Whatever your post-military career plan, you should consider every avenue that helps get you there.
Whether you are an aspiring hacker, munitions expert, or video game writer, there are conferences around the world that you should consider attending, including Black Hat for hackers, SHOT Show for the gun industry, and the events I'll be discussing below for aspiring game developers and other creative types.
For example, take Gen Con, the recent gaming conference in Indianapolis. I had the opportunity to attend and have already started seeing the post-conference networking benefits.
With New York Comic-Con coming soon, and Gen Con and World Con having just come to a close, it's a relevant time for such advice. However, the steps below are applicable to events related to all job fields.
If you are an aspiring video game writer or designer, a novelist or filmmaker, you should definitely consider attending such conferences as Gen Con, Comic-Con, the San Francisco Writers Conference, the Austin Film Festival and the Game Developers Conference.
There are plenty of similar events, meetups and conferences for you to consider -- find the ones that work for you, and consider how they can strategically fit into your career plan.
Follow these steps for making the most out of the event in terms of career advancement:
1. Help them while promoting yourself.
Are you able to start some sort of social media outlet before you go that you could leverage into helping promote others' brands as well as your own?
If you have a podcast or YouTube channel related to their business, invite some of the panelists you meet to come on as guests.
Maybe you have a blog related to fantasy, and the wonderful author you just met at this year's New York Comic-Con happens to be looking for fantasy blogs where she can do guest posts or author interviews.
Do not focus only on vertical networking -- you never know when the person sitting next to you will reach success and be able to pull you up alongside her. Network with your peers and form a group of people all equally excited about helping each other out.
2. Say hello after the events.
Panelists attend these events because they want to help you, or are at least there to push their product. Either way, they expect (or maybe even hope for) people to come up to them after their speech or panel to say hello and ask questions.
This is a great opportunity to introduce yourself, say something super witty and memorable, or simply say what a pleasure it was to meet them and that you look forward to future panels they might be on. It isn't as important what you say as that you say something, so that when you follow-up you can be honest when you say, "Hello, we met at X event," in the introduction to your email.
3. Bring business cards, and keep track of theirs.
The easiest way to keep track of whom you meet is to get their business cards, and the best way to do that is to hand them one of your own. It's a subtle signal to say, "If you have any business cards, now is a good time to give me one."
Depending on the type of event you are attending, business cards might not be popular -- for example, the more famous screenwriters are less likely to have them. Regardless, bring yours and hand them out. It will help them remember you, and they might follow-up before you get a chance to do so.
4. Follow up.
You will be tired when you get home after a long weekend listening to panels and networking, but don't forget to follow-up. Give yourself a week if you have to, but find those business cards and an evening to sit down and bust out some follow-up emails. These can be as simple as saying it was great to meet and you hope you can keep in touch, or it might be inviting them to appear on your podcast.
The main point is to get in touch before too much time has passed. Did you hand them a card, but it wasn't reciprocal? Find them on Twitter or some other social media channel, and start forming that bond.
5. Keep in touch.
Now comes the time to make these connections matter. Follow your new contacts on Twitter and retweet their product launches.
If you are considering going back to school for a degree in creative writing and you know that one of your new contacts went through the same program, email them to ask about their experience with the program. Did they mention a service that promotes your book or shops around your screenplay? Email them about it and see if you can get a discount, since you two now "know" each other.
One advantage we veterans have is that many of us are incredibly helpful when it comes to mentoring other veterans. If one of the peers or panelists you've been networking with happens to be a veteran, make sure they know you are a veteran also. The veteran network is like an incredibly strong alumni network.
You can certainly attend these events just to take notes and learn from the amazing panels, but let's be honest: You could have read most of the information presented on the speakers' blogs or heard it through other podcasts.
So leverage the experience, network even when you feel like just going to your hotel room for a nap, keep that network alive, and have a great time every step of the way.