Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

Update: It looks like it’s back to Chicago in 2016: http://www.ladewig.com/archives/2015/05/07/44976-save_the_date_for_microsoft_ignite_2016.html

I wrote about Day 1 at Ignite in less than glowing terms – there were a lot of problems. I thought it would be worth a follow-up.

Let’s be clear: Ignite wasn’t a total wreck. There’s no need to call the insurers. But it is broken, and Microsoft should look hard at some fixes for next time.

The Food
The food in Chicago was miserable. Just awful. And look, I know it’s hard to cook two meals a day for 20,000 people – but TechEd managed on a similar scale. A better venue would help, as would better crowd planning. Most of all, Microsoft needs to take an interest in the food and the crowd logistics – don’t just assume your venue knows how to treat your customers. Did anyone at Microsoft inquire about the hundreds of pounds of plastic trash generated by Monday’s inedible boxed lunches? Likely not. But they do need to take that interest.

The Venue
At this is another area where event planners need to look deeper than just raw capacity numbers. The Grand Concourse at McCormick Place is anything but grand when 15,000 people are transiting. Orlando and New Orleans, for example, offer a much freer flowing layout.

The venue should ideally be closer to evening things to do, and ideally closer to more hotels. At least until Ignite’s planners get more experienced, that proximity will help make up for other shortcomings. Again, Orlando and New Orleans are better in this regard than Chicago, Houston, or Boston. People could still go to their hotel for a break, without relying so heavily on dozens of shuttle routes.

The Staff
You need to stage a meeting with everyone who will work the event – especially the venue staff. Explain how you want your customers treated. The constant yelling and herding at Ignite 2015 will remain one of its hallmarks – and that shouldn’t happen again. To be fair, the screaming lessened on Wednesday, but I don’t know if that was the staff getting a talking-to or just getting tired.

The Community
Be a little more transparent how large community groups focused on Microsoft technologies can engage at Ignite. PASS gets a desk – why not other organizations, like PowerShell.org? If it means devoting more space to community efforts – isn’t that a good investment for Microsoft?

Hold hackathons in the evenings. Get product team members to head them up, and lead some frenetic activity to solve problems that can live on GitHub afterwards. Let community groups engage and host evening mini events geared to their section of the community. Microsoft, you don’t have to do Ignite by yourself – if you can love Linux, you can love your own fans.

The Content
I think this is an area where pure hubris and micro-managing were at fault. To be very clear, the content at Ignite was not universally bad. There was a lot of value, and a lot of standout sessions. But overall, attendees remarked to me that the content seemed too low level, and that presenters were extremely variable in their speaking skills. That’s an age-old observation, and people made the same comment at TechEd.

But Ignite took a very different approach to content selection. Asking speakers to simple submit their name and an area of expertise, and then assigning them topics – or worse, simply never contacting them – was a poor decision. You want speakers, especially external ones, to present topics they’re passionate about. You want to rely on external speakers for their perspective, their connection to the audience, and their real world experience. Your program managers don’t have all of that, and never will.

YES, ask your audience what topics they want to hear about. Plan topics of your own around announcements and emerging technologies, and around new products and patterns. Present those topics to your internal and external speakers, and vet them based on their passion, their speaking experience, and so on. Don’t try to control the conversation when it comes to content – guide it, and trust that your partners and your audience will do the right things for each other.

What Went Well
And don’t forget that it wasn’t a full bag of bad news – Ignite got a lot right.

The “Ask the Experts” of the past – where people camped at banquet tables in hopes of a topical conversation – was gone. The “ask me about” stickers were a great idea – but offer them to everyone. Your audience has as much expertise as your speakers, and so let them identify, should they choose, some areas they’d like to talk about. What a great way to break the ice and start conversations.

The Expo was huge, but that’s okay. It was manageable – although more signage would help for finding the right booths amidst all that’s on offer. Exhibitors were respectful and pleasant, in my experience, although banning the use of microphones and amplifiers wouldn’t necessarily suck.

Consider reviving the smaller, community-run breakout sessions of the past, and don’t feel the need to plan those so aggressively. Provide some spaces for people to be passionate, and to engage their peers directly. Microsoft has an opportunity to engender and support community at Ignite, not to simply push the corporate agenda. A “community theater” in or near the Expo would be an excellent opportunity for short, non-commercial sessions.

