Australian SharePoint Conference Review

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I was fortunate to attend the Australian SharePoint Conference this week (June 16 & 17). This was a surprisingly good conference –  comfortable venue, well organized, top notch speakers, great networking and most importantly a very useful look in detail into SharePoint 2010

Australian SharePoint Conference

Complaints & Reality

There’s always a few things to complain about at a conference eg the air conditioning was inconsistent (too hot at times, too cold at others) but these are rarely things the conference organisers can control. I’ve learnt from running my own events in the past that you are often at the mercy of your venue when it comes to these kinds of things.

Perhaps my only query is why the conference organizers decided against supplying internet wi-fi access to attendees – it was sorely missed – but I’m guessing it is a cost factor. Hotels almost always charge insane prices for internet access. Plus they usually don’t have the infrastructure to handle a sudden surge of 800 geeks jumping on the internet. The question for conference organisers running their events in hotels usually comes down to this – do we:

  • a) not supply internet, and then listen to people complain about lack of access, or
  • b) supply internet (at huge cost), and then listen to  people complain about how poor the bandwidth is

But I’m speculating of course – I’m not sure what the actual reasons were.

And I’ve probably spent too much time focussing on that one little gripe anyway, because it detracts from the excellence that was delivered in all other areas of the event.

Cost

Speaking of amazing, at $650+GST the cost was very low for a 2 day conference held in a 5 star venue. But I don’t want to appear hypocritical here – I was able to attend free of charge (due to my being a community user group leader).

Content

The conference started very well with Arpan Shah delivering one of the better keynotes I’ve seen in a long time. He had a very good balance between slides and demos, and managed to draw out benefits of the new features. Something I find irritating at product launches and other events is where the speakers just talk about features and then tack on a ‘so your business will increase its ROI’ cliché at the end. None of that here. With SharePoint 2010 there is a ton of benefit to upgrading (in spite of what I may have thought previously).

The main benefits (in my mind) are in areas that previously required significant coding and/or configuration. The tools for connecting SharePoint to other data sources are numerous, as are the tools for analysing that data. And they only require clicking and filling in fields to enable – power-users are going to love SharePoint 2010. That’s not to say that developers are being excluded – far from it. The hooks into SharePoint are now well exposed and deep. I really believe this release is where Microsoft gets it right (that often mentioned v3) and the product moves from rough diamond to polished gem. OK, I’m choking a little on that last sentence, but seriously this product is impressive. I’ll outline a few more highlights below, but for now the overriding impression I have is that SharePoint 2010 is a mature release.

How Do You Build Something Like This?

I’d love to be involved in the full product cycle for a product like SharePoint and see how they plan it out, develop and market such a huge ‘thing’. This product is a complex beast. I’ve often wondered how something goes from an idea into such a huge ‘platform’ over the years. With a product like Windows I can kinda imagine in my mind how it gets built up from kernal to functions to drivers to UI etc. Not that that is an insignificant thing mind you, but… fathomable. With products like SharePoint – and SQL Server is another – I’m curious as to how they bring together such a diverse range of functionality. Everything from content management and document management to Word and Visio services to Powershell to SharePoint Designer to BCS to Search to… the list goes on. Amazing. What an engineering feat.

And Then There’s Collaboration

What a wank term ‘collaboration’ has become – it’s almost meaningless these days. Which is why I find the SharePoint 2010 tag line: ‘The Business Collaboration Platform for the Enterprise and the Internet’ to be so silly. What on earth does that mean? I guess it is an enabler. Or a facilitator. Of synergising. Or perhaps it’s my fault. A while back when I was answering a Microsoft survey I was asked: What does your company need? My Answer: I need a business collaboration platform for the enterprise and the internet. Yeah right…

Actually, in terms of collaboration I think the real meaning is this: Microsoft has managed to build a product where just about every single one of their other products works with it. They’re all integrated together. They collaborate! In fact, in many areas to get the most out of SharePoint 2010 you really need to have all their other products. Just about every Office 2010 product. CRM integrates in there too. And for PowerPivot you need SQL Server 2008 R2 (if I’m not mistaken). Thus:

Collaboration = you must buy all our products :-)

Audience

One thing I couldn’t really figure out was who the target audience for this conference was. It seemed to include developers, IT Pros and Business people. There were tracks for both business (downstairs on level 3) and technical (upstairs) but I often found business people in the technical tracks and developers in the business sessions. It’s an interesting audience profile – and I’d love to know what the response from attendees was (eg via evaluations). Did attendees get the insights they were hoping for? Did developers feel they were well catered to? Did business managers find the contacts they were looking for?

