Challenges await as Microsoft dumps MEC, TechEd (and other conferences) for a mega-event

Challenges await as Microsoft dumps MEC, TechEd (and other conferences) for a mega-event

Microsoft has announced their intention to run a unified technology event (for enterprises) in Chicago in the first week of May, 2015. The new event will replace the previous Lync, SharePoint, Exchange (MEC), Management Summit, TechEd and Project conferences. In short, it’s the mega-conference, a new event that combines technology updates for all of the Office servers plus MMS, which seems like a curious add-on to the Office fold.

I guess I should not have been surprised. October 2015 will mark the traditional three-year refresh point for the Office servers and major new versions of Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync are expected to be available then (Exchange 2016?), so a solid reason exists to organize a technical kick-off event to prime customers for the new releases.

The decision also makes a heap of sense in terms of finance, planning, and logistics. Microsoft organizes a single large event in a common location to address the technology needs of multiple constituencies. They fly in a cast of engineering talent to update everyone on new products and minimize the time away from the office for these important people. Costs are reduced because of common logistics such as registration, meals, Wi-Fi networks, and even the event party. I still can’t quite get over the fact that Microsoft hired Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando for MEC 2012 and only filled the park at 2% capacity. Being able to walk up to major rides with zero queues was quite something.

But as always with decisions like this, an array of doubts and objections have emerged. Some of the identified problems, like how to process very large crowds, can be handled by fanatical attention to detail and assigning sufficient resources to deal with crowds at registration and meal times, and to make sure that transportation works smoothly. Others are harder to solve at this point.

The biggest worry I have heard so far is the potential loss of identity for different groups within the mega conference. For instance, the last two MEC events in Orlando and Austin had a very distinct feel that was very different to the bland marketing-driven aura that TechEd has so often displayed in the past.

Elements such as the Exchange museum and the amusing product-themed videos that were shown by the Exchange group will be harder to achieve in the context of a common event.  I’ve heard that the Lync conference has a different approach too, a feeling that is likely to be claimed by all of the conferences now being folded into the mega event. My SharePoint friends tell me that they too are different, as are the folks who like Project or those who work on technology management.

Of course, crossover exists between these technical disciplines, but less so in larger shops where people tend to be assigned to particular tasks. There’s no doubt that if Microsoft does not run individual dedicated conferences it limit the number of people from a company’s IT staff who can attend the unified event. If everyone is expected to get their yearly technology update at the mega-event, who will remain back at home base making sure that IT runs smoothly for end users?  Independent conferences will fill some of the gap but not all.

Another concern is that the organization of a mega-event will be a scheduling nightmare and those who work across multiple disciplines will find it horribly difficult to get to all of the sessions that they’d like to attend. I can easily see this happening because the nature of such a large conference is that schedule clashes will happen all the time as a large number of sessions are delivered simultaneously. 

Given the size of the likely attendance, popular sessions are probably going to be packed solid and difficult to get into unless you turn up well in advance. Let’s hope that the event organizers are as flexible as the MEC 2014 team in terms of moving sessions around between rooms on a reasonably dynamic basis. I also hope that the event organizers ensure that the content isn't dominated by the latest marketing-led rush to the cloud. The fact that new major versions of the Office servers will be on the way should be sufficient to ensure good coverage of on-premises software. I also hope that Microsoft includes a high percentage of sessions delivered by independent experts. 

I’ve also heard concerns that any attempt to attend a mass of interesting sessions will result in exhaustion. Smaller conferences usually allow for a more measured pace. I’ll be interested to see the energy level of attendees toward the end of the week after sessions, parties, and other conference happenings make their effects felt.

On the upside, third party software vendors are likely to find some positives in the mega event. It’s true that the audience will be less focused than at the individual conferences, but there will be many more potential customers with which to connect and the buzz in the tradeshow area should be more energetic than at smaller events. In addition, vendors have a single Microsoft event to budget for and the more focused spend might deliver better stands. It would be a pity if the tradeshow was simply a large space populated by vendors who profit through the rationalization and don’t do something different and exciting to bring their products to the attention of conference goers.

It is possible to run several concurrent conferences in a single location and give each conference its own identity and passion. IT/DEV Connections has been pulling off this trick, albeit at a smaller scale, for several years and will do so again in Las Vegas this coming September. We plan some new and different things for the Exchange Connections event there and have a strong set of speakers ready to deliver some great content.

My worry is that larger corporations such as Microsoft often feel the need for common identity and branding across the board and that the progress in creating the enjoyable and different technical conference that we experienced over the last two MECs will be submerged under a need to comply with some corporate look-and-feel. In short, we will end up with another marketing-led event.

Achieving corporate unity instead of satisfying the needs of some pretty disparate technical communities would be a huge pity and sharply reduce the advantages of attending a unified event. Over to you Microsoft – show the world that you can run multiple events in a single location where each serves a distinct community in the right way and I will be a happy camper.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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