Conference Packing – The Little Things

It seems like conference season never really ends. Between RSA, Cisco Live, Black Hat, and VMworld, I’m always running around to something. I enjoy being able to meet new people and talk to companies at these events but I also find that a little bit of planning ahead helps immensely.

There’s always a lot of discussion from people about what to pack for a conference. There have been some great posts written about it, like this one from Bob McCouch in 2014. He definitely covers all the important stuff that people would want to know, such as comfortable shoes and a bag big enough to carry extra things just in case you come back with enough fidget spinners to sink an aircraft carrier.

However, I’ve found in recent years that the difference between just surviving a conference and really being prepared involves a few extra items I never thought I’d need to bring back when I first started doing this in 2006. Maybe it’s the Scoutmaster in me, but being prepared has gone from being a suggestion to a necessity. And here are a few of those little necessities that I have found I can’t live without.

First? Aid.

I’ve found that traveling with a first aid kit is a huge upgrade in Quality of Conference Life. I’m not talking about one of the crazy backpack-style ones that first responders carry. Or even the small plastic ones that you can find in a local department store that have everything under the sun. No, the best first aid kit is the one you pack yourself. So you know you have what you need and you know what you have.

For my first aid kit, I pack small:

  • 3-4 bandages. Preferred to be breathable (not plastic or cute)
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Moleskin for blisters
  • Cotton balls
  • Small alcohol swab (for cleaning and drying out blisters)
  • Q-Tips or other cotton swabs
  • Cuticle scissors

It’s a simple kit but it works wonders. You can take care of minor cuts and scrapes, blisters (which are the bane of every conference), and other things like wound treatment. You can even use cotton balls as earplugs in a pinch. The rest is designed to travel light.

Note that I didn’t list any pain relievers in there. That’s because I separately carry a lot of ibuprofen in my bag to help with tired muscles after standing all day and headaches after waking up. I carry enough that it won’t easily fit in the Ziploc bag that I use for my travel kit. It’s also easier to access in my bag without having to go into another bag. Make your kit easy to use and easy to access so you can get to it when you need it.

Portable Power

It’s funny how we’ve come to depend so much on our mobile devices now. I’ve gone from not even caring if I left my Nokia phone in my room to not being able to function without a smart device or two on me at all times. That also means that I’ve become hyper aware of how long I’m going to be able to use my device. And in places where there are a lot of phones competing for signal or a lot of interference, you’re going to drain your device battery a lot faster.

The other issue is that modern devices have much bigger batteries than in the past. My iPhone XS has a battery thats almost 2,700 mAh. My iPad Pro battery is 8,100 mAh. The battery in a MacBook is almost as much as well. Which means you’re going to either need to be tied to a power outlet often or you need to carry a battery pack.

Most conference guides I’ve seen will tell you to bring at least one battery pack. Since I’m crazy prepared, I always have two. One of them is bigger and designed to provide power on a regular basis away from a power outlet. It’s usually something above 10,000 mAh that takes a while to charge when it’s fully depleted. I’m about to upgrade to a newer unit that has USB-C PD charging and delivery and can recharge all my devices more quickly. The Wirecutter has some great reviews of bigger power banks to recharge all kinds of devices.

I also still need to carry a smaller battery pack for just my phone, especially when I want to travel light. And since I’m trying to travel light I don’t want to carry any extra things, like cables. Normally, I try to have a USB-C, micro USB, and Lightning cable at all times to handle any charging needs. But if it’s after hours and I’m just looking to have my phone charged so it doesn’t die, all I need it a Lightning cable. I’ve been using this Ventev PowerCell 6010+ for the last year thanks to an awesome friend and it does exactly what I need it to do. It recharges my phone more than once and fits in my pocket. The Lightning cable is also attached so I don’t need to worry about anything dangling out of my pocket. And in a pinch it can give a little extra juice to my iPad. You should check them out if you just need something small and simple.

Can You Hear Me Now?

