I attended TechEd 2006 in Sydney last week and was disappointed. In this post I’ll outline some suggestions I think Microsoft should consider in order to improve the event for next year.
Firstly though, a brief note on my expectations going in to TechEd.
My reasons for attending TechEd were:
– to better understand Microsoft’s product range,
– to understand their strategic direction,
– to receive guidance on appropriate technologies to use (when and where)
– to appreciate the business value offering of Microsoft products, and
– tips & tricks.
It is also an opportunity to mix with other developers and chat with Microsoft Staff.
I was so impressed with TechEd in 2004 (see here, here and here) that I convinced my boss to send a bunch of us along. Thus, eight of us from Talman went, including 3 from our web team, 2 from our desktop team, our Chief Architect, our Technical BDM and myself.
Eight Suggestions for Microsoft
Suggestion 1: Improve your message
The opening keynote was a disappointing start to the event. Not that speaker Anne Kirah isn’t a great presenter, it’s just that her talk was totally inappropriate for a room full of IT professionals.
My summary of her talk would be:
Microsoft is now listening to the ‘average’ user.
This ofcourse is something Apple had sorted over a decade ago. Why then are we effectively being told that Microsoft is catching up, as the opening keynote? And who really believes it anyway?
No, Microsoft missed a perfect opportunity to give great clarity to its audience.
Here’s how I think an event like TechEd should start – the keynote should be a bird’s eye view of where Microsoft is headed. It should give an overview of the product releases coming up (with estimated dates) and how they all relate to each other.
There should be comment on how Microsoft intends to offer value to businesses and how it plans to compete with other vendors (eg Google, VMware, Apple, Sony). It should focus on real value to customers and reduce the dependance on hype and ‘coolness’.
A keynote should also cover briefly the structure of the company (eg relevant today would be a comment on Bill’s plans to step down, and how Ray Ozzie will be leading strategy in his place).
There should also be an indication of how the different sectors of Microsoft relate to the different Tracks of TechEd. How does the Architecture Track relate to the Web tool track, what do Web Developers need to understand about new Server offerings, and so forth.
The whole schedule and variety of sessions offered should have a central theme (albeit mentioned ever so briefly) that ties them together.
I for one came away from TechEd with the impression that Microsoft doesn’t really know where it is going. It has a bunch of very complex products that have taken way too long to develop, coming out with a lack of unified strategy. This is a company loaded with bloat, desperately hoping the ‘coolness’ factor will carry them through. If this is the case then I suspect they are targetting a minority of the attendees. Sure, there is 20-30% of attendees who are loving the cool coding options affored by the new tools. But the rest of us are after real business value and assurance that the decisions we make today are wise for the next 5-8 years. Personally I left feeling empty and worried.
Microsoft, please take note, TechEd 2006 has been a costly advertisement for your lack of clarity. You have only a few years left to restore it.
Suggestion 2: Improve your content
I felt that the general content was pretty light weight. The sessions did have a Level designator (I think 100 meant low and 300 meant high but I can’t be sure) but this is no excuse for having not much content. OK, keep the expertise level basic, but please make sure there is lots of it. Even with basic level content I should come out of session with my brain crammed with knowledge, demos, ideas. Sadly, I felt many had about 45 minutes worth of content padded out to an hour 15. The padding is usually done by way of ‘charismatic’ presenting, with anecdotes, a few jokes and perhaps even lame criticism under the guise of Microsoft focussed self-deprecation (more on this later).
Poor descriptions of content
A number of sessions I went to had inaccurate session descriptions. Most commonly this happened where the description included references to ‘proper architecture’, ‘process guidance’, ‘design principles’ and so forth, only to be little more than discussions of what the actual product was. Take the Location Solutions Architecure and Best practices’ session. This was little more than a discussion of what is available in Virutal Earth and MapPoint. There was no architecture here, nor any Best practices.
Suggestion 3: Improve your presenters
I’m stunned at how many sessions had presenters who freely admitted to being ill prepared. Comments to the effect of how they hadn’t even rehearsed their session, or they were using a new CTP so there might be problems with the demo were more the norm than the exception.
The other common experience was the use of VPCs that were really slow, or crashed.
Folks, this is just not acceptable.
Perhaps at a User Group or at a Code Camp, but not here.
We are paying big bucks to attend. As mentioned earlier I personally brought 7 people from Talman along (8 including me) which gives us a bill of over $12,000 (not including time away from work). I don’t expect to be treated with so little respect that you haven’t even rehearsed your session. Some presenters were even preparing their sessions earlier on the very day of their session. What a fucking joke!
If you are using a VPC you should have it perfectly prepared so that it is fast and definately works. One presenter was linked via a network to a VPC server that he commented seemed to be in use by someone else and hence he was experiencing poor response. Lord help us!
