Taking notes at LISA

You've finally made it: you're sitting in a room at LISA, waiting for that awesome tutorial to start.  Or it's the workshop of your dreams -- you can't believe there are so many people interested in talking about that thing! Or it's the keynote: just you, a thousand of your closest friends, and one of your heroes about to drop wisdom from the stage.

I have bad news for you: you're not gonna remember any of it.

...Okay, that's not entirely true.  You'll remember the thrill of recognition at hearing your problems described; the gasps from the people around you as a solution was given; the wetness of your tears as you realize how much time this will save you.  But the thing? The important thing?  Gone in an hour.  Two, tops.  Unless you master the art of taking notes.

Notes?  Yeah, notes.  It's a funny thing, but the human brain turns out to be not so much like a hard drive you can endlessly stream data to; instead, it's more like a ring buffer, where new stuff overwrites old.  And if you spend a week at LISA, that buffer will be overwritten many, many times.  By the end of it, you'll no longer remember all those great insights, or the names of people who can help you, or the repo for that new project that will (at last!) bring Unicorns and Nagios and Kittens together in Hubot.  There is a lot going on, and if you don't take time to record it you'll lose it.

All right, you're convinced -- so what's the best way to do this?  Personally, I love a composition book and multiple redundant pens.  I write more quickly than I type; I'm not tempted to open IRC/Twitter/work mail/LOLcats; I don't have to worry about formatting, the state of the battery or how to draw a quick diagram.  It's simple, and it Just Works.

The downside, of course, is that it is harder to grep paper.  So if you'll give up your keyboard when it's pried from your cold, dead fingers...well, stay simple, and stick with what you're familiar with -- this isn't the time to audition that brand new cloudified -mapping software written in Erlang and Flash. Your $EDITOR is unlikely to crash on you, and local storage means you don't have to worry about conference wireless.

So now what?  Start writing (or typing)!  Capture the highlights and the things that'll prompt memories later on.  If there's anything that makes you think "I gotta look that up!", put a star beside and move on -- you can search for that later.  Don't just record the training, either; notes during hallway track conversations or late-night BoFs can be just as handy.  And a quickly scribbled note during a presentation can help you sound coherent when you're up at the mic afterward, asking the presenter a question. 

So now that you've got a composition book (or ASCII file) with your notes, you're ready, right? Wrong. The notes are your level two cache -- it's good to keep it around for a while, but it's messy and all over the place.  Take a bit of time at the end of the day to whip them into shape.  Summarize what you've learned, and make it coherent.  (If you're working from paper, this is an excellent time to transcribe it to your laptop.)  Keep in mind that you can always ask other attendees, via IRC or Twitter/Facebook/Google+, about their impressions -- they may have latched on to different things than you did.  The summary doesn't have to be Shakespeare, but take the time to make sure it's coherent and has all the bits you want to remember.  It will form the basis for the next step.

Now that you're back from the conference, what next? Schedule some time with your manager and go over them together.  If $WORK was paying for your trip, you'll want to show it was worth it -- and even if you were just given the time to go, the boss will want to know what you got out of it.  Ask in advance if you should prepare a short summary, and what the format should be.  Be prepared to make suggestions:  tools to evaluate, new approaches to old problems, maybe even potential candidates to recruit.  This can be an excellent time to recommend new projects; things are fresh in your mind, and you're full of enthusiasm after a week away.

If you've offered to cross-train your teammates, your notes will help you out here, too.  You don't need to go through every single thing, but be prepared to hit the highlights and expand on things you're asked about.  Your teammates will want a technical view -- give 'em the details, and let 'em know how these things will help.  If there's a tool you're really excited about, ask if you should make a longer presentation or give a demo.

And after that part's done...print out a copy, or attach it to the wiki, and save it.  Make an appointment with yourself for eight or nine months out to review your notes.  What came out of attending LISA? Did that tool work out? A request for $WORK to pay for next year's attendance will be a lot more convincing if you can refer to all the benefits you got from last year's attendance.

LISA is a great conference.  You'll come out of it full of new knowledge, new tools to try, and fresh insights into problems. But if you're not careful, it'll all be overwritten by the next new thing you come across.  The simple act of taking notes will help you hold on to that hard-won knowledge, both immediately after the conference and in the long run, and will be a valuable reference.  And best of all, you'll know where to find that wonderful project that brought Unicorns, Kittens, Nagios and Hubot together to live in peace.