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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.