March 4, 2014

CSUN For Newbies

The Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference (aka CSUN) is just around the corner. CSUN is an investment and planning for success will maximize that investment – arrive with a plan of what you want to learn and take away from CSUN. As you plan your week, consider the following tips I’ve collected from years past.

2017 Update

While CSUN is an intense 3+ days of knowledge learning and sharing, there is also a fun social aspect to it that adds to the over-all experience. Three activities in particular that are sponsored by my employer (Deque Systems) that are open to all, and free to attend:

See you there!

Choosing CSUN Sessions

If you haven’t already started thinking about which sessions you want to attend, get cracking!

At any given hour of CSUN, there are upwards of 20 different sessions running. Multiply that by 7 session slots a day, times 3 days, then add in vendor sessions at their respective suites, and there is a ton of offerings to contemplate. It usually takes me at least a couple of hours to plan my agenda, and I’ve been doing it for years. Allow yourself some time, to do it right, but do be prepared.


Go to Sessions Outside Your Expertise:
CSUN offers a wide range of programming including specific sessions related to Blindness/Low Vision, Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and Cognitive Disabilities, as well as topics such as Emerging Assistive Technologies, Legal Issues, and of course Web Accessibility. This wide range of programming means that you can (and should) explore topics that you know nothing about. If you only go to sessions that cover content you are already familiar with, then you will miss out on the opportunities to expand your brain or your network.

If a session is really important to you, show up early:
Some speakers and sessions will attract a large group (Lainey Feingold’s Legal landscape updates are always a full house), and seating is first-come, first-served. Arriving late will always ensure you have a lousy seat (sometimes the floor), and in some instances you may even be turned away. If you really want to see/hear a particular session, get there early.

Work + Play = FAIL:
Try and avoid bringing your daily work with you to CSUN. Yes, CSUN is likely work-related, but make the distinction: this is also three+ days of professional development, not a bunch of sessions jammed in between all of your other daily work activities. CSUN should be an energizing and creative time for you, not 3 days full of work-stress – it will still be there waiting for you on Monday.

Make time to visit the Vendor booths:
Plan at least 90 minutes / 2 hours for visiting the Vendor booths. Not only do the vendors support CSUN financially, there is a slew of fun swag and interesting information free for the taking. Plus, it gives you a chance to see emergent technologies and software, and is a great place to make some great networking conncetions.

Make a Google calendar of the Sessions you want to attend:
I find that making a Google calendar of the sessions I want to attend has a huge value: not only can I share it with friends and colleagues, but it is also the simplest way of keeping it handy on my mobile (Android FTW) – I set up a full calendar widget and it’s as easy as glancing on my cell phone to know where I am going.

Network, Network, Network

To maximize your CSUN experience, don’t be shy to talk to people. There aren’t a lot of hierarchies, gate-keepers, or egos at CSUN that prevent you from reaching key contacts. Step outside your comfort zone if necessary, and just do it. I’m not a shy person so this isn’t a problem with me, but I’ve met several people who were nervous or downright afraid to talk to someone they liked or admired online. Suck it up and take the risk, you are with your people now – we are inclusive to a fault.

As my friend Sandi Wassmer wrote:

There were so many people that I wanted to meet and, just like at SXSW, there were friends old and new. But this was different. Everyone was included. There were no green rooms and no delineation between speakers and attendees. It was just one big, happy, warm and welcoming family. The presentations and panels were awesome. I never felt like folk were pimping their wares. The only things being promoted were ideas, knowledge, views, ideals and human values and they were all free of charge.

As always, the hallway discussions made the expensive coffee worth it. Quality propinquity acquired. Acquaintances -> friends. #csun2013

Remember, hanging with friends and colleagues may be comfortable and easy, but don’t spend all your time with the people you already know. Break away from your circle to form new connections that will lead to new friendships, new brainstorms, and new opportunities.


Write on business cards:
People will give you business cards for a million reasons. If it is someone you want to connect with later, write down why on their card right then and there. Otherwise you will come back with a wad of cards the size of a baseball and be unable to remember who you want to follow-up with and why. And remember to bring a really big stack of your own cards with you – you can always return home with extras, but you won’t have access to extras during CSUN if they are sitting on your desk back home.

Follow up after CSUN:
Make a good connection during the event? Remember to follow up with this person after CSUN is over. It’s all about networking, and networking is a non-stop process.

Pack a few up-to-date resumés:
This may not apply to all, but it never hurts to have a copy or 3 (or access to) your updated resumé. For example, last year we added at least one resource to our team based upon discussions that started at CSUN, and if you are looking for a change and have the chops, I would be happy to forward your details to my management. (And yes, that is a hint.)

Pace yourself – Accept that it’s just not possible to do everything. Choose quality versus quantity!

This one is self explanatory. Look, at any given hour during the 3 days of CSUN there will always be at least 2 sessions you wished you were at. Plus, the days start early and finish late; there is no break unless you make one. Figure out which sessions are crucial, which are good to attend, and which are “interesting”, and be prepared to adjust on the fly.


Surrender to Serendipity!
Although it is critical to have a game plan, I also recommend abandoning that plan the moment serendipity strikes – which usually happens multiple times throughout the week! If you find yourself sitting next to an amazing new connection, then don’t cut short your fascinating conversation with this person in favor of the next item on your calendar. Go with the flow and see where it takes you!

Be prepared to leave the conference center for meals:
There is a number of eating choices all within walking distance of the hotel, and most days there are multiple ad-hoc groups of people who decide to go for a bite to eat together. Unless the session immediately after lunch is a critical one for you, go out for lunch. Trust me, it will be worth it!

What to Bring to CSUN

Real time weather for San Diego

I’m a guy, and I generally travel light anyway, so ladies, your mileage may vary here.

The weather in San Diego in March is usually pretty good during the day, but it can get cool in the evenings, so be sure to bring a light jacket or sweater.

Dress is business-casual to casual: men wear sports shirts to T-shirts, women tend to stay in slacks and tops to jeans and t-shirts. It tends to be all very casual. (Except of course for Mike Paciello, who will be in suit and tie the entire week. I keep threatening to bring my scissors to address that tie…)

John and Mike at CSUN. John is holding scissors, and Mike's tie has been lopped off

Update: true to my word, we fixed Mike’s tie in 2014

That said, traveling light is the way to go during the day: avoid big bags, and carry only what you really need.


Wear comfortable shoes:
“Back in the day” CSUN was spread over multiple hotels clustered around LAX, which involved a lot of walking then. The move to San Diego and the Manchester Grand Hyatt contained all of the events in one location, but the hotel is huge, and you will still be doing a lot of walking. You have been warned.

Stay hydrated! There’s plenty of free water in the hallways, and bringing a refillable water-bottle is a good idea (as opposed to the $5.00 bottles of designer water in your rooms).

If you snack, bring your own:
The Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego is a 5 star hotel, and features 5 star pricing. There is a Ralph’s Grocery store about 8 blocks away that will have reasonably priced fruits and vegetables (etc.) that you can keep in your room if you are so inclined.

Bring backup batteries and cables:
I’m a gadget geek all year round but I never… ever… use my electronics as much as when I’m at CSUN. Power outlets and charging stations can be tough to find, so juice up when you can! My daughters gave me an Anker External Battery for Christmas, which can charge my phone from near-empty to full, twice, so this year I think I will be prepared…

Expect the unexpected

Not a year goes by that I don’t experience something new and awesome at CSUN. Whether this is your first time, or your 31st, CSUN is always an amazing and energizing event. I look forward to seeing old friends, and meeting new ones again this year – if you see me, stop me and say hi!

I just can’t wait!

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 CSUN For Newbies by John Foliot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Posted by John

I am a 16 year veteran of Web Accessibility, living and working in Austin, Texas. Currently Principal Accessibility Strategist at Deque Systems Inc., I have previously held accessibility related positions at JPMorgan Chase and Stanford University. I am also actively involved with the W3C - the international internet standards body - where I attempt to stir the pot, fight hard for accessibility on the web, and am currently co-chairing a subcommittee on the accessibility of media elements in HTML5.

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