Sunday, September 14, 2014

What's So Special About IMATA and AZA Conferences?!

Is there like, something special going on today in the zoo and aquarium world or something?

Oh, yeah! IMATA!

The professional organization of fish chuckers everywhere!

This year's IMATA is really special, because it's paired with AZA's annual conference.  That. Is. Awesome.

So what on earth could the Middle Flipper possibly write about when it comes to a double conference?  Well, as I was thinking about what to write a few days ago, I started remembering all of the questions I've gotten about attending a conference (or if you can't attend one...or if you SHOULD attend one...) over the past several years.  I've gotten a lot of the same questions and comments and figured hey, maybe a few other people out there would be interested to know an answer.

An answer.  This blog is, after all, my opinion.  So take whatever you'd like from this, and know it's all coming from a good place!

Okay, here we go: the FAQ* for IMATA Conferences.

1.  "Should I go to a conference?"

Look, even she knows the right answer!

This is a commonly asked question from aspiring trainers, or trainers who are still trying to land a full-time position.

While I obviously can't comment on your personal situation, all I can say is if you can manage to go to a  conference, you should.

Some of the reasons go without saying: you're surrounded by people who can help you get your foot in the door.  You never know what Big Name you'll run into at lunch time or at the pool, whose sagely advice may help you get a job (maybe even with him or her).  You learn about what this field is like through the presentations, which gives you a great glimpse into what each facility does.  That information is not only great to have for your own knowledge and growth, but it's a great way to make yourself stand out in an interview if you remember their IMATA poster presentation six months later.

But another invaluable reason to go to a conference? And now this spills into trainers of all levels, but it's a Shot In The Arm.  Oh, not literally.  No, that would be awful.  "Hey welcome to IMATA! Have an IM injection on us!"

No, thanks.

Look, I remember very clearly when I was trying to get a job how frustrated and discouraged I got.  Not just because of the rejections, but because of the unsupportive people in my life telling me I should just get a Real Job.  When I went to my first conference in 2005, I was surrounded by people who loved animals, who went through the same job hunt process, who'd persevered and landed their dream jobs.  Even though I knew about two other people, and yes, was intimidated by that fact, it was still incredible to be immersed in a culture I'd loved since I was a kid.  It was enough to bolster my drive and keep me focused.

Many trainers of all levels have this same experience of being inspired and their batteries charged.  But more on that later.

2.  "Aren't all the presentations the same?"

No nuh-uh!

Here's the thing about presentations: you can learn something from each one.  Now someone who's been in the field for 20 years and is actively involved in IMATA may not go to each presentation, and that's not out of disrespect to the presenters.  It's that they've got other priorities at these conferences, and they've seen a majillion presentations.  They may choose to go to the ones that are unique in their OWN experience, or are relevant to their facility goals.

But if you're not a director or curator of a facility and you already have the "ugh, presentations" bug, let's find a way to motivate you.

All presentations are not the same.  The topics they cover may be the same from year to year, but unless a facility does the exact same presentation they did in a previous conference, there are always valuable differences and therefore lessons to learn.

You might have worked with dolphins for eight years in an interactive setting and think, "What could I possibly learn from a formal on dolphin interactions?"  Let me tell you, by having that attitude you risk shutting yourself to acquiring information (even if it's a little nugget!) that could help your own job and the program over all.  I mean, for argument's sake let's say you listen to the presentation on Dolphin Interactive Programs and you literally hear nothing you've never heard before.  What does that mean?  Was it a waste of time?  No.  Look at all you can take away from a situation like that:

1) Your training style is similar to that of another facility's.  That means should you run into problems, you know you can probably reach out to this place and have a meaningful conversation that may provide solutions since you guys are on the same page.

2) This facility may be a place you'd like to work someday down the road, if you like how they train and want to stick with similar methodologies as the one you're at currently.  Or, if you're looking for a change eventually, maybe that facility isn't a place you apply.  And that's one less option to unfocus you.

3) One day, you may want to do a presentation.  What did you learn about the public speaking and audio-visual aspects of creating a formal presentation?

Those are some big things to take away from a presentation we've decided is something you already know.   And like I said, there are very, very few of those that you'll encounter if you really listen.  And that brings me to my next point...


You can do it!

I know this day in age we have these awesome Smart Phones and Tablets.  We can use those to save trees and take notes down, or record the presentations.  Maybe we swap a text message with someone we know at the conference to say something like, "What do you think about doing this at our place?" I know that nowadays, a public speaker looking into the audience and seeing their heads buried in their phones and iPads doesn't mean active listening isn't happening.

But with that all said, I do know (because a handful of people have bragged to me about this) that some people show up to presentations and not listen.  They play games on their phones, check their Facebook status...or worse....send messages to judge other people's presentations.