Guys, I know it is not in Microsoft’s agenda, but please just use VMware for now. It is easy, fast, efficient, and free, and will give you a much better overall perception. The only thing I am aware of that you can’t really demo with VMware is Vista, and that only because it doesn’t support some of the glass effects. But for everything else, you should be using VMware.
Also, using criticism as a presentation ‘device’ is not on. This is one of the features of poor presenters – they criticise things, usually existing versions of products. Here’s an example of how things like this manifest:
‘So, have you ever tried to search in Outlook? It sucks right…’
Another method is the ‘stupid user’ approach – like this:
‘So, we ended up sending the client simple links that showed how susceptible to SQL injection they were’ (ie stupid arrogant client, smart helpful me)
I’m pretty sure the aim is to somehow get the audience on side. Perhaps, the thinking goes, I’ll be honest and point out some of the shortcomings of the existing product and that way the audience will have more respect for my recommendation of how this new version really rocks! Yeah right.
The other issue is the use of shared sessions with two presenters. This is so problematic that I’ll be giving it a separate blog post later. But for now, take the Office Opening Keynote. Arpan and Angus looked like they hadn’t even met before the session (although I assume they had). I’ve blogged before about Angus (I thought he was amazing at CodeCamp Oz) but here he was forced to play second fiddle to Arpan in discussing some of the new features in Office 2007. Why? What was the point?. Kill the joint presentations folks – generally they just don’t work.[Exception: The only time I saw a joint presentation work was Adam Cogan and Steve Hertzberg giving a Cabana session (one of the highlights of the whole TechEd I have to say – make sure you attend one of their workshops coming up in September). These guys had very clearly worked together before and complemented each other beautifully.]
And finally speakers, please pay attention to when your other sessions are on. It was disappointing to hear many speakers not even know when they were next presenting – ‘I think I’m on tomorrow afternoon…’ – its as if you don’t really care.
Suggestion 4: Improve your scheduling tools
When it comes to knowing what was on and where, it was a very cumbersome process. I have to say that the CommNet site is one of the worst sites I’ve ever used (and I’m not just saying this because one of the Talman guys knocked up a better one in the week before).
Little things, like trying to change your session meant you first had to remove your existing session, then allocate a new one. Too bad if you were scrolled right down to the bottom of their woefully layed out page…
And here’s the thing – if you decided last minute to change to another session (eg because the one you planned to attend was mysteriously cancelled!) then you had to trudge all the way back to the exhibition hall to call up the CommNet site.
I suspect Microsoft is well aware of the issue, since they quickly provided handouts of the sessions on days 2 and 3.
Having a few machines available up at the Parkside floors might have helped. As would having wireless available in the rooms (it was only available in the exhibition hall).
Bar code scanners
Guys, I want my privacy. At the door of every session the staff recorded our bar codes going in. I’m sure this is useful information for Microsoft but frankly, I’m not really happy with them scanning me and knowing my preferences. (Not to mention that it slowed down the process of getting into rooms.) I’d rather be anonymous. That’s actually one reason why I didn’t fill out the evaluation forms – they are directly tied to my login.
Suggestion 5: Improve your schedule
Reduce the sessions to one hour (from 1 hour 15) and make the breaks between sessions 15 minutes (rather than 30).
This will allow more sessions per day and also means if you miss a session you are not as severely affected.
Schedule sessions over lunch aswell. One of the excellent decisions the organisers made was to have lunch from 12 noon through to 2:30pm – this meant there was no rush to eat and you could schedule in cabana sessions easily. Top marks for that decision guys – it made a big difference.
Also, consider repeating some sessions. Perhaps make this concept flexible and based on attendance levels at sessions and evaluation feedback – sessions could be repeated on the 2nd and 3rd days. I realise this might be difficult for some speakers (since they wouldn’t know they are repeating a session until a day or even a few hours before) – but not to worry – the well prepared, passionate speakers (who are most likely to be asked to repeat a session) will gladly do this.
Suggestion 6: Improve your business value
Not much is new
I have to admit to some surprise about the lack of new stuff coming out from Microsoft. Where as 2 years ago they were in the middle of a new cycle of products (eg things like InfoPath, VS2005, TFS, SQL, SharePoint, MapPoint, BizTalk, WSE, etc were all in Beta) now the best we can come up with is Office 2007 and Vista. [Yes, Longhorn Server and a few others are coming aswell, but they received little attention.]
And in these products there is not really much that is revolutionary. In fact, sometimes I wonder if all they are doing is making simple stuff more complex. OK, so I don’t really believe that last sentence, but I can imagine some attendees who aren’t linked in to blogs, user groups and the general community coming out with that kind of impression. Take the new Search capabiltiies in SharePoint and Office. It seems that they’ve really just taken a simple concept, executed beautifully by Google Desktop Search (and MSN Search for that matter) and made it really complex. Sure, you can still do all the simple stuff, but the focus is on the new complex capabilities (stuff that I suspect 95% of users don’t want or need).