If the bookstore must be so remote, consider setting up a smaller area in the Expo or meal area, where well-known authors can sign books, and where the bookstore can directly sell the current author’s titles. A mini bookstore, and a great way to highlight some of the independent experts who support Microsoft and its customers.

In Conclusion
I know mashing together 5 shows into one was a challenge, and I know there was a ton of ego and personality bashing it out behind the scenes. It showed. There was also a lot of assumptions about conference scale, and I think some of those assumptions didn’t pan out. This is an opportunity to learn.

Get Ignite more open. Get the content selection process more transparent – yes, save some slots for stuff you can’t talk about in advance, but why not open the proposal process like VMworld has done in the past? Let customers decide what and who they want to see and learn from. Put more focus on Ignite as a form of community, and less as a live brochure.

I know the new Microsoft can do this.

21 thoughts on “How Microsoft Can Fix Ignite

  1. Matthew Kinney says:

    You make some excellent points and I agree–especially the part about the live brochure. Too many sessions felt like marketing and not technical/IT Pro level. Your comments about the food don’t do it justice on how truly bad it was and the venue staff, particularly in the meals area were beyond awful.

  2. Ross Chaplin says:

    Agree with everything you’ve said, but would like to be more specific on two issues; 1) On logistics, Microsoft or their contractors needs to be more involved in transportation logistics. Example: Bus picked us up at 7AM this morning, was on Lake Shore Drive southbound at 7:20, but by 7:40 was literally back in front of our hotel – we didn’t get to the conference until 8AM. I get that there can be some transportation issues on day 1, but still on day 3? 2) Regarding speakers and their passion for the content; one of the sessions I got the most value from in past TechEds was Jeffrey Snover and Don Jones talking PowerShell. I might have been slightly more disappointed if either of the Mark’s were not speaking here, but it makes no sense to me that a speaker that is an excellent, highly rated speaker from past conferences, one that is passionate about a topic he is an acknowledged expert in, is not presenting here at Ignite. WTF?

  3. Tim Vander Kooi says:

    Sadly I think that the majority of what you write applied equally to the last TechEd, so it doesn’t appear that Microsoft is learning/interested in learning. I also wish that they would do more with community not only in mind, but in charge, but Microsoft virtually closed themselves off to the idea of community 2 or 3 years ago and they don’t seem interested in opening that door again either.

    1. Dax says:

      Tim – I’m interested to better understand what you mean here – specifically what dimensions of a community oriented approach should be considered?

  4. Kim says:

    I agree ! I was initially excited about lunch today because I have been searching for DBA’s to chat with. When I went to the IT / Software area it became clear it would have been dumb luck to sit at a table with folks of the same field.

    I have been to the PASS table a few times, but only managed to find another DBA once. I have sessions to attend so I can’t sit at the PASS table all day hoping for the right person to come along. I want an easy way to find “my people”. 🙂

  5. Steve Crawford says:

    Ditto from my end. I’d also add that since NOLA 2013, it’s been a steady drop in Technical focus and a sharp increase in Service/Subscription based focus. It’s sad and disappointing to not have conversations with so many previous MVPs that we’d become accustomed to.

    I’ve yet to come across many people who are impressed with Ignite. I’m especially displeased with level 300 sessions that are tagged are really sales pitches for TBD releases, which are consequently tagged as “overview”. Even the few 400 level sessions fall short of years past. Maybe I just need to drink the Kool-aid and realize that the ship has sailed?

  6. FoxDeploy says:

    I got to pick my two conferences for this year, and chose the MVP summit and The Powershell Summit.

    Although I would have loved to be present at some of the system center, and server sessions from Ignite, I think I made a great choice.

    Lunch round table discussions with Jason Helmick and Jeffrey Snover and really awesome food, fun events and after hours activities? Yes please.

    1. jmilczek says:

      I agree, PowerShell Summit was a much better conference. After Ignite, we recommended leadership spend training budget on actual classes than conferences in FY16. This will give us the opportunity to learn more about products we are interested in or have already purchased.

  7. Thank you Don for your insightful comments about Microsoft Ignite. The Microsoft global events team appreciates and takes feedback about our events very seriously.

    Please feel free to reach out via email if you’d like to talk to us: we’d love to hear more from you!

  8. 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 tor notify the taxi companies there was a convention in town. Usually wait times were 40+ min..

