How To Ask A Question At A Conference

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The last time you went to a conference, did you ask any questions? Were you curious about a technology and wanted to know more? Was there something that you didn’t quite get and needed an explanation? Congratulations. You’re in a quiet group of people that ask questions for knowledge. More and more, we are seeing questions becoming a vehicle for more than just knowledge acquisition. If you want to learn how to ask a proper question at a conference, read on.

1. Have A Question

I know it goes without saying, but if you’re going to raise your hand at a conference to ask a question, you should actually have a question in mind. Some people grab a microphone without thinking through what they’re going to say. This leads to stammering and broken thoughts that usually culminate in a random question mark here or there. This makes it difficult for the speaker to figure out what you’re trying to ask.

If you’re going to raise your hand, jot some notes down first. Bullet points help as does making a note or two. This is especially true if the speaker is answering questions before yours. If they answer part of your question before you get to ask it, you may have to reframe your thoughts. It never hurts to have an idea of what you’re going to say before you say it.

2. Look For Knowledge, Not To Make A Statement

The other side of the coin from the above recommendation of actually having a question is to make sure that what you’re asking is actually a question and not a statement. A great example of this is a video from Scott Bradner during a recent ONUG meeting:

I’m sure Scott has seen his fair share of statements masquerading as questions during his time. And I can’t disagree with him. Far too often, people seeking questions aren’t really asking to get information. Instead, they are trying to make a point about why they think they are right or why they disagree with the speaker. The point stops becoming a question and more of a soliloquy or soapbox. The most egregious will usually end this rant with an actual question along the lines of, “So, what do you think of my opinion?”

Please, at all costs, avoid this behavior. This is singularly the most annoying thing a speaker has to deal with. It’s enough to be questioned on your material, but it’s something else entirely to have to shift your thinking to someone else’s viewpoint while on stage. If you have a point you’d like to bring up with the speaker that is contrary to their thought process, you should do it after the presentation without people watching. Have a discussion and express opinions there. Don’t grandstand in front of the crowd just to satisfy your ego.

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3. Make Sure Your Question Wasn’t Already Answered.

This one’s a bit tougher. If you’re sitting in a session and you have a question, it’s important to make sure it wasn’t already asked and answered beforehand. This can be tougher if you have to duck out to take a call or you miss a section of the presentation. In these cases, you can ask for clarification or additional information but it would be better to ask after the session. Audiences tend to get a bit irritated if someone asks a question that was previously answered or that was covered earlier.

This one is probably the most forgivable of the question faux pas. People at conferences know that ducking out to deal with things is more common now. But if you are going to ask a question because you missed something, please make sure to address then when you ask. That helps everyone get the frame of reference for why you’re asking it. That will keep the audience on your side and less likely to boo you.


Tom’s Take

I ask lots of questions. I also answer them. And nothing irritates me more than having to deal with someone making a point during Q&A to try and make them look smarter than me. I get it. I have a hatred of keynotes and other speeches with no ability to get feedback. But at the same time, as Scott Bradner says above, the focus of the presentation is about the people presenting. It’s about the people doing the work and sharing the ideas. If you want to use Q&A time to pontificate about your position, then you need to volunteer to be a speaker.

Keystone Keynotes

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My distaste for keynotes is well known. With the possible exception of Justin Warren (@JPWarren) there may not be a person that dislikes them more than I do. I’ve outlined my reasons for it before, so I won’t go into much depth about it here. But I do want to highlight a few recent developments that are doing a great job of helping me find new things to dislike.

Drop The “Interviews”

When you walk into a keynote ballroom or arena and see two comfy chairs on stage, you know what’s coming. As someone told me recently, “This is when I know the next hour is going to suck.” The mock interview style of keynote speech is not good. It’s a thinly-veiled attempt to push an agenda. Perhaps it’s about innovation. Or transformation. Or some theme of the conference. Realistically, it’s mostly a chance for a keynote host (some form of VP) to provide forced banter with a celebrity that’s being paid to be there.

These “interviews” are rarely memorable. They seem self serving and very plastic. The only ones that even stand out to me in recent memory are the ones that went off the rails. The time when Elon Musk was “interviewed” on stage at Dell World and responded with clipped answers and no elaboration. Or the time Richard Branson was hitting on the host at Cisco Live. Or the Cisco Live when William Shatner started taking shots at Cisco on stage!

