MEC or TechEd? Austin, here I come...

Ah, don't you love it when the time comes every year to plan annual travel budgets and decisions have to be taken about training and conferences. Microsoft has posed quite a quandary for 2014 as the Exchange Conference and TechEd North America occur in the same state some five weeks apart. Which one to choose? Here's my advice.

As Exchange administrators (and their bosses) plan travel and training budgets for 2014, it makes sense to consider the question whether to go to the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) in Austin (April 1-3) or TechEd North America in Houston (May 12-15). For the majority of people it won’t make sense to go to both conferences and Microsoft has certainly not helped anyone by scheduling the two within five weeks of each other. Registration for MEC is now open; registration for TechEd North America starts on November 5.

It’s an unusual situation because MEC traditionally followed TechEd with TechEd landing in or around early June and MEC in September. MEC 2012 followed this schedule but now we have MEC popping up much earlier than usual and TechEd is early too. And to cap it all, both events take place in Texas. We don't yet have good visibility as to what each conference will cover in terms of content. I expect the normal mish-mash of product announcements, grand architectural pronouncements, marketing aspirations, and a fair amount of energy and in-depth sessions.

I have never really liked TechEd and have not attended one of these events since 2005. It’s a huge affair that seeks to cover all manner of technologies. As such, TechEd is the place to go if you want to learn about more than just the Exchange ecosystem, especially if you’re a developer and have interests in tools and platforms. It’s also the place to go if you enjoy attending sessions along with hundreds of other kindred souls (some of whom appear to be perpetually lost or baffled by the sheer size of the proceedings).

MEC is smaller and more focused. The signs are that MEC will be about a fifth the size of TechEd. The conference delivers on the name. MEC is the Exchange conference, albeit stretching the definition to cover Lync, SharePoint, and other associated technologies. MEC is where you’ll meet personalities from the Exchange world – from the product group, MVPs, MCMs, and other folk who like diving into the details of email. It’s always surprising how what seems to be a simple problem (how to get a message from point A to point B) can generate such complex discussions.

Houston seems like a good place to host an event of the size of TechEd. I got to know Houston reasonably well when working for Compaq and it’s a big, bustling city that takes on some of the can-do attitude of the oil industry. Austin, where MEC began in 1996, is a more sedate place. I was last there when refereeing in the US National Rugby finals in 2008 and enjoyed my visit. It seems like there are many bars in Austin, which was important for a rugby crowd and could be important for the Exchange mob too.

All conferences attract marketing people. I have nothing against this profession as long as I’m not surrounded and have an easy exit. Given the size of TechEd and the number of exhibitors at that show, a lot more marketing activity seemed to happen there, something that did not seem an advantage for a technologist. To each their own, I suppose.

Overall, I consider TechEd to be rather a soulless conference. It’s not owned by any particular interest group within Microsoft and has to keep all of the various factions and product groups happy. Think blandness and the same old formula used every year. MEC is owned by the Exchange product group and has to satisfy just one constituency. I guess this means that the MEC organizers can take more chances with the format, keynotes, breakout sessions, and other bits that make up a conference. It certainly seemed that MEC 2012 had an edge that I hadn’t experienced before at a Microsoft conference.

It comes down to this simple question. Is Exchange your thing? If it is, then go to MEC. On the other hand, if Exchange is just one of the technical challenges that occupies your working day, you might get more value from TechEd.

Whatever you do, please plan to come to DevConnections in 2014. It’s important to preserve an independent voice on the conference circuit and that’s certainly what Exchange Connections attempts to do. I rather think we managed to achieve that goal in 2013 and plan to do even better in 2014.

And by the way, Happy Halloween

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On-premises and cloud-based Microsoft Exchange Server and all the associated technology that runs alongside Microsoft's enterprise messaging server.

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Tony Redmond

Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro and the author of Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 Inside Out (Microsoft Press) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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