What to do (and what not to do) at the Microsoft Exchange Conference

What to do (and what not to do) at the Microsoft Exchange Conference

The suitcase is packed (with too much stuff), the air tickets are confirmed, I have great hope that a hotel room will be waiting, and I’m off to the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) in Austin. The conference begins next Monday and I anticipate learning some new stuff over the following three days. At least, that’s the plan.

The word on the street is that around two thousand attendees are heading for MEC. Seeing that lots has happened since the last MEC (Orlando, September 2012), it’s unsurprising that those working with Exchange (on-premises or cloud) would want to be updated about Microsoft’s future plans in this space as well as to hear about the success (or even some failures) of the current technology during real-life deployments.

Approximately 120 sessions of different types delivered by 130 presenters are on the formal MEC schedule. Good as these will undoubtly be (I have to say that because a) I’m giving one and b) the other presenters will cold-shoulder me in Austin if I don’t), much of the value that you can get from a conference like MEC is from just being there. That is, of course, if you make good use of the opportunity to connect with Exchange developers, third party application vendors, MVPs, and the other folk who will be circulating. The MEC organizers say that "309 subject matter experts" will be at the event, many of whom know how to spell "Yammer" without actually knowing what to do with the technology.

It’s good to have a plan when you head for a technology conference. Establish some goals for what you want to get out of the conference and build your plan around the sessions that will help you to achieve those goals. I will definitely take in the keynotes in order to gauge the direction that Microsoft is heading – or at least what they’re willing to tell the market. Good keynotes act as a guide for the rest of the conference because they identify sessions that are more important than others. I hope that the MEC planners have sorted out the room planning issues that afflicted the last conference when I ended up sitting on hard floors far too often for someone of my vintage. Some chairs would be nice. Some well-spaced comfortable chairs would be even nicer.

I expect (and hope) that the sessions will have a harder edge than those delivered at MEC 2012. At that time we were on the final glide path to the announcement of the RTM version of Exchange 2013 and there was lots of new features and functionality to hear about. Now, Exchange 2013 has been in the market for a year and a half and has just had its first service pack, an event that traditionally marks the point when customers really start to consider deployment of a Microsoft server application.

So although we will hear a lot about the features and functionality of Exchange 2013 SP1, I suspect that attendees will really want to hear the practical details of putting Exchange 2013 into production, including all the nasty not-nice-to-go places like migration and co-existence. I also think that the choice between staying on-premises, going to the cloud, or running a hybrid configuration has still to be made by many companies, so anything that helps people to make their minds up will be popular.

It is interesting that Office 365 has been emphasized heavily on the MEC site, something that might confirm the suspicions of the conspiracy theorists who hold that Microsoft is simply interested in getting everyone to the cloud. That view isn’t shared by the head of Exchange development, Perry Clarke, who looks after both the on-premises and cloud versions, and I look at it as simply a way of emphasizing that Exchange Online and Exchange 2013 on-premises share the same roots. If you come to MEC, you can talk to engineers who work on the same code base used by both products.

To be fair to Microsoft, they’ve tried to mix things up at this MEC by departing from the usual approach of running a fixed schedule of well-choreographed lecture-style sessions to a mix of traditional and “unplugged” sessions. An "unplugged" session (there are 17 scheduled) is a panel session where a set of experts focuses in on a particular aspect of technology such as Outlook or Mobility. The intention is that an open and relevant discussion should ensue. I would have liked to see the presence of more external voices on the panels as they are dominated by Microsoft engineers, but we shall have to see how things turn out. MEC is, after all, a Microsoft conference.

When asked for advice about how to get maximum value from a conference like MEC, I start off with my rule of having a plan. After that it’s a case of:

  • Don’t try and do too much – tiredness is not a great base for knowledge acquisition.
  • Talk to the Microsoft engineers – many of them don’t bite (Ross Smith IV is a notable exception).
  • Talk to MVPs – not all of us are grumpy old men. However, we do bite. I think about 30 Exchange MVPs will be in Austin, including luminaries such as Paul Robichaux, Paul Cunningham, Michael Van Hybrid, Andy David, Brian Reid, Ed Crowley J. Peter Bruzzese, Glen Scales, and Jason Sherry. See how many you can meet! ENow Software offered a pretty good t-shirt at MEC 2012 that invited people to collect signatures of MVPs. It will be interesting to see what they come up with this time round.
  • Scan the ecosystem to find out what other companies are doing around Exchange – very few deployments use Exchange alone and knowing what value exists in the ecosystem is essential. MEC has a strong set of sponsors, all of whom can be expected to have a strong presence at the event. I hear that Binary Tree (who produce the E2E migration suite) are going to run a competition for a very interesting prize. Of course, I might be wrong, but my source was good (always important in migration projects too!).
  • Connect with others who share the same problems as you. Well, technology problems anyway. The others can be taken into the bars of Austin.
  • Locate Squeaky Lobster and have your photo taken with the carapaced beast.
  • Read my guide to MEC sessions and my guide to MVP sessions at MEC for some advice on sessions that you might like to attend.
  • Relax and have fun. All work and no play and all that…

Those of you who want to heckle me can come along to room MR19AB on Wednesday at 8:30am, where I shall be doing my best to explain the wonders of Exchange retention policies as deployed in the real world. I promise nothing but that the session will not be boring. Of course, this is an early morning session and I might be a tad grouchy at that point, so there's a certain risk in heckling. I'll bring along a couple of copies of my Exchange 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox and High Availability book and give them away there.

Given that it took Microsoft 18 months to schedule another event after MEC 2012, we might not have another MEC for a couple of years. With that in mind, if you do travel to Austin, be sure that you have a ball. I know I will.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

TAGS: Office 365
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