In March I'm attending MIX10 - Microsoft's 'cool' annual designer/developer web conference held in Las Vegas for 3 days every March.
It's a sign of my age that I nearly wrote 'trendy' instead of 'cool' just then, and in truth I see these events as being essentially geared to the younger, hipper developers and designers, most of whom won't be directly footing the bill for the experience. With less experience of these events and the real world outcomes, they are more easily persuaded by the 'positive' vibe the event generates and typically return to their jobs re-enthused and excited about the possibilities. That's got to be a good thing, right?(No disagreement here!)
For cynical old curmudgeons like myself who've had (far too many) years experiencing similar 'rah! rah! rah!' Microsoft events, attendance is not so essential, and might even be said to be best avoided! Time spent listening to overly optimistic claims or vague promises presented as if they were fact, or watching simplified demo's that don't reflect any kind of real world application reality aren't worth paying for if you live, as I do, in a world where time=money and there never seems to be enough of it to go around (If you think that 'vague promises presented as fact' comment is too harsh, remember that we were shown 'Silverlight on Mobile' over 2 years ago and told it was coming 'very soon' - still waiting!) A certain amount of blind belief in shiny new toys that will invariably fail to live up to much of their hype in the real world, and quickly get replaced with other shiny new toys that are equally flawed (or even more so) a year or so later will help older farts like myself get through the experience and emerge in a less disillusioned frame of mind - at least where Microsoft, its products and its conference events are concerned.
Regular blog readers may remember that the last MIX event I attended (MIX08, two years ago) was a huge disappointment for me and I stated after the event that I thought it represented very poor value-for-money for those of us having to traipse across to Las Vegas from Europe and pay our own way.
Admittedly, my whole take on MIX, as opposed to other Microsoft events (which, let's be honest, aren't THAT different from MIX despite what all the hype says), is probably somewhat jaundiced by several things that happened on that first trip. At the risk of boring anyone reading this with an overlong post, let me recap:
- I got sick for a couple of days (flu-like exhaustion and bad night sweats bang in the middle of the conference, which on top of the usual jet lag made the whole thing a bit of a nightmare)
- I trashed a newish laptop when it fell out my backpack onto a stone marble floor
- I had to pay excess baggage on video gear that I was then told I wasn't allowed to use at Microsoft's so-called 'most open' conference (despite having got permission from Channel 9's Jeff Sandquist beforehand - the problem wasn't down to him, but to over-zealous security and other Microsoft staff)
- Too many of the sessions I attended were really, really dull or failed to match their descriptions, often given by people clearly not used to presenting. Given that sessions are all made available offline to non-attendees in video form anyway (and with video, at least you can fast forward if the talk's a disaster!) sessions are probably the LAST reason you should use to justify attendance, even if the sessons form the main thrust of the sales pitch for the event.
- The conference was way too short, given the travel time, cost and distance involved, with too many 'after hour' events clashing with each other, and distanced too far apart, making it hard to hook up with all the folks I wanted to hook up with
- I was 'between contracts' so paying expensive Las Vegas hotel rates for ridiculously lavish living areas in the conference hotel was a bit of a double-whammy on the cost front.
- Unlike previous years there was no real SWAG to speak of, not even a concession stand. And I read all the announcements/downloaded the new software, just as non-attendees could, in my hotel room some hours before they were 'exclusively announced' at the conference keynotes.
On the plus side:
- I made some great contacts
- Despite being sick in bed at the height of the conference I had some fun times hanging out with contacts old and new on a couple of evenings and across sessions
- A couple of the sessions I attended were really, really good and provided some much-needed 'lightbulb' moments
- If I'd had an urgent, pressing question that needed answering and been prepared to be really pushy about it I'd have been able to ask it directly of the speaker/developer most likely responsible or able to give me an answer
- I took an extra couple of days in Vegas and saw a couple of great shows
- I got to witness, for the first time, the madness and joy that is Las Vegas (it really is 'the eighth wonder of the world' although more than a week there would drive any sensible person mad, I think!).
Overall then, not a great value-for-money event, even given the extenuating circumstances that cause the negatives to outnumber the positives. Admittedly much of the high cost (flights and hotels) is out of Microsoft's control and they came up with a generous 'early bird' discount offer this year, together with a '3 nights for the price of 2' hotel deal (which is unfortunately still MUCH higher than the neighbouring hotel is offering). I don't see Microsoft making a ton of money on the event, and they are probably taking quite a financial hit on holding it.
But it's my bottom line cost that's important, and given my MIX08 experience it's been with a somewhat jaundiced eye that I've been reading all the hype around the MIX10 event. Heck, some of the 'information' that's being pumped out about the event, and the way it's handled by 'community' is laugh-out-loud funny, or would be if there weren't so many people treating it solemnly as if it were fact!
