Thursday, November 28, 2013

Chicago: You're the Inspiration

I spent the first week of November in Chicago, attending SIGUCCS 2013 conference—an annual gathering for academic IT support professionals who work in higher education. This was the seventh time that I attended. During past conferences, I eagerly absorbed useful wisdom and best practices of fellow attendees. But this year I went beyond the usual lessons learned. It was a week of emotional awakening—not just for myself, but for many others who were at the conference.

There seemed to be a heightened level of camaraderie amongst the attendees. Perhaps it was because many of us were repeat attendees and had forged professional relationships and friendships outside of the conference week. Maybe it was because conference-goers were very approachable, friendly, and eager to share both their success stories and war tales. But the primary source of these emotional and personal bonds was the stories that were told throughout the week.

The keynote speakers weaved compelling narratives. We were implored to question our traditional career trajectories and determine when to “fire ourselves.” We learned about telling the right stories by using facts, symbols, and emotions. We were told that boundaries between occupations are meaningless, and emphasis on design is essential.

The program sessions were equally powerful. Themes such as community, inclusion, trust, transparency, and empowerment were repeated and emphasized throughout the week. Colleagues and friends stressed the importance of making a new team member “feel like the most important person on her or his first day of work,” encouraged us to understand others by “assuming positive intent,” implored us to guide support conversations towards common ground instead of blaming others for their lack of knowledge, and showed us how motivated support staff can tackle real-world problems by being entrusted with skunkworks projects. There were lively discussions about questioning the expectations of career paths, making time in our busy lives to focus on things that matter, and allowing people to learn through failing. The engagement level seemed higher than in previous years.

I participated actively during the conference too. I shared the success stories which i observed at my work. I shared the triumphs and tribulations of incorporating my conference peers’ best practices in my daily activities. I brashly questioned the expectations of moving up the career ladder and seeking bigger paychecks. I questioned the dubious nature of certain types of work. I shared the experience of cultivating my passion project: promoting a culture of short presentations in the workplace.

A fellow participant (and a friend) led an engaging and emotional discussion session about the importance of technology in the grand scheme of what matters most to us. IT professionals are often at the mercy of the always-on, always-connected nature of our work and gadgets, but at end of the day, we all have loved ones, family, and friends who matter hell of a lot more than our work. We all have finite number of hours and days in our lives, and taking time to nurture our relationships matters more than time spent fixing technical problems. That point was not lost on me.

The conference incited critical self-examination about what I want in my professional life, and seriously questioned my preconceived notions for my career journey. When I returned home, I made a conscious decision to stop pursuing technical disciplines which didn’t fit in my core competencies. I started to fiercely defend my time. I learned to speak out more with conviction and not become intimidated by potential consequences. I continued the ongoing discussions about time management, storytelling, and workplace survival tips with my conference peers through social media groups and outlets. I started appreciating people in my life who nurture and support. I became comfortable saying “No” to requests which did not sustain my long-term goals, and "Yes” to those which tied in with my core competencies and strategic vision.

To an outsider, SIGUCCS conferences may seem like a technical conference for IT folks who happen to work at universities and colleges. But this year, the conference seemed more like a version of World Domination Summit: there were so many moments where I was emotionally uplifted and inspired. And the message of “you are not alone” was embraced during and after the gathering in the Windy City.

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