) What is your name?
Although the person is wearing a name tag, this is sometimes difficult to read. Also, it allow you to get the pronunciation correct and probably determine what language they natively speak. It is also non-invasive and allows the person to respond with an easy answer.

2) Where do you work?
Opens a new conversational direction on geography and culture.

3) What do you work on?
See if their work is related to yours. Can you pick out the cool ideas they are tackling? Why are they excited about their work?

3) How far along are you?
This indicates what level of knowledge they should have on the project. This leads to number 5

4) What technology do you use?
Are they following best practices? Version control, nightly builds, automated testing. What language do they use (Fortran, C, matlab) and what is their opinion on languages?

5) What will you do after you graduate?
What do they want to work on?

6) What do you do outside of research?
(Hobbies, shared interests.) See also number 7

7) What do you want to do after the conference today?
While in Sicily, I have been SCUBA diving every day with other people from the conference.

8) What did you learn from the previous talk?
They may be able to point out an unexpected gem you missed.

To summarize, get over your initial fear and talk to others. That is the main point of any conference! After you break the ice, it is easy to listen, as the other person is usually waiting for someone else to start the conversation.

Also, don't be afraid to initiate non-conference activities with other participants (as long as the scheduling is appropriate). Remember to have fun and smile.

Disclosure: I am attending the conference hosted by Teragrid and DEISA. The trip, accommodations, and meals are paid for by the hosts. Although I will try to maintain an unbiased opinion, keep these facts in mind. In addition to the monetary aspect, the food has been excellent at every meal and snack. Sea food for most meals, pastries at the snack time. Also, the view is excellent. Pictures will be posted later.

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