It’s Not The Size of Your Conference Community

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Where do you get the most enjoyment from your conference attendance? Do you like going to sessions and learning about new things? Do you enjoy more of the social aspect of meeting friends and networking with your peers? Maybe it’s something else entirely?

It’s The Big Show

When you look at shows like Cisco Live, VMworld, or Interop ITX, there’s a lot going on. There are diverse education tracks attended by thousands of people. You could go to Interop and bounce from a big data session into a security session, followed by a cloud panel. You could attend Cisco Live and never talk about networking. You could go to VMworld and only talk about networking. There are lots of opportunities to talk about a variety of things.

But these conferences are huge. Cisco and VMware both take up the entire Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. When in San Francisco, both of these events dwarf the Moscone Center and have to spread out into the surrounding hotels. That means it’s easy to get lost or be overlooked. I’ve been to Cisco Live before and never bumped into people I know from my area that said they were going, even when we were at the same party. There are tens of thousands of people roaming the halls.

That means that these conferences only work well if you can carve out your own community. Cisco Live has certainly done that over the years. There’s a community of a few hundred folks that are active on social media and have really changed the direction of the way Cisco engages with the community. VMworld has their various user groups as well as VMUnderground constantly pushing the envelope and creating more organic community engagement.

You Think You Know Me

The flip side is the smaller boutique conferences that have sprung up in recent years. These take a single aspect of a technology and build around it. You get a very laser-focused event with a smaller subset of attendees based on similar interests. It’s a great way to instantly get massive community involvement around an idea. Maybe it’s Monitorama. Or perhaps it’s OSCon. Or even GopherCon. You can see how these smaller communities are united around a singular subject and have great buy in.

However, the critical mass needed to make a boutique conference happen is much greater per person. Cisco Live and VMworld are going to happen every year. There are no less than 10,000 – 15,000 people that would come to either no matter what. Even if 50% of last year’s attendees decided to stay home this year, the conference would happen.

On the flip side, if 50% of the DockerCon or OpenStack Summit attendees stayed home next year, you’d see mass panic in the community. People would start questioning why you’re putting on a show for 2,500 – 3,000 users. It’s one thing to do it when you’re small and just getting started. But to put on a show for those numbers now would be a huge decision point and things would need to be discussed to see what happens going forward.

Cisco Live and VMworld are fun because of their communities. But boutique conferences exist because of their communities. It’s important to realize that and drastic changes in a smaller conference community have huge ripples throughout the conference. Two hundred Twitter users don’t have much impact on the message at Cisco Live. But two hundred angry users at DockerCon can make massive changes happen. Each member of the community is amplified the smaller the conference they attend.


Tom’s Take

Anyone that knows me knows that I love the community. I love seeing them grow and change and develop their own voice. It’s why I work for Tech Field Day. It’s why I go to Cisco Live every year. It’s why I’m happy to speak at VMUnderground events. But I also realize how important the community can be to smaller events. And how quickly things can fall apart when the community is fractured or divided. It’s critical for boutique conferences to harness the power of their communities to get off the ground. But you also have to recognize how important they are to you in the long run. You need to cultivate them and keep the focused on making everything better for everyone.

Bringing 2017 To Everyone

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It’s time once again for my traditional New Year’s Day navel gazing. As per tradition with my blog, I’m not going to make prognostications about networking or IT in general. Either I’m going to wind up totally wrong or be totally right and no one will care. I rather enjoy the ride as we go along, so trying to guess what happens is kind of pointless.

Instead, I’m going to look at what I want to accomplish in the coming year. It gives me a chance to analyze what I’m doing and what I want to be working on. And it’s a whole lot easier than predicting that SDN is going to take everyone’s job or OpenFlow being dead again.

Write Like the Wind

My biggest goal for 2016 was to write more. And that I did. I worked in writing any time I could. I wrote about ONUG, SD-WAN, and other fun topics. I even wrote a small book! Finding time to work all the extra typing in to my Bruce Wayne job at Tech Field Day was a bit challenging here and there. And more than once I was publishing a blog post at the deadline. But all that writing did help me talk about new subjects in the industry and develop great ideas at the same time.

