Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

Mr. Nadella,

Everyone in Microsoft’s ecosystem appreciates Microsoft’s efforts in building an amazing technical conference. Sadly, Ignite’s first volley failed on a number of counts – and we, in the community, hope you can fix it.

Many of the problems seem to stem from the political infighting that resulted when TechEd, SPC, MEC, MMS, and Lync Conference were unceremoniously joined. It doesn’t seem like anyone was appointed leader, but rather than everyone was left to duke it out. It didn’t seem to go well.

I’ve written about some of the major problems, and offered some specific suggestions, but here’s the executive summary.

THE VENUE

Nobody bothered to tell the staff at McCormick Place that the Ignite attendees are actually Microsoft customers. We were treated like cattle. While war stories abound, I think this one conveys the right tone:

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.

We wanted to be treated respectfully. And yes, even though there may be more than 20,000 of us, we’d like edible food. When you have attendees standing in 30-minute lines for imitation mush in a plastic box, I don’t think you’re conveying the “new Microsoft” sense that you seem to be striving so hard for elsewhere.

Frankly, herding everyone into two locations for meals is inefficient. What about distributed lunch locations throughout the venue, so people don’t all have to converge into one bottleneck twice a day? Now that we know we’re stuck with Chicago again, understand that the “Grand Concourse” is a bottleneck of epic proportions.

Bottom line: your events team needs to take more interest in the logistics of moving 20k people from place to place every hour and a half, and feed them to boot. I’m not sure they have the experience to pull it off. They certainly didn’t demonstrate it.

THE CONTENT

The sessions were, with few exceptions, not terribly well received.

Many of the sessions seem to be a lot of Microsoft trying to shove product down your throat (quote from “The Internship”).

That’s a common refrain. Now there were good sessions – I don’t want to be all Negative Nelly. But it felt like the push was on what Microsoft wants to sell, not what customers want to learn. 

Look, we all understand that it’s your show, and your chance to roll out your latest and greatest. But a lot of us were used to the much technically deeper content from MMS, SPC, MEC, and the like. So if Ignite’s going to be an overview of “what’s new and coming,” just make that plain in the marketing. We’ll make sure the right people attend for that kind of content.

THE COMMUNITY

Microsoft’s product teams all seem eager to engage with community – but Ignite seemed to stifle it. Product teams like Windows PowerShell, SQL Server, and others – all with huge fan bases – had no way to gather and to find each other.

Read that again: Fan bases. People love some of your products, and they want to hang out with other people who share that love. They want to meet team members. They want to engage in real conversations about products’ futures, and about their experiences. That doesn’t happen over a tiny 2×2 desk equipped with a flatscreen – and staffed by people who aren’t even familiar with that product.

One year, Microsoft had an entire Community Zone separated from the expo. It featured the Channel 9 stage, and a few community groups like INETA and PASS. Bring that back – and expand it to include room for other international community organizations (can PowerShell.org come?). Make this a real gathering place for us to meet with each other, with team members, and have real discussions. This’d be far more valuable, for many people, than the sprawling Microsoft areas featured at Ignite.

This means more than ample sofas and work tables. We need focal points based on our products and technologies. The SQL Server Lounge. System Center Central. We already tend to self-organize around your products and technologies, so why not let us engage with you that way, more deeply than just a drive-by at a “pod?”

And let the product teams drive how these interactions happen. Their audiences differ. What works well for gathering the Exchange fans might not work so well for SQL Server, for PowerShell, or for Azure. Ignite felt like someone in Central Command had too much power – I heard numerous (anonymous) comments from product team members that they simply had no idea what was happening, and weren’t included in any advance conversations.

THE SPEAKERS

Independent speakers are a must-have, not a nice to have. Face it, if you are the only ones who can say nice things about your products, you might as well just pack it in.

Yet the Ignite process for involving outside speakers was horrible. It essentially amounted to, “tell us who you are, and tell us what you’re good at. If we like you, we’ll tell you what sessions you’re going to present.” That’s the most dictatorial approach I’ve ever seen Microsoft take – and it hurt.

VMworld has a reputation for being largely brochure-ware when it comes to content – yet the hold a substantial percentage of their session slots for community presenters. Those presenters propose sessions publicly, in advance, and the community votes on what they want to see. Very democratic, very community-engaged, and nearly the opposite of what happened at Ignite. Just saying.

THE CELEBRATION

The Thursday night party was a great idea. Wonderful theme. Fantastic concept. On paper. In execution… well, maybe not so much. I mean, there was a lot of heart. Some of the bands were just incredible. The idea of our own personal “Taste of Chicago” was inspired, especially in light of the terrible food we’d been served all week.

But… well, look. During Walt Disney World’s Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, Disney manages to feed small samples to 50,000 people a day with extremely short lines at each food kiosk. You might send someone over to take notes on large crowd management strategies.

THE CONCLUSION

First and foremost, thank you. In a lot of ways, you’ve given the Microsoft audience hope that our favorite software company is relevant, paying attention, and engaged. You and your team are making our side of IT exciting again. Your product teams are excited, and energetic, and just a lot more fun to observe. You’re doing a good job. We’re fans. We all refer to you by first name because you’re so darn personable. We know you got this.

Please fix Ignite.

Thank you.

16 thoughts on “Mr. @satyanadella, Please Fix Ignite

  1. Wilson W. says:

    Also, please limit the keynote speech to 1.5 hours. A 3 hour keynote speech is really pushing it in terms of attention span.

  2. NosmoRex says:

    Strong agreement on many points. My two cents:
    Venue: 3/5
    I found the staff to be friendly and helpful overall. It seemed restrooms were few and far between, not really located near commonly traveled paths. Compared to previous Tech Eds, there seemed to be a similar amount of “sprawl”. Lots of walking, as was expected. I am disappointed that it was announced that Ignite will be in Chicago again next year, even before the dust had settled this year. McCormick is just too far from most of the event hotels.
    Yes, lunch was a disaster. The food itself was not good (compared to my Tech Ed experiences), and the line management was poor.
    Content: 3/5
    I agree that I felt like Azure and Windows 10 were given too much prominence. I can’t go to a conference often (last show as Tech Ed 2012), so I need to be able to bring back something that my employer can use *now*.
    Community: 3/5
    I feel more distanced from Microsoft with each passing year. I am a fan, as you say. I expect more respect and gratitude for that. They were giving away devices at Build, but couldn’t offer even a tiny discount at the MS retail store. Having said that, MS Learning did put on a very nice MCP party at the museum of Science and Industry. Kudos to them.
    Speakers: 3/5
    It was apparent in a few of my sessions that English was not the primary language for the presenter, and even then the speakers were not well polished. For the cost, I expect professionals.
    Celebration: 2/5
    I had very high hopes for this and was quite disappointed. I was unable to get a “taste” of anything. The lines were ridiculous. I don’t want to spend all day in lines, only to be herded around some more at the party. The entertainment was a lot of fun, but I left before the headliners so I could get something to eat at my hotel.
    Conclusion: 3/5
    I can’t really recommend Ignite to my co-workers. That’s the bottom line

  3. Brian Mason says:

    Given that smaller conferences can fit your needs better and avoid crowding issues, I don’t understand the payoff here. Because most of these sessions are online, the real reason to go is networking. But when it’s so crowded even that doesn’t work well.

  4. Kyle says:

    +1
    From someone who has been to several TechEd’s and MMS’s, Ignite left much to be desired.

    Another thing I noticed is that the self paced labs were less in depth as usual. So much of the lab had you reviewing configuration files instead of creating them in an effort to cut down on support issues that it took away from the learning experience.

  5. Ed Aldrich says:

    One additional issue not yet addressed: Oversubscribing rooms. Many had to trek huge distances only to be turned away due to a full room, get redirected to an overflow room (walk a lot more) to be told “wrong room – go instead” (another long walk, and end up seeing the video on overhead displays in the expo hall..

  6. Dev says:

    +1
    As an IT Pro that administers a wide variety of products in the Microsoft stack I found it frustrating getting from one session to the next only to find it full. I had very little time to visit the expo floor with so many sessions to pack in. Even getting lunch was a pain due to long lines and having barely any time to eat before rushing off to the next session.
    The content was watered down compared to MMS for example. Most sessions were not the deep technical content that should be expected from a 300 or 400 level. I agree that a lot seemed like a sales pitch for a product I already have.
    I get the emphasis on Azure and the cloud but a lot of customers are still heavily invested in on premises and I would like to see more sessions geared towards that.

  7. pjmarcum says:

    +1

  8. houndtech says:

    +1
    Without piling on too much, yes the food was bad, the lines hideous. Perhaps use the Grand Concourse set up like a food court with several food booths?
    Another suggestion would be to group similar sessions in the same area of the conference center. Too many times I would leave one windows 10 session in S100 only to have to walk all the way to Lakeside for the next windows 10 related session then BACK to the other end of the center ( s100 or thereabouts).
    Obviously there is always a lot of walking at these events, but at times it almost felt like someone was having a laugh while selecting rooms.

  9. stevehosko says:

    +1
    I would also add the bus situation was appalling, day 1 the buses didn’t start back up in the afternoon until late, and having the buses stopping 15 minutes after the end of the conference party was madness, it’s actually part of the reason why I left halfway through Fall Out Boy, just so I could get a bus back without having to wait in yet another line.

    Also the Plus Pass wasn’t great value, and poorly communicated where you could access all of the perks from.

    having travelled all the way from Sydney for the conference it was quite disappointing to have such a bad experience with Food, Transportation, and session content being billed at the 300 level but feeling more like the 200 level when getting in there.

    I also agree around the tech hand out’s not only did the build guys get a brand new HP laptop, but also discount vouchers for Surfaces, and not to forget hands on access to the Hololens, which would of been great to have seen.

    I hope that next year MS will take note and attempt to address these concerns.

  10. Pertsa says:

    For restroom issue mentioned in the comments, it could be a good idea to put into the conference guide the location of BIG toilets. Now there’s same signs for toilets that are big and the ones that are meant for 3 people — and when you’re in a hurry because you’ll have to be early in the session or otherwise you might not get in, you really don’t have time to check every single bathroom for size & queue situation.

  11. Jacob Benson says:

    +1. I wasn’t there, but based on everything I have heard and read a lot will have to change for me to want to go next year.

  12. sqlrockstar says:

    Agree completely on all points, especially the part about the speaker selection process.

  13. +1. I’ve attended TechEd since 2006 and Build for the last two years. It’s always been the running joke that developers get fed poorly at Build, but in retrospect, Ignite set the lowest bar yet. Add to that the need to choose between eating (or shall we just call it what it was: ‘waiting in line’) and attending sessions. The only rational answer was to spend more money and eat at the Café or McDonalds and hope you could still run to the next session before it was full.

    The busing situation was pitiful. The first bus on Monday morning might as well have been an episode from Crazy Cabbie. The driver had no clue where he was going, ran red lights, nearly took us down the wrong way on a one way street (thank God the garbage truck was in his way!), and wasted 40 minutes tooling through downtown until he could find another bus to follow! And then to shut the buses down during the day?? Believe it or not, people might just need to go back to their hotel while the conference sessions are still in full swing.

    Session-wise, I heartily agree with the need for more on-premise material. My company has to adhere to ITAR regulations and refuses to enter the cloud-space as it is considered too high risk. Right or wrong, that’s what I have to work with.

    As-to the request for access to Hololens, having attended Build and witnessed the process for gaining access, there’s no way it would have worked for a 20K+ attendee conference with the “several hundred” units that were present.

    While Ignite provided ample opportunity for frustration, I’m still happy that I was able to attend and did take away my fair share of new knowledge, contacts and information. Let’s push the conference team to improve where needed and make next year’s conference a win.

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