Day 3 of MEC delivered another set of sessions containing lots of interesting information about different Exchange topics, the most interesting of which was named “Ask an Exchange Dev (because program managers and marketing lie)”. This session was announced late on, possibly because of its totally politically incorrect title and never featured on an official agenda. I didn’t get to attend because it was scheduled at the same time as the repeat of my “Making the call: Cloud or On-premises” talk, but those who had the good sense to go there rather than listen to me said that it was highly amusing. We need honesty about the way that software engineering really works in more sessions like this!
The closing session was excellent, if only because it proved that not even the fire alarm going off would make attendees leave the conference. Talk about commitment! Greg Taylor did a nice job keeping the competitors in the final of the Exchange Arena challenge moving through the steps necessary to debug the problem before Phil Fiore ran out as champion with 1:31 left on the 15 minute clock. Well done to all who participated in the Arena challenge.
Interestingly, Michael Atalla did not say when MEC would return or if it would be an annual event. Instead, he said that MEC would return when the Exchange development group “has something interesting to say”. I guess it is hard to repeat the kind of content-rich event enabled by the recent announcement of Exchange 2013 and the rest of the Office 2013 suite. Perhaps a 2013 MEC might focus on the real-life deployment experience of Exchange 2013 and the changes in Exchange 2013 SP1. There’s probably enough good content there to warrant coming together again.
After a slightly anti-climatic finish that left people wondering what to do once the excitement faded, it’s appropriate to look back and discuss the highs and lows, what went well and what can be improved for future MECs. Here’s my take on the topic.
First, I think MEC overall was successful. Michael Atalla, Navin Chand (who lived and breathed MEC for the last year), Rajesh Jha, and the entire Microsoft Exchange development group desire our thanks and appreciation for bringing back MEC in such a wonderful way. This could have been a ho-hum let’s roll out another conference using an old formula kind of event, but it wasn’t.
That being said, here’s the report card:
- Overall, an excellent level of content delivered with good humour and openness by the Exchange development group and other speakers. I didn’t meet many people who said that their desire for information remained unsatisfied. The all-round attention to detail was very good.
- A powerful opening keynote that set the right tone for the conference with slightly zany, off-the-wall, and edgy videos wrapped around some interesting contributions from speakers. See my MEC Day 1 review for more on how the conference launched with style and panache.
- White-boarding sessions led by engineers. Apart from avoiding the awkward moments that often occur when engineers (who don’t normally speak to large public audiences) grapple with the opening slides of often-overloaded decks, breaking the ice by asking attendees to state their concerns and then diving in to answer questions seemed like a very nice way to communicate information about technical topics.
- The gather-to-discuss impromptu sessions around whiteboards in the exhibit halls. Engineers, MVPs, and MCMs gathered to debate technical issues posed by attendees and all seemed to have a good time driving towards an eventual solution. It was also nice to see the MVP Program do their level best to inform, educate, and encourage people to contribute to the community to the level necessary to be recognized as an MVP.
- Access to engineers. Where else can you have a 1-on-1 conversation with people who know what really happens? Along this line, “Just let me check the code on my laptop”. There’s really no better response to a technical question about a software product.
- An enjoyable night out at Universal. Riding rollercoasters with zero wait is so much more enjoyable than the normal battleground-like fight through crowds that Orlando’s theme parks resemble in the summer. We discovered that running a theme park at 5% capacity delivers a delightful experience all round.
- Providing a wall-sized poster for people to chart their own involvement with Exchange since 1993 was a nice touch.
What can be improved:
- The Exchange Arena: the four heats were too far away from the rest of the action. These would have been better had they been located on the exhibit floor, preferably in some kind of “in the round” setting that allowed spectators to follow what the competitors were doing instead of getting eye strain from looking at distant monitors. In addition, the challenges should not have clashed with sessions – this would have been a great activity during breaks.
- Many of the breakout rooms were far too small for the number of people who wanted to attend sessions. There was a lot of energy and interest around Exchange 2013, coupled with an almost equal amount of disappointment and frustration when people found they couldn’t get into sessions, even when repeats were scheduled. And sitting against a wall is not a very pleasant way to endure a 75-minute session.
- The idea behind “Geek Out with Perry” was good, but the format and execution can be much improved. I love the idea of providing the technical leaders of Exchange with a platform to share their knowledge and experience, but doing this in front of large audiences in a keynote slot needs better preparation and delivery. I hope Microsoft keep the idea and refine it in future events. More on this topic in my MEC Day 2 review.
- Not providing shuttles from the conference to the airport. If you provide shuttles for people arriving at the event, why not complete the circle and bring them back to the airport again?
- Spotty Wi-Fi coverage at times in different parts of the conference center. The bane of conference organizers who have to cope with a profusion of wireless devices. In an era where connectivity is expected, couldn’t Microsoft do better?
- No more can be said about the lurid t-shirts inflicted on different groups. The vile green and horrible yellow shirts made their wearers visible from a mile away but were really difficult to look at, even with sunglasses. A photo of the shirts in all their glory is posted here, if you really need to see them.
The most successful marketing giveaway in the MEC exhibit was eNow Consulting’s t-shirt that required attendees to track down MVPs and MCMs and have them sign the shirt on the back. Those who managed to track down at least three were entered into a draw for a Microsoft Surface. The eNow folks distributed a thousand shirts. How many of these will reappear at future MECs? The challenge for other exhibitors is to come up with an even better giveaway in the future, something that is so more memorable than the classic branded t-shirt, mug, or sparkly bouncing ball.
Best whiteboard comment? Maybe “About as good as JBOD” to the question “What did you think of the Office 365 datacenter model made of LEGO?” Well, I liked it anyway!
I don’t pretend to be the only one to have a valid opinion on what was good and not so good at MEC. Debate is always good and I am sure that Microsoft will appreciate hearing your views on how to expand, enhance, and improve future MECs. Although no comment box yet exists on the iammec.com site, I bet one will be there soon
In a sentence, the best thing about MEC was that it definitely was not the tired, flabby, and not-so-good conference that TechEd has become. It’s a new start for an old conference. Roll on 2013 (or whenever the Exchange team concludes that they have something interesting to say)!
Follow Tony @12Knocksinna