The Conundrum of Virtual Conferences


Okay, the world is indeed crazy. We can’t hide from it or hope that it just blows over sooner or later. We’re dealing with it now and that means it’s impacting our work, our family lives, and even our sanity from time to time. One of the stalwart things that has been impacted by this is the summer conference schedule. We’ve had Aruba Atmosphere, Cisco Live, VMworld, and even Microsoft Ignite transition from being held in-person to a virtual format complete with shortened schedules and pre-recorded sessions. I’ve attended a couple of these so far for work and as an analyst, and I think I’ve figured it out.

If you come to a conference for content and sessions, you’ll love virtual events. If you come for any other reason, virtual isn’t going to work for you.

Let’s break this down because there’s a lot to unpack.

Information Ingestion

Conferences are first and foremost about disseminating information. Want to learn what new solutions and technologies have been launched? It’s probably going to be announced either right before or during the conference. Want to learn the ins-and-outs of this specific protocol? There’s probably a session on it or a chance to ask a professional engineer or architect about it. There’s a lot of content to be consumed at the conference. So much, in fact, that in recent years the sessions have started to be recorded and posted for consumption after the fact. You can now have access to a library of any topic you could ever want. Which comes in really handy when your boss decides in November that you’re going to be the new phone person…

Because all this content has been recorded and published before, transitioning the content to a virtual format is almost seamless. The only wrinkle is that people are going be recording from their home instead of a blast freezer ballroom in the Mandalay Bay. That means you’re going to need tighter control over things like environment and video recordings. Your people are going to have to get good and talking and setting up their screens to be effective. Most good presenters can do this already. Some need some coaching. Most are going to need a few takes to get it right since they aren’t going to be editing together their own video. But the end result is going to be the same. You’re going to have great content to share with people to be consumed over the course of days or weeks or even months.

Keynotes are a little bit harder to quantify in this content category. They are definitely content, just not for tech people. Keynotes are analyst and press fodder. It’s a packaging of the essence of the event in an hour-long (or longer) format designed to hit the important points for tweets and headlines. Keynotes are very, very, very rehearsed. No one tends to go off the script unless it’s absolutely necessary. Even the off-the-cuff remarks are usually scripted and tested for impact ahead of time. If a joke fails to land, just imagine the three others they tried that were worse.

But keynotes at a virtual event can be more impactful. Because you can do some editing you can put together different takes. You can inject some emotion. You can even use it as a platform for creating change. I specifically want to call out the Cisco Live keynote from Chuck Robbins this year. It wasn’t about tech. We didn’t really hear about protocols or hardware. Instead, Chuck used his platform to talk about the drivers of technology. He stood up and told the world how we need to use our talents and our toys to build a better world for ourselves and for everyone around us. Chuck didn’t mince words. He postponed Cisco Live by two weeks to highlight the struggles and causes that are being shown nightly on the news. He wanted us to see the world he and his company are trying to help and build up. And he used the keynote slot to push that message. No flashy numbers or sparkly hardware. Just good, old fashioned discussion.

Virtual Hallways

Every positive thing should have something corresponding to balance it out. And for virtual conferences, it’s the stuff that’s not about content. Ironically enough, that’s the part that I’ve been so steeped in recently. Sure, Tech Field Day produces a lot on content around these events. I’m happy to be able to be a part of that. But the event is more than just videos and slide decks. It’s more than just sitting in uncomfortable chairs in a meat locker nursing a hangover trying to understand the chipset in a switch.

Conferences are as much about community as anything else. They’re about seeing your friends in-person. Conferences are about hallway conversations about random topics and taking a taxi to a bar halfway down the Vegas Strip to meet up with a couple of people and some person you’ve never even heard of. It’s about meeting the co-workers of your friends and pulling them into your circle. It’s about sharing hobbies and life stories and learning about the crazy haircut someone’s kid gave themselves right before they left.

Community matters to me most of all. Because a conference without a community is just a meeting. And that part is missing virtually. I did my best with an attempt to do Tom’s Virtual Corner with our community. I was shocked and pleased at the number of people that joined in. We had over 50 people on the calendar invite and over a dozen connected at any one time. It was wonderful! But it wasn’t the corner that we know and love. It’s not that it wasn’t special. It was totally special and I appreciate everyone that took time out of their day to take part. But there are some things that are missing from the virtual experience.

I’ll take myself for example. I have two problems that I have to overcome at events:

  1. I’m a story teller.
  2. Other people need to talk too.

If I get on a tear with number one, number two won’t happen. At an in-person event it’s easy enough for me to deal with the first one. I just pull interested people aside for a small group conversation. Or I wait for a different time or another day to tell my story. It’s easy enough to do when you spend sixteen hours around people on average and even more well into the night with friends.

However, those above things don’t really work on Zoom/Webex/GoToMeeting. Why? Well, for one thing you can only really have one speaker at a time. So everyone needs to keep it short and take turns. Which leads to a lot of waiting to talk and not so much for listening. Or it leads to clipped quips and not real discussion. And before you bring up the breakout room idea, remember that mechanically there is a lot of setup that needs to happen for those. You can’t just create one on the fly to tell a story about beanbags and then just hop back into the main room. And, breakout rooms by their very nature are exclusionary. So it’s tough to create one and not want to just stay there and let people come to you.


Tom’s Take

This is just a small part of the missing aspect of virtual conferences. Sure, your feet don’t hurt at the end of the day. I’d argue the food is way better at home. The lack of airports and hotel staff isn’t the end of the world. But if your primary focus for going to events is to do everything other than watching sessions then the virtual experience isn’t for you. The dates for Cisco Live 2021 and Aruba Atmosphere 2021 have already been announced. I, for one, can’t wait to get back to in-person conferences. Because I miss the fringe benefits of being in-person more than anything else.

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