So, as I sit here leaving the US once again on my flight home from Washington to London, it's time to use the flight time (or part of it anyway) to summarise VMworld 2011.
This year was my first VMworld conference in the US (see previous blog posts), and despite having been to the US many times before, there are some things about a conference in Las Vegas that sets these apart from the other technology conferences I have been to.
That said, I really didn't know what to expect from this conference. Sure, I read all the preamble about conference attendance, my sessions were planned and I definitely went armed with a list of questions relating to current projects that are underway at work, but I still didn't know what to actually expect. On arrival, the resort environment, the buzz of conference, the particular tang of the air conditioned space gave the Sands Convention Centre an almost palpable air of expectation from the nearly 20,000 VMware professionals, employees, presenters and conference staff. When someone tells you "the conference is in Las Vegas, there will be a Labs space to do hands-on practice in 20+ areas, and over 400 schedule sessions to choose from over a 4 day period" - you would think that would give you a fairly good idea of what to expect. What you don't know as a newbie is the bag you are given on registration to carry all your stuff around in, the meals that are served each day for breakfast and lunch (when your schedule allows), the break areas with every type of hot and cold drink and snack known to man. They don't tell you that the labs are held in a massive darkened hall with 400+ dual screen terminals with 'proctors' roaming the space to meet and greet and help with any questions - organised by a headless voice living in the giant computational cube that runs it all. They don't tell you about the scale of the sessions. I thought a session would be 50 people - there were sessions with 500+ people! I also didn't expect the indoor park, complete with trees and bushes, volleyball court and giant chess. If you like me are from the UK and you think you've been to a big conference at Earls Court or the NEC - think again. American conferences (I expect other companies host conferences of equal size to VMworld) are, as you'd expect, larger than life. Be prepared, sure, but also be prepared for the assault on your senses that result when you walk in the conference hall for the first time.
So, now you all know about conference, but what about the people? I went to VMworld on my own, not knowing anyone at all in the US when arrived on the first day. My wife will testify - on my first skype session with her I was a bit down because I was more than a little overawed by the whole thing, and not having registered yet I was not yet into my stride with activities or my planned schedule.
There are only several ways to meet up with people:
- Do the social thing and meet people that way.
This is where your local VMUG and the social media aspects of the virtual community we all live in around VMware and virtualization kick in. I met up with Jane from the London VMUG and had some plans to go to some social events I'd seen on the conference run-up. Jane introduced me to some other bloggers who were passing, and the Charity Dodgeball was early in the week, so I went to that. There, I met Sam from EMC (presented on VMware and Oracle), and through Sam I met Allan - also from EMC doing Oracle. One connection leads to another, and if you are attending conference on your own -these are invaluable.
- Talk to people anywhere, anytime!
More than once, I got talking to people in sessions, and also at lunch, on the bus to the Partner venue, in the lift and in the queue waiting to get into the Labs. If you talk to people, you will definitely get more from conference, as sharing experiences with other delegates can only enhance the experience. Talking in the lift you might find someone working on similar stuff to you, which may lead to a beer in the casino, which may lead to a VIP party invite. Hey, it worked for me! (Thanks EMC).
- Solutions Exchange.
As part of the conference, there is the inevitable buying and selling, commercials and dealings that accompany all technology events. Even if you aren't buying or selling at conference, that doesn't mean you can't get something from the Solutions Exchange. Vendors (VMware is no exception) have extensive resources on all aspects of their business. All the other vendors are keen to tell you about how well their products integrate with VMware. My advice - go armed with a technology shopping list - vendors who may be able to touch or influence areas you are interested in (either at work or personally) will be keen to discuss your plans. If they align nicely, invites to further engagement may follow and even more VIP party invites if you're lucky! (This worked for me too - thanks Cisco!) The second part to the SE is 'crop dusting' - many people run competitions on collecting free stuff and giveaways from the booths - of interest or not. This is a test of skill and conversation, but also a great way to not spending the whole week not talking a single word to anyone!
- Partner Network.
This one isn't for everyone (especially if you aren't a VMware Partner - if you aren't, skip forward past this bit). The Partner Network (this time at the Wynn Hotel) has it's own events, staff and sessions. Many are focused on selling and the 'VMware Advantage', but many are technical and this is also a great place to promote discussion. I met two chaps who were keen to talk about our Partner Programme as it stands in the UK - we ended up going for a beer in the bar as the Partner area was quiet at that time!
So, given all these points, here are my top tips for VMworld Attendees:
- Book Early. Booking in good time means that you will be able to get a discount and stay on-site at conference. Having spoken to several people not staying in the conference venue - an extra 20-30 mins to get to your room is an extra complication you can often do without. (Do you really want to go to a party with your backpack and laptop, and not have the chance to drop it off and freshen up?)
- Arrive Early. Jet lag is not the best thing in the world, and not having it will mean you can take advantage of the whole conference days. I arrived Saturday afternoon for Sunday registration, and when Monday came around I was mostly on US time (unlike some others who were up at 3am and in bed by 6pm for 1/2 the conference duration!
- Take cards. If you have business cards - take them with you. Although your badge will have an RFID chip with all your details (to allow you to check in to sessions and get info from the SE booths), if you have a specific request an RFID scan can get lost in the noise. A card will add that personal touch and go some way to getting your question answered quicker.
- Take an iPad or a Netbook. Sessions in particular are great but you will want to take loads of notes. Also, there is a VMworld app for smart phones / iPads and schedules and details are published online via free wifi. I would say this is a must have
- Go outside. It's tempting to not venture outside your conference venue (especially in LV where there were 2 massive hotel / casinos attached to each other). Don't spend all your free time inside - go out and experience the place you are in. (You can't get much more different between Bath, UK and LV, USA!)
- Social Media. Get involved in Twitter and Facebook (especially Twitter). All sessions are tracked via an associated twitter feed allowing for good feedback to presenters, Q & A and general involvement. The community also uses twitter to arrange impromptu events and get togethers, and social events are often publicised through live twitter feeds. Personally, I resisted twitter for as long as possible (who wants to know if I'm buying a cup of coffee of a morning), but in conference situation - I can really see the advantage of twitterand reaped the benefits.
- Do Labs. It might seem like a bit of a faf and a drag to spend time doing labs, but the benefit is many fold - especially if it relates to a project or interest that is running through your work. Also, applied labs linked to sessions give more of a benefit to doing sessions on their own (obvious, but not to all), and some labs are sponsored by vendors in the SE (EMC sponsored HoL26 for example) - often attached to prize draws. With labs, do as many as you can - they all have benefit either to extend learning or to learn from scratch!
- Talk to people. Again, sounds obvious, but talking to people will make your conference a much nicer experience. Talk to delegates, presenters, vendors, lab geeks, VMware employees, even the 'booth bunnies' have something to say, and if not they can put you on to someone who does.
- Don't pack too much - you will get some extra stuff to take home either through direct involvement in the conference, the Solutions Exchange and the Partner Network. If you are interested or partake in a competition for 'crop dusting' (see above) - you will definitely need additional capacity for the return leg of your trip.
So, in summary. I would definitely recommend a visit to VMworld if you can convince your boss it's a good idea. And not only is it a good idea, it's a great idea as I think I paid back the cost of my trip to my company in the first 2 days of conference with all the qualified knowledge, new ideas and enthusiasm I have for my job.
I will definitely be going to VMworld next year in San Francisco, hopefully my wife will be coming too so we can benefit from the beautiful West Coast!
For more virtualization musings, check out our blog at http://www.vspecialist.co.uk.