Feet on the Ground: TechEd 2014 Review for IT Pros

Feet on the Ground: TechEd 2014 Review for IT Pros

The week prior to TechEd 2014 I wondered if the event would actually be an event valuable to IT Pros. TechEd, of course, stands for Technical Education, so would the conference provide enough technical umpf to deliver enough learning to make IT Pros want to come back, should TechEd 2015 happen?

Microsoft spent much of 2013 taking things away from IT Pros. Things like ending TechNet subscriptions and the death of the Microsoft Management Summit (MMS) sent a perceived message that Microsoft had stopped caring about IT Pros and on-premises software. So, TechEd 2014, a conference with almost 90% of attendees who are IT Pros, was Microsoft's big chance to make amends and show the IT world that they still care. But did Microsoft succeed?

Through feedback directly from IT Pros in attendance, and my own personal experiences, it seems that TechEd 2014 may have missed the mark and instead left many wondering if Microsoft is still truly interested in associating with those ground-level partners that ultimately make or break Microsoft product deployment and implementation.

Based on the feedback from attendees and others, I'll piece out each major component of TechEd 2014 and provide the perception and my own commentary. The feedback this year was interesting because almost everyone mentioned the same things:

  1. The keynote was for the wrong audience.
  2. Sessions were old and not technical enough.
  3. The Expo was just "OK" and the swag could've been better.
  4. The location (Houston) was better than expected, though still not optimal.
  5. There needs to be more community events in 2015.
  6. Only Satya can save Microsoft.

The Keynote

Brad Anderson delivered the keynote on Monday morning to kickoff TechEd 2014. As usual, Brad did a fantastic job, however, the content he delivered was not well received by attendees. With the IT Pro audience making up 90% of attendance, the keynote content was completely off target. The messaging seemed to overshadow the new product announcements and was truly a communication for CIOs, not IT Pros. The keynote was for the wrong audience.

There were many product announcements and all of them were monumental, it just didn't fit with a crowd still planning on doing things completely on-premises for the next 5-8 years. If you missed all the new product announcements, read: The TechEd 2014 Announcement Long Shortlist.

I have to come clean on something. Sometimes in my articles I'll say something like "rumored to…" or "it's rumored that…" and what I really mean is that you should really expect it to happen that way. Using the "rumored" word is my way of protecting myself and my sources. If you read through my Will TechEd 2014 be a Place for IT Pros? commentary, you'll recognize the fact that I said there would be ZERO on-premises announcements at TechEd 2014, and that's exactly what happened.

However, there is hope. Brad assured me that on-premises announcements for System Center products are coming and will be unveiled at an upcoming Microsoft event (TechEd Europe?). The problem, as it exists today, is that Azure development moves quick and new releases happen almost weekly, allowing for Microsoft to make new product advancement announcements anytime. On-premises software, on the other hand, still has to follow a methodical release schedule. Even though that release schedule has now been accelerated by Microsoft, the bits just can't be updated in time for major events. What's left is a bucketful of Azure announcements.

The majority of content provided all had to do with Microsoft's investments in Azure as a "Public Cloud" offering. Almost all of those in attendance had zero interest in a Public Cloud offering of any sort, so you have to wonder if the team that vetted the keynote content even understand the audience.

I was blasted recently when I stated the TechEd is a "sales pipeline" for Microsoft, meaning that it's now important for the company to focus more on selling product at this event than fulfilling the needs of the IT Pros. The unfortunate thing here is that "sales pipeline" was actually touted by MSFT management. I was only repeating what I was told. Based on the keynote and the subsequent attendee feedback, I'd say that message was loud and clear. Microsoft has a lot to sell these days and as Brad put it in the keynote, Microsoft has a "dream" to sell. Selling dreams is tough work.

Apparently, attendee commentary has already reached Brad's ears as he took to his blog yesterday to give his own spin on TechEd 2014. The blog post aptly titled: 3 Industry Changes that Favor IT Pros: My Recap of TechEd 2014, says: "Now, IT recognizes that the cloud is a launch pad not a cemetery." Does Brad speak for you?

The Sessions

Keynotes are one thing. Attendees are generally OK with a Microsoft keynote being salesy and futuresque and keynotes are a great way to help the audience understand Microsoft's direction, focus, roadmap. Every event needs a good roadmap discussion so that companies can plan.

