- Simon Waight
Frank Sinatra sang "My Kind of Town (Chicago is)" and Ol' Blue Eyes certainly knew a great town when he saw one!
The first ever Microsoft Ignite was held just this past week in Chicago at the McCormick Place Convention Centre (the largest in North America) and I was lucky enough to attend with the other 22,000+ attendees!
Ignite's been a bit of an interesting event this time around as it has replaced a bunch of product-specific North American conferences such as MEC and Lync Conference, and it seemed to attract overflow from people who missed out on tickets to Build the week before. I think a lot of attendees seemed a little unsure about what Ignite actually was - is it for IT Pros or Developers, or both? More on this later!
Let me share my experience with you.
Firstly, as you might guess from my introduction, Ignite was huge - 22,000+ attendees, 4.5 days and a session catalogue that ran into easily 100+ sessions (I haven't counted, but I'm sure someone has the full number and that my estimate is way-way too low). The Expo floor itself was massive, with Microsoft product teams taking substantial floor space and being available and open to talk and take feedback.
The sheer scale of this event lead to some fairly interesting experiences...
I think everyone got used to being herded to the first open food buffet where breakfast and lunch were served. Obviously humans will head to the nearest table, but I'm pretty sure by day 5 everyone was a little over the phrase 'keep moving down the line to the first open table' (followed closely by 'food this way!'). It was generally done very politely though.
Food variation was pretty good and the serving style meant you avoided large servings, though some offerings, were, errr, not what I'm used to (but I gave some a go in the name of international relations).
The red velvet cake was pretty amazing. I can't pick a top meal (mainly because I don't remember them all), but overall the food gets a thumbs up.
The distances needing to be travelled between sessions sometimes resulted in needing to almost sprint between them. Using one speaker's joke: your Fitbit thanks you.
The size of McCormick Place meant that travel time between two sessions in the gap between sessions (typically 15 minutes) could be a challenge. Couple this with a crowd who are unfamiliar with the location and all sorts of mayhem ensues. I would say by day three the chaos had settled down as people started to get familiar with locations (or were back at the hotel with a hangover).
If you wanted to have a meaningful discussion with anyone in the Expo you would effectively forgo a session or lunch depending on which was more important to you :).
Pro-tip: learn the locations / map before you go as there are lot of signs in the centre that may not make much sense at first.
McCormick Place is a substantial distance from downtown Chicago which presented some challenges. Shuttle buses picked up and dropped off during morning and evening periods, but not in the middle of the day. If you needed anything in the middle of the day it was via taxi. The Chicago Metra train runs through here, but appears to be so infrequent that it's not that useful.
On Tuesday evening many social events had been organised by various product teams and vendors which were mostly held downtown. Trying to make these immediately after the end of the day was tricky as shuttle buses to hotels filled very quickly and a massive taxi queue formed.
For me this meant an hour long walk to my first event, essentially missing most of it!
The second event, also downtown, was a bit more of a success though :)
Did I mention the Queues?
Toilets: I can now appreciate what major events are like for women who usually end up queuing for the toilet. Many of the breakout sessions were held near toilets that were woefully inadequate for the volume of people (particularly if you're serving the same people free coffee and drinks...)
Pro-tip: there are a set of massive gents toilets located behind the Connies Pizza on North Level 2. Patently I didn't go searching for the Ladies...
Swag: yep, you could tell the cool giveaways or prizes on the Expo floor simply by looking at the length of the queue.
Food: small ones at breakfast and lunch, some unending ones for the Attendee Celebration (hands up if you actually got a hot dog?!)
Pro-tip: at the Celebration find the least popular food that you still like. Best one for me was the steamed pork and vegetable buns, though there are only so many you can eat.
Transport: as I already hinted at above - depending on time of day you could end up in a substantial queue to get on a bus or taxi.
Pro-tip: take a room in a hotel a fair distance away (less people) and also walk a little if you need a taxi and flag one down.
I don't come from an IT Pro background and I don't have an alignment with a particular product such as Exchange, so for me Ignite consisted of Azure-focused content, some SharePoint development for Office 365 and custom Azure application development using Node. I got a lot of useful insights at the event so it hit the mark for me - the union of IT Pro and Developer competencies is being driven by public cloud technology so it was great!
I have the feeling quite a few attendees were those who missed out on entrance to Build the week before, and I suspect for many they may have found a lack of compelling content (unless they were SharePoint developers). I also felt that a lot of content advertised as level 300 was more like level 200, though there were some good sessions that got the depth just right. I'm not sure if this issue is because of the diverse range of roles expected to be attend (admins, developers, managers and C-levels) which meant content was written to the lowest common denominator.
Also finding suitable sessions was a bit of a challenge too given the volume available. While the online session builder (and mobile app) was certainly useful I did spend a bit of time just scrolling through things and I would say the repeated sessions were probably also unnecessary. I certainly missed a couple of sessions I would have liked to attend (though I can catch up on Channel 9) primarily because I missed them in the schedule completely.
I hope for 2016 some work is done on the content to:
- Make it easier to build a schedule in advance - the web schedule builder was less than ideal
- Increase the technical depth of sessions, or clearly demarcate content aimed only at architect or C-level attendees
- Have presenters who can present. There were some sessions I went to that were trainwrecks - granted in a conference this size maybe that happens... but I just had the feeling here that some speakers had no training or prep time for their sessions
- Reduce or remove repeated sessions.
Pro-tip: make sure to get the mobile application for Ignite (and that you have it connected to the Internet). It really was the most useful thing to have at the event!
Ignite The Future
As I noted above, this was the first year Ignite was held (and also the first in Chicago). During the 2015 conference Microsoft announced that the conference will be back in Chicago for 2016.
Should you go? Absoutely!
Some tweaks to the event (granted, so fairly large ones) should help make it smoother next time round - and I've seen the Microsoft Global Events team actively taking feedback on board elsewhere online.
The Ignite Brand is also here to stay - I have it on good advice that TechEd as a brand is effectively "Done" and Ignite will be taking over. Witness the first change: Ignite New Zealand.
Chicago's certainly my type of town!
PS - make sure to check out what's on when you're in town...