Cisco Live Survival Guide

On the heels of my 7th Cisco Live US experience, I am finally getting around to writing a list of tips for newcomers to the event.  Cisco Live is what you make of it.  If you properly prepare, it can be the most valuable training you will ever receive.  The event can be quite a daunting experience the first time around, so I’ll offer some advice that may help make it less intimidating.

Scheduling Cisco Live

  • Book the event as early as you can.  There are “early bird specials” and other levels of discounts for early booking.  In general, the later you book, the more you will pay and the less desirable your hotel and available sessions will be.  The good hotels fill up very quickly, and the cost is usually similar for all of the hotels.
  • Book one of the official Cisco Live hotels that is on the shuttle route.  The importance of this varies, depending on which city is hosting the event, but you will want to take the weather and public transportation into account when making this decision.  I’ve been to Cisco Live in San Diego, Las Vegas, Orlando and San Francisco.  In Orlando, the shuttle is essential, because of the humidity and propensity for rain in the afternoon.  In San Diego, some attendees will walk over a mile to the event each day, because the weather is generally very nice.  Regardless, you will want to consider booking one of the hotels on the shuttle route, in case you need it for some reason.
  • Schedule your sessions as early as possible.  Scheduling usually opens up 6-8 weeks prior to the event, and you should receive an email when it is available.  However, if you have any kind of spam filter in place, it will almost certainly get blocked.  You may want to whitelist ciscolive@ciscoliveevents.com to improve your chances of seeing it.  There have definitely been years when I missed the email.  The most desirable sessions will fill up very quickly (in a matter of days).  If Cisco is launching a new architecture, or major new product line, you can bet that all sessions related to that topic will fill up quickly.  If there is a full session that you really want to see, there is still a chance you can get in.  Sometimes there is a wait-list, and other times you can just wait outside the session and they will let you in if there is room.  This varies at each conference center, because of fire marshal laws, etc.  In some cities, you are allowed to stand in the back of the sessions, and in others you are not.  Your success will vary, which is why it’s so important to schedule your sessions early.
  • If you are attending at least your 4th Cisco Live in 5 years, you are considered a “Netvet.”  This comes with some benefits, including access to the Netvet lounge, which has significantly better snacks and drinks than are available in the rest of Cisco Live.  The most important benefit of being a Netvet is getting access to the session scheduler one week before the regular attendees.  This pretty much assures that you’ll be able to get in to the sessions you want to.  Netvets are usually designated with a red lanyard at the event, and you’ll receive a “Netvet” flag for your badge once you visit the lounge for the first time.  If you think you should be a Netvet, make sure you are designated as such when you register for the event.  Several times, I have had to call or email support to “prove” my eligibility for Netvet status, even though I was a Netvet the previous year.  I don’t know how this gets messed up so often, but if you don’t pay particular attention to it, you may not gain access to the early scheduling.
  • Pay attention to who is presenting, when you are scheduling your sessions.  Depending on your familiarity with Cisco, you may already be aware of some of the presenters.  If not, it helps to look for Distinguished Engineers and Principal Engineers.  They are typically more seasoned presenters, and may also be more familiar with the material.  That’s not to say that presenters without those titles are not worth seeing.  However, if you have a scheduling conflict (and you will) between two sessions, and one is being presented by a Distinguished Engineer, you may want to consider prioritizing that one.
  • Pay attention to the technical level of the sessions you are scheduling.  The “ID” for each session has a very specific meaning.
    • The first three characters define the type of session:
      • BRK: Technical Breakout Session
      • PNL: Panel of presenters
      • GEN: General session, usually keynotes
      • TEC: Techtorial.  These are usually 2, 4 or 8 hour deep-dive sessions on Sunday that have an additional cost, beyond the full conference pass.
    • The next three characters usually define the technology:
      • EWN: Enterprise Wireless Networking
      • RST: Routing and Switching
      • SEC: Security
      • etc.
    • The last 4 digits of the session ID are unique to each session.  However, the first of those digits signifies the technical “depth” of the session.
      • 1xxx: Light technical depth, usually more of an overview of the topic.
      • 2xxx: Medium technical depth.  Most of the technical breakout sessions are considered 2000-level classes
      • 3xxx: Deep technical depth.  These are intended for engineers that already have a deep understanding of the technology, and want to get “in the weeds” on this topic.
      • I should also mention that most of the sessions do not have any prerequisites.  There is nothing preventing you from booking a 3000-level class for a topic you’ve never heard of.  Just don’t expect the presenter to start off with a high-level overview of the topic at the beginning of a 3000 series session.