But, once the keynote (or keynotes) is over, technical sessions become the focus for the majority of paying attendees. Many of the sessions for 2014 were popular and provided some good technical focus. However, I said "many" not "all." Some of the biggest feedback of the week was how sessions advertised as 300-level were either mislabeled or not vetted correctly because they were clearly at a 200-level or lower. And, there were a lot of sessions that were just repeats from TechEd 2014 or already given at similar events in the past 6 months or so. To be fair, based on the keynote product announcements around the Public Cloud, and that the attendees were primarily IT Pros dedicated to on-premises operations, there wasn't much new that could've been injected into the sessions except maybe for Exchange 2013, Office 365, BI, and maybe SQL Server 2014.

So, despite having almost 430 breakout sessions, pickings (and value) were slim according to feedback. That's not great news for a "technical education" event.

The Expo

The Expo was the usual cornucopia of pretty lights and carnival barkers. However, with the merging (I use that term loosely) of MMS and TechEd this year, I was most interested in how long-time MMS sponsors would fare at an event less targeted and less focused. TechEd, of course, is meant for a general IT Pro audience, covering all products in Microsoft's systems farm. MMS was laser targeted toward Microsoft System Center (and related) products. A general audience like TechEd brings a diluted crowd and decreases the ability for vendors to locate applicable customers. Sure, everyone wants the best SWAG, but once the SWAG is gone how many of the scanned badges represent true value?

This pretty much held true for TechEd 2014. Many of the old MMS sponsors I talked to had less success than past years at MMS, and are considering either going smaller in sponsorship for 2015, or choose another event altogether.

The Location

I'm glad to say that, personally, I was happier with Houston as the location for TechEd 2014 than I originally thought I would be. Houston is a nice town with many options for dining and I was able to devise a different running path each day. Of course, I was only a couple miles away from the conference center and just braved the walk when the weather was good.

The biggest complaint about the location I heard were from those that had a 30-45 minute bus ride each day because they were lodging so far away. And, that's something I don't really understand. Chatting with a hotel employee I learned that one of the largest events in Houston is a quilting conference that regularly sees almost 80,000 attendees. Somehow, TechEd 2014 sold out at 8,000 attendees and still saw 30-45 minute bus rides.

Location is one of the most important aspects of an event like this, particularly when it's promoted as a "community." MMS was held in Vegas throughout its event life except for a couple years (when it was held in San Diego) and I've learned how important it is that the conference center is in close proximity to the hotel just for community interaction. For those attending TechEd 2014, once they hit the bus and were redelivered to their hotels, the day was pretty much over – no matter what time that happened to be. TechEd 2015 is rumored to take place in Orlando next year but that location doesn't offer much more in the way of community improvements. I heard late last week that there are a couple hotels in Vegas looking to expand in the next year to accommodate event numbers like those of TechEd, so maybe that option is on the table for the future, should TechEd continue.

Location is huge. The right location can help offset a lack of good technical content by allowing attendees to have impromptu Birds-of-a-Feathers, or meet in the hallways, and personally extract value from the event.

The Community Events

Due to the problems with location, a very important aspect of TechEd 2014 was the organized community events. The community events had to be one of the more valuable pieces of TechEd this year, with most of the positive feedback about the overall event coming from this area.  With the combination of TechEd and MMS this year it was important to also merge the two, very strong communities. I believe the community events like the Ask the Experts, Meet and Geek, and the Twitter Army had moderate success in accomplishing this, and TheKrewe was instrumental in keeping attendees notified of impromptu gatherings.

Overall, the Community Events were great and very valuable. However, from the feedback I hear, there should be even more next time, particularly when hotels are spread so far apart.

The parties helped, too, providing a central location all over town where attendees could gather and have fun. They say the best party of the week, I'm proud to say, was the one hosted put by Microsoft Server and Tools and myITforum to highlight the old MMS community. It was held at the Downtown Aquarium in Houston and went long past midnight, and long past the drenching rain. Those that attended stated that it was a better party than the actual TechEd 2014 closing party.

But really, parties are no substitute for good technical sessions. When technical sessions degrade, what is the company actually paying for to send employees to TechEd? Without a good solid base of technical education, the event becomes just a week of paid vacation.