It’s time to drop the fake interviews. Let the speakers tell their stories. Kevin Spacey at Cisco Live 2016 was a breath of fresh air. He was compelling. Invigorating. Engaging. People around me said it was the best keynote they’d heard in year. It was easily the best one I’d see since John Cleese in Orlando in 2008. Give the people who spend their time telling stories a chance to shine. Don’t inject yourself into the process. Because actors and celebrity storytellers don’t play. They live their stories.

All By My Selfie

If the keynote involves talking about community or the power of the user base or some other contrite platitude, you can almost guarantee that the host VP is going to pause at some point, usually during the big celebrity interview, to take selfie with their guest and the whole audience in the background. It’s a nod to how hooked in and in the know with the community. Think back to Ellen Degeneres and her infamous Oscars selfie:

Except it’s not. It’s a big steaming pile of patronizing behavior. Hey everyone that paid $1,500 to hear our transformation strategy! Let me take a picture of myself on a stage with blurry, badly lit faces in the audience! Let me post it to Facegram and Instabook and Snapfilter Stories! Let me have my social team repost it and heart/like/favorite it as many times as it takes for me to look like I “get” social. And after the conference is over, my InstaFaceSnapgrambookfilter feed will go back to auto posting the content fed to it by a team of people trying to make me seem human but not be controversial or get us sued.

Don’t take a selfie with 4,000 people in a hall. Meet those users. The ones that paid you. The ones that run your hardware even though your competitor is knocking on the door every week trying to get them to dump you. The users and customers that are supporting your efforts to cut your nose off to spite your face as you transform yourself into a software company. Or a cloud provider. Or an app company. Don’t pretend that the little people matter in a selfie that needs Super Troopers-style ENHANCE to find my shining freckles in the dark. Be a human and take a selfie with one user that has stuck by you through thick and thin. Make their day. Don’t make yours.

Distrupting Disruption

“We’re like the Uber of….”

No. You aren’t. If you are a part of the market, you aren’t disrupting it. You may be shifting your ideas or repositioning your strategies, but that’s not disruption. You still support your old equipment and software. You’re not prepared to jettison your existing business models to move somewhere new. A networking company building networking software isn’t disruption. A server company buying a networking startup isn’t disruption. It’s strategy.

Uber is the Business School case study for disruption. Every keynote in the last two years has mentioned them. Expect their disruption of the transportation market is far from total or completely impressive. Sure, they are farming out taxi services. They’re also cutting rates to drive business to increase profits without helping drivers with new lower rates. They are bullying municipalities to get laws passed to protect them. They’re driving other companies out of business to reduce competition. Does that sound like the Disruptors of Taxis? Or does is sound like the very cab companies that are getting run out of business by the very tactics they themselves have used?

Don’t tell me how you’re disrupting digital or accelerating change. Tired cliches are tired. Tell me what you’re doing. Tell me how you’re going to head off your competitors. Tell me how you’re addressing a shrinking market for hardware or a growing landscape of people doing it faster, cheaper, and better. This is one of the things that I enjoy about being an analyst. These briefings are generally a little more focused on the concrete and less on the cheerleading, which is a very pleasant surprise to me given my distaste for professional analyst firms.

If you’re tempted to say that you’re the Uber of your industry, do us all a favor and request one to drive you off the stage.


Tom’s Take

Does my dislike of keynotes show yet? Are some you sitting in your chairs cheering? Good. Because it’s all a show for you. It’s a hand-holding, happy hugging reinforcement of how awesome we are. Outside of a few dynamic speakers (who are usually made CTO or VP of Technology), we don’t get the good stuff any more.

If you’re sitting in your chair and getting offended that I’m picking on your event, you should know two things. First, I’m not singling anyone out. EVERY keynote I’ve seen in the last two years is guilty of these things. And if you think yours is, you’re probably right. Fix it. Transform and Disrupt your own keynote. Let story tellers talk. Cut down on the attempts to relate to people. Tell your story. Tell people why they should be excited again. Don’t use cliches. Or funny videos. Or cameraphones. Get back to the business of telling people why you’re in business. Ditch the Keystone Keynotes and I promise you’ll have happier audiences. Including me.

Build Slides Are Evil

 

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PowerPoint is a necessary evil. No program allows us to convey as much information in a short amount of time. PowerPoint is almost a requirement for speaking in front of groups. Information can be shown in a very effective manner for audiences of five or five hundred. But PowerPoint also allows presenters to do some very silly things that impact our ability to learn.

