What can I say about the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) that recently finished in Austin? Lots of blogs and other comments have already been posted, including my assessment of the messages contained in the day 1 keynote, the splendor of the sessions delivered on day 2, and some closing thoughts on the most important messages coming from the conference.
But there’s always more to say. Like describing the colorful side of MEC, the side that compliments and balances the formal array of sessions and other carefully arranged events that populate the agenda. Here’s my take on the best stuff from MEC 2014.
Yammer: Microsoft is doing its best to convince people that Yammer is useful. And so it came to pass that all the MEC attendees were invited to participate in a Yammer something. Various made-up nouns are used to describe this like “YamJam”, none of which I understand. In any case, I gave it my best shot and duly emerged as a wonderful contributor to the yamming… Seriously, every technology has its place and its advocates like Christophe Fiessinger do their best to advance the cause. It will be interesting to see where Yammer ends up. I doubt I shall end up as a Yammer MVP!
Pillow and Skittles: The nice people who run the MVP program in Microsoft like to publicize the names and faces of the MVPs so that people recognize and know us. And so we ended up with our faces being plastered all over boards (pretty normal) and pillows and skittles. The pillows were the kind that you would only ever use at a technology conference and should never appear in a home environment. Microsoft VP and head of Exchange development Perry Clarke demonstrated the correct way to use the pillow, but I’m still not having one anywhere near me. As to the packets of skittles featuring beaming MVP faces? Well, the skittles were nice and the packaging was easily disposed. Enough said.
Best Session: An easy choice. Vivek Sharma did a fantastic job of explaining what happens behind the scenes to deliver Exchange Online at massive scale. The detail he provided about workflow processing, capacity management, reporting and analysis, and all-in commitment to keeping the service running added to the credibility of Office 365. You might have doubted Office 365 before this session, but not afterwards.
Session with most blank faces: Tim McMichael delivered an incredible session about the way that Exchange leverages Windows Failover Clustering to enable Database Availability Groups. I enjoyed it very much, but I noticed that many in the audience struggled to cope with the sheer amount of detail provided by Tim. He’s obviously an expert who positively wallows in the details of all things related to clusters.
Worse session: There was no worst session, at least not in those that I attended. The keynote ranks as the most disappointing session as its energy level, pacing, and delivery just wasn’t at the expected standard. Things weren’t helped by lousy audio in the ballroom, a surprising thing when professional audio technicians are available to tune the sound. Our “Experts Unplugged: Support Issues” session on Monday afternoon was afflicted by bad audio too. I was positioned on the right hand side of the stage and couldn’t hear Tim Heeney speak from the far left hand side. Nor could I hear many of the questions that came in front the audience. My bad ears or poor audio arrangements? I think the latter.
An evolving conference: Technology conferences can be accused of following the same old playbook year in year out. I think TechEd is certainly guilty of this practice. MEC tried some different things and the best evolution was the Experts Unplugged sessions. Some of these didn’t work because of poor audience participation (no questions) or the wrong set of experts. But those that did fairly sizzled with a cut-and-thrust between experts and audiences as questions were posed and debated. Small rooms and a mixture of talents on the panel appear to be the recipe for success here.
The walkabout cutout: The nice people at Microsoft asked me for a headshot the week before MEC. That headshot was duly Photoshopped onto a body that was 40 pounds lighter than reality and sporting a red velvet bowtie that I wouldn’t wear in a fit. But the cutout seemed to be a popular place for photos outside the Exchange museum (lots of good stuff to view there) and it was stolen at the end of MEC by some nameless (and shameless) product group members who took the unfortunate Tony on a tour of Austin. Each stage on the cutout’s progress was recorded photographically, including some interesting shots with members of the public who obviously thought that they were being filmed for some weird TV show. My cardboard friend ended up in the Old School Grill at the speaker party, where he joined the band. Latest reports are that he made a flight to Seattle and is now somewhere in Redmond. How appropriate!
Quizzes: Binary Tree and ENow Software both ran good quizzes at MEC. Binary Tree took their name and used it as the basis for binary code puzzles that people had to solve. I think many cheated and used online binary calculators to solve the puzzles but that’s OK. Many also used the InterWeb to check the trivia questions posed in the ENow Software quiz and four bright sparks ended up fighting it out for the $1,000 cash prize. I was invited to host the final round and delighted in asking five tough questions extracted from my treasure trove of Exchange trivia (otherwise known as rubbish long forgotten). The winner ended up with ten crisp $100 bills, but it was funnier to see the face of Maarten Piederiet, the runner-up, as he received 500 $1 bills to take home to Holland.
Meals and drinks: No one expects gourmet food at a technology conference and we were not disappointed at MEC. Any of the food I tried was rubbery, warmish, and basically awful. Nothing out of the ordinary there. I was disappointed at the inability of the caterers to provide hot coffee though. Any cup I poured was tepid brown ink. Uuugh.
Gifts: Many thanks to the nice people at SolarWinds who gave me a brand new xBox One because I was the top tweeter at MEC. I’m past the age when xBox gaming is really attractive and anyway, a U.S. device wasn’t going to function too well in Ireland, even if I paid the outlandish customs duty that the fine customs staff at Dublin Airport were likely to extract if I turned up with the xBox. So I gifted it to Greg Taylor of Microsoft for his kids. And Greg gave me his Dell Venue Pro, the gift provided to all MEC attendees – and appreciated by almost everyone. There seems to have been some problems with devices but that’s to be expected and the problematic Venues were quickly swapped, so all is well.
Logistics: Generally logistics worked extremely well and the organizers executed everything needed to deliver an impressive conference. The fact that no paper guides were produced puzzled some but then again, you don’t need paper when the conference web site is so good and you’re given a Windows tablet to access it and the OneNote notebook containing all the conference info. I liked this a lot.
Twitter: I tweeted a lot from MEC in a form of experiment for myself. I normally write down notes at a conference and decided to replace this with short tweets to capture essential information as I heard it in sessions (feel free to review my Twitter stream to see what you think). Like any other tool, it’s important to use Twitter the right way to be effective. I was happy that I captured information that is useful to me and seemed to be useful to others who consumed it. I apologize to anyone who was offended by the tone of some of the tweets, especially when I was under inspired by the keynote. As I said to Jeff Teper, social networking is a double-edged tool: when things are going for you, social networking acts as an accelerant. When things aren’t going so well, the same effect applies.
So that’s it – the unseen side of MEC, the bits that make conferences enjoyable events to attend. I also enjoyed meeting those who attended MEC in different roles – vendors (I know booth duty can be excruciatingly difficult at times), product group members (lots of new faces), other Microsoft employees (the support guys, consulting staff, and others), MVPs (a great bunch), and everyone else. You all made MEC. It was great.
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