A Few Tips on How to Get the Most from a Reliability Conference
Next week is RAMS – the Reliability and Maintainability Symposium. A multitrack 3.5-day conference with classes, tutorials, paper sessions, a small trade show, plus many of you – peers, colleagues, and friends in the reliability world.
The conference is hosted by 9 professional societies and organized by a group of about 50 or so volunteers from those societies (I was an active member of the RAMS management committee for many years).
Learn more plan to attend this year or in the future. Visit RAMS.org for more information.
RAMS is a big conference. While not as big as some, it is still a large gathering of people which tends to overwhelm this introvert. I’ve learned to overcome my reluctance to meet people in large part due to my experience attending RAMS over the past 20 years.
If you’re heading to RAMS or have attended before, or another reliability conference, let’s share some hints and tips on getting the most from your investment of time and resources.
How to Determine the Value of a Conference?
Years ago I wanted to attend RAMS for the third time in as many years. My boss asked what value the company would receive by my attending a conference. My initial response included:
- more education
- It’s fun (morale booster….)
Which he agreed all more than likely would occur. Yet, being exposed to education and making networking connections are activities.
They do not in themselves lead to any value for the organization or company sending you to the conference. Nor do these activities in themselves help you as an individual.
You have to do something with the newly gained knowledge and connections.
Something has to change after the conference. Something has to make a difference. The hard part prior to attending is that is difficult to predict what will transpire or what you will take away and implement. It’s a bit vague really. Will that Bayesian statistics paper actually help you improve our data analysis accuracy, or will it be another academic study of little practical purpose for you?
Will the overall experience make you a better reliability engineer? Most likely, yet how do you determine the value?
And, don’t say that you’ll do a trip report and discuss a few interesting papers or presentations with your colleagues once you get back. (has that ever lead to the creation of value?)
Instead, take notes on the ideas and elements of information you pick up. Once back in your office, select a few ideas or procedures you heard about and implement them. Maybe it’s a different way to add confidence bounds on life data analysis, maybe it’s a modification of an FMEA template. Whatever it is – add a couple immediately to your list of to do’s and do them.
Experiment, explore, and continue your learning. Try as many ideas as you can as soon as possible. Discuss with your team what is working better (making a difference) or not.
Then document the difference the idea makes. If it saves your team an hour a week with an efficiency improvement in data analysis – then you and your team have an extra hour per week for other tasks. If the idea leads to an improved data analysis which reveals an upcoming and increasing field problem – which you can avert or minimize – how much did that change in analysis actually save? Document it.
So, that’s the process once you have ideas. It will provide a set of evidence showing the direct value of your attendance at a conference.
Gathering Ideas While at the Conference
The documenting of value after the conference relies on gathering ideas while at the conference. That is a different task and one that has many ways to occur.
Given RAMS is multi-tracked, I think 4 or 5 parallel sessions, it’s impossible to attend everything. So, grab the program and map out a plan. What looks interesting and relevant and sort out your schedule according.
Include a few that are outside your field (Markov Analysis – what is it and where is it useful?). Attend a paper or two on topics based in completely different industries – if you’re from a medical device company look for a military focused discussion, and vice versa.
We all are attempting to create a reliable solution with different and sometimes very similar constraints. How do others address
- limited sample sizes,
- vague customer requirement,
- new technology,
- post warranty field failure data collection.
Someone at the conference either has solved those issues or given it a lot of thought.
Talk to People
The conference has plenty of time to socialize or network. Do so. Introduce yourself, ask questions, compare challenges, and share what you know.
For about a third of the attendees, this RAMS is their first time. They are there like you to learn, network and enjoy the conference. I am still in touch with a few folks that I met at my first RAMS. They have become friends over the years as we continued to talk shop and support each other’s work.
A great way to break the ice is to present a paper – if not already in the program, plan to be next year. Presenting has the advantage of letting others know about you and at least one topic you know something about. It lowers the barrier to introductions as they have seen you on the program and may have heard your talk.
In a similar manner, approach speakers after their talk and ask follow up questions or just introduce yourself. It a start of a conversation and you may learn a bit more and make a friend (building your network).
All along the way, write down any idea that occurs that you may explore when back at work- whatever could help make a difference, large or small ideas. I find that nearly any talk can generate a dozen or more ideas – not all worth exploring, yet all ideas that may lead to improvement.
Note where the idea came from – who was presenting, what topics, what procedures or tools. Get a business card or contact information if possible. Ask if it would be alright to follow up after the conference to discuss the idea.
After the Conference
There are really two tasks you should accomplish the week after the conference. First, as mentioned above – sort out the many ideas and start work to implement a few. Second, follow up with all the contacts you made.
The value of attending the conference comes from what you do differently based on what you learned while at the conference. That takes a bit of work to master the new tool, to practice a new technique, to implement a new analysis.
Just going back to your normal routine guarantees little to no value out of the conference.
Networking – that also takes work. Touch base, say thanks for the conversation. Ask one another questions or offer to answer questions. I find that the follow-up contact helps to cement the relationship as more than just a brief conversation with a stranger. Instead, it helps to move the relationship into a friendly peer connection.
Sure, you’ll not be able to share or discuss trade secrets or company confidential information, yet we all face problems with capacitors, best practices for failure analysis, and interpreting plots of time to failure data. We often do very similar work – different products and markets, yet same challenges.
When I sat down to draft this article it was to be a short piece, and with some editing might be so. Yet, there is a lot about live, in-person conferences I truly enjoy and some I dread.
For the trouble of business travel, being away from home for a week, and the joy of hotel conference room chairs, it’s worth it. The information shared has immense value, if you use it. And the connections (friendships) may last a lifetime.
See you at RAMS.
Also published on Medium.