Another thing Microsoft should be promoting is proper design and architecture. How many sessions do you sit in where the speakers will be building an example solution and skip even the most basic parts of design? It usually gets skipped with a passing comment such as:
‘Now if I was doing this properly I’d write a proper business tier rather than just passing through SQL statements straight from the click event…’
Wrong. You are presenting to a whole ‘generation’ (audience) of developers who never (and I mean never) get to see a proper middle tier design demoed.
The same goes for error handling. How often do you see one simple exception object check, but nothing else (or just a message box with a lame description)?
Wrong. We should be getting hammered with the need to write proper error handlers, data objects, business objects, object naming, etc.
Every demo should be referring to the Enterprise Library and making it ‘normal’ practice to include them (no matter how simple and useless the demo is)
Microsoft have a whole Patterns and Practices team producing guidance in these areas – what a pity most of the presenters seem oblivious to their existence.
And come to think of it, how often are the speaker’s code snippets reviewed by acknowledged professionals who give it the thumbs up or not. How does Microsoft ensure that what its presenters from outside companies are presenting is quality code? I’d be interested to find out.
Suggestion 7: Improve your TechEd Party
In a word: pathetic
The ‘party’ was held at the Home nightclub just over from the venue. I don’t know how many of the registered attendees went, but it felt very cramped. We were skwished in, we had to queue up for limited cold food, it was far too loud, and the ‘entertainment’ was light on. After 45 minutes I’d had enough and went home. Crazy. They had even hired some ‘celebrities’ (Willy Mason and some boxer) to play Xbox boxing. Yawn. What a croc. I wonder how much it cost to get them along.
Shame on you Microsoft.
Suggestion 8: Show me the fruit
A very minor point obviously, and indicative that my rant is drawing to a close, but it would have been nice to have fruit available. Even just bowls of apples around the place would have been great.
Speaking of fruit, having a few Boost Juice bars in the exhibition hall would have been great. Not sure on the cost of this kind of thing, but they’d definately get some converts.
Its not all bad… Some highlights of TechEd
Ok, enough of the rant, here’s a few areas that deserve praise:
The venue was excellent – plenty of room, well layed out, huge lunch area, etc. There was always heaps of food available, all the water and soft drink was free, and even little things like having a selection of herbal teas available was a nice touch (I mostly drink herbal tea these days). Everything was clean (including the toilets) even late in the day, there were plenty of staff and there were very few queues. Very impressive.
Although there were many poor speakers, there were also a number of exceptional speakers.
My top 3 speakers were Scott Guthrie, Adam Cogan and Greg Low (UPDATED: Previously I incorrectly reported that Greg had missed a session – this was not the case – my mistake, and apologies to Greg for this error).
All are seasoned presenters ofcourse, but the reason they stand out from the rest (that I saw) is due to the amount of preparation they put in. They know their presentation (not just their product) inside out, and they have obviously rehearsed and/or given it many times previously. Their presentations never crash, and they deliver as much content as possible in their allotted time. No padding and guff here.
Take Scott Guthrie for example. I caught his ASP.Net End to End session. Even though I was aware of most of the content already, it was delivered in such a rapid fire, beautifully executed, crash-free, passionate manner, that I was completely enthralled. Top marks Scott.
The Dev’Garten was great. No two ways about it. A great place to hang out and meet up with Microsoft DEs, Community greats and other developers. The Dev’Garten was also the place for contributing to the Uplift project. I’ve heard great reports about the project, but it is not something I took part in, so I can’t comment any further.
The exhibition hall was well layed out, had plenty to see and do, plenty of vendor stands to investigate and there always seemed to be a Cabana session going on.
The opening night welcome drinks event was extemely well organised. Also, things like the registration processes were efficient and easy to understand. Very professional.
The massive line up of Dell PCs was excellent. Hundreds of machines (it seemed) ensured that everyone could get onto CommNet, read their mail, surf the web etc. Nice work.
Hands on labs and certification
Again, another incredibly impressive arrangement. Many people were able to get certified at discount prices and the staff there were very helpful.
So I’ll leave it there.
Although I left TechEd 2006 with some grave disappointments, I have to admit that overall there is value in attending. But there is plenty that can be done to improve the event.
And the reason I feel comfortable about posting this entry is that Frank Arrigo and the rest of the gang are always welcoming of ways Microsoft can improve. Frank made special mention during the locknote that they were after feedback on how they can improve – their aim is to make TechEd 2007 the best ever. At this stage I’m not sure I’ll be attending, but I hope they achieve their aim.