Microsoft Event Roundtable or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Megaconference

Last December, I was invited to join the TechEd Roundtable, convened for the first time as part of the preparations for TechEd North America 2014 in Houston. I had been suggesting for a number of years that Microsoft involve attendees in the planning of the conference, and my experience was quite exceptional. Even though the ten of us who gathered in Houston only met with Microsoft for a day, those conversations resulted in changes we could see during TechEd.

Since then, there has been a roundtable for TechEd Europe, with a mostly European-based team naturally, and most recently, a second iteration of the North American group for the 2015 event in Chicago. I was honored to have been asked to return as a member of that roundtable along with four others from the inaugural group.

There were changes this time around, however, much like the event we were there to discuss. As we all know, TechEd is no more, sharing the same fate as the other enterprise events – MMS, MEC, and the Lync, SharePoint, and Project conferences. In their place, Microsoft is promising something new, a mega-conference combining the best of all six events and all six communities.

I’ve been going to TechEd North America every year since my first in 2003. I’ve attended the last three MEC events (with a 10 year gap between my first and second), and I also was at the final MMS. There are people who have been to more, but short of being a speaker, I like to think I have some experience with these things. TechEd is especially dear to me, since it’s the place where I’ve met the majority of my closest friends, either directly or indirectly. From TechEd is like a huge family reunion.

I’ll be honest when I say, I wasn’t necessarily convinced that we really needed to change TechEd. Tweak it perhaps, but not tear it down completely. I’m sure the people attending the other events felt the same way when the news broke. So when the invitation came for the Roundtable, I was excited and eager to learn more to find out just what Microsoft was doing to this thing I’ve cherished all these years.

The first sign of change came in the Yammer group that was setup to facilitate group conversations. (Note to Jeff Guillet: Take a drink.) A list of attendees was posted and I knew right away that Microsoft wasn’t messing around. Along with the five of us who returned from the previous roundtable – me, Michael Bender (@MichaelBender), Heather Fitzpatrick (@hfitz11), Ed Lieberman (@Pluralsight_Ed), and Harjit Dhaliwal (@Hoorge) – all the other events were well-represented as well, with plenty of people I consider heavy hitters in their respective communities:

I was looking forward to going simply to finally meet some of these folks in real life after following them online. One concern I had was the size of the group, almost double what we had in Houston, but they proved unfounded.   I don’t think you can go much bigger, however, or I think the process would suffer. This time around we were also meeting for a day and a half of discussions and doing so much earlier in the process. We strongly recommended both of these changes last year, so it’s good to see Microsoft agreed with us.

I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow description of the weekend, but rest assured that there was much food and beer (not for me, but the others indulged) and conversations and serious discussions about the events that have been, the event that is coming, and what we think Microsoft gets right and what it gets wrong (and how they can avoid it in May.

My takeaways from the weekend are listed below, but first I want to put in a plug for blog posts about the roundtable by my fellow attendees. Joe Kelly was first out of the gate, followed shortly by Todd Klindt. Make sure you read their posts for their thoughts about the roundtable and the upcoming conference.

OK, now back to me….

The Venue

I’ve been to McCormick Place several times for the Chicago Auto Show, but I’ve neverhad the opportunity to see all of it as our group did on our tour. The place is massive – all x million square feet of it – making it the largest convention center in North America.  The event will be in the North, South, and Lakeside buildings, and I’m confident it can comfortably accommodate theapproximately 20,000 attendees Microsoft is expecting in May (yes, 20k). There’s only one hotel at the convention center with all the rest located a bus, cab, or train ride to the north.

WARNING! A cable convention has most of the rooms at the convention center Hyatt blocked, so don’t count on being able to walk from your room to your sessions. I know this was raised as an issue for speakers, but there’s not much Microsoft can do to change this fact.  They did promise to take measures to mitigate the geography challenges for speaker prep, so stay tuned.

The Sessions

Expect big changes in how session topics and speakers are selected.  Olaf Hubel is creating a new process that I think will be a big part in remaking TechEd into something new. Look for opportunities for the public to help select the topics which will be presented. Additionally, you will be able to use metadata associated with all of the sessions and speakers to assemble the schedule that best fits your needs. And once you have it nailed down, you’ll be able to share that with your communities online. There is a lot to the system Olaf is building, and they’ve been testing it already, but it’s still a work-in-progress. I was excited by what I heard, and I think you will be too.


They are still thinking through the keynote, but I think there was a general consensus that we’re looking for something more inspirational and motivating than demos of something we’ve all already seen somewhere else. We were all adamant that there is a strong desire to see Satya Nadella upon the stage. He’s been to Build. He’s been to WPC. And just recently we learned that he’s going to be at the MVP Summit. It’s time for him to stand in front of the IT Pro and Enterprise Dev communities and tell us where the new Microsoft is going and the part that we can play on that journey. I can’t promise anything and Microsoft won’t tip their hand yet, but we did our best.


No we did not talk about the name.  Well, we talked about not talking about it (now that’s meta). We did get to hear the positioning statement for the name and what criteria went into selecting it, but they stopped short of sharing it with us.  Stay tuned. I expect we’re going to have a bigreveal in the coming weeks.  Oh, and if you hated the names in that survey that went out as much as I did, don’t worry. Microsoft received that message loud and clear

Going beyond the name itself, it sounds like the new brand is going to reach beyond the confines of the convention center and that one week on the calendar.  We had several suggestions of how to do that, so we’ll have to wait and see what they do.

The City

Chicago is pretty thrilled to be the site for the first mega-conference. So much so that the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, stopped by to tell us so in person. Well, he was supposed to stop by, but his schedule is a bit busy and we wound up walking over to the West Building where another conference was going on and met him at the Chicagoexhibit at that conference. It was brief, but definitely one of those cool moments. You don’t get to meet the Mayor every day. The conference was all about airports and aviation routes around the world, and they had some really cool swag. Unfortunately we couldn’t linger or I would have snagged some awesome stuff. (“No, I must have that miniature Las Vegas welcome sign complete with light effects! Let me go!”)

I was a bit bummed when I first heard we were going to Chicago next year because between growing up right next door and now living in St. Louis, it isn’t exactly an exotic destination. After visiting for the roundtable, however, I realized that it really is a great city and great venue for a conference. Any place where you can get Garrett’s popcorn and a Portillo’s Combo (Italian Beef Sandwich + Sausage), is a place you want to hang with your friends. Put it on a beautiful lake, add some cultural gems like the Art Institute, and subtract the humidity we’d otherwise have somewhere on the Gulf Coast or in Florida, and you get a real winner. It’s going to be a great time. Keep an eye out for the Countdown Show episodes that are in the pipeline. Rick Claus and Joey Snow spent days combing the Chicago area for fun and unique venues and they’re going to share it with all of us soon.


If there was any single refrain from everyone at the roundtable (and I mean EVERYONE) wasthe importance of community. A conference can have the most incredible content, the best speakers, the most amazinglocation, and the greatest gathering of vendors, but in the end it’s just a convention without the magic that comes from the interactions between the people gathered there. I’ve attended TechEd since 2003, but it wasn’t until 2009 when I really started to connect with people, that it reached that next level for me.  To call it life changing is no exaggeration.

People often suggest that events like these can be replaced with sessions streaming online, both live and on demand, but that’s nonsense. It’s so difficult to recreate the power of networking and sharing ideas live and in person. TechEd was probably late to the community game, when compared to the other events, but I think it had been advancing rapidly.  The MEC community on the other hand is a very tight-knit and close group. I really hope that in the new Microsoft event, we can keep that.  In the end though, Microsoft can only do so much. It’s really up to all of us to keep it going if it’s really important to us.

I’m sure there was more I should touch on, but I’m drawing a blank. Perhaps the fact that I’m writing this on a plane bound for Philadelphia where a connecting flight is waiting to take to me Quebec City for two weeks of vacation (by land and sea) is part of that. In any case, I’m excited, more so than I was when I arrived in Chicago. I think Microsoft understands that there are high expectations for this new event, and they’re serious about listening to us and ensuring that what we see in May is greater than the sum of the individual conferences that came before.

The roundtable remains engaged, and we’ll be sharing information as it becomes available. It’s going to be an interesting journey to Chicago, and I hope you join us.