Prepare your gear – What should I bring to Cisco Live?

  • You will want to bring as little as possible with you to Cisco Live.  That said, there are a few essential items that you will want to have with you:
    • A device for note taking.  This should be something light weight, with good battery life, and a good keyboard.  I’ve settled on an iPad Pro with a Logitech keyboard.  If your laptop lasts 8+ hours of run time, and is lightweight, you may be able to get away with it.  You probably won’t want to use a touch keyboard, and you definitely don’t want something with a battery life of less than 6 hours.  While some of the sessions may have power available for charging, you can’t count on it.  I’ve seen folks take notes with a pen and paper, but I personally cannot write fast enough to keep up with the content.
    • A USB charging battery pack.  Because of the scarcity of power, and the back-to-back nature of the schedule, you will probably want something to charge your phone or tablet at one point throughout Cisco Live.  I’d recommend something with at least twice the capacity of the battery in your phone.  I’ve settled on a 10,000mAh charging pack that supports quick charging for my devices.
    • Advil/Motrin/Excedrin/Tylenol.  There is nothing worse than trying to focus on a presenter when your head is killing you.  If you’re anything like me, you can get a headache at any time and for no reason at all.  You’ll want something to help take care of a headache and any other body aches you may acquire as a result of all of the walking involved in a conference this size.
    • A bottle of water, or drink of your choice.  Sometimes it can be hard to find something to drink between sessions, and other times it will be impossible to avoid the drink/snack stations.  It all depends on which facility is hosting the event, and which room your session is in.
  • Even though you will be provided with a Cisco Live backpack with a full conference pass, you should consider bringing a backpack of your own.  There are a couple reasons for this:
    • There will be 25,000+ other people with the same backpack that is handed out at the event.  It can be very easy to lose track of your backpack when you set it down in a common area, such as lunch or in one of the sessions.
    • You are going to want the lightest backpack you can get away with, for the gear you are intending to carry.  It is not uncommon for attendees to walk 5+ miles in a single day.  Even a few ounces of weight can make a pretty big difference over that amount of steps.  If you’re a network engineer, definitely do not bring your daily backpack with you.  If you do, make sure to strip out all of the cables and gadgets that you use on a daily basis.  You won’t need them here.
    • The style and quality of the Cisco Live backpack varies from year to year, and may not be something that works for you.
  • Bring a device to track your steps.  This could be your phone, a fitbit, or a pedometer.  It’s obviously not a requirement, but it is fun to see how far you walked at the end of each day.  Many times there are contests at the event, to see who walked the most.
  • Leave extra room in your suitcase for swag.  The World of Solutions is the vendor area of the show.  Many vendors have giveaways or handouts, and you will undoubtedly collect some of them.  You don’t want to pack your back to capacity as you leave home, because you’re going to have extra items when you return.  You’ll also want to pay attention to the weight of your bag, and make sure it doesn’t exceed the free bag limit for the airline you are traveling on.  One year, Cisco was giving away small luggage scales in their area of the World of Solutions, and I usually bring this with me.

Prepare your body

  • Wear the most comfortable shoes you own.  You will be doing a lot of walking during this event, and the last thing you want is for your feet to get torn up on the first day of the show.  This choice might be the most important choice you make for the entire trip.  Even if you feel the need to “dress up” for part of the event (you probably don’t need to), it’s still usually acceptable to wear gym shoes.
  • Attire is a bit of a mixed bag at these events.  You’ll see people in full suits (sometimes with gym shoes), and you’ll see people in shorts with a t-shirt and flip flops.  If you aren’t planning on meeting with any customers, partners or Cisco execs, wear whatever makes you comfortable.  That said, it may make sense to try to get as close to business casual as you can, in case you find yourself in a situation where you may otherwise feel under-dressed, such as a surprise meeting with the Cisco Business Unit.  In some instances, this can almost be thought of as a matter of survival, though.  You don’t want to be caught wearing long sleeves and jeans in Las Vegas or Orlando if you can help it.  Also, the conference centers are usually on the cold side.  I usually wear jeans and a polo, or shorts and a polo, depending on the weather.
  • There are many evening parties and events throughout the week.  If you’re serious about learning as much as you can during the event, you will want to do everything possible to make sure you don’t feel like crap the following day.  Sitting through the technical breakout sessions while exhausted, or with a hangover, is really difficult.  If you’re less serious about the sessions, you can have a hell of a good time at some of these parties.

