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5/15/2013
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Why One IT Team Developed 'Techapalooza'

Do it Best Corp., an Indiana-based hardware and building materials distributor, created Techapalooza, its own annual tech conference.

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Not so long ago, back during the depths of the Great Recession, Do it Best Corp., a member-owned distributor of hardware, lumber and building materials, did what most companies were doing: Looked for all the possible areas to cut expenses in order to deliver on our budgeted, bottom-line net profit. One of the first areas hit was our investment in sending staff to conferences.

While this seemed like an easy target for cutting, it raised immediate concerns from our IT leadership team. Most technology-minded employees thrive on honing their skills and learning new and trending technologies as well as interacting with their peers and colleagues. So even as we considered trimming back the costs associated with tech employee training, we still wanted to maintain valuable development opportunities for our team. We wanted to provide them with key industry insights and expertise and strengthen our reputation as a great place to work.

That's when it hit us: Instead of sending employees off to conferences, let's have the conference come to us. From that initial aha! moment, we developed the concept of a Do it Best Corp.-hosted industry conference in northeast Indiana that would bring thought leaders, experts and product demonstrations to a week-long series of educational seminars. We also wanted a consistent element of fun and energy permeating the series -- hence the name: Techapalooza.

[ Even traditionally low-tech businesses can benefit from IT innovation. Read more at How To Innovate In A Low-Tech Industry. ]

The first Techapalooza, held in 2009, featured 20 one-hour educational and informational sessions presented by a variety of speakers, employees and industry experts spread across a full week. For an authentic conference feel, we featured a keynote speaker to start things off, and we warmed up the crowd with our own house band, made up of Do it Best Corp. employees (called, naturally, the Techapalooza Band). We were off and running.

Over the last four years, we've grown Techapalooza to feature as many as 30 unique sessions over the course of a week, the majority of which are still an hour in length, while also adding several more intensive half-day seminars. Some sessions focus on specific technical skill development; others cover industry trends or follow a case-study approach.

Our Techapalooza conference tagline is "Inform, Inspire and Innovate." We've intentionally created an event that's welcoming to our entire corporate office staff, not just our IT team. Because Do it Best Corp. is a member-owned enterprise, we believe it's very important to the company's long-term success for all employees to be comfortable with technology, and we want to generate excitement around the potential that technology brings to everyone's professional lives. To that end, we purposely mix up the content of Techapalooza. Some topics may be less technical in nature, like sessions on digital photography and social media. And because our home base of northeast Indiana is not traditionally a destination spot for these types of conferences, we've extended invitations to area businesses to share in the experience.

Techapalooza 2013 was another unqualified success. We saw 2,100 registrations for sessions from our 500-person staff, and we welcomed 22 local companies. I also had the great privilege of hosting our local CIO Forum during Techapalooza. The Forum included a presentation from Paul Ingevaldson, author of 9½ Secrets of a Great IT Organization (Gary Slavin, 2012), which served as great material for our roundtable discussion that followed.

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We work hard to emphasize the "cool factor" at each Techapalooza as well. This year we hosted an Air National Guard pilot who shared some of the more impressive and innovative technology in an A-10 fighter jet. The week also featured a Techapalooza Market with a number of local and national technology companies displaying their products and services. We engaged local universities to have student teams research and report on several technology topics.

Even as the economy slowly recovers from the Great Recession, we maintain our strong belief in the return on investment that Techapalooza brings. That's because we view Techapalooza as an opportunity to give every single person on our team the chance to experience a conference without having to leave the building. Conferences provide great ideas and serve as inspiration to do new things. They also help "recharge the batteries." We see our program as a great way to provide that opportunity for all employees, and it has the added benefit of creating a buzz throughout the week among our team.

Our staff is now back to traveling to conferences as well, but our commitment to Techapalooza continues as we work to make it better each year. We believe the enthusiasm, pride and straight-out convenience of our own conference provides lasting results that drive personal growth and professional development for our entire team.

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