  9. Glenda says:

    I have to agree with the previous comment that TechEd Houston had similar issues with crowd management, though not the logistical issues described here. Dear Microsoft: please remember that we are adults with technical responsibilities and not recalcitrant children who need to be pushed and scolded. I appreciate the logistical challenge of getting so many people where they need to be, but don’t treat us disrespectfully or we will find somewhere else to spend our conference budget.

  10. Skip says:

    Thank you for writing what many of us are undoubtedly thinking. Something I would add is that Microsoft really needs to find a venue that takes accessibility seriously. It was obvious from Day 1 that accessibility is at best an afterthought, or perhaps just an annoyance, for McCormick Place. Scootaround, as always, did a great job at providing equipment (and with a genuine smile), but the facility itself was just plain awful. Signage is 100% geared toward the able-bodied, and figuring out the elevators was beyond difficult. Where is the nearest one? Where does it go? How do I get to ___ ?

    Some of the problems can be fixed, as I have discussed directly with Microsoft. But not all of them can. Take restrooms, for instance. With people lined up out the door waiting to get in, there is barely enough room for people who have finished to get out. Getting in with a scooter is out of the question. Even if it were possible, try washing your hands while seated, given that none of the sinks are within reach.

    Another problem that simply can’t be fixed is the physical layout. Once I figured out where the accessible routes were, I realized that they all cross the pedestrian routes, usually at 90 degree angles. Cutting across the path of thousands of people, half of whom are looking at their phones instead of their surroundings is an experience I would not wish on anyone.

    Back to the issue of whether McCormick takes accessibility seriously, one need look no further than the handicapped door switches that don’t operate or the ramps that lead to doors that cannot be opened by someone sitting in a wheelchair or scooter to conclude that accessibility is not a concern here. I was glad to hear directly from Mocrosoft that they plan to incorporate specific suggestions I gave them into next year’s event, but I cannot express how deeply disappointed I was to learn that they will return to this most unwelcoming venue for 2016.

  11. Todd Meyers says:

    I loved the afternoon keynote. Found it even better than the morning one. The tornado data modeling demo was fantastic.

    Something else I think they got right was the “purple shirts.” I don’t know what event staffing company they worked for, but I thought they were universally knowledgeable, friendly, courteous and eager to help–unlike the meal service staff!

    Maybe it had been drilled into them to do whatever is necessary to herd the lunch crowd like cattle, but either way, it felt like the food service folks were prison guards, and the food we were fed only reinforced that. By day 4, my group didn’t even bother to check out the provided lunch and just took a cab offsite for some real food.

    Speaking of which, cutting off the shuttle service to ensure a captive audience probably hurt them in some cases, because if I grab a cab back to the hotel to take advantage of a couple hours of downtime, I’m not likely to pay for another cab ride back to McCormick to attend a late-afternoon session I’ll be able to stream.

    Biggest bummer though is the lack of community. I got spoiled with the relative intimacy of MMS and the opportunities it afforded for meaningful conversations. After-hours “Birds of a Feather” sessions are sorely missed!

    I don’t know if I ever want to attend a conference this large again. Even with 30 minutes between sessions, by the time you walk from Lakeside to South, you’re scrambling for a seat (or your instructor-led lab has been turning people away for 30 minutes). I did like having some topics to choose from outside my usual areas of expertise, but most of the conference feels like an extended infomercial for Azure.

  12. aejaygoehring says:

    Content, content, content. As a developer, there was basically nothing available for me and my colleague other than two sessions that were basically repeats of information shared last year, and one very good session by Mads Kristensen. I understand Build is where we need to go, but we just can’t pull that off, especially if it continues to sell out as quickly as it has been.

    Still, Tech Ed usually has conflicting sessions I have to break my heart to choose between, and that didn’t happen this year. Developer content just was not there, and this trip was a waste of my team’s training budget.

    We don’t know what to do next year.

  13. I think Microsoft was pushing the cloud agenda too much this year. There is nothing wrong with cloud services, but that should not take away from other offerings. It helped for my Azure projects, but left me in the dark almost everywhere else. Our leadership has already said they will not approve request for next year. In one of the Exchange sessions, a panel asked the audience for a show of hands regarding their current and future deployments. This show was an example of Microsoft attempting to generate revenue in “…as a Service” areas as opposed to offering customers what they actually want. There was much more of a balance at VMWorld and that’s saying a lot.

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