Why presenting at conferences can be good & I’m not a moron

My friend demanded.

“Are you crazy?”

(Only your real friends feel free to begin conversations this way.)

“Why in the HELL are you doing five presentations at that conference? For free!  Can you even tell me how many presentations you’ve done in your life? No, you can’t, can you? It’s not like it’s going to make any difference if you did 217 instead of 212. You have a project you’re working on for one client and you better HOPE you don’t get that other contract under review because you’re going to be gone next week. …”

Well, you get the idea. My friend and I work together and as I am one of the principal people bringing in business, he is understandably concerned about the bottom line. Since we are friends and he’s a smart guy, I considered his position (which simply stated, is that I am  moron to give away work for free) and came to the conclusion that he is wrong. Here’s why:

Two of the presentations are co-authored with people who are much younger than me (that constituting the majority of humanity). They are both really smart and would not have submitted a proposal on their own. Now that they have one under their belt, having been pushed in that direction, and seen they are perfectly capable, next time they are much more likely to write a presentation on their own. It’s the kind of prodding and encouragement I received in my career and it’s only right to return the favor.

The other three papers were invited as part of a SAS Essentials section of the Western Users of SAS Software conference.

I remember the first SAS conference I went to – SUGI 10 in Reno, NV. It must have been about 25 years ago. Everyone seemed so much smarter than me. I was very happy when I found some sessions on topics like PROC REPORT that actually were not over my head. Partly, I wanted to offer something that was accessible to people like I was back then. There’s also the fact that more than half of the time I attend conferences these days, I don’t present. I don’t have to present to get my expenses paid. Any time I spend working on a presentation is taking away from hours billable to clients.

While some people go to conferences to travel, I’ve traveled so much I could tell you which terminal at LAX damn near every airline flies out of and the earliest and latest flights to get to the Midwest and east coast. I’m not looking for a job (another reason to attend) and most of our work comes through grants and contracts – not people I met at conferences. I go for one reason – to learn stuff. Conferences are a great chance to learn from really smart people. If I can, I’ll take a course before or after the conference, sometimes both. I’ll attend several sessions each day, check out the posters and talk to the exhibitors. In short, when it comes to knowledge, often, I don’t give, I just take.  Having been raised with the necessary dosage of Catholic guilt, I felt bad about that and started presenting again.

Here’s the funny thing that happened

…. Writing those presentations made me think about how I solve problems – and make no mistake about it, programming is far more about solving problems than typing words in some computer language. When I need to teach new people – whether in my company or teaching graduate students – I’ll be better at it next time.

… There’s so much to SAS, to statistics, that it’s impossible for everything to be in the forefront of my brain. Writing these papers has given me a chance to get back into the detail of a broader range of procedures and options than I would have encountered in my daily work.

Tip to young people …

When old people say to you that they have forgotten more programming than you’ll ever know, they mean that literally, they’ve forgotten it!

Ever since  I graduated from college, I have taken a ‘reverse sabbatical’ every ten years and gone back to a university for a doctorate, a post-doctoral mid-career fellowship and a consulting position. The up side of this is the opportunity to work with the latest technology, to delve deeply into a question. The downside is that, compared to the corporate sector, university salaries *blow*. I used to think that they hated me and then when I looked at switching positions I was astounded to find that other people were paid less!

The huge benefit of being at a university, of course, is that you get to associate with brilliant people, work with the latest technology and explore interesting problems. Of course, working on all of these papers has allowed me to do all of that – and, I didn’t have to quit my day job.

Ergo…  I am not a moron after all.

See you at WUSS in San Diego !

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