Not Built In A Day

The biggest offense in the land of PowerPoint is the build slide. Build slides are those that have elements that must be layered together in order to show the complete picture. In some cases, build slides have complex graphic overlays with many different elements. They may have clip art overlays. But build slides can also be simple bullet points that appear one at a time in a list. The key is that all the parts of the slide must progress in series to “build” the whole thing.

Build slides look very awesome. They provide the appearance of motion and give a movie-like quality to a static presentation. And they often take up a large amount of time during the creation process. But they are almost always unnecessary.

When built properly, a slide conveys a single idea. It may have one or two supporting ideas, but overall it should be pared down to the minimum necessary to get the idea across. Having a page full of bullet points confuses and distracts the reader. It doesn’t matter whether those bullet points are unveiled all at once or sequentially. Each additional piece of information runs the risk of the entire message or idea being forgotten.

Worse yet, the elements of a build slide can be a mystery to everyone, even the presenter. How many times have you watched a presentation where a presenter gets ahead of themselves and reveals a bullet point before it’s on screen? Or perhaps the presenter lost track of how many points were on the slide?

Another strike against build slides is what happens when you’re forced to deal with them outside of presentation mode. Build slides break down when you can’t project them properly in a mode that simulates a projector. Like over a web presentation or screen sharing program. Build slides are also a bad idea when presenting on video. If your slide deck doesn’t come across well, there are options to insert slides into the video recording. But if you have build slides, those slides can’t be inserted without either using the completely built slide, which ruins the suspense of a build up, or looks crowded and complex in many cases.

One Slide At A Time

A build slide is needlessly complicated. If you have four bullet points on a slide, you have an opportunity to make each of those into a separate slide with different information conveying the idea. Like a single supporting fact or statement. Or a picture to help visual learners internalize the idea. There are a multitude of ways to make a slide stand out without pointless animation.

You’re probably thinking to yourself that adding slides to your presentation will make it longer than it needs to be. In fact, the opposite is true. By paring your deck down to a single idea per slide, you can effectively communicate that idea and move on to the next slide. If your original slide had five ideas and took five minutes to talk about, then it follows that one idea per slide spread over five slides should take the same amount of time. In a few cases, it may take less thanks to the reduction in tendency to wander through a long slide.

If you must have bullet points supporting an idea, make each of those bullet points a new slide. Just copy and paste the existing text into a new slide with a new bullet. That allows you to add to what you’ve said previously while still capturing the progression easily. You may also find that you’re adding unnecessary steps that can be removed along the way.


Tom’s Take

I don’t give presentations to amaze people with my PowerPoint skills. People come to hear me talk, not see what transitions I built between my deck. To that point, I don’t use a lot of bullets or make them fly in to wow the people reading my slides. Instead, I stick to the ideas of using lots of pictures and keeping the text short.

When you look at some of the most public presentations from well-regarded speakers, you find that they follow these same guidelines. They keep their presentations simple and focus on ideas and not text. They try to keep all members of the audience focused, but aural and visual learners. They realize that build slides don’t actually offer anything to the audience aside from showing mastery of esoteric aspects of PowerPoint wizardry. Keep it simple and build your audience’s knowledge, not your slides.

 

The SDNicorn

SDNicorn and the CLUS Princess

SDNicorn and the CLUS Princess

Cisco Live is a conference full of characters. Larger than life people like Scott Morris (@ScottMorrisCCIE) and Terry Slattery. Even I’ve been known to indulge in the antics sometimes. Remember the tattoo? This year, I wanted to do something a little different. And with some help from Amazon I managed to come up with one the best and worst ideas I’ve ever had.

The SDNicorn

Why a unicorn head? It’s actually an idea I’ve had for Networking Field Day for quite a while. The Wireless Field Day folks already have their own spirit mascot: the polar bear.

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I wanted to give the networking folks their own mascot. What better animal than the unicorn? After all, when things just seem to happen for no reason, who says it isn’t because of unicorns? In addition, Amy Lewis (@CommsNinja) of Cisco is a huge unicorn fan. If you’re going to go for something, go all the way right?

The SDNicorn Rides Again

When I pulled the mask out at the Sunday evening tweetup, it got a huge round of applause. People started lining up for pictures with me. It was a bigger reception than I could have hoped for.

