The Spring 2011 Connections event took place at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes complex in Orlando from March 27-30. I like this event because it’s a one-stop opportunity to get a broad overview of what’s happening in different aspects of the Microsoft-centric industry – ASP, SilverLight, SharePoint, and of course, Exchange, where solid speakers such as Michael B. Smith, Jim McBee, and Mike Crowley share their experience and knowledge of what really works and what doesn’t when software is exposed to real-life deployments.
You can argue that TechEd does the same job and that’s certainly true, but I find TechEd to be too big, too dominated by Microsoft, and far too marketing-driven to be as valuable as it once was in the era when technical insight could only be gained by attending events like TechEd to listen to developers and others “in the know” who went past the words written in the technical manuals to explain how software and hardware really worked. Of course, today’s environment is much different as there’s a mass of technical information available online for anyone to interrogate, if they have the time to search (and discard the dross that masks the good stuff). TechEd seems to have lost its mojo in the last while and that’s the reason why I feel that I don’t need to attend it any more.
Connections has been going for nearly a decade now and it’s the only really independent event of its type that I know of. The splendidly named but much smaller “The Experts Conference” (TEC) prides itself on the depth of its technical content and I am looking forward to my first visit to TEC in Las Vegas later this month. Of course, TEC originates as an event run by NetPro to support their specialized business around Active Directory tools; today TEC is run by Quest and has a role in supporting their much wider Windows-centric business. It will be interesting to see how Quest runs TEC and how independent the sessions contained in the agenda are (I can promise that my keynote will be independent!). I hope to have a positive experience and be able to compare and contrast TEC with Connections then.
Getting back to Connections, Mark Minasi’s keynote was easily my favourite session. Mark is a very experienced speaker who normally talks about the minutiae of Windows, especially aspects of networking that you’d really prefer not to know anything about but should understand if you want a smooth deployment. In this case, Mark took an interesting approach to everyone’s topic du jour by looking at the promises of cloud technology through an economist’s eye. Mark’s background and experience working as an economist in Washington DC allied to his knowledge of Windows Server gives him the credentials to comment. As usual, Mark included a number of crowd-pleasing one-liners such as “numerological proctology”, which he used to describe some of the accounting gymnastics advanced by cloud supporters to convince companies that the cloud will deliver great financial benefits if only they’d make the plunge. He called “articles on cloud computing a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of a CIO”, which I thought was a pretty good way of describing the havoc that can ensue if any technology is embraced without due diligence and alignment with business needs.
After enjoying the zingers that Mark launched against flaky economics, the audience was left with a great piece of advice when he told IT departments that they should have a solid grasp of the essential metrics that describe the services that they provide to their customers today together with data that validates the cost of those services. I think that this is very wise because there’s no way that you can have an intelligent discussion about cloud technology without knowing how well the in-house IT department works today and how much they cost. Mark also noted that IT departments that don’t know about their costs and can’t measure how well they serve their customer (in the eyes of the customer rather than an over-inflated opinion formed by the IT department), then the discussion about cloud technology will be dominated by cost and savings data produced by those who want to sell the technology, and that might not lead to a good outcome for either the business or the IT department.
Apart from the sessions, I like being able to use a compact-sized event like Connections to catch up with people to understand better what’s happening in the industry. The trade show was busy and people seemed to be doing business, even if some had to do so in the shadow of the video about the E5000 messaging system described here that was playing on continuous loop on the HP stand. I took the chance to meet with a number of companies that I have been helping with technology strategy, but can’t really say any more on that topic for obvious reasons.
On a slightly more public note, I had the chance to speak with journalists such as Matt Gervais of SearchExchange.com and recorded an interview with Richard Campbell of RunAs Radio. I also linked up with my friends at Penton Media to make a video pitch for the Exchange 2010 Maestro 3-day seminars that Paul Robichaux, Brian Desmond, and I are running in San Diego, London, and Greenwich during 2011. Penton also hosted a very nice get-together for the authors who write for Windows IT Pro magazine.
I don’t pretend that Connections is perfect because it’s certainly not. However, it’s a nice size and it’s run by nice people who take care of their speakers and do their absolute best to make sure that everyone gets value from their attendance. I enjoyed the Orlando event thoroughly and am looking forward to Fall 2011 Connections (Las Vegas, starting on October 31) plus the first European Connections event in Germany in June. All part of the rich tapestry of life…