TechEd Europe session selection not good news for on-premises customers or independent voices

TechEd Europe is coming up soon but as far as I can see it will be a Microsoft love-fest with no independent opinions being presented on Exchange, all of which creates some disturbing thoughts that the uber-conference in Chicago next May might also be deficient when it comes to independent thought - and that would be a pity. Still, if you're looking for advice about how to deploy, manage, and utilize on-premises Exchange, you can come to Exchange Connections in Las Vegas next month. We might not have Microsoft speakers, but our jokes might be better (or so we hope).

Anyone planning to go to TechEd EMEA in Barcelona at the end of October might be disappointed to discover the lack of independent advice that exists at the conference regarding Exchange and associated technology. The Exchange MVPs, many of whom live in Europe, are also disappointed because Microsoft declined every MVP-led session that was proposed, most of which were submitted by speakers with strong track records of successful presentations at different events. As far as I can recall, it is unprecedented that this would happen for any Microsoft-organized conference.

MVPs are not guaranteed sessions but they are supposed to provide independent advice about Microsoft technology. The lack of that kind of advice at a major event like TechEd Europe creates some disturbing thoughts for the future.

First, you could assume that Microsoft is losing interest in having independent content presented at their events. Perhaps it is felt that MVPs and other external speakers are not good enough at following corporate messages, whatever they might be at a particular point in time.

Second, you might think that the Exchange product group (in particular) doesn’t care very much for the 100+ MVPs who are associated with the technology. I don’t believe that this is the case because I know how well the product group and MVPs work together. In fact, just nine sessions are listed for Exchange on the TechEd Europe schedule.

As Paul Robichaux points out, TechEd has been gently swelling over the years to accommodate new products as Microsoft brings them to market. The need to incorporate sessions for these products onto the schedule creates pressure on the existing products and the net effect is that fewer speaking slots are available for longstanding products such as Exchange and SharePoint. The effect is compounded when the need arises to provide sessions to support major corporate marketing initiatives. Many of the attendees who were at TechEd US in Houston last May pointed out that Azure was everywhere (which is exactly what Microsoft would like it to be).

By comparison, Lync is listed for 24 sessions and SharePoint for 23 while Office 365 has 52 (some of which have obvious connections to Exchange and some of which cover Office clients). But the overall impression is that Exchange certainly has been short-changed by the TechEd Europe schedulers. On-premises customers might well feel that their concerns have been left behind in a rush to “cloudify” everything.

Given the paltry number of sessions assigned to Exchange, it must have been difficult for the product group to let some of their slots go to MVPs, especially when they want to talk about new features and directions, but balance is important and I don’t think that they have achieved the necessary balance between new stuff and reporting real-life experience of technology in action. A 6-3 split would have been good if 9 slots were all that was available but really… nine slots for a major product like Exchange that has over 300 million seats deployed, the majority of which are still on-premises?

To be fair to the Exchange product group, when the lack of independent content was pointed out to them, they took action and found one speaking slot for an MVP and also offered a co-speaking slot to another. Moving from zero to 1.5 MVP slots is a small but welcome improvement.

Update 4 September: In another positive development, the Exchange product group found another slot for an MVP and Steve Goodman is lined up to speak in Barcelona. He promises to deliver something memorable. We'll just have to wait and see.

Third, a faint suspicion might creep into your mind that TechEd Europe will be nothing more than an opportunity to drink Microsoft’s Kool-Aid on a massive scale. In other words, all marketing and few facts that might actually help to achieve a successful deployment or to solve a technical problem. To run a technical conference that is focused on marketing (with themes like “everyone to the cloud”) would be a pity. Stacking a conference with sessions about products that marketing wants to push (like Yammer – to be fair, only 3 slots have been assigned here) instead of the technology that people actually use is also a pity.

Fourth, given that this is the last of the TechEd events and that it will be replaced next May by the new Microsoft uber-conference, a nagging doubt now exists that Microsoft will allocate sessions in the same manner for that event. The same pressure will exist between the product groups and marketing to get slots on that agenda, so we could face a situation where Exchange and other longstanding products end up with just a few sessions because the bulk of the show is given over to “new stuff.”  And of course, new products or new versions can only be discussed by Microsoft employees because they have that information, which then reduces the slots available to independent speakers.

The fear is that the new conference will be a poor replacement for technology-specific conferences such as MEC or the Lync and SharePoint conferences. Their loss will be keenly felt by technologists seeking updated information about their favourite products. Chicago is a nice place to go for a conference, but not for a week-long brainwashing session delivered by faithful acolytes for the one true message.

To be fair to Microsoft, a lot of new content will be available when Chicago rolls around because they will then be in the position to talk about Exchange 16, the next major release of the product. It also has to be said that some technology from Exchange is now permeating other products. Data Loss Prevention is one example – DLP is now being implemented in SharePoint Online and Asaf Kashi is covering this topic in Barcelona.

Many Microsoft speakers do a great job in describing their technology in a clear, open, and forthright manner. Examples such as Abram Jackson, Tim McMichael, and Vivek Sharma come to mind from MEC last April. On the other hand, there are many examples of Microsoft speakers who see nothing wrong in their technology, who align themselves to whatever the latest corporate mantra might be, and who deliver whatever is felt to be “the right thing” at conference after conference. Independent speakers are supposed to provide the balance for the second type of speakers and without that balance I believe TechEd Europe will not be as valuable to attendees as it should be.

The only good thing I see here is that the outcome of the TechEd selection process underlines the value of independent technology conferences that are dedicated to providing accurate and thoughtful advice about how Microsoft products really work in the field, how to avoid common deployment problems, and how to extract the maximum value from your investment in software and hardware.

I’ve been reviewing the presentations for the Exchange Connections track at this year’s IT/Dev Connections event in the Aria Hotel, Las Vegas (September 16-18) and can report that the level of content is impressive. Among the decks for the 27 sessions dedicated to Exchange and Office 365 I have seen to date, I can report that Paul Cunningham has a great session on DAG operations and troubleshooting, Michael “Van Hybrid” will cover his favourite topic, Nathan O’Bryan will go into the depths of ADFS, and Jaap Wesselius discusses Autodiscover in depth. All great stuff, delivered by a mixture of MVPs, MCMs (unloved by Microsoft Learning, but great people all the same), and even some Microsoft employees. At Connections, we select the best speakers with the best content – as long as they can deliver independent advice.

I won’t be in Barcelona for TechEd Europe. If you go, enjoy the sessions. But think about Connections as an alternative.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

on Aug 22, 2014

Looks like TechEd EMEA in Barcelona at the end of October will be ALL Marketing and NO Exchange Server deep dive sessions so the result is NO Messaging Pro in EU will go :-) I hope Chicago will have Exchange Server deep dive sessions???

on Aug 22, 2014

Sadly, the Chicago event will be more of the same, only bigger.

on Aug 22, 2014

You can take it that the MVPs have made the point to the Exchange PG that Chicago has to be different. If they reproduce another TechEd, then the unique spirit created at MEC due to the combination of excellent (Microsoft and non-Microsoft) sessions, fun, and attitude will be lost and never recovered.

on Aug 22, 2014

P.S. MVPs and community for the Microsoft Management Summit (retired in 2013 to merge with TechEd), made the same point - yet it was more of the same, forcing new, community-led conferences to crop up and our new content direction and focus for IT/Dev Connections.

on Aug 24, 2014

It's the same way with SharePoint. While there are 23 sessions listed, only 3 are breakouts. The rest are hands on labs.

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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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