A few days ago Scott Guthrie, VP of Microsoft's .NET division, sent out a tweet that MIX10 will be "very, very good" and the usual Microsoft shills and fan boys have all retweeted this a gazillion times, as if this were a piece of important news. Suddenly my Twitter feed is all noise, no signal! No disrespect to Scott - he's doing exactly what he should be doing, given his job, but why on earth is anybody other than a Microsoft employee whose job it is to promote this event retweeting this nonsense? The day I see a Microsoft employee tweet that this year's conference is "not going to be very good" or "won't be as good as last year's" I might start re-tweeting such marketing guff myself, but until then it has absolutely zero value, and filling up the Twitterverse with endless repeats of it is just plain idiotic and insulting to your followers who, if they are even remotely interested in .NET, will be following Scott already and not need to be re-told this amazing fact!
This time around MIX is offering a one day pre-conference workshop, available for an additional fee. If you believe the folks at Microsoft (in this video) this is going to be 'great value for money' and offer 'in-depth' training.
Errm ... no!
I attended just such a pre-conference workshop at a PDC event. USD300 may be great value for a day's hands-on TRAINING with a limited group of people but that's NOT what's being offered. If the PDC workshops are typical you're getting a day in a room with hundreds of other people, sat in passive mode while Powerpoint slides and Visual Studio demo-ware is shown to you. The one I attended at a PDC event was so bad I walked out after an hour as I could make better use of my time sat down with a laptop and some MSDN help files. What was offered was (not very good) marketing - not training, although admittedly I may have been unlucky in my selection of workshop, which ironically was given by a presenter who'd previously given one of the best 2 day 'guerilla course condensed' training events I'd ever attended.
And anybody who thinks that a half-day to cover Silverlight 4 is 'in depth' (even if the words 'boot camp' ARE tacked on the workshop description) is clearly taking crazy pills. It's an unfair claim - to both the attendees who are paying for this stuff, and the instructor who's going to have to try and live up to the hype.
My personal view is that most attendees don't care too much about this poor value-for-money stuff. They're not the ones paying after all, and it's a fun few days out of the office (in Vegas baby - woo hoo!) But for those paying their own way MIX is very expensive for what is essentially a Microsoft Marketing event.
So why the hell am I going?
Because Silverlight, since April last year, is now my full-time job, and MIX is traditionally a LOT (some folks say 'all') about Silverlight! That attracts all the Silverlight experts - and there aren't a lot of them around!
Good 'real world' Silverlight information is hard to come by because of the paucity of developers with real world experience around. Yes, we have a very strong user group in the UK, but the majority of attendees that I've spoken to are really 'playing' with the technology, or just starting to explore it to see if it might have some interest in the future, rather than using it in Enterprise Line of Business applications day-to-day. This is surprising, given that Ray Ozzie described it at PDC as 'Microsoft's premier UI' but when even a Silverlight MVP tells you that he's "only really done demo's with it - I'm not using it in my day job" it's clear that real world expertise is limited. MIX10 is a chance to talk to folks who've been writing real applications for some time now, and a chance to trade horror stories, workarounds and resulting success stories.
It's also a chance to say a personal 'thanks' to those in the Silverlight community who've given help and support in their own free time. Easily the best thing about Silverlight is not the technology, but the people - inside and outside Microsoft - who've freely given of their own time and knowledge in the form of crucial blog entries, tweets and email responses. I've a feeling I'm going to be buying quite a few folks beers!
And finally, I need a break from the daily grind. Downtime 'between contracts' doesn't really count here - especially if most of it is spent at a PC learning, working on personal projects or chasing potential clients for work. MIX10 in Las Vegas WILL be a break, and the folks running it do their best to make sure that everyone has a good time regardless of whether my own 'value for money' business assessment of the event jars with that.
So, with the need for a break and the fact that so many Silverlight folks I 'know' via Twitter and community are going, I decided I couldn't afford NOT to go, despite my overall negative MIX08 experience, and my cynicism over the 'passionate' hype that is used to over-sell events like this.
Earlier today, Microsoft evangelist Mike Taulty joked, whilst talking about an upcoming Silverlight User Group meeting that I'm really looking forward to, that I was setting my 'expectations too high'. That won't be true for MIX10. There is no shiny new release of Silverlight to announce - that was done early, just five months after the last version shipped - at Microsoft's PDC conference last November.
We've been told that there will be a lot about Mobile at MIX10, and many of us had expected Windows Mobile 7, based on some sort of Silverlight engine, to be announced. But rumours from last week's CES suggest that the hardware manufacturers are gossiping that nothing will be available for the public until February 2011. (There is an excellent analysis of the Windows Mobile 7 rumours and lack of any real information from Microsoft here).
So I've damped down my expectations, am in fact going in with very low expectations, and will hopefully have a good time as a result. If you're wise and you're going (paying your own way) I suggest you do the same and ignore all the hype nonsense. You'll then hopefully come away more than pleased with the experience.
Stay tuned, to see if my low expectations mean I have a much better experience this time round than I did last time!