The following post is a Q&A interview with somewhat of a TechEd Europe legend.
Peter Bryant a freelance IT Consultant here in the UK, has been to every single TechEd Europe conference since 1994 when Microsoft first invaded the shores of Bournemouth and he is now the last person who has been to every TechEd since.
With early bird tickets for Barcelona 2014 closing in one month, Peter very kindly offered up his time to go back through the years for an exclusive TechEd 20 year anniversary interview with TechNet UK.
Hi Peter, tell us a little bit about yourself…
“I’m a freelance IT Consultant in the UK offering the benefits of the pain and bitter experience of 30 years in large and small company IT; to (largely local) organisations who need the skill set, but cannot rationally employ on a permanent basis.
Work is quite diverse: project management; supplier management; problem solving for VAR’s; rationalisation of disparate data into a well-ordered information rich database environment with Access and SQL. I’m not a reseller of product; but instead lease out the gap between my ears.”
So you’ll be marking your 23rd appearance* this year, what is it about the conference you find so appealing?
“It’s the range of things you can experience – keynotes; sessions, where you can engage with people at the frontline of a specific product as program managers are almost always around. This means you can normally get a conversation with them, perhaps even continue it after the conference. It gives you the means to deal with issues you’re having here and now, there probably isn’t any other channel you can deal with such issues in that way. You’ve also got access to a whole spectrum of Microsoft expertise as part of the hands on labs and, of course, the exhibitions space.
More generally, you’ve the opportunity to get up to date on something new, as well as engage with peers and experts discussing what may be happening in the near future. It’s a real means to get into the Microsoft Ecosystem and just pick up anything you’ve feel you’ve missed out on, or to ensure you stay bang up to date.
It’s a long week, but to try and catch all of this outside the conference environment within a week would be far more difficult if not impossible.”
*23rd as in ’06, ’07 and 08’ there were 2 TEE back to back – Dev & IT Pro
With the 20th Anniversary of TechEd Europe looming, how have you witnessed the conference change over the years?
“It’s changed in so many ways, going back to the 1st TEE conference in Bournemouth ‘94, it was quite an exciting innovation for Microsoft, North America may have happened in ‘93 but this was the first conference in Europe. There was a great spirit about it, people were trying things out for the first time, it was a bit of an adventure really.
There were some notable things done in ‘94. The pavilion at the end of Bournemouth Pier was taken over for all the content that was to be delivered under Non-Disclosure Agreements, there was a proper sense of secrecy walking into it and discovering what was better known then as ‘Chicago’ and would be released as Windows 95. Before you signed the NDA and entered the space, you could only assume that was the topic being discussed! Microsoft UK hired the Sega centre for an evening of games for the UK delegates, playing on what at the time was some pretty cutting edge stuff, but obviously not up to scratch with today’s current gaming platforms.
TechEd has consistently been an information trawl event, quite often in great locations. It has a strong history of explaining what Microsoft are aiming for and intend to achieve, so of course you have the ability as an attendee to ensure what you’re doing for the future can align to that. One of things I used to say to my Director when employed (which usually helped with justifying the expense!) was: “it allows me to make informed decisions that are probably going to be right, rather than make intelligent guesses that may be wrong” – it allows you to be more certain on the environment you are planning for your business or your clients, depending on what you do.
The changes in the environment have been phenomenal – go back to 1994 and you have Windows 3.11 (which came on 8 floppy disks) and Office 4.2 (available on about 25 floppies, with a further 8 for Access). It was such a tight close knit environment back then and it was entirely possible to know pretty much everything there was to know about Windows & Office. Now, with the immense range of Microsoft products, it’s nigh on impossible to keep a handle on what they all are, never mind what they all do. So the ecosystem certainly has evolved out of all recognition from what it was in 94.”
How has modern technology and the internet changed the conference since 94’?
“Well, Bill hadn’t written his email at that point. Even then Microsoft’s planning for the internet was the propriety MSN (which was also in beta up to the Windows 95 launch in August ‘95) when it too went live. The internet for all intents and purposes didn’t exist for Microsoft in those days. Now it’s all pervasive and we’re permanently connected and online, it becomes a big issue when you lose connection, even for a brief period of time, it’s a completely different world!