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I thought it would have a few laughs then I would retire the unicorn head until the next day. That’s when it took on a life of its own. I started looking for picture ideas. Rob Novak (@Gallifreyan) got a picture of me drinking an energy drink.

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It is unicorn fuel after all. The best part came when a random group of Cisco interns shooting video for an executive event asked me to put on the mask for a quick pickup shoot. That’s how you know you’ve made an impact.

The rest of the event was just as fun for me. I wore it to the CCIE party when Amy Arnold (@AmyEngineer) got a great shot of me enjoying wine.

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George Chongris (@th1nkdifferent) got a nice selfie too.

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A few people even remarked that I was a little bit scary. I took the mask down to the World of Solutions and ran into Mike Dvorkin (@Dvorkinista), where he proceeded to borrow the mask and trot around the WoS asking for hay. I was doubled over with laughter the whole time.

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I also got J. Michael Metz (@DrJMetz) to admit that Dynamic FCoE is really powered by unicorns.  Hat and all.

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The Customer Appreciation Event had to be the highlight, however. I wore the mask with the CAE hat of course. But people started borrowing it to do other things. Bob McCouch (@BobMcCouch) got a great shot of Kale Blankenship (@vCabbage) in the mask enjoying a beer.

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James Bowling (@vSential) was a highlight with his cloud-powered video too.

Tom’s Take

I admit the unicorn was a bit silly. But it was memorable. People have been tweeting about it and writing articles about it already. I plan on bringing the SDNicorn to Networking Field Day 8 this fall as well as VMworld in August. I think this idea has a bit more life left in it yet. At least I’m covering something up instead of showing off again, right?

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Software Release Models

If you remember a while back, I wrote all about the ways that software companies name releases and what they really mean.  Then I started thinking about all the ways companies release products without actually letting you get them.  You’ve heard it before: a big release announcement followed by questions about availability that never get answered.  I thought I’d take a moment to decode a few of them for you.

Early Field Trials – This thing is still broken.  We thought we fixed all the bugs but when we let someone outside the company install it they managed to screw it up.  So we gave it to three of our biggest customers and parked an engineer in their office for the next six months to iron out all the bugs.  No, you can’t buy it.  We don’t make enough money from you to justify parking one of our people in your office.  Check back next year.

New Product Hold – Buy our stuff! We released it and you can order it.  But we don’t think it’s quite ready for production.  Plus, we want to make sure you aren’t going to install it wrong and make us look bad.  So we’re going to make you ask for permission to buy something from us.  We’ll give it to you with the understanding that you can only install it on these two platforms on the second Tuesday in July.

Generally Available – We had to release it before our CEO went on stage.  You can order it, but we haven’t actually built any of them yet.  So while it’s available, it will still take another three months for it to get to you.  We hope to have all our supply chain issues sorted out just in time for it to become obsolete.

Expanded Release – We farmed the manufacturing out to some third world country to get this thing into stores.  The quality is going to be pretty dodgy until we can get our own facilities up to snuff.  Good luck on these things lasting more than three months.  In fact, we’re probably going to exclude these from any kind of warranty or support.  It’s cheaper that way.

Continuous Release – Bigger numbers are better, right?  Instead of waiting to release it, we’re just pushing every nightly build down to you.  The release number doesn’t even mean anything any more.  What’s a version?  Oh, and we’re going to break things right and left.  If you’re in the beta channel then abandon all hope now.


Tom’s Take

I bet you all have some funny ones as well.  Leave them in the comments!

50 Shades of IT

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Lots of things in IT sound much naughtier than they really are.  We’re constantly inserting and removing things.  We have to get down on our hands and knees from time to time.  We even give orders that must be followed.  Needless to say, there’s a fair amount of giggling that goes on sometimes.

Enter mainstream literature.  Specifically, the 50 Shades series by E. L. James.  It’s been a bit of hit from what I understand.  The subject matter is a bit more…mature than the usual paranormal romance or magical coming of age story.  It’s about control and domination and other such heady things.  I’ve never actually read it myself.  But based on the number of people I see on airplanes secreting one of the three volumes under a scarf or blanket, I dare say that many have read it.

These two worlds collide from time to time when someone says something rather saucy in regards to enterprise IT.  On Twitter, I’ve seen hashtags for #50ShadesOfNetworking and #50ShadesOfStorage.  They always elicit a good laugh or two.  In keeping with that idea (and to avoid polluting Twitter streams), I present my list for 50 Shades of IT: The Series.

