Saturday, 16 January 2010

MIX10 in Las Vegas - So, why the hell are you going, Ian?

MIX10 bling!

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!


ChrisNTR said...

I look forward to seeing your response. It's a conference though - you're always going to be fed marketing.

Ian said...

This is true. I think they should print that on all conference brochures. "MIX10 - You're going to be fed marketing" has a certain ring to it ;-)

discorax said...

Truth in advertising?! what is truth? :)

I enjoyed myself at my first MIX last year. I went for two big reasons. One, to network with industry professionals (especially local, I live/work in Seattle area) and to discover new interests. For that reason I attended a few sessions that I knew NOTHING about going in. From that perspective I learned a great deal.

I am one of the young developers that loves the hype and I re-tweeted "very very good" but I also personally know at least 3 speakers and have seen an outline of their sessions and am very excited to be there. Two technologies I'm especially interested in this year are multi-touch and mobile. I've seen multiple sessions on each of these and hear some "hype" about them. If I get good content about both of those subject, meet a few new professionals, and get a few free drinks I'll call the whole experience a success.

Personally I always seem to return charged up to do new things. After last year I came back giddy with excitement over Sketchflow (which wouldn't release for another 6 months) but when it did finally release I was still excited to use it.

Anyway, I'm kinda rambling now. I hope the food is better this year! :)

See you there, Ian!


Ian said...

Correct me if I'm wrong but it sounds like you're not really contradicting anything I've said. You say that you were happy with a few sessions, and looking forward to some new ones, even though you could still virtually "attend" those sessions for free. I guess my basic question would be "Who's paying for your attendance?" If I weren't paying, or losing paid work by attending, I'd probably be tweeting that I had a good time too :-) If you paid for yourself and are still as enthusiastic then I have a a London Bridge I may want to sell you ;-)

So now that you've had the use of SketchFlow a few months are you still excited? Really?! What have you used it for? Aren't you confused about the whole initial sales pitch of "this differs from other wireframe prototypes because these prototypes aren't throwaway - they're assets you can reuse. You just restyle from 'Wiggly' to final and your app's there. Use the wireframe just to focus the user on what's important" message which made the product look like an Adobe killer and a way to get designers actually interested in using Blend instead of the usual Adobe products. When we actually got the product this message suddenly changed to "Actually you should use this JUST for prototyping. It's most definitely not intended to be the basis of the final Enterprise application" (which begged the question "So this is better than the competitors how?").

How are you fitting SketchFlow into your real work? Are you using MVVM? Or is SketchFlow actually just something you're using as a slower, more laborious version of something like Balsamiq for basic wireframes and user approval before starting work on the real project? In which case I ask again "Was this what you were sold that excited you six months before you got your hands on it?" To me SketchFlow is a classic example of the sort of over-sell and "bending of truth" that happens at these events.

Don't get me wrong, I think SketchFlow has a future in some areas, and will hopefully improve dramatically in V2 or V3, but like most of the other Silverlight developers I've talked to I find the current release requires too much work for too little reusable effort when compared with Balsamiq. Certain assets may well be resusable but when the story changed to "Create the assets in Illustrator or Photoshop and import them into SketchFlow" this didn't seem any different from the way we've always worked, even before SketchFlow arrived on the scene.

When I talk to other Silverlight developers we all seem to be using Balsamiq because the SketchFlow "vision" shown at MIX09 turned out not to match real world reality and, as ever with Microsoft, once it got into the hands of real world developers and the flaws became obvious the "message" was changed to fit. Trouble is the "message" from Microsoft always has to be teased out AFTER people start noticing the promises don't quite add up (Microsoft has always worked this way from the early days of IDC/HTX and the early AJAX implementation called "Remote Data Connector", to the "performant and scalable" ASP which then became "Oh you want to run on a web farm? We haven't really got the state management story sorted out yet - a web farm to make apps scalable wasn't in our demo's or plans" to "Silverlight 2 is ready for line of business apps" which became "Did we forget to mention even basic browser printing isn't there, nor is cut and paste" etc etc.