Back in ‘94 the session PowerPoint’s were pre-printed into two books about 3’’ thick, you tore out the pages that you wanted to use for your sessions. We’ve been through phases when there have been applications for the IPAQ’s (and more recently on WP & iOS) that enable you to do the same sort of thing. Today you just switch on the computer, get the slides in front of you and take notes as you go. A recent change is the streaming the conference key notes live to the outside world. Although this is great for those who can’t make it, in the eyes of many delegates it’s not necessarily such a good thing, as the presenters are now all suited and booted, as opposed to jeans and a t-shirt.
I did joke with someone 4-5 years ago, how long before we all do this online in Second Life and no one has to turn up. It could all be done that way but you wouldn’t have the same physical interactions by being in the venue, it wouldn’t be the same. It’s good to get away and be encased in that environment. I think if it went to an internet delivered conference, we’d be poorer for it. The greatest change the internet has made to the conference is the ability to view all sessions on demand. If you’re late for a session, or can’t fit in, you can now go and view it online afterwards, whereas 10 years ago, if you didn’t make it, you didn’t see it and that was the end of it.”
As online learning is now so prominent, does this mean the value of TechEd is reduced, has it made it more difficult to justify the price of the conference to your boss?
“As I’ve been my own boss for 10 years it’s less of an argument now, but you still have to justify spending money. It is harder to justify today due to things like the Microsoft Virtual Academy, but there is still a huge value to get your hands on a program manager (metaphorically speaking!) who’s responsible for a feature with which you’re having problems or have suggestions for. You might be lucky and find that person through the internet and engage with them that way but at the conference you’re there face to face, you can explain and expand in a way you just cannot do in a virtual environment, and that’s a key benefit you will only get by just being there. Also, to some extend just absorbing the tenure of the conference and finding out what’s happening in the exhibition space.
It can be difficult to get all of that outside of a physical conference environment. You could almost regard it as 4 days of 5-6 sessions of onsite training. If you make your selections well for the sessions you go to, you wouldn’t be able to buy that experience in any classroom around the country for close to the cost.”
What’s your most memorable TechEd moment and why?
“I’ve got quite a few, one in particular that stands out was about a decade ago when UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) presented at a keynote. They came on stage and presented their challenge, which was when dealing with disasters such as large earthquakes and floods etc. They had great difficulty in matching up relatives and family members– as people would be evacuated, children would be separated from their parents, husbands separated from their wives. They proposed a challenge to the conference, which was then actually taken up by a few delegates. By the end of the closing keynote, an application had been developed during the course of the week that was then presented to UNHCR, which gave them the ability to use photos, descriptions and names to do loose matching of information to try to put these people back together. It was a very tangible demonstration of what IT could do in the real world, rather than the theoretical conference environment.
That was a really great achievement, the people who created it did a really great job and actually changed something and made a difference.
In 2012 Jeffrey Snover (Mr PowerShell) was presenting part of the keynote, about datacentre automation with OMI and I felt there were similarities to the HAL created in Windows NT. So I tweeted the suggestion to him that (perhaps) he really should be talking about the DAL (Datacentre Abstraction Layer). I bumped into him the following day, we discussed it further and he took it up and used it (and it now appears in TechNet articles). Shame I didn’t get to discuss rights first – the term replaced “software controlled datacentre.
Being able to have some influence like that face to face is rather fun, ultimately it’s not really of real world significance, but when you see it in a document and you know you’re the person who coined the phrase and somebody’s liked it and used it; it’s nice.”
Have you any favourite keynote moments from over the years?
“In earlier years the waiting time for Keynotes always tend to be a laugh, in ’94 it was Channel 4 Breakfast TV, then about a decade ago we had a team of drummers performing, we were then asked to look below our seat, to discover we all had a drum each – it was audience participation time, so there was a few thousand of us performing a drum roll together. It was quite something, and not really a “tech” thing!
Another favourite was at Nice in 98 (or 99), when Andrew King the conference organiser was on stage the morning after the party the night before. After informing us of quite how much beer and wine had been drunk, he told how a delegate had asked for guidance on how to adjust the TechEd baseball hat that had been given out (seriously!). Andrew felt obliged to give a full product demonstration on stage, to much amusement.”
Over the years, what tech announcement has created the biggest buzz?
“Blimey, that’s a toughie. I suppose for me, it’s a bit of an oldie –first time access to what became Windows 95 in ‘94. Back then there was a tangible buzz for people seeing 95 for the first time, as it was such a big change from program manager and file manager of old Windows 3.11 days. Explorer was described as file manager on steroids.
Another ‘big buzz’ was the launch of the Compaq iPAQ in 2000 – the first handheld windows device. There was a queue around the corner to get one and if you hadn’t pre-ordered you were unlikely to get one. It was pretty damn fine device for its age. I think Microsoft missed a chance to do the same with Windows Phone 7 & 8, but there was the Surface offer.”
You’ve collected vast amounts of swag over the years, do you have a favourite?
Well I still use the 98’ conference bag for my laptop to this day. Some of the TechNet shirts from the earlier days were great – a really good polo shirt, I’ve actually worn mine out (hint hint!). We were also able to keep the drum from 2004 which was pretty cool, although getting it home on the plane was a challenge (hand baggage rules were easier in those days).
And least favourite…?
“The 2004 bag, a giant orange thing that was universally detested (as far as I can remember – there were many left abandoned around the venue). The string bag from Berlin didn’t go down particularly well either. It was the type of thing I would put my plimsolls in at school as a seven year old.”
What are you looking forward to most this year, bar the sunny Barcelona weather?
“But that’s the thing about Barcelona’s October, it’s still around 20C - so I’m walking around in shorts and a t-shirt but the locals are all in about 3 layers as they consider it too cold.
I guess, what’s been tangible from TechEd North America is the switch from on-prem to the cloud, there’s seemed to have been a tipping point in the last year for Microsoft. The perception I gained from reports of TechEd North America, was that it’s much more loaded to Azure rather than on-prem stuff. So it’s going to be interesting to delve into that.
We got a taster of this a few years ago from Mark Russinovich* - who announced his move to Azure when he presented a session on it in Berlin. This was really quite remarkable at the time to the outsider, as it was quite a switch in his perception of things. He was “all in”. It seemed like his ‘A-ha’ moment. It will certainly be interesting to what’s next for Azure in October”
* That presentation from 2010 is still available at here
Why should people attend TechEd Europe 2014?
Well if you haven’t already got it from the reasons above… You should attend for the chance to do a lot of things in the same venue in the same week that you couldn’t combine anywhere else. If you get it right it can have a major impact on your knowledge, awareness and understanding of the ecosystem. If your job is Microsoft-centric I would almost ask, why wouldn’t you go?
Lastly, have you a key message you can share for first timers?
“The key message I’d put across to the newbies (it’s a bit like the ending of the third Raiders of the Lost Ark film), – ‘you should choose wisely’. Every timeslot, you probably have 8/9 sessions that you think ‘I’m interested in that’. Making a good decision on what you want to see is crucial to your enjoyment of and the benefits you gain from the conference. Part of that is not only making the right choice, but also having good back up choices.
It’s worthwhile putting some effort into researching the schedule to see what you want to do. Ideally I think you should have a 1st, 2nd or 3rd preference for each session. Just in case you’re 3-4 mins into a session and you don’t think it’s for you, you can quickly move to your 2nd preference with ease. When you consider the unit cost of a session, it’s not a trivial sum, so you want to make sure you’re in a session you’ll enjoy or gain value from. Generally speaking I prefer sessions that are full of demonstrations rather that PowerPoint slides – it means the speaker is generally knowledgeable, and that it will be a good learning experience.
It’s also worth ducking a session or two to do a few hands on labs – maybe many more if there is a product you really need to get to grips with, and don’t forget you can make some great connections in the exhibition space as well as in the keynote sessions.
We’d like to thank Peter for his time this month, as we go to press Peter is currently cycling for Help For Heroes from Brussels to Paris, if you would like to support his fundraising for them, you can visit http://www.bmycharity.com/pjbryant2014 for more details.
We hope you found his wealth of TechEd experience both insightful and interesting. Can you relate with any of the above? We’re you lucky enough to be granted access to Bournemouth Pier? Perhaps you too banged the drum pre-Key Note a few years back. If so, please share your TechEd Stories with us below in the comments section, or reach out to us via @TechNetUK.
Remember, TechEd Europe is coming this October in Barcelona, have you got a ticket yet? Early bird $300 discount closes next month!