Sessions

I attended a number of sessions, a few of which I wanted to call out for being particularly good. I’ve listed them in schedule order (so as not to upset anyone ;))

Taking SharePoint Offline with SharePoint Workspace (Alistair Speirs, Joshua Haebets)
It’s the little things – like SharePoint Workspace – that are often the most impressive. The offline story with SharePoint is really good now. Just sync your required libraries and you’re good to go. There’s some document limits (my prediction: this will be biggest source of headaches in the enterprise – expect a service pack that lifts these limits to unlimited in the future) but other than that it just works. Well, according to Alistair and his fancy PowerPoint slide deck. I was convinced. Which brings me to a vitally important point (not) that all conference evaluation forms should have – a rating on the visual richness of the PowerPoint presentations :-) (admittedly mine would always get the lowest score). Alistair has the best PowerPoint graphics IMO. And he’s a good presenter too. Which brings me to another point – persuasion. These days I do believe that being a good presenter is often more important than the abilities of your product. A good presenter makes even the worst tosh sound desirable. And vice versa. Note: I’m not saying that is a good thing – but I do think it is true. And when you are a good presenter and have a great product – well… joy!
A final point about Alistair’s session – one thing I reckon he should do is have more question time in his sessions – he’s a master. How does he know so much? Freak.

Why you need to be be more Social (Daniel McPherson)
I loved this session. This was in the business track and served as a really interesting prompt to companies that they need to be understanding the social behaviours of staff and how to incorporate that into SharePoint. Daniel made some compelling points around the ‘if you don’t provide it internally your staff will go externally to find it’ aspects to employee behaviours and highlighted the reward mentality (eg think Xbox games leader boards and Foursquare badges) that can be used. Best of all he’s provided working .wsp projects you can download and play with straight away.

Word Services and Open XML (Andrew Coates)
Always a crowd favourite, Andrew actually had the audience bursting in to applause many times during his session as he highlighted neat developer tricks in Visual Studio 2010, as well as demonstrating how easy it is to hook into all the Word creation power within SharePoint 2010. With it’s server side focus and *infinite* scalability, creating documents across the enterprise programmatically just got super easy.
One of the ‘blurring of the lines’ strategies Microsoft has managed with SharePoint is how developing for Office is now just a given. Oh, it’s just part of the framework that you hook into. Previously there was much more of a separation – and you needed a special Office developer to build certain components. It was more of a mindset thing than an actual technical thing, but it was there. That’s dissipating now. SharePoint developers are in many ways, now Office developers as well. All for free.

SharePoint 2010 BCS and Facebook (Adam Cogan)
I try not to miss an Adam Cogan session – he’s entertaining to say the least. I had a tiny bit of input into his session and thus new what he was aiming for, but even I was impressed with what he pulled off. By the end of the session he had SharePoint working in a push/pull manner using BCS with Facebook via the Graph API.
He’s making this available as a .wsp and I’ll update this post when I have the link.

Wicked Problems and SharePoint (Paul CulmseeSeven Sigma)
Wow. This was probably my favourite session (yes, calling out a favourite) and admittedly it had the least to do with SharePoint, because the principles Paul outlined apply equally to any project, technology, implementation you are involved in.
Paul went through the main problems that occur in any project and how to overcome them. I was initially sceptical when he started – I thought it was going to be vague discussion – but he quickly zoned in on simple, effective attitude changes. A key point to start your thinking with is this: Project failure is essentially due to a lack of shared understanding of the problem. Simple right? Common sense perhaps. Sure. Then why does it happen so often. Paul’s series on Wicked Problems (it starts here) is worth reading carefully. This guys is a practical thinker. Don’t miss out on an excellent series of articles from him.
In my opinion Paul was the ‘find’ of the conference. I knew most of the other speakers and have heard them before, so I always love discovering a new presenter of such quality.

Vendor Stalls

I thought I’d finish with a few observations about the vendors who sponsored the event and had stalls. All the big names were there (with only a few obvious players missing). From a marketing perspective I was interested to see how the companies differentiated themselves. Surprisingly it seemed that all of the vendors like to talk about how great they think they are. How they are ‘premium’ or ‘different’ or ‘enhanced’ or ‘ready’ or ‘the brightest’ or ‘the only’. It’s strange really. As I flicked through boring flyer after boring flyer I realised I had to work hard to understand what value any of them were delivering. Putting on my customer hat, I wondered which of these vendors I would choose if I had some specific needs to be addressed. Answer: none – it was overwhelming. In fact, it seems that vendors go out of their way to cover every imaginable facet of SharePoint – long lists of ‘capabilities’, ‘leveraging’ services, ‘visiblity’ improvements, ‘unlocking’ abilities, ‘empowering’ strategies, and more generic, waffle terms.

I’m betting all of the vendors got a lot of leads. All the same leads as other vendors. Which just means the differentiation discussions are moved to the inevitable phone call onslaught that starts next week.

If I were a vendor I’d be targeting a small subset of attendees. Pick a specific niche (a certain developer set, or a specific industry, or a specific business need) and just market to them (eg ‘document management for councils’ is more specific, as is ‘workflow training for customer service departments’). There were only a few who did this – eg one company who targeted ‘engineering industries’. The ‘all things to all men’ approach is very hard work unless you’re a really big player.

Special mention: thanks to Unique World for providing the coffee cart. Much appreciated.

Summary

I rate this conference very highly. Very professionally organized with extremely useful content. Oh, and very tasty food.
I learnt a ton of stuff. Caught up with a lot of people. Had my mind opened to new areas. Very worthwhile.

Debbie Ireland, Kathy Hughes, James Milne, Brendan Law and Mark Orange are to be congratulated for delivering such an impressive event.

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I'm the co-host of HubShots and the CEO of XEN - helping mid-large B2B companies with their digital marketing and lead generation.

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