Trouble is we all drink the MIX Koolaid, waste too much time wondering what we got wrong based on what events like this "over sell" (or "forget to mention") which is counter-productive and ultimately extremely costly.

discorax said...

Nope, you're right, I guess I wasn't really contradicting at all. The teasing out the truth about a product is definitely par for the course in the months following these things.

Last year I made two very good business contacts during MIX which resulted in some good business and a successful year at the agency where I work. In that regard, Mix was very valuable. But you're right, if I was paying for this completely out of pocket I'd probably have left disappointed at the results one year later.

However, I did have a good experience last year and am excited to return this year. I'll probably take your advice on keeping my expectations low for actual usable tech coming out of the conference, because you're right, there is a lot of marketing fluff (especially in the keynotes). I'm still hopeful to see some inspiring stuff. SL4 has some promise based on what I've seen. Webcam, printing, bite array manipulation on images...all things I've been waiting for since SL1 :)

Thanks for the post. I'll be sure to return and read more in the future.

Ian said...

Yeah. Don't get me wrong - I'm excited about Silverlight 4 too. But I'm seriously worried about the "learning curve" needed for take-up to be what it needs to be. There's so much new stuff in Silverlight 4 and I'm still catching up on Silverlight 3 - and that's as a full-time Silverlight developer. How is the average developer supposed to get up-to-speed with Microsoft's "premier UI". This is the biggest hurdle the technology has.

And that's before you add in all the other needed bits and pieces: Entity Framework 4, PRISM, MEF, .NET RIA Services etc (Don't get me started on how all these things seem to get developed in separate silo's so that eg when you want "deep link" Silverlight navigation with PRISM and .NET RIA or MVVM and PRISM with "blendability" you're left with a few very basic blog articles to help you wade through all the problems, and Microsoft shrugging and saying "Yeah, we're not there yet!".

Then there's the "designer" issue. I haven't met a designer yet who doesn't regard Blend as "clunky" and something to be avoided. And then of course there's the original vision of "designer/developer separation, each working on the same assets" that we got at MIX a few years back that forgot people in the real world use source control systems for their code (with the "message" changing yet again to "actually you need not just a designer and developer but also a 'devigner' or interaction developer/designer to cross the barrier between the two".

I think you can start to see what prompted my original comments about real world reality vs MIX over-hyping ;-)

Hope you (and I!) enjoy MIX10 and that we get a chance to meet at the event. We can swap war stories over a beer.

Thanks for taking the trouble to comment.

spacescape said...

Morning chaps, first off - I'm a designer who doesn't see Blend as something to be avoided... I use it most days and couldn't do my job without it. Maybe I have the benefit of having used version 2 first as admittedly Blend 3 was a big step forward, but I find it a great tool to use.

Second, I would suggest that discussions like this one we are tring to fit into a tiny comments box, underneath a blog is one of the main reasons for going... How much better would it be to have this chat around Sketchflow, the promise of Silverlight 4 and the designer - developer relationship... in person, over a beer, in between sessions?

I filter hype the same as any advertising. Having been once before, I suppose I have a better idea of what i want to get out of it and what to expect which means i have my own set of criteria as to whether it is worth going or not.

There's a hell of a lot more I'd like to say (don't get me started on that 'devigner' crap) but hopefully we'll continue this discussion in person!

Ian said...

Good to hear you like Blend.

What was your history before Blend (eg have you made heavy use of Adobe tools?) Most of the 'clunky' comments seem to come from designers who've got used to the Adobe toolset and don't want to switch, although I think the complexity of having to deal with data binding, 'code behind', MVVM etc in real world apps mean that the designer is typically moved outside his comfort zone when having to work with Blend/Silverlight and so they're really comparing apples and oranges, which may give rise to the comments.

