Arrival into Chicago suggests that the city either didn’t know a conference was coming, or that it’s incapable of dealing with one. Hour-long waits to claim baggage were coupled with equally long lines at Microsoft’s understaffed in-airport badge pickup desks. Those combined with inexpertly marshaled cabs and jammed freeways to create a lovely first impression – unless you took Chicago’s Blue Line train on its forty minute journey to the city, which turned out to be the best options. But an overall poor first impression.
Of course, none of that is under Microsoft’s control, and what you’re really looking for is some intel on Ignite itself. So how was it?
More or less the same.
Taking Microsoft’s motor coaches from your hotel, you were dropped off in an underground warren of tunnels at the sprawling, three-building McCormick Place. Jammed hallways were “controlled” by screaming staff members – “BADGES OUT! NO PURPLE BADGES! STANDING ROOM TO THE RIGHT!! OVERFLOW SEATING TO THE LEFT!!” That pattern continued throughout the day.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella delivered a stirring, down-to-earth keynote that made you suspect Microsoft may actually still be a force to be reckoned with. Evoking an image of Steve Jobs reincarnated as a Buddhist monk, Nadella brought an energy, a hope, and an excitement to an audience that’s largely been missing those. Later sessions by superstars like Mark Russinovich and Jeffrey Snover continued the pace, proving Microsoft has some real brains running things, and that those brains are being given the chance to innovate and to excel. I’ll publish some technical articles over at Pluralsight over the next weeks, summarizing some of what was announced.
But back to reality.
Lunchtime consisted of enormous lines – 23,000 people trying to eat – and more shouting staff members. An attempt to simply grab an iced tea was met with a group of security guards closing ranks and shouting, “BACK IN LINE!” as if responding to a prison break. More screaming: “THIS TABLE IS ALL CHICKEN!! IF YOU WANT BEEF KEEP WALKING!!” Not kidding. And walk we did: almost a quarter mile to the “entrance” of the dining area, where we snaked that same quarter mile back to the food. And what gastronomic marvels were being so carefully guarded? Cold boxed lunches. With a sandwich one attendee described as, “The ‘chicken’ in the lunch boxes today was a pressed loaf of temperature-tolerant engineered ‘food’ materials.” Accompanied by a cup of gelatinous pasta and a square inch of insipid flan, it was easily the worst conference food I’ve encountered in my sixteen years of conferences. It was appalling – a seeming attempt to expend the minimal amount of effort while still being able to claim attendees were fed.
And you’re not leaving to find better food. The remote and isolated conference center has an attached Hyatt and a three mile walk to much else. In an effort to trap attendees, Microsoft discontinued its shuttle busses from 10am until 6pm, leaving attendees with the less-than-hourly Metra commuter train, the aforementioned three mile walk to another hotel, or an hour-long wait for a taxi. Chicago, clearly having not been notified of the need for taxis at a large event, simply had too few to spare.
Moving from session to session in the overcrowded, sprawling facility was challenging. Forget about ducking into the bookstore or expo hall in the half hour breaks between sessions; you were lucky to make it to your next selection. And that’s assuming you could find a session you wanted: several attendees commented that, a few standouts aside, there was little that interested them. Many said that speakers – largely Microsoft employees thanks to an opaque and disinterested selection process for external speakers – were poor public presenters, and that many sessions had a distinctly marketing flavored overtone. That’s not to say the entire schedule sucks; stalwarts like Mark Minasi were given their usual opportunity to excel, and several product team members generated plenty of buzz with their sessions. But there remained a lot of grumbling about the content.
Some attendees elected to simply spend the first day exploring the enormous expo. An odd diagonally based layout made navigation tricky, but overall the room was spacious. Beverages were sparse, but there was definitely a feeling of professional presentation. Lower tier vendors, arranged at the perimeter of the layout, were in standard prefabricated booths. The next ring in were higher tier exhibitors that had their own large displays, with the next ring including the massive displays by big name vendors. Those were arranged around Microsoft’s own product-centric areas, which were sadly undersized and understaffed. One volunteer at the PowerShell desk barely knew what the product was for, although at other times actual product team members engaged in deep discussions with their customers.
Based solely on Day 1, it’s hard to recommend Ignite to someone. $2000 plus at least that much again in travel expenses is a big investment. If the chance to explore vendor solutions in the expo is useful to you, an expo-only pass (sold per day) is much cheaper. The session content will all end up online anyway, and with 20,000 fellow attendees there’s little chance for personal interaction with the presenters. Subsistence-level food, scarce beverages, screaming staffers, bullying security, and massive crowds detracted significantly from the experience and put the lie to Nadella’s promise to focus on customers.
Hopefully Day 2 will show improvement, but already the cries of “BADGES OUT!! NO PURPLE BADGES!!” are threatening to drown out the morning Channel 9 studio activity.