I’m in the airport, exhausted after another fun-filled Experts conference. TEC (The Experts Conference), formerly known as DEC (The Directory Experts Conference) is put on by Quest, focusing on Microsoft & Microsoft partner technologies for directory, email (new this year), identity and access.
I have a lot of positive things to say about the conference, the content, the people, and most importantly the shenanigans that we all got into (and yes, there is video), but before that, I’ve been thinking a lot about a conversation some of us had at lunch one day. The topic came up of what it is that this conference delivers, compared to say a Tech-Ed. My first reaction was to laugh – after all, the difference is so stark, that (as somebody else at the table said) you would have to be an IDIOT not to see the value proposition for TEC over Tech-Ed. Still, in these economic times, travel budgets are shrinking, and travel cost must be strictly justified by return on investment, so I thought I would try to come up with my thoughts and reasoning on the exact value that conferences like TEC give over the Mega Monster conferences.
When you go to an OpenWorld, or a Tech-Ed, or an RSA, you can only be the recipient of a generic experience. You assemble out of the dark swirls of a multitude of swarming faceless people to see a given session. You may participate in a question and answer period. After that however, everybody files out of the room and disappears back into the faceless swirl. You may have friends at the conference; you may even meet new friends there. Chances are, however, that the entire population of any given session are not going to file out of the room at the end and immediately all head to the bar to have a pint and debate the merits or disadvantages of that particular session.
Contrast this with TEC. At TEC, you are riding elevators with people who are doing the same things you are doing. You are eating lunch with them. You see them over and over again in various sessions. Every conversation you overhear is about something that matters to you. You begin to recognize faces, enough so that if you see somebody later that was at an earlier session, you can ask their opinion on it. Small talk with strangers isn’t about the weather. It’s talking about who you work for, and what kind of deployments you have under your belt, and what your horror stories are.
The vendor floor at a big conference is a disaster too. You walk past aisle after aisle of things that won’t help you do your job. Maybe you find the vendors you are familiar with, should you walk far enough – but how likely is it that you are going to differentiate between a vendor you are unfamiliar with because they don’t apply and a vendor you should be familiar with? Maybe you’ll see a key word that brings you in. If you happen to walk down that aisle.
At TEC, the vendor area is right beside the session rooms, not on a separate floor of the building, a hike away. People are in that room frequently, even if they aren’t looking to buy anything. It’s easy to fall into a conversation with a vendor, because they are in a welcoming environment with snacks and beanbags; there isn’t a sense of ‘us and them’ like the one you get when you’re in a massive conference hall, looking down endless rows of flourescently lit, identically shaped sales boxes complete with flocks of marketing folks in identical shirts. Additionally, many vendors at TEC have a long-standing relationship with the conference. This means that the faces of the vendors at TEC are often as well-known to attendees as those of the speakers. I don’t know any sales psychology, but I think that there is an obvious improved ability to speak with potential customers.
Then there are the speakers. A lot of the speakers at TEC are polished and experienced, but sprinkled in there are a number of technically astute speakers with little public speaking experience. It sounds risky, doesn’t it? After all, these kinds of speakers would never be accepted at the big monster conferences. The reason TEC can safely find new talent and put that talent into the lineup, is because they attend their own conference year after year. They find the outspoken folks and encourage them to propose talks for the next year, and they *remember* who has potential and give them a chance. They can only do this because they take the time to truly know their attendees. I was just such a person; For 5 years I had hopefully submitted proposals to speak at tech conferences, and I had been rejected, year after year. By taking a chance on me, and on others in this community, TEC acts to diversify the speaking pool, something that is sorely needed; something the big “play it safe” conferences refuse to do.
Last, let’s consider the two primary vendors involved, Quest and Microsoft. This was the first meeting between attendees and most of the Quest employees that weren’t part of the NetPro acquisition, as such they are newbies in this community – but I think everyone’s first impression of Quest as the conference host was extremely positive, and I have to imagine that opportunity to expose all these people to their product must be a huge win for them.
For Microsoft – well they just win win win. When MS sends their program teams to TechEd, the developers satisfy their mandated customer-facing activities, then go back to hanging out with each other. At TEC, enough of the attendees are familiar faces that the urge to ‘stick with people you know’ ends up being a large and diverse group. As a result, the program team appears to be and actually are much more accessible, meaning that people who are too shy to speak up right after their session feel comfortable enough to maybe share information and experience later, at a hospitality suite or in the hallway. Is that a rare thing? Oh yeah. The chance of running into the lead developer for the feature you’re desperate to give input on at Tech-Ed is slim to nil. The chance of it happening at TEC is pretty darn close to 100%. TEC puts the teams into the soup with the very people who have the most to say to them, but without the confrontational setting of a client meeting; they get to hear and respond to questions, comments, kudos, etc – in a way that can never happen at a big conference. The product team gets to talk to administrators of different sizes, in different verticals, not just the customers that account managers deem to be “worth it”. They get to talk to partners and Integrators. They get to hear horror stories and success stories, and they get to hear suggestions about product that may never make it to an official list, but that can give the developer a sense about their product as a whole. I believe the process of putting the product team together with customers in an environment like TEC humanizes everything — customers see the human beings behind the features (and sometimes the bugs) and the product team not only gets appreciation for what they have done, but hope and excitement for what they are doing now. Perhaps the greatest benefit, however, is in the overall goodwill that this conference wins for the Microsoft Federated Identity group. MS attendance at TechEd is expected. Coming to TEC is a labor of love, and we can all see it. It is the world’s most effective and sincere marketing campaign.
And the thing that ties this all together is the community: The MVPs, whose onsite knowledge and product expertise help to bridge the vendor-customer gap; The passionate advocates on the client side who really want the products to be awesome; The speakers, who are a great mix of all of the above. And of course the rubber chicken and the Wook Lee Challenge and the legend of Joe and Dean, and all the other things that bring a sense of humor, and a thread of history to the whole mix.