During Cisco Live

  • As you take notes for your sessions, be sure to write down the Session ID for that session.  This makes it a lot easier to reference the slides later on.  The slides are always available for each session, but sometimes they aren’t available at the time of the session.  You may have to download them a day or two later.  Take notes on what you thought of each session/presenter, and use it for your session surveys.
  • Sometimes you will be in a session and realize you aren’t getting anything out of it.  Maybe the description was inaccurate, or maybe the content is over your head.  Regardless of the reason, you should understand that it’s okay to get up in the middle of a session and leave.  Find another session that may be a better fit for you, or watch a replay of one of the keynotes on the many TVs throughout the conference.  It may seem disrespectful to get up in the middle of the session, but the presenters understand that the content may not be right for everyone.  Just try to leave quietly, without rustling all of your belongings, and keep the door from slamming as you leave.
  • Fill out your session surveys.  The presenters appreciate the feedback, and they are also rated on the results.  I usually fill out the survey for my previous class while seated and waiting for my next class to start.  Also, use these notes for scheduling next year.  It’s helpful to be able to see if you liked a particular presenter, or had trouble understanding them, etc.  At the very least, write down your favorite presenters, so that you can sit in their sessions again next year.  Aaron Woland, Dave Zacks, Simone Arena, Fred Niehaus, Jim Florwick, and Jerome Henry are some of my favorite presenters.
  • Use the official mobile app to navigate your schedule.  At the time this was written, the app is called “Cisco Events,” and has been called that for many years.  The reason I recommend you use the app to navigate your schedule is because things can change during the event.  A session may be moved to another room, or a start time may change.  If you export your schedule to your personal calendar prior to the event, you will be unaware of any of these changes, and it very well may burn you.  The app is not perfect, but there is no better way to keep up with these changes.
  • Even if you are not a Twitter person, it is worth it to create an account just for this event.  Follow @CiscoLive, and monitor the hashtag for the Cisco Live you’re attending (this is usually #CLUS in the US).  Cisco has what seems like an army of people monitoring their twitter feed, and there is no better/faster way to get information throughout the event.  If you can’t find something, or if there is a problem, tweet it to @CiscoLive, and you’ll get a response within minutes.  Monitoring the hashtag will allow you to keep up with others’ experiences throughout the show, and you’ll probably see something that interests you enough to change your plans.
  • Spend time in the World of Solutions talking to vendors you are unfamiliar with.  You might be surprised what you’ll learn.  I’ve made some very long-standing relationships with companies that I met for the first time in the World of Solutions.
  • Speak with presenters before or after the sessions, especially if you are particularly interested in the topic.  The speakers love to hear from people that are using the product(s) they’re talking about, and many times they will go more in-depth on a portion of the topic if they know someone in the room has a particular interest.
  • If you don’t get free food/drinks at least one of the nights you’re at Cisco Live, you probably aren’t trying hard enough.  Check with the vendors you work with, and see if they are hosting an event during the week.
  • If you have any Cisco certifications, visit the Certifications Lounge in the World of Solutions.  Here you will find some slightly upscale snacks/drinks, and usually some giveaways.  For the CCIEs, there is always a unique gift each year, and there is a specific entrance for the CCIEs that allows you to cut the line at the door.
  • If you are a CCIE or CCDE and a Netvet, there are some additional benefits.  CCIE+Netvets have a private event with Chuck Robbins and the executive team.  Sometimes this is a luncheon, and other times it is a happy hour, probably depending on Chuck’s availability.  This is an awesome experience where you can voice your opinion on anything you feel strongly about, and hear the opinions of others in the group.  There are usually <300 people with this status at Cisco Live US, so it is a very intimate group of folks, and allows you to see the executives in a much more relaxed setting.
  • For the CCIEs (Netvet not required) attending Cisco Live, there is a party during the week (usually Tuesday night) that you’ll be invited to.  The “quality” of this party varies from year to year, but you usually won’t want to miss it.  Some past venues include the deck of the USS Midway aircraft carrier, and the beach in front of the Hotel Del Coronado.  Although the level of “awe factor” (food/drink/venue) has gone down slightly in the last few years, I expect that these parties will continue to be worth attending.  Each CCIE is allowed to bring only 1 guest, so you’ll be in a room at least half-filled with CCIEs, which is a pretty unique experience in itself.

I’ll be editing this over time, as I think of more tips.  Feel free to send me a message if you have other tips that I did not mention here!

 

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