Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

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.

20 thoughts on “Ignite Day 1: From the Trenches

  1. Ryan Ries says:

    Was TechEd last year in Houston better, you think?

  2. Wilson W says:

    …..agreed with everything you said. I would also like to add that the keynote session was waaaay too long. 3+ hours for a keynote speech is pushing it. By the time Brad Anderson took the stage folks were heading for the door in droves.

  3. mke077 says:

    I was afraid this would happen with the mass convergence of conferences. Too much generalization to fit all the needs leads to a thin soup that satisfies no one. Chicago is a wonderful city and it disturbs me that the initial foray to the midwest looks to be the last based on not only your observations but on many attendees that I’m seeing through Twitter, Facebook, etc.. I get this is the initial event of this type and there will be kinks, but they have driven the ITPro away altogether if they don’t correct

  4. Wow. I think I can say with confidence that I will never attend a conference this big.

  5. Matthew Kinney says:

    Agreed completely–the food is beyond awful and not having shuttle buses running all day has resulted in my spending even more to take cabs to head back to the hotel to get work done. The sessions (at least the ones that interest me) are jam packed and you better camp out for an instructor led lab for at least 45 minutes or you won’t get a seat. I miss the old TechEd–if this is the way things are going to be, I can spend my 4+grand on other things.

  6. Chris Parker says:

    I didn’t experience everything you did but it wasn’t too far off. The food today, if you could call it that, was worse than day one!

    There’s so much good content but you hardly have time to watch it all. It makes attending in person less valuable. If that makes sense.

  7. Jan says:

    I totally agree with Chris,
    Organization is even worse than Barcelona last year but at least the food there was excellent.
    Will likely not attend another Ignite, watch the recordings and engage with the respected product community at other,
    Smaller Events like E2EVC

  8. Jules says:

    What a horrible experience. Glad I stayed at home, and watched the sessions.
    I remember one Microsoft conference waiting half an hour in a single line to reach the buffet lunch, presented on a single long length table (with the food repeated down the table) As a software engineer it bemused me to think that those at the front of the queue, and the organisers themselves, didn’t consider reorganise the table layout into seperate tables, accessed from both sides, to split the queues to improve the throughput.

  9. Dan says:

    This is my first Microsoft conference, and if I attend another it will not be for the whole week, it is just not worth it. Many of the sessions seem to be a lot of Microsoft trying to shove product down your throat (quote from “The Internship”). Also, the fact that the Powershell booth was in Siberia really turned me off. Every time I went over to the booth to chat with someone NOBODY WAS THERE! Although there are about 1,000 Azure booths that always have someone waiting. Food=awful.

  10. Dan says:

    Also when I did talk to someone at the PowerShell booth and asked about the details of how it interacts with Nano (since on the board next to the booth it said it had a demo of this) the guy was clueless. Total fail.

  11. Matt Alter says:

    Had to order the special meals, and may they sucked. Yesterday, got sick from what I ate and had to call it a day. Also, the cab situation was really bad. I live in Chicago, but I think Chicago forgot to notify the taxi companies there was a convention in town. Usually wait times were 40+ min..

  12. Dwayne Allen says:

    Just found this, but man you hit the nail on the head. Hopefully the appropriate people at Microsoft see this. It was such a miserable experience. I sprained my ankle the weekend before the conference and was visibly limping the entire week. First thing Monday morning I tried to go sit down with a teammate that had already went through the breakfast line. 3 security guards immediately converged on me and started screaming at me to get back in line. I tried to explain I didn’t want breakfast and just needed to sit down, but they didn’t even hear me. They just continued to scream at me to get back in line. After repeating myself 5 times one of them finally understood what I was trying to say, but could not have cared less. I was curtly told that if I wanted to sit down in there I would have to go through the entire line. Nevermind that the line was over 30 minutes long and by the time I made it to the end my teammate would have finished. Or the fact there was pretty much no other place to sit down any where near there. That was probably the low point of the week, but it never got much better than that.

  13. Jeff Singleton says:

    I saw many people leaving early from sessions, sometimes leaving just after the session started. Considering how fast some of the sessions filled up, it was either skip a session or leave early to make it to a “good” session. Some of the sessions did come across as an advertisement – the Cloud Platform System comes to mind. And – no free “goodies”, other than a back pack. Not even a coupon for a discount on the new Surface 3. Friday “lunch” seem to be a bit short, with the afternoon session starting about halfway through lunch. I got a list of evaluations to do, however, I think they follow what I had on my schedule, not the ones I actually went to, due to sessions being full. Overall, not too bad for a first run – next year will be the test. Oh, almost forgot – the Thursday night celebration. I did actually go to that. Had trouble finding food, more specifically, where the food was, and which really long line to get in to get said food. Some of the portions were rather small – stood in line for that????! Lots of things happening in there, just a matter of wandering around and looking. Ice carving, human foosball, giant chess set, live music, all sorts of….things. Might go next year, have not decided yet.

  14. Jr Arnold says:

    I am sorry to hear this conference is back in Chicago again next year. For my purposes and needs I feel the conference itself was very good at least for the first 2.5 days. After that lots of repeated info but it gave me time in the expo hall to talk and meet with vendors. Just for clarification, my purposes revolved more around strategic needs with product roadmaps and latest feature explanation. As noted by so many, the food was horrible. Snacks almost nonexistent. The stopping of bus service during the midday was very inconvenient. With the hotels miles away this needs to be continuous. Many of us have work activities that going back to the hotel to do than to try to do at the overcrowded and hard to find seating spaces. I will say that this is the first conference I have found that the wifi was actually be at an acceptable quality. I was very disappointed in the conference store and its location. Some of the rooms were poorly marked and hard to find along with some important sessions did not have near enough seating. I did get tired of the security people shoving you around in lines. I felt like I was at a cattle drive and I was one of the cows.

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