Recently I was fortunate enough to attend three vastly different conferences in the span of about a month. Microsoft Build, RevolutionConf, and .NET Fringe were all extremely enriching experiences, and they all contrasted with each other in interesting ways. Now that a little time has passed and I've been able to reflect on these experiences, I thought I would write up a short personal post about my impressions of each and how, together, they paint an interesting picture of different types of conferences in a broad sense.
Before I get into the details of each one, let's play a little free word association so you can basically TL;DR this whole post:
- Microsoft Build - Large, flashy, corporate, marketing-heavy
- RevolutionConf - Local, polyglot, multi-track, novel
- .NET Fringe - Intimate, immersive, community, focused
Microsoft Build is Microsoft's primary corporate developer conference. It's huge and tickets often sell out within hours of going on sale. This was my first Microsoft Build conference, and really my first conference on this scale (I generally stick to smaller conferences).
The conference was held in downtown Seattle which made for some great opportunities to interact with Microsoft staff. In past years it hasn't always been near the campus and I've been told that while Microsoft folks are always on hand, this year was special in terms of the types of staff that were able to make it out to the conference center as well as the number of staff available to us. That was certainly my experience this year. I spoke with many engineers from different product teams, including several such as Azure Stack that I don't know I would have had the opportunity to interact with otherwise. I also talked with several folks from the .NET team that I hadn't met in person yet.
Perhaps assisted by the location, I was really pleased with the large main exhibit hall that contained booths for each of the Microsoft technologies and product teams. As I mentioned, these were often staffed with the actual engineers working on the products. There were also lots of marketing-driven booths, but I mostly avoided those. In each corner of the hall, smaller stages were set up for giving a continuous stream of smaller more niche talks. I thought that was a nice touch and I attended a couple of interest.
I've never been a big fan of large conferences and had my share of size-related problems at this one as well. For one, it's much harder to get into the groove I enjoy at smaller conferences. I literally spent half a day trying to meet up with some friends in between sessions and finally gave up because it was just too hard to coordinate. The sessions themselves were also huge and I ended up in overflow more than once, which means I watched the session happening in the room next door on a big screen.
The one exception to this was an off-site Q/A session given by Scott Hunter. The size was intentionally limited which provided a much better environment for discussion and in-depth information. Of all the session at Build, this was by far the most valuable.
I'm what I call a "shy introvert". I find it difficult to talk to new people, and doing so exhausts me. Nonetheless, I opted to attend a party given by the .NET team to celebrate .NET's birthday. It was held in a meeting room at a local bar. Most (all?) of the folks there looked like they were having a great time and the venue was cool (big TVs, pool tables, etc.) For me personally, it wasn't the greatest environment. It was loud (I'm also hard of hearing) and undirected (more on this when I talk about .NET Fringe). That's not a criticism of the organizers or anything else, just a personal experience - I'm sure it was a great venue for most people.
I was not a fan of the keynotes. I felt they were very marketing-heavy (which I guess is the point) and didn't contain a lot of relevant information for me. There was certainly some spectacle involved, which was cool, but at the end of the day I feel like I could have skipped them and wouldn't have missed much.
Build was an interesting experience, if nothing else so that I understand what's happening on the ground in future years while I stream from my desk. Between the size, expense (it's a pricy conference, even if I wasn't paying myself), and value I feel I got I'm not sure I'll be attending in the future.
RevolutionConf is an entirely different thing from Microsoft Build on many levels. For one, it's a smaller regional conference held about 4 hours away from me in Virginia Beach. It's also a full-stack conference with sessions on all sorts of interesting topics, most of which didn't have anything to do with .NET.
I don't usually care about accommodations that much, and these were adequate but not great. The hotel was on the beach (awesome!) but there wasn't much in the way of shaded loungers or other beach amenities. The rooms (or at least mine) were also a little...icky. It's not that they were bad or gross, just older, stained, and worn. For example, my room did not have a draining shower, my number one hotel pet-peeve. There also wasn't anything within walking distance of the hotel and to get anywhere else required driving.
All in all I'm probably nitpicking about the hotel and it certainly wouldn't stop me from attending next year. I also understand the economics of the situation and that this hotel was cheap and it's expensive to put on a regional conference. Just some observations in the interest of completeness.
There was a great party on the first night of the conference. Unlike the party at Build, I felt very comfortable at this one. Part of that is because it was held outside on the beach (who wouldn't love that!) so there weren't any noise or crowding issues, but also because I already knew several people which allowed me to loosen up a little. I do much better at social events if I have a wingperson by my side. It was also nice having the party after the first set of talks so that you could chat with the speakers and other attendees about the content.
This was a fantastic sophomore event and I'll definitely be looking forward to attending again next year.
On paper, .NET Fringe already sounds like the perfect event. A .NET conference focused entirely on community, open source, and other innovative uses of the platform. I attended last year and it didn't disappoint so I was really looking forward to this year's conference as well.
When I went to .NET Fringe last year, I knew some people but wasn't as "tuned in" to the community as much as I feel I am today. Between prior personal connections and new ones, this time around was a totally different experience. For three days I did nothing but hang out with the coolest people talking about the coolest stuff and it felt like we were all in this perfect little community bubble the entire time. I hope that I'm lucky enough to find this at another conference in the future (looking at you .NET Fringe 2018).
One thing I really appreciate about .NET Fringe is the way it's designed to promote "directed socialization". There's clearly a conscious effort by the organizers to help people connect, but to do so in a guided way so it's not threatening or intimidating. A great example is having the social event at an arcade. That way it's easy to jump in and out of conversations while also having something else to do. Even the use of round tables instead of front-facing seating is designed to subtly encourage connection.
These were all universally excellent. Even the lightning talks, which I usually don't care for, were great. I think part of the reason was a conscious effort to select topics that were a bit novel, but not so much as to be niche (I'm just speculating about the selection criteria here). I also appreciated that none of the talks were overly long - that helped keep them focused and engaging.
In addition to the speaking sessions, there was an entire room dedicated to "unconference" space. That is, impromptu sessions about whatever you wanted with other interested attendees. I ended up spending a good chunk of both days in the unconference space and felt that time was just as valuable as the actual talks.
I made a last minute decision to give a lightning talk about the Wyam docs recipe. The talk itself went really well, but I had a lot of technical difficulty getting my aging laptop connected to the projector. At one point Scott Hanselman even appeared on stage out of nowhere as if summoned by the tech support Gods and tried to assist. It was embarrassing and threw me off right before starting the talk. Thankfully it doesn't look like too much of that carried over into the talk itself.
Once again, .NET Fringe was a highlight. I plan to continue attending as long as it continues happening.
When comparing all three conferences, some clear final thoughts jump out at me:
- I prefer conferences where I already know at least a few people, but there are also lots of new people to meet. This is part of my introversion, but having a "wing-person" nearby really helps me open up.
- Smaller conferences make for larger experiences.
- A couple days for a conference is about right. It forces action and adds a sense of urgency to connect and be productive.
- Get outside your technical comfort zone (whether at a full polyglot conference or just some unusual sessions for you).
- Travel sucks. Despite all the awesomeness of RevolutionConf and .NET Fringe, I missed my family and was ready to get back home. I probably won't be doing two in such quick succession again.