Don't let this freak you out if you're presenting or plan on doing so at some point.  If someone makes fun of you, don't take it personally; just don't do it yourself.  If you're compelled to make fun of someone or a topic, remind yourself that you're the one sitting in the chair listening.  You didn't spend hours and hours and hours putting together a presentation.  You didn't spend the time freaking out about speaking in front of hundreds of people.  If you think you can do better, good for you.  Then show us.  Or don't.  But don't make fun of other people, no matter what your level.

"Whoops," you might think.  "I've made fun of people before."

There, there.

Well, hey, this week is the perfect time to take a fresh start.  Don't focus on the past, just tell yourself that this year, you'll actively listen to the presentations you choose to attend.  And if one isn't in your taste, you'll keep that to yourself because it does nothing but show tremendous disrespect to another human being.  And especially if you're not someone who's a Big Name in the field, you don't want to risk coming off like an A-hole because that could affect your future job prospects.

3.  "I'm scared to introduce myself to people."


Welcome to the club!  We are 7 billion members and going strong.

Seriously, even if you love meeting new people, it's not necessarily an easy thing to do especially in a competitive career setting.  Know that being scared is part of the growth process, and that many many many of us had to deal with this.  Truth be told, while I'm definitely better at it now than I was, I still get nervous thinking about meeting people who inspire me.

Everyone has their own method of figuring out how to be their genuine but professional selves when networking at an IMATA conference.  But all I can tell you is to not let that insecurity or nervousness cripple you, no matter how hard it is.  You just have to take a deep breath and go for it.  Pick a socially appropriate time (and that window may be seconds long if you're going for a Big Name) and DO IT.  Doooo itttttt.  The fear won't go away if you sit there and think about it forever.  Just use good common sense.

Common sense does not equal common core.

Now, I do realize that it's a little more nerve-wracking when you're trying to network with someone High Up.  You almost feel like you're meeting a celebrity, and you want to make the best impression. First, these people are just human beings like you.  They worked hard to get to where they are, and they probably started off in a similar situation as you.   So it's not that you have to treat them differently than another person you respect, but at an IMATA conference they are really slammed with stuff, including doing their own networking.   So how do you try to get face time with those people?

There are better times than others to meet new people.  Here are some examples of good moments to approach your Marine Mammal Hero:

1) At the Icebreaker event when they are not actively engaged in conversation
2) Any down time, especially after presentation blocks.  It's a good time to introduce yourself, chat for a few seconds, then get back to your spot for the next round of talks.
3) Any mixers, meals, after-hours gatherings (like at the hotel bar or pool), or site visits.  But again, use your social sense on when to introduce yourself to someone new, especially if you're trying to work for that person one day.

Here are some examples of not-so-good times to approach someone:

1) Right after their presentation (I've made this mistake!!!) when they are bombarded by people and questions

2) Almost any time they are actively engaged in conversation with someone else, unless you're leaving the conference that minute and it's the last time you'll have to meet them.  If that's the case, prepare what you're going to say, keep it simple: "Hey I'm so sorry to interrupt, but I had to introduce myself before I left today.  My name is Blah Blah Blahberstein and I really liked your talk on Blahblahblahing in the workplace.  Anyways, I'll let you be but it was very nice to meet you."


"Hi! My name is Yada Yaderson.  I think you're great.  Um, sorry, I'm so nervous!! I don't know what to say.  What are you eating there?  Is that lunch?  Wow, that looks really good.  I love lunch.  I try to eat it as often as I can.  So how did you get your start in the field?"

He's cuter when he's awkward.

3) Finding out where their hotel room is and trying to meet them that way (unless you were invited there).

These things are not to make you feel like your time isn't valuable, or that you shouldn't feel welcomed to introduce yourself to someone you feel is important.  You just want to make sure you come off as being the socially intelligent, professional, and sincere person you are.

4.  "What's the best way to stand out at the job fair?"


Be yourself, with a professional twinge.  And focus on yourself.  It's not about competing with the other people via throwing-under-the-bus or measuring experience up against each other.  Yes, duh, it's competitive.  But I'd never consider hiring someone who makes a point of showing how they're better than another candidate.  Never.  Why would I want someone on my team who focuses on their own growth via the destruction of another?

But the person who is themselves, who lets their experience and personality do the work, that's the type of person who stands out.

And take some advice from the "meet new people" section above this one.  It's nerve-wracking to walk from table to table introducing yourself to the management/senior team of each facility.   But just do it.  If you have a tendency to ramble on (like yours truly, good god), keep it brief.  If you are someone who is terminally shy, make it a point to make eye contact and say a few sentences.

No matter what your situation is, do not interrogate anyone.  I've seen this happen before a few times, and it's an unfortunate obstacle the people have added to their journey of becoming a full time trainer.  Like if they weren't hired for a position at a facility, they approach that table and start to ask, "What did I do wrong?  Can you look at my resume again?  What do I have to do????"

That looks desperate.  And that's not really you, that's just your (understandable) insecurity.  What's a better way of dealing with a situation like that?

