At trade shows these days, the first thing everyone wants to know is the number of attendees. This tends to drown out a somewhat more important issue: the quality of the show.
This problem prevails partly because the quality of meetings, speakers and attendees is hard to measure.
Different participants have different motives for traveling to a conference/exhibition. Further, any useful contact or meeting that emerges at a conference happens more often by accident than by design. Such encounters can be priceless, although their value is typically very personal, thus making it harder to put measurable numbers to it.
But when we walk into such unexpected, impromptu encounters with people we've never met before in a conference or at a trade show, we are always reminded of one thing:
This is why we travel.
At the Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose this week, I had the pleasure of not just one, but several such unexpected meetings.
I was standing in a long queue for a keynote speech by Admiral Ken Mattingly on Tuesday. A skinny bearded guy, also in the same queue, spotted my husband's Green Bay Packers' baseball cap. He came over to us and struck up a conversation. It turns out that he, too, was a Packer fan from Wisconsin.
It's always a thrill to meet with a fellow Packer fan, but it was "an event" for me to bump into someone involved in the study of neutrinos.
Gerald Przybylski, an engineer, has been working on a project called IceCube.
IceCube is a telescope under construction at the South Pole. The telescope, buried a mile down in the Antarctic ice sheet, is designed to look down, into the earth, rather than up into the sky. The "light" seen by this telescope is composed of individual fundamental particles called neutrinos, according to the icecube website.
Przybylski considers himself blessed. He's not only had several opportunities to visit the coldest, bleakest place on earth but -- even better -- on his first trip, he got to deploy prototype digital optical modules that ultimately led to IceCube's proposal. "I see myself as pretty lucky. At my age, I am still learning something new every day," he said.
But what was this physicist-turned-engineer doing at the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC)?
Przybylski, working at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said that while his responsibilities include learning about EDA tools, he was attending ESC hoping to meet with Altera whose FPGA is being designed in Nuclear Instruments he and his fellow engineers have developed.
That same morning, I found myself shaking hands with former astronaut Ken Mattingly backstage. Having covered literally hundreds of conferences like this, I am fairly jaded about your standard keynote speech. But this guy was different.
In the film "Apollo 13," Ron Howard depicted the Apollo 13 crisis as "a story about astronauts," said Mattingly. But in reality, Apollo 13 was "a story about thousands of engineers."
Mattingly described what he affectionately calls "the spirit of Apollo," by giving fresh twists and engineering insights to the well-told story of rescuing the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft.