Catalyst North America 2009 was a fascinating conference – but maybe fascinating to me for different reasons than it might have been fascinating to you.
The logistics summary is short: Burton Group has just plain gotten it right. Good food, free, reliable internet access even in the room, power for laptops, nice hotel. They even arranged an airport shuttle discount. They paid a lot of attention to the cost incurred by their attendees, and it was appreciated.
I’ll tell you the truth. I’m not going to particularly talk about the content of any given presentation. After 8 years, a large portion of the content is pretty well ingrained in my head, and while I learn new things every time, each little twist and turn has really become a single data point contributing to an overall set of trends. I think of the following points as indicators – but you be the judge of the truth of that statement.
1. Presentations fit to take home to Mom
This is literally the first year of all the years I have been attending Catalyst that I have downloaded presentations and recommended them to those that could not attend; that’s how good some of these presentations were. The speaker notes were critical in being able to pass these presentations on, so thank you to the speakers who took the time to be sure that their presentations were consumable after the fact.
2. Cloud Track
The cloud track presentations I saw this year were fantastic, but I hope that this is the first and last time that Burton focuses primarily on “Cloud”. Why? Because I hope that after this year, everyone will be savvy enough and discerning enough to get past such a broad topic rollup. A lot of attendees I talked to had been sent to Catalyst with the mission of “understanding this cloud thing”, and I think that the Burton Group very astutely served the needs of their attendees – but while general education is important, there were people there who were frustrated because they wanted to talk about actual concrete things that Enterprises might want to do in the cloud. You can only start with the layered diagram of SaaS, PaaS, IaaS, and SIaaS (Software Infrastructure as a Service, newly defined by the Burton Group) so many times. Unless you were interested in virtualization, which seemed to be covered very thoroughly, I don’t believe that many of the cloud sessions put a targeted group of people with a common business goal in the same room, however I also don’t believe that this would have been a realistic goal for this year anyway.
This track is going to be very popular and profitable for Burton Group – it is a great team, producing great content. I look forward to seeing how it evolves & matures in the next year.
3. Lightning Rounds
(Lightning rounds are a series of extremely short on-stage spots given to vendors who have product announcements to make: 4 minutes & 4 slides, if I recall correctly)
The lightning rounds started in 2008 and were expanded this year. I believe they were very well received, in fact I heard people say that they were the best content of the day. I hope Burton Group thinks long and hard about what that means. For a very long time, ‘vendor’ has been a dirty word at Catalyst – with the result that attendees can only find out about products through the sanitized views of the analysts or the drunken haze of the hospitality suites. Granted, the analysts are smart and make great points, but – the danger is that the whole experience becomes homogenized, and no matter how great the quality is, homogeneity is boring. Looking at the neat pastel-colored items on the agenda this year, that’s all I could think. Oh, yet another customer use case. Oh, a panel. All fitting into a certain template.
The lightning rounds were refreshingly template-free, but more importantly, they let the attendees make a direct connection with the vendors. Some vendors did not use their time wisely, some did, but no matter what the attendee could be the direct judge, and in the worst case the suffering was short. I’d like to see more of that, and I think it benefits everyone, assuming the goal is to create a thriving identity ecosystem.
4. Where are “The Regulars”
My recollection of the early part of 2000 was that there was a set of non-Burton people who could always be counted on to further the discussion. Burton analysts provided the meal, but ‘the regulars’ provided the spice, both in the blogosphere and on stage. I haven’t seen very many recurring spots given to regular non-Burton speakers any more, and I think that’s a shame. I’m not sure if it is because these people have different jobs and focuses, because the space is simply more commodotized and the characters have moved on to more interesting new problems, or because Burton has abandoned the policy – but I think the conference is the poorer for it. I’d like to see Burton take a chance and try to cultivate a new breed of thought leaders, agitators, and characters in this space, who can grow with the technology and help attendees gain multiple and growing perspectives over time, rather than only hearing from yet another different customer who took on and solved one task one time, in one context, and who you will never hear from again.
Why are the regulars important? Because they represent a growing trusted relationship that engages people. We need those trusted standouts who can transcend vendor allegiances, who can tell the truth not only from a neutral standpoint but also sometimes from a decidedly non-neutral standpoint. We need people who can bridge gaps and serve as public touchstones for the topics of the day.
I have a list of people I think would excel at this, but it would be much more interesting to see who Burton Attendees would nominate for the job.
By the way, Frank (shown here) really enjoyed the conference. Especially the hospitality suites with the icy martini bars… if you were at Catalyst you have probably already met Frank, otherwise you’ll be seeing more of him as I travel around.