Who needs a panel of squabbling music business types judging contestants with dubious vocal talents when Microsoft IT pros have our very own Speaker Idol competition?

Speaker Idol has been running for two years now at the annual TechEd IT Forum conference in Barcelona. The competition gives delegates the chance to make a five-minute presentation on their chosen technical topic to an audience of their peers and competition is as fierce as any reality TV contest. In 2006, Windows IT Pro EMEA presenter Andy Malone, who heads up our Dive Deeper events, won a coveted Speaker Idol first prize and so was called up as a judge for November’s contests.

There are two categories and this time the TechEd Developer’s Speaker Idol first prize went to Australia’s Jeff Wharton on the topic of “Why RAID for SQL Server is not as easy as 1, 5, 10”. The TechEd IT Forum first prize was won by Belgian Exchange expert Ilse Van Criekinge, who wowed the judges with her presentation on the Autodiscover tool in Exchange 2007. “I chose to talk about the Autodiscover web service that is included in Exchange 2007 with the Client Access Server role, since it is a great feature that is so simple and incredibly useful if configured correctly and understood by the Exchange administrator,” she explains.

Ilse is an ICT trainer/consultant at Global Knowledge Belgium, where she specialises in all aspects of Exchange and Office Communication Server. She’s also user group lead of Pro-Exchange ( http://www.proexchange.be ), a Belgium-based Exchange web forum as well as being a technical author who is currently busy finishing her latest book about Exchange Management Shell.

Coming from a technical family, Ilse grew up around computers and her first job was working on the venerable IBM AS/400. “I soon changed jobs, to get back to the Microsoft platform, since working as a RPG programmer just wasn't my thing,” she says. “And then I got in touch with this thing called Exchange 5.0 and never stopped loving it.”

So how did it feel to win such a prestigious prize? “Great. Amazing. Finally, I got to go to IT Forum and be in that speaker's room,” says Ilse. “I was nervous but it was so much fun to do, and so great to have the support of all the MCTs that know me because I have been helping out for quite a few years now at TechEd and IT Forum as a MCT Proctor.”

Isle also appreciated the support of her fellow Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals who’s ranks she joined in April, 2007. “But,” she says, “the best thing was that finally a woman won the Speaker Idol prize, and the runner-up \[Lebanon’s Maral Topalian\], she was amazing as well.”

Recent statistics would suggest that the number of European women involved in IT has fallen since the heady days of the dot com boom when computing, however briefly, was seen as hyper-fashionable. What more can be done to boost their numbers now?

“Quite a lot,” says Ilse. “For one, women should be encouraged to go for IT at a very young age, instead of being discouraged – like, it's a boy thing. Young women should know that it is a challenging, exciting world that is full of surprises; so what else does a woman want?”

Explaining the motivation behind his “Why RAID for SQL Server is not as easy as 1, 5, 10” presentation, globetrotting Jeff Wharton says: “It was a bit of a strange topic for a developer conference but I believe that to be a true enterprise application developer you need to have an understanding of infrastructure.

“The presentation contained a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour as it played on the finger pointing that goes on between IT pros and developers as they try to blame each other for application performance issues. The underlying message was that as developers, you’re the ones that know how your applications interact with data. Therefore, an understanding of RAID will help you analyse and determine whether the wrong RAID implementation is the cause of poor performance; it does make a difference. It certainly raised a few eyebrows, but it caught the attention of the crowd which is what presenting is all about.”

Jeff is another example of an IT pro who discovered the wonders of computing at an early age. “I was about 11 years old when my mum used her VW Beatle to jump-start the Falcon Cobra of a guy up the road,” he explains. “Turned out that this guy was an electronics whizz who used to build his own circuit boards and mini computers which he then used to run ‘Life’ and do all sorts of other wonderful things. We were introduced and things sort of started from there.”

Nowadays, he is the chief solutions architect for WARDY IT Solutions as well as a student mentor for training outfit IT Masters and he also runs the Canberra SQL Server User Group ( http://www.sqlserver.org.au ) in Australia’s capital city.

Of his Speaker Idol victory, Jeff says: “I was obviously stoked \[an Australian term for “very pleased”\] at winning as I secured a break-out session at TechEd EMEA 2008 and won a metre of MS Press books for my user group. However, I also felt something for the other finalists, especially my friends Karl Davies-Barrett \[second place\] and Maciej Pilecki \[third place\], as it was such a close contest and all of us deserved to win.

“I entered the competition to see whether I would cut it as a speaker in another country. It's one thing being able to present to your peers at home, but presenting to a crowd that is not accustomed to your country’s ways is totally different. You don’t know whether the crowd will understand you or whether they’ll just sit there in dead silence when you crack a joke. You need to be a lot more conscious of the crowd and be on your toes at all times. Obviously, I can’t gauge whether I’ve got what it takes based on Speaker Idol alone; but it did secure me a break-out session at TechEd EMEA 2008 and that will.”

Jeff’s main real reason for attending TechEd EMEA was to proctor hands-on-labs. “Speaker Idol was just something else I thought would be great to do while I was there,” he says.

“I’ve been a Proctor/Technical Learning Guide for three years now and this was my second time at TechEd EMEA. I’ve also done Australia and the U.S. There’s just something special about interacting with people and seeing the look on their faces when they actually get to play with cool technology instead of just sitting there listening to someone talk about it.

“There’s also the face-to-face networking with people I’ve met via blogs and twittered or chatted with over the years. It’s a great feeling when someone comes up to you and says ‘Hey, you’re that guy that helped me with such and such; thanks, mate’. It’s even better when you discover that you’re sharing a flat with someone that used one of your blog posts to study for and pass a MS exam.”