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More... How to ask your boss to pay for you to go to Usenix LISA 2011

In reply to my last blog post a reader sent me email to say: "I've never gone to a conference. What do employers typically pay for?"

Your company probably has a written travel policy and a travel budget.

Most employers pay travel, the conference registration, hotel, and food (T&E); IMHO they should do this since you need to get there, attend, and while there sleeping and eating are kind of important too.

Other companies pay part of the cost or a fixed amount. For example, they might have a $1000/year training budget per employee and that would consume the registration (most people would therefore only go to local conferences that do not require travel). Some have a "pool" of money that permits 1-2 members of a team to attend each year; in that case team mates take turns going to conferences and you might only attend every 2 or 3 years.

When budgets are crunched, you are more likely to get approval for something specific: you need to learn Python and there is a python training on (for example) Tuesday, so they fund that only. Economically speaking, however, once you've paid for the travel it is best to amortize it over the most number of days. In other words, you've paid for the travel, get as much out of the conference while you are there.

If a company has zero budget for training sometimes people pay their own way but their employer gives them the time off without requiring them to take vacation days. That's a last resort. I've also taken vacation time and paid my own way, but I'm that dedicated to attending LISA ;-)

Talk about cost last:

Certainly don't bring up the cost until after your boss sees the value of going. Convince him/her that (for example) you need to learn Puppet and LISA would be a good way to do that. Show the brochure or web site. Once you have agreement, they'll ask about cost and you can broach that subject. If you start by talking about the cost, it will be an up-hill battle from there.

General negotiating advice:

I've noticed that geeks (like myself) are bad negotiators (myself included) but I learned to overcome this with a few techniques. The problem (my problem) is that geeks love information and want to share all information. In negotiations you want to hold back information until the right time.

When negotiating always start by asking for what you want and wait for the rejection before suggesting other lesser options. It is tempting to say, "I'd like the company to pay for the entire trip but if that's too much how about just the registration?" because that is the truth. However, you are over-sharing. If you said that the easy reply for you boss is, "Ok, just the registration! Thanks for that great suggestion you made there!" You've just "negotiated against yourself".

It's best to ask for what you want and then be silent. SIlence is uncomfortable and 1 second of silence feels like 10, but keep your lips sealed. Car salespeople say that when they use silence as a negotiating tool, "The next person to talk is the loser." I don't think this is a winner/loser situation, but you'll see what they mean in this next example.

I typically see geeks negotiate like this:

Geek: I'd like XYZ. Boss: (Silence) Geek: Or just XY. Boss thinks to himself, "wow! i was going to give him everything but I needed some time to think! He just negotiated away Z. Awesome!"

So, ask for what you want. Be silent. Wait for the reply. If you are tempted to speak, say to yourself over and over: "Mary had a little lamb." Really.

If the reply is negative be ready with a second suggestion.

If the reply is, "We can't afford it", ask, "What can we afford?" If they give a number, work within it. Some ways to bring the cost down:

  • Split the room cost with someone else (the sage-members list is a good place to find room shares)
  • Travel cheaply... car or train.
  • Couch surf at the home of a local friend or relative
  • Work pays for the tutorial days, you cover the other days.
  • Split the cost. [Again, don't offer these all at once. They're just suggestions.]

If they don't give a number, return to talking about the "value". (more tips about that yesterday)

Hotel advice:

As a co-chair of the conference I would be remiss if I didn't point out that it is important to stay at the conference hotel if at all possible: We need to fill a certain number of rooms to fulfill our contract. If you can afford to stay at the main hotel, please do. There are a lot of night-time activities at LISA so your best bet is to say in the conference hotel so you can stay for the late-night BoFs and just take the elevator to your room. That said, if there are budget constraints, staying with a local friend is very economical.

Hope that helps,


Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Conferences