Agree that MIX is a better forum for this sort of discussion, and also that going for a second time will have a different focus than the first (as hinted at, the actual sessions are the bottom of the priority list this trip, where on the first trip they were at the top)

spacescape said...

I've used photoshop, illustrator, but mostly fireworks all my career (10+ years) and continue to do so. Blend has hitherto been less of a design tool in my opinion anyway - design happens elsewhere (fireworks) to begin with, overall styles are defined and then either recreated using the appropriate controls in Blend or by exporting XAML from fireworks.

Blend to me is no more a design tool than Dreamweaver, it serves as the interface between design and functionality.

All this also depends on your definition of a designer, which is where the whole devigner thing comes in, and why we now have so many variations on a theme... Interaction designer, graphic designer, web designer, UX and IA consultants... I have always been the type who took my own mockups and then lovingly crafted HTML and CSS to present it in the browser before either handing it over to developers to wire up, or adding in the hooks myself.

This to me is what a 'web designer' always has, should and will be, but different people and organisations have widely varying expectations, experiences and process. So this is a debate that will continue well beyond my will to live :)

Second your opinion regarding the sessions being a reaosn for going - with keynotes streamed and the rest available to download, it's not the content that you go for... but you can't watch a video from the other side of the world and then go grab the speaker for a further discussion on their talk, or have that immediate, free-flowing dialogue with peers.

So i suppose I'd add - if you're the sort who would rather sit in a corner and observe rather than get involved and participate.. MIX probably isn't for you.

Ian said...

I'd agree with all the above, and particularly like your last sentence.

However, being me ;-) I would say that on the couple of occasions at MIX08 where I really wanted to "grab a speaker" I seemed to get really unlucky. When an hour slot is allocated and the speaker fills the whole hour up before getting to Q&A and then says "I'll take questions in the corridor" but is mobbed by a LOT of people before declaring "I need to be somewhere else in 10 minutes" it's not as easy as some are making out. Like I said, maybe I got unlucky!

One of the things that impressed me most about MIX08 was the number of folk (right up to Scott Guthrie's level) who gave me their mobile phones to make contact during the event. That's SERIOUSLY impressive - can you imagine any other company offering that level of support?

On the other hand, I did seem to spend way too much time playing Voicemail tag and the reality is I didn't actually get to meet anyone I'd arranged to meet through phone hookups :-(

My mistake was in going to the sessions rather than using the session time to persist and push and make those meetings happen.

spacescape said...

Towards the end of last year's conference I found myself skipping sessions in order to meet with people... the value of sitting on a few sofas with 80% of the Silverlight MVPs chatting away and sharing knowledge and experiences is not something you get from a session!

I guess you may find the main difference between 2008 and 09/10 is the prevalence of Twitter? It serves as the Backchannel, offering a fantastic way of finding out what's going on and when, and a super fast way of spreading the word about an impromptu meetup or crowdsourcing information or a useful contact. I wouldn't have had half the event i did last year without it.

Ian said...

Actually Twitter ended up being my main mechanism for meeting folk I hadn't previously met at MIX08. There were so few of us using it back then, relative to today, that people made a point of introducing themselves when they saw you tweeting.

discorax said...

Twitter was great for me last year. One of the most valuable uses I found was finding which sessions were really good and which could be skipped. I was tweeting during the sessions I attended and if the session was going poorly I would tweet it and scour twitter for another attendee that was raving about their session. I actually left 3 sessions based on the rave reviews of others DURING the session.

Hooray for Twitter. Also, tweetups and dinner "meetings" made for some great tech conversations.

That reminds me, I think I'll need to get a better smart phone for MIX this year. Twitter on my Blackjack II was frustrating at best.

Adam Kinney said...

Happy to hear you'll be there, Mr. Smith. Looking forward to meeting up and hopefully discussing some of this "devigner crap" :)

Ian said...

Heh! The 'devigner crap' comment wsn't mine :-). I think a 'middle man' is needed, although admittedly I really don't like the name 'devigner'.