So much happened at Catalyst this year! I’m a little daunted at the idea of describing it all. This year was my first time onstage at Catalyst, unless you count my cameo with Mike Neuenschwander a few years back, where I smashed his guitar to smithereens. Ah, the good ol’ days…
From a logistics perspective, things were fantastic. The right people were in attendance. The right amount of food and beverage was present. Interesting product announcements were made. Future community efforts were fostered. Men in superhero outfits scampered through the halls. It is obvious that the Burton folks have been doing this for a long time, and know how it all goes.
From a conference ‘architecture’ perspective, I thought that this year’s Catalyst was run very differently from previous years. I’m very happy that they ditched the ‘cross-cutting concerns’ concept this year, as the concerns they chose were never very interesting to me, and without that interest, a whole morning was written off. Instead, Burton chose a number of themes that they placed during various time slots during the week. As long as you were interested in seeing every talk within a theme, you could generally park yourself in a given hall and enjoy for the space of an afternoon or a morning. If you were more interested in who was speaking than in following the theme concept, things were a little tougher — talk beginning & ending times were staggered, so sometimes you’d have no choice but to walk out in the middle of one talk to get to another. For the most part, there always seemed to be an interesting theme going on somewhere at any given moment.
Another difference that I noticed was in the pacing of the content. Things seemed much more fast-paced this year — did anybody else notice this? My recollections of past Catalyst conferences are of fewer people talking longer. I don’t mind this new format for the most part — getting people to be more concise about what they say is almost always a good thing. The only problem with having so many people within a given time period, is that overages on the timing become a big deal, and there were times where everything seemed too frenetic, too much about being on time and not enough about delivering useful content. The worst was when the last person in the time slot was squeezed out — literally unable to give their presentation because others before them used time that wasn’t theirs. It isn’t fun as an audience member to watch a speaker attempt to edit their slides on the go, frantically changing a 15-minute story into a 5-minute travesty.
Then there was the Q&A. In the ‘old days’, I remember a single presentation on a single topic, followed by a healthy Q&A session, at least for the analysts. This time it seemed like a lot of content went by without any way for the audience to discuss it. Personally, I was a little distracted by worries about my own talk to be my usual mouthy self in the Q&A — but the truth is, it isn’t as much fun to riff on a topic that’s already 3 topics old by the time you get to comment on it.
I think that if I could have anything, I’d keep the frenzied pace for vendor & end-user presentations, but go for a more relaxed, more audience-discussion-enabled experience with the analysts. Oh, and it would have been really useful if you could actually READ the titles and names of the talks inside the official conference book that contained the schedule. Anyone who had a long title but a short time slot was doomed to an unreadable caption, which strikes me as completely contrary to the purpose of such things. I heard a number of people complaining on this point.
As far as guest speaker choice, I think Burton did a great job – and not just because I was one of them, I swear! I imagine that in general, the feedback will be very good this year — I felt a lot of good vibes and very few bad vibes from the attendees. My favorite presentation was probably Mark Wahl’s, I like the talks that bring real-world questions to the abstract level, I think they help people to leave with more than just generalizations. Dick Hardt does an incredible job of humanizing user-centric identity, and his report card on user-centric identity was not only provocative, but accurate. Ken Ross and Jim Harper were both excellent final day choices — Jim talked about sex in elevators, and Ken talked about video game economies — concepts which were just crazy enough when combined with identity that people were able to shrug off their hangovers and pay attention.
I’m also happy to report that my own talk went well. At least – I was on time, and I managed to cover the main points on my slides without descending into long explanations. I tried to pack a *lot* of different concepts into those slides (~20 slides in 20 minutes), and as someone who is very into the technical details, it was a supreme effort of will to change from slide to slide with only the barest of coverage of what was within. I can only hope that the descriptions I did give were reasonable. I have to say, I had a great time putting that deck together, and a great time presenting it. My thanks to the Burton folks for giving me such a great opportunity to pass on my experiences with and my enthusiasm for this particular new-school metasystem!