The final thing I pack in my kit that seems out of the ordinary is earplugs. Why? Well, it turns out that conferences are loud. Like, really loud. And that means that you can’t even hear yourself think sometimes. This is especially true if you end up going to the big closing event. This usually involves a DJ or a band playing as loud as possible. And, depending on where you’re sitting or standing you may not be able to hear them clearly for the ringing in your ears.

Likewise, the conference floor is often a jumbled mess of booths, music, and even once a marching band! You need to have some kind of way to block out the noise without completely drowning out what is going on around you. Yes, I know it’s really easy to pop in a set of earbuds or put on a pair of over-the-ear headphones while you walk around. But in my line of work, I don’t want to be distracted by music either. I want the din of all the crowd to die down while I concentrate. It’s also a great way to make any workroom instantly quiet when I need to write up a report during an event.

If you happen to have a custom pair of earplugs already for some reason, such as swimming or shooting sports, you’re already ahead of the curve. Those things probably do an amazing job of blocking out everything. For those of us not lucky enough to have something custom, just hop down to a drugstore or department store and pick up on a set or three of the really cheap foam plugs. You can pass them out to your friends and even make a new one or two. Just don’t expect to converse a lot!


Tom’s Take

I find the little things are needed to make life more bearable. Because knowing that I have them makes me less likely to stress about all the crazy stuff that can happen during a conference. The unexpected happens all the time. Yet, by definition, we can’t expect it! But, if we know how to prepare for the majority of those things we can focus on having a good conference experience. We may not need a cell phone jammer or an oddly-specific size of metric wrench, but carrying the things above has really helped me when it comes to relaxing a bit at conferences.

Is Interop Dead?

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I’m at Interop this week talking all things networking with a great group of people. There are quite a few members of the community here presenting, listening and discussing. There’s a great exchange of ideas flowing back and forth. Yet one thing I keep hearing in quiet corners of the room is a hushed discussion of the continued viability of Interop as a conference. Is it time to write the Interop obituary?

Only Mostly Dead

Some of the arguments are as old as tech itself. People claim that getting vendors to interoperate today is an afterthought thanks to protocols like OSPF. All of the important bits in a network are standardized now. Use of APIs and other open technologies are driving vendors to play nice with each other. The need to show up in a faraway place and do the work has long passed.

There’s also the discussion around the bigger conferences out in the world. Vendor conferences like Cisco Live and VMworld draw tens of thousands. New product announcements are dropping left and right during these events. People also want to fracture into tool-specific events like OpenStack Summit or DockerCon. Or the various analyst events or company days that happen every month. Why have a conference like Interop when others do it bigger?

Lastly, there’s the argument that the idea of an expo floor is long gone. Why should we get a booth on the show floor to show off our solution? Why not just approach people directly? Why spend money to be there like everyone else. Companies that stand out get noticed. Companies that leverage social media and SEO get the business. Not companies that buy space on a floor somewhere.

Exaggerated Rumors

Let’s jump on these one at a time.

First, claiming that all vendors play nice today thanks to standard protocols is misguided at best and downright silly at worst. Just because OSPF is standard doesn’t mean that people aren’t going to bend it to their own needs. Remember totally stubby areas? Those were very Cisco-specific for a long time. And throwing APIs into the discussion muddies the waters even further. Just because you have an API attached to your software doesn’t mean you can interoperate. How well is your API documented? Do I need to buy SDK access to get into it? Is my code portable? Do you do something silly like not supporting Python but loving things like Java and Perl?

Interoperability is a problem that hasn’t been solved completely. Even if everything works on paper and in Powerpoint slides, there’s still an acid test when you plug it all in for real and make it work. That moment of relief when two different vendor’s devices come up with the same protocols and everything talks is a magical time. You can’t replicate that in documentation. There’s still a huge need to have companies show up and physically prove that things work in a neutral setting versus a heavily slanted bakeoff lab somewhere.

Secondly, let’s look at those other conferences. Sure, Cisco Live has 20,000 people. That all want to talk about Cisco. There isn’t a whole lot of room for Juniper, Brocade, or HPE to be there. Differing opinions aren’t welcome. At best they are discussed in hushed tones in the corners of the room (sound familiar?). Mindshare is important, but so are honest discussions. As for smaller conferences focused on specific tools like OpenStack Summit, you quickly see the limits of things when you start talking to attendees about other things like pieces of the stack not addressed by the solution. There’s importance in being able to talk about all the parts without being overly myopic on one part.

The other piece of the other conferences refers back to a conversation that happened on Twitter last month about community content in large vendor conferences. There was talk from a number of people about how vendor conferences freeze out community content because people pay big bucks to come here a Technical Marketing Engineer read slides about configuring a feature. It’s a far cry from the deep discussion and analysis that you get in other places. How do you work around bugs in code? What happens when a feature is missing? Communities solve problems. Big conferences do a bad job of getting community involvement outside of expo floor crawls and keynotes. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t need the amazing work of vBrownBag and Security BSides. Community matters to people.

Thirdly, the expo floor discussion. I’ll admit that I find expo floors to be personally challenging, but to eschew them in favor of a completely social strategy or relying on SEO to pop up on people’s radar is a recipe for disaster. Being able to physically talk to a person is still a valuable part of the process. How do you feel about their approach? Are they happy with the technology? Does it work in the physical demo? Do you get the sense that they are pushing too hard or trying to close you on a sale without giving you what you need. That’s an experience you don’t get via email or DM on Twitter. Whether or not my personal feelings matter, the truth is that the expo does still matter.


Tom’s Take

I’m biased. I’ve loved Interop for a number of years even before I got involved in the programming of it. The idea that people show up to prove definitively that their stuff works with all the other stuff is a gut check like no other. In the last couple of years the planners of the conference have worked hard to make sure that the programming has reflected the kinds of things that people need to be aware of on the horizon and what they need to be learning. Less focus on vendor sales pitches and more on independent content. Lean and mean and ready to fight the rest of the conference world to prove that content is still king.

As long as I’m involved, I can promise that any rumors of Interop’s impending death with stay just that – talk and rumor. There’s still a lot of life left in this grand event to make it matter to people that should matter.

A Voyage of Discover-E

 

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I’m very happy to be attending the first edition of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE) Discover in London next week. I say the first edition because this is the first major event being held since the reaving of HP Inc from Hewlett-Packard Enterprise. I’m hopeful for some great things to come from this.

It’s The Network (This Time)

One of the most exciting things for me is seeing how HPE is working on their networking department. With the recent news about OpenSwitch, HPE is trying to shift the way of thinking about a switch operating system in a big way. To quote my friend Chris Young:

Vendors today spend a lot of effort re-writing 80% of their code and focus on innovating on the 20% that makes them different. Imagine how much further we’d be if that 80% required no effort at all?

OpenSwitch has some great ideas, like pulling everything from Open vSwitch as a central system database. I would love to see more companies use this model going forward. It makes a lot of sense and can provide significant benefits. Time will tell if other vendors recognize this and start using portions of OpenSwitch in their projects. But for now it’s interesting to see what is possible when someone takes a leap of open-sourced faith.

I’m also excited to hear from Aruba, a Hewlett-Packard Enterprise company (Aruba) and see what new additions they’ve made to their portfolio. The interplay between Aruba and the new HPE Networking will be interesting to follow. I have seen more engagement and discussion coming from HPE Networking now that Aruba has begun integrating themselves into the organization. It’s exciting to have conversations with people involved in the vendor space about what they’re working on. I hope this trend continues with HPE in all areas and not just networking.

Expected To Do Your Duty

HPE is sailing into some very interesting waters. Splitting off the consumer side of the brand does allow the smaller organization to focus on the important things that enterprises need. This isn’t a divestiture. It’s cell mitosis. The behemoth that was HP needed to divide to survive.

I said a couple of weeks ago:

To which it was quickly pointed out that HPE is doing just that. I agree that their effort is impressive. But this is the first time that HP has tried to cut itself to pieces. IBM has done it over and over again. I would amend my original statement to say that no company will be IBM again, including IBM. What you and I think of today as IBM isn’t what Tom Watson built. It’s the remnants of IBM Global Services with some cloud practice acquisitions. The server and PC business that made IBM a household name are gone now.

The lesson to HPE during as they try to find their identity in the new world post-cleaving is to remember what people liked about HP in the enterprise space and focus on keeping that goodwill going. Create a nucleus that allows the brand to continue to build and innovate in new and exciting ways without letting people forget what made you great in the first place.


Tom’s Take

I’m excited to see what HPE has in store for this Discover. There are no doubt going to be lots of product launches and other kinds of things to pique my interest about the direction the company is headed. I’m impressed so far with the changes and the focus back to what matters. I hope the momentum continues to grow into 2016 and the folks behind the wheel of the HPE ship know how to steer into the clear water of success. Here’s hoping for clear skies and calm seas ahead for the good ship Hewlett-Packard Enterprise!

 

 

TECH.unplugged And Being Present

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I wanted to let everyone know that I’m going to be taking part in an excellent event being put on by my friend Enrico Signoretti (@ESignoretti) this September. TECH.unplugged is a jam-packed day of presentations from people that cover storage, computing, and in my case networking. We’re getting together to share knowledge and discuss topics of great interest to the IT community. As excited as I am to be taking part, I also wanted to take a few moments to discuss why events like this are important to the technology community.

WORM Food

There’s no doubt that online events are becoming the standard for events in recent years. It’s much more likely to find an event that offers streaming video, virtual meeting rooms, and moderated discussions taking place in a web browser. The costs of travel and lodging are far higher than they were during the recession days of yore. Finding a meeting room that works with your schedule is even harder. It’s much easier to spin up a conference room in the cloud and have people dial in to hear what’s going on.

For factual information, such as teaching courses, this approach works rather well. That’s where the magic of pre-recording comes into play. Write once, read many. Delivering information like this cuts down on time spent with the logistics of organization and allows the viewer to watch on-demand. And quesitons that come up can be handled with FAQs or community discussion on a small scale. Again, this works best for the kinds of content that are not easily debated.

Present And Accounted For

What about content that isn’t as cut-and-dried? Hot topics that are going to have lots of questions or opinions? How do you handle an event where the bulk of the time is spent having a discussion with peers instead of delivering material?

Virtual solutions are great for multicasting. When everyone is watching one topic being presented and doing very little interacting everything works just fine. The system starts to break down when those people try to talk to one another. Do you use the general channel? Private messages? Have you been silenced by the organizer before you try to ask a question? What if you want to discuss a topic covered five minutes ago?

Nothing beats a face-to-face conversation for actual discussion. There’s an dynamic that can’t be matched when you get ten people in a room and give them a prompt to start talking about something. There is usually lively debate and sharing of viewpoints. Someone is going to share a personal experience or be the voice of reason. Still others will play the devil’s advocate or be a contrarian. Those are concepts that are hard to replicate when screen names take the place of a nametag.

Another important part of being present for events like this is meeting like-minded people and engaging them in real conversation. In the world of social media, we often form relationships with people in the industry without having actually met them. While that does make it easy to build a network of people in the community to talk to, it also doesn’t allow you to hear someone talk or engage them in a meaningful talk of more than 100 characters at a time or nested comments.

There’s something magical about having in-person discussions. It is a very different thing to defend your opinion when looking someone in the eyes versus behind a keyboard. Without instant access to search engines you need to know the evidence to support your opinion rather than relying on someone else to do it for you. When you prove your point in a real life meetup people remember being there.


Tom’s Take

Virtual meetings are great for some specific things. But you can’t beat the importance of being around people and talking about something. Being present for an event makes it have much more of an impact. I’ve heard from countless people telling me how Cisco Live feels so much different when you’re there because of the people you are around. There’s a reason why Tech Field Day is an in-person event. Because you can’t beat the magic of being around other like-minded people to discuss things.

Be sure to check out TECH.unplugged and see the list of speakers for the September event. And if you just happen to be in Amsterdam be sure to sign up (it’s free)! We want you there!