"Hi, I'm Such and Suchmenton.  I'd like to submit my resume for review again.  I like the work your facility does (mentioning an example here wouldn't be a bad idea).  It's really nice to meet you guys in person.  Have a great night!"

That doesn't guarantee you'll get a job.  But acting the OTHER way guarantees you WON'T get a job.  Be confident, be yourself, and again remember, insecurity is not a personality trait.  It's a gremlin who takes over your personality and makes you do weird things.

5.  "What's the best way to stand out at the conference?"


Take all the stuff of #3 and #4 and smash it together.  What's the theme?  No matter what your experience level....


Those are traits everyone respects.  You don't have to grovel at the feet of the Big Names, you don't have to make fun of people's presentations, you don't have to make sure everyone knows your experience level and how great you are.  Share information, which means you're getting some back from other people.  Learn from each person at the conference.  Just because I'm a supervisor doesn't mean I'm not going to talk to apprentice trainers about their experience at a facility I've never visited. Because what the heck do I know about their job?  Other than the basics, not a whole lot.

Enjoy yourself, and have a good time.  The only other thing I'll mention here is what you do at a conference can stay with you for a while.  That can be really good or really uh, bad.  If you enjoy imbibing in adult beverages, go for it!  Just know your limit, especially if you are representing your facility there.  

And remember, introduce yourself to people you don't know!

6.  "What should I wear?"

Probably not this.

For the Job Fair, dress like you would for an interview.  Smart casual/business casual...these terms are as unfamiliar to me as Bulgarian, but wear something that suits your personality and is appropriate for a job interview.  That doesn't mean wear your nicest clothes per se; the job you're interviewing for involves about zero (0) nice items of clothing because you will get fish blood and sea lion poop all over it.

Avoid this too.

I've heard some people tell others, "WEAR HEELS!"  "WEAR BLACK SLACKS!" Uh, wear something YOU would wear to an interview.  If you love heels, then wear them.  If you're like me and think heels were sent here from a masochistic demon sent solely to make you fall over and/or look like a newborn giraffe, don't wear heels because you'll look ridiculous ( me).

7.  "I just want to hang out with my friends."

I love that wetsuit, where did you get it?

Great, hang out with your friends.  Especially if they're from other facilities.  It's a great way to catch up with people you haven't seen in a while.  But don't stop there.

Meet. New. People.  Make new friends.  It's FUN to make new friends (even if the initial process is frightening), and it's SMART to network in this career.  Why?  Because opening your circle of colleagues allows exponential opportunities for information exchange.  That information helps your animals, it helps your career growth and potentially your future.  It can also help someone indirectly; if you have a great seasonal trainer but no full time jobs, you can help that person out by making a few phone calls and drumming up a job opportunity they were unaware of (and maybe giving them a good friendly reference).  

You will waste your conference if you don't meet some new people.  Don't let that happen to you.

8.  "I don't care about the AZA stuff.  I'm just there for IMATA." (or vice versa)


Oh man, this really gets under my skin.  The separation between zookeepers and marine mammal trainers is closing, but it's still a chasm.  There is no need for this crowbar separation; we are all animal keepers.  Some of us train, some of us don't, but we all fiercely love the animals and the job we do.

Okay, okay, I know I'm getting all flowery and Let's-All-Huggish. I admit it, I would love to see zero difference between "zoo keeping" and "marine mammal training" between all facilities.  I think it can happen, but I also know it's not going to occur at this conference.

But what I will say is that you, as an individual, can make that chasm disappear in your own mind.  If you think marine mammal training is all you care about, or that you really think you'll never want to work with any other taxa than hoofstock,  you're shutting yourself off to some amazing opportunities for growth (and therefore better animal care).

By the way IMATA people, on top of the awesome stuff IMATA has planned for the conference, have you SEEN the AZA schedule yet?  There are so many awesome things they're doing, including leadership seminars, so much conservation stuff, PR/Marketing.....don't let this opportunity pass you by because you're being, well, a marine mammal snob.   Don't be part of the stereotype.

That's an order!

And if you're an AZA person, check out some of the stuff IMATA has to offer.  The presentations are interesting, even if you think you hate training.  Just check it out, if only to solidify your opinion, because you never know what you'll take away from it.

So when you're meeting new people, don't just stick in your own clan.  Branch out.  Lots of zookeepers know about training and do ground-breaking things.  Lots of marine mammal trainers are open-minded and excited to learn about new species.  Just put the stereotypes down for five days (and have a beer or two, if you really need some help with that) and start talking to each other!

Enjoy yourselves this week!

*  FACs? You know, for comments? What about FMC, for frequently mentioned comments?  Or SIHA (stuff I hear a lot).  Oh wow, acronym creation is fun.  ACIF! OMG INAL (I need a life).  ICS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!**  Totally OOC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

** I can't stop.

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