I also encouraged more people to write. I wanted to get people putting their thoughts down in a form that didn’t require listening or watching video. Writing is still very important and I think it’s a skill that more people should develop. My list of blogs to read every day grew in 2016 and I was very happy to see it. I hope that it continues well into 2017 as well.

King Of The Hill

2017 is going to be an exciting year for me and Tech Field Day. I ran Networking Field Day 12 as the host of the event for the first time. In the coming year, Stephen and I are going to focus on our topics areas even deeper. For me, that means immersing myself in networking and wireless technologies more than ever before. I’m going to be learning as much as I can about all the new things going on. It’s a part of the role of being the host and organizer for both Networking Field Day and Mobility Field Day coming up this year.

I’m also going to be visiting lots of other conferences. Cisco Live, Interop, and even Open Networking Summit are on my list this year. We’re going to be working closely with those shows to put on even more great Tech Field Day content. I love hearing the excitement from my friends in the industry when they learn that Tech Field Day is going to be present at a show like Cisco Live. It means that we’re reaching a great audience and giving them something that they are looking for.

We’re also going to be looking at new ideas and new things to do with our growing media presence with Gestalt IT. There should be some interesting things there on the horizon as we embrace the new way that media is used to communicate with readers and fans alike. Stay tuned there for all the excitement we’ll be bringing your way in 2017!


Tom’s Take

Analyzing a year’s worth of work helps one see progress and build toward even more goals in the coming year. I’m going to keep moving forward with the projects that excite me and challenge me to be a better representative for the networking community. Along the way I hope to learn more about what makes our technology exciting and useful. And share than knowledge with everyone I know in the best way I can. Thanks for being here with me. I hope 2017 is a great year for you as well!

Ten Years of Cisco Live – Community Matters Most of All

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Hey! I made the sign pic this year!

I’ve had a week to get over my Cisco Live hangover this year. I’ve been going to Cisco Live for ten years and been involved in the social community for five of them. And I couldn’t be prouder of what I’ve seen. As the picture above shows, the community is growing by leaps and bounds.

People Are What Matter

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I was asked many, many times about Tom’s Corner. What was it? Why was it important? Did you really start it? The real answer is that I’m a bit curious. I want to meet people. I want to talk to them and learn their stories. I want to understand what drives people to learn about networking or wireless or fax machines. Talking to a person is one of the best parts of my job, whether it be my Bruce Wayne day job or my Batman night job.

Social media helps us all stay in touch when we aren’t face-to-face, but meeting people in real life is as important too. You know who likes to hug. You find out who tells good stories. Little things matter like finding out how tall someone is in real life. You don’t get that unless you find a way to meet them in person.

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Hugging Denise Fishburne

Technology changes every day. We change from hardware to software and back again. Routers give way to switches. Fabrics rise. Analytics tell all. But all this technology still has people behind it. Those people make the difference. People learn and grow and change. They figure out how to make SDN work today after learning ISDN and Frame Relay yesterday. They have the power to expand beyond their station and be truly amazing.

Conferences Are Still King

Cisco Live is huge. Almost 30,000 attendees this year. The Mandalay Bay Convention Center was packed to the gills. The World of Solutions took up two entire halls this year. The number of folks coming to the event keeps going up every year. The networking world has turned this show into the biggest thing going on. Just like VMworld, it’s become synonymous with the industry.

People have a desire to learn. They want to know things. They want high quality introductions to content and deep dives into things they want to know inside and out. So long as those sessions are offered at conferences like Cisco Live and Interop people will continue to flock to them. For the shows that assemble content from the community this is an easy proposition. People are going to want to talk where others are willing to listen. For single sourced talks like Cisco Live, it’s very important to identify great speakers like Denise Fishburne (@DeniseFishburne) and Peter Jones (@PeterGJones) and find ways to get them involved. It’s also crucial to listen to feedback from attendees about what did work and what they want to see more of in the coming years.

Keeping The Community Growing

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One thing that I’m most proud of is seeing the community grow and grow. I love seeing new faces come in and join the group. This year had people from many different social circles taking part in the Cisco Live community. Reddit’s /r/networking group was there. