It’s great to get out of the office and go to a conference, learn new stuff and blow the cobwebs away. And it’s even better to do it with a friend.

About two or three times a year, I get the opportunity to attend a professional conference or convention. I’m not talking about those events that my company produces (like AnDevCon, coming on March 7–9), or those which I cover as a journalist. Rather, I mean conferences where I’m an attendee—taking the classes and workshops, schmoozing with the faculty, grabbing a drink with friends, relaxing at an after-hours party, going to bed too late at night, and picking it up too early the next morning.

If the conference or convention doesn’t suck, I come back refreshed—and with lots of notes from sessions and conversations that result in thoughtful analysis, meetings and action items. Because of my role as the “Z” of BZ Media, often what I learn at professional conferences (both formally and informally) impacts the direction of our company, both at the tactical and strategic level.

Want an example? My work at BZ Media straddles the twin worlds of software development (we publish SD Times, and most of our readers are enterprise software developers) and media. After all, we’re a magazine/website publisher and event producer, and the fundamentals of publishing and conference management are what we live with every day.

So, while I learn about trends in the subject matter we cover at events like Microsoft TechEd, Apple WWDC or Google I/O, I learn about trends in the publishing industry at events like the excellent Niche Magazine Conference, which was held Feb. 14–15 in Austin, Texas. (In fact, I taught a class there, and also moderated a roundtable on mobile devices like phones and tablets.)

What’s cool at the Niche Magazine Conference (and others like it) is comparing and contrasting what we do at SD Times with, say, a monthly magazine for home aquarium enthusiasts. Or a quarterly journal about expensive pens and handcrafted writing paper. Or the regional business magazine for Bozeman, Montana. Or a healthcare professional’s magazine.

We have much in common, SD Times and Cheese Market News, the weekly newspaper of the nation’s cheese and dairy/deli business. Not the content, of course, or the specific advertisers that support the magazine, but just about everything else.

But what was missing is that this year, I attended the Niche Magazine Conference by myself. That’s fine; I met lots of people, and took lots of notes. But last time I attended, it was with a colleague. The result was exponentially more learning and better action items.

When you go to a conference with someone, sometimes you both attend the same parts, like a keynote or a general session. Magic happens when you get together at a quiet minute to compare notes. “You heard that?” “That’s not how I interpreted that data.” “How can we use this?” “What do we do next?” “Got it!”

Of course, you mustn’t always stick together. Whenever possible, divide and conquer. Breakouts mean breaking up, so you can cover twice the subject matter, and then get together later to compare notes. It’s astonishing how much more knowledge appears when you explain the high points of a class to a colleague, or even a room full of colleagues.

(In social events, like parties or meals, resist the temptation to hang out together. That’s a value-subtractor, not a value-adder. You’ve got to split up and talk to new people. That’s the whole point.)

Pair conferencing: going to a conference or convention with a colleague and sharing experiences. It’s much more than twice as good as going yourself. If you’re getting out of the office, go with a friend.

Alan Zeichick is editorial director of SD Times. Read his blog at