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.

Tom’s Virtual Corner at Cisco Live US 2020

One of the things that I look forward to most during Cisco Live is the opportunity to meet with people. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been to a session during the conference. My work with Tech Field Day has kept me very busy for the past several Cisco Live events. But at the end of the day I enjoy strolling down to the Social Media hub and talking to anyone I see. Because people make Cisco Live what it is.

The Legend of Tom’s Corner has grown over the years. It’s more than just a few tables in a place where people hang out. It stands for a community. It means a lot to so many different people. It’s about meeting new friends and catching up with old ones and feeling like you belong. For so many, Tom’s Corner and the Social Media Hub is the center of Cisco Live.

And yet, we now live in extraordinary times. The plan we had for what Cisco Live would look like for us earlier this year is radically different right now. Prohibitions on travel and meetings in large groups means we will be experiencing Cisco Live from our homes afar instead of the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. The sessions we attend will be online. The keynotes streamed without seating and traffic directions. Although the office chairs at home will probably be more comfortable than conference seating.

But what about that in-person aspect to things? What about meeting up at the Social Media Hub and hanging out with all our friends? Well, the social media aspect to the event is going to be even more important now. Twitter and Slack and iMessage are going to be our primary forms of communication. We’re going to be twice as social even without being able to be around people thanks to the need to use programs to connect. But it’s not going to feel the same without being able to see someone.

A Virtual Corner

Because things are so crazy and because we’re not all going to get to be in the same place this year to hang out at Tom’s Corner, it’s time to bring Tom’s Corner to the virtual landscape of Cisco Live. Thanks to the power of Zoom and the patronage of Tech Field Day, we’re going to be holding Tom’s Virtual Corner at Cisco Live US 2020!

With the power of the revolution of technology and video chat we’re going to have the option to hang out and chat just like we always do! Granted, we’re not going to have to fight over places to sit this year so it may be better this way. Also, less walking! We’re going to have the meeting running from about 8:00am PT through 1:00pm PT so don’t worry if you can’t join right at the start. I’m sure there are going to be people coming and going all day.

In order to be a part of Tom’s Virtual Corner at Cisco Live US 2020, you’re going to need to send me an email at tom@networkingnerd.net or a DM on Twitter with the email address you want the calendar invitation sent to. Yes, that’s a very manual process. But given the number of people that like to invade Zoom calls this is a necessary precaution. Just send me an email with the title “Tom’s Virtual Corner Invitiation” and I’ll make sure you’re on the list. After that we can get everything going just like if we were hanging at the actual corner.

This is supposed to be a fun time to hang and enjoy the company of each other in a format that is hard to replicate, so a couple of ground rules:

  • Disruptive attendees may be kicked at the discretion of the hosts.
  • Follow Wheaton’s Law as the Prime Behavior Directive. If you have a question about whether or not you’re violating that law, you probably are.
  • Be respectful of your peers and friends. Make this a positive experience for everyone. I don’t want to have to be the fun police but if that needs to happen so be it.

It’s that simple. Be cool, act cool, and we’ll have fun.


Tom’s Take

I’m going to miss the Social Media Hub this year. I’m going to miss my friends and I am also going to regret not getting to make new ones. But maybe we can salvage a bit of that spark this way. We might miss the sign pic or the crazy antics that happen with giant Lego figures or tiaras or unicorn masks. But we’ll be there in spirit and that’s what counts. And, if nothing else, the tenth anniversary of Tom’s Corner next year is going to blow the roof off the place!