I’m just back from the Microsoft Ignite conference in Chicago. With over 23,000 people attending, it was a huge event and the central concourse reminded me of a very busy railway station from time to time. Microsoft has announced that they are going to run Ignite in Chicago in 2016 (May 9-13) and I bet they’ve received a ton of advice from attendees that will help to make the 2016 event better.
The most common points I have heard expressed were:
Stop the shouting! Microsoft hired a company called EventForce to run the logistics and EventForce hired a bunch of college students to help attendees get from place to place. Because the McCormick Place conference center is so large this is a necessary service, but it would have been nice if some coaching had been provided so that the “purple shirts” and the other security staff didn’t feel the need to shout at attendees. At times, it felt like cattle queuing to enter a milking shed. Attendees pay good money to attend Ignite; they don’t need to be insulted.
Fix the Wi-Fi. It’s a terrifically difficult challenge to provide a fast and robust Wi-Fi service for so many devices, but we’re talking about the world’s largest software company here and a company that is capable of running massively scalable infrastructures in the cloud. The service was awful in many places for Monday and Tuesday and seemed to improve as the week progressed. It would be nice if it worked from the start.
Make the buses run all day. The conference center is equipped with a hotel (the Hyatt Regency), at least two Starbucks, and a McDonalds. That’s not much choice if you want to duck out of sessions for a couple of hours to refresh yourself or do some work in private. But the bus service to the hotels stopped during the middle of the day, forcing attendees to take a cab or walk 3 or more miles back to the center of Chicago. On the upside, the people running the bus service were friendly and helpful and the buses use a special road to get back to downtown and so avoid the need to grapple with most of the traffic.
Provide edible food. No one expects great food at a conference. Imagine how difficult it is to prepare and serve meals for so many people in the 90 minute break assigned for lunch. Now make it more difficult by serving food that is attractive and edible. But people pay for the food in their conference fee and it was not good to find so many attendees voicing opinions that Ignite served the very worst food ever experienced at a major conference. That’s not the kind of thing you want to hear.
Shorten the keynote. Microsoft is in a quandary here. Ignite brings together many different groups, all of whom want to hear something about their own area of technology. So the keynote seemed to be an attempt to satisfy everyone in the audience and it lasted forever. I sat down at 8:30AM and escaped at 11:50AM. And that was too long. The keynote contained lots of great content and Julia White proved to be a real hit with her contribution, but it lasted way too long. And the annoying warm up act of the two talking heads who pratted on inanely before the keynote started did my head in.
Rationalize and streamline the scheduling. The conference center is big and room are spread apart. Many attendees seemed to be in perpetual motion to get from place to place and some clocked up many miles on their tracking device of choice (unsurprisingly, the Microsoft Band was noticeable by its popularity). Microsoft wanted to provide an event that substituted for TechEd, MEC, the SharePoint Conference, the Lync Conference, and others, so why didn’t particular areas of the conference center become fulcrum points for these communities by grouping related sessions together? It would have been nice not to have to see every floor and every area in the center. On the other hand, exercise is goodness.
Let speakers propose sessions they want to give. Asking experienced conference speakers to make themselves available for a session to be assigned to them is not a good way to create a compelling agenda. It’s an interesting idea that didn’t work. I think it’s just fine for Microsoft to assign sessions to its employees to ensure that the content it wants covered is delivered, but the same tactic doesn’t work with external speakers. Let us do our thing and cover technology with passion… and let’s do more “unplugged” sessions too. These work really well as long as they are moderated correctly.
More beer please. I didn’t attend the conference celebration because having dinner with 23,000 others and experiencing the lines for food, bathrooms, and beer didn’t seem like something I would enjoy. But I heard from many that the beer ran out early. Clearly not a good thing to happen in an event catering for IT types.
On a positive note, any of the sessions I attended were of the standard that I expected. This is only one person’s view and I heard from quite a few attendees that they were disappointed with the marketing-like content of some sessions. It’s also hard to come up with a schedule that everyone likes and I know some were disappointed when attractive sessions clashed or the schedule meant that fewer could get to a session than you’d expect. The Exchange compliance session was one of this – an interesting topic with huge expertise on the panel, attended by just a few people.
But you’ll get ups and downs at any conference and Microsoft provides an excellent Channel 9 service to allow attendees and people who weren’t at the event to catch up on all the sessions present at Ignite.
I also liked the Skype service provided to allow attendees to call home from the conference center. It was a small but nice gesture that leverages one of Microsoft’s products.
And of course, we had the chance to launch our “Office 365 for Exchange Professionals” eBook at Ignite. Microsoft did a very nice job of producing 200 printed copies of the book that were given away to attendees. They also provided 400 copies on USB for my “Bumps and Blips” session on Thursday. And we were supported too by ENow Software, TransVault, Binary Tree, and NetMail, all of whom had special versions of the book for distribution to their customers. Copies of the book are available online. Because it’s an eBook that needs to be kept current with the evolution of the service, we will be updating it with a goal of releasing a new version at IT/DEV Connections in Las Vegas next September.
Best of all was the chance to meet up with so many people working in the industry. I’ve never seen so many Microsoft engineers at a single conference (expected because all of the other conferences are now gone); there were a huge number of great industry luminaries floating around (some at several feet off the group); lots of MVPs attended; and the exhibition hall – although very large – always had someone interesting to talk with or something interesting to investigate.
Overall, Ignite 2015 reminded me very much of a Microsoft V1.0 product. Obvious goodness and a great platform to build off, but lots of places to improve. I will be back in May 2016 for V2.0.
Follow Tony @12Knocksinna