The No Satya, No Bennies Factor

IT Pros just want to be loved, particularly in a world where most of what Microsoft is doing seems to be about getting around IT. Whether intended or not, Microsoft's message on this still not clear. Even with Brad's blog post yesterday, the message seems more of a warning than a suggestion. Despite having an entire week to mend fences, Microsoft still left attendees guessing and feeling like they were being pushed out of their profession by the software vendor. And, truly, perception is huge. All it takes is a word here, an altered phrase there, a small show of support, and all could be good again, despite true intentions.

Think about it…

Microsoft's new CEO, Satya Nadella, keeps popping up in the darndest places. He helped introduce both Office for iPad and SQL Server 2014. He spent time at Build. However, there was no Satya in sight at TechEd 2014. Is this a subliminal message that Microsoft doesn't care about IT Pros all the way from the top? Even a prerecorded video message for TechEd 2014 attendees at the beginning of the keynote would have been enough. Seems simple, and seems like something simple enough for Microsoft marketing to conjure up. It just didn’t happen. I heard from many TechEd 2014 attendees who were extremely bothered by this.

Another thing that seemed to bother attendees was that there were no cool deals at TechEd 2014 like there had been the year before (the great Surface blow-out). We can't expect that at every Microsoft event can we? Well, it seems like TechEd 2014 was the most recent event where the attendees didn't feel that type of love in some way. Even at the recent Build conference, developers were given Xbox Ones and Nokia smartphones. But, there was nothing special for TechEd 2014 attendees this year.

And, this really compounds the message that Microsoft doesn't care for IT Pros. No Satya. No special deals. No love.

It may seem like a small nuance, and it could easily be taken as IT Pros are just being overly defensive, but if Microsoft knows about this and does absolutely nothing, well…

The Summation

All-in-all, I think TechEd 2014 was a success based solely on what it has become. Feedback suggests it could have been better – a LOT better in some respects. However, it's important to keep in mind a couple things.

First, Microsoft lives in a world that is 5-10 years ahead of the real world, hence Brad Anderson's use of the word "dream" during his keynote, I guess. They want us all to move to their Public Cloud today. That's a fact. But, the reality of the fact is that it won't happen anytime soon. However, it's not unfair for Microsoft to move ahead and share the vision of the future they are building. By the time we're ready, we'll at least be prepared. And, who knows? When that time comes, the Cloud could already be dead anyway. Get used to events like this if you intend to continue implementing and supporting Microsoft products. Taken like this, TechEd offered opportunities to derive value, you just needed to work a little harder to find it and you needed to seek out more unconventional means beyond the ones supplied by the TechEd business owners.

Secondly, TechEd is NOT MMS. For those used to how technical community events were run, TechEd is just not like that. MMS and TechEd are two different communities, hence the reason why so many smaller, community-owned events are cropping up recently. If the intent is to provide a truly technical community event, Microsoft was wrong to merge TechEd and MMS. However, if the intent is to deliver a better sales pipeline and not worry that the audience is all wrong for the message, MMS merging with TechEd makes perfect sense. Microsoft will have continued success attracting attendees to TechEd.

Third, it's really tough to judge TechEd 2014 against other years or other conferences. It was truly a year of transition with the merging of the two events and trying to get just the right mix has to be tough. It has to be a bit distracting trying to retain the positives of past events while addressing a new, incoming audience and community. I'm sure it will get better, but only if Microsoft takes feedback as constructive and not in a negative light. Nothing went truly wrong, there just needs to be some attention taken to improve in small areas.

TechEd 2015 has yet to be announced, but some have heard it directly that the event will take place somewhere and in some fashion. We've seen recently that TechEd Australia is changing. Instead of a large, central event, TechEd Australia is being broken up into smaller events at different dates across the entire country. Could this be the template for TechEd North America?

It's best said this way…

There was another reorg announced within Microsoft last Thursday, during the last day of TechEd 2014, and Mary Jo has it covered HERE. I was privy to the reorg the same day it was announced, and I have to say that some of the changes were shocking to me. I'll not go into why I believe they are shocking, just that some of them shows that Microsoft is willing to make significant changes to improve the business. Subsequently, the reorg was used as a baseline discussion for the future of TechEd. Plainly stated, Microsoft is changing, and will continue to make significant, shocking changes to better align with the industry, and nothing is off the table.


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