Note: None of these are inherently bad.  That being said, I’m not going to be responsible for where you mind ends up taking it.

Networking

“He bound her ports together in a lovely Etherchannel.”

“She was confident enough to display all her assets in public cloud.”

“The hosting contract defined our relationship.”

“He was pleased everyone’s router recognized him as VRRP Master.”

“He watched as she flapped the tunnel over and over again.”

Security

“His packet inspection was the deepest she’d ever seen.”

“He had to do what he was told.  After all, she was root.”

“He injected a packet flow into her secure tunnel.”

“She wondered if the hackers would be able to penetrate her unsecured backdoor.”

Storage

“Quiesce my snapshot.”

“She gasped as he hot swapped the drive into her array.”

“She mounted his disk quickly.”

“I need you to format my partition.”

“I like big LUNs.”


Tom’s Take

If you need me, I’ll be in my bunk.

Objective Lessons

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“Experience is a harsh teacher because it gives the test first and the lesson afterwards.” – Vernon Law

When I was in college, I spent a summer working for my father.  He works in the construction business as a superintendent.  I agreed to help him out in exchange for a year’s tuition.  In return, I got exposure to all kinds of fun methods of digging ditches and pouring concrete.  One story that sticks out in my mind over and over taught me the value of the object lesson.

One of the carpenters that worked for my father had a really bad habit of breaking sledgehammer handles.  When he was driving stakes for concrete forms, he never failed to miss the head of the 2×4 by an inch and catch the top of the handle on it instead.  The force of the swing usually caused the head to break off after two or three misses.  After the fourth or fifth broken handle, my father finally had enough.  He took an old sledgehammer head and welded a steel pipe to it to serve as a handle.  When the carpenter brought him his broken hammer yet again, my father handed him the new steel-handle hammer and said, “This is your new tool.  I don’t want to see you using any hammer but this one.”  Sure enough, the carpenter started driving the 2×4 form stakes again.  Only this time when he missed his target, the steel handle didn’t offer the same resistance as the wooden one.  The shock of the vibration caused the carpenter to drop the hammer and shake his hand in a combination of frustration and pain.  When he picked up the hammer again, he made sure to measure his stance and swing to ensure he didn’t miss a second time.  By the end of the summer, he was an expert sledgehammer swinger.

Amusing as it may be, this story does have a purpose.  People need to learn from failure.  For some, the lesson needs to be a bit more direct.  My father’s carpenter had likely been breaking hammer handles his entire life.  Only when confronted with a more resilient handle did he learn to adjust his processes and fix the real issue – his aim.  In technology, we often find that incorrect methods are as much to blame for problems as bad hardware or buggy software.

Thanks to object lessons, I’ve learned to never bridge the two terminals of an analog 66-block connection with a metal screwdriver lest I get a shocking reward.  I’ve watched others try to rack fully populated chassis switches by brute force alone.  And we won’t talk about the time I watched a technician rewire a 220 volt UPS receptacle without turning off the breaker (he lived).  Each time, I knew I needed to step in at some point to prevent physical harm to the person or prevent destruction of the equipment.  But for these folks, the lesson could only be learned after the mistake had been made.  I think this recent tweet from Teren Bryson (@SomeClown) sums it up nicely:

Some people don’t listen to advice.  That’s a fact born out over years and years of working in the industry.  They know that their way is better or more appropriate even against the advice of multiple experts with decades of experience.  For those people that can’t be told anything, a lesson in reality usually serves as the best instructor.  The key is not to immediately jump to the I Told You So mentality afterward.  It is far too easy to watch someone create a bridging loop against your advice and crash a network only to walk up to them and gloat a little about how you knew better.  Instead of stroking your own ego against an embarrassed and potentially worried co-worker, instead take the time to discuss with them why things happened the way they did and coach them to not make the same mistakes again.  Make them learn from their lesson rather than covering it up and making the same mistake again.


Tom’s Take

I’ve screwed up before.  Whether it was deleting mailboxes or creating a routing loop I think I’ve done my fair share of failing.  Object lessons are important because they quickly show the result of failure and give people a chance to learn from it.  You naturally feel embarrassed and upset when it happens.  So long as you gather your thoughts and channel all that frustration into learning from your mistake then things will work out.  It’s only the people that ignore the lesson or assume that the mistake was a one-time occurrence that will continually subject themselves to object lessons.  And those lessons will eventually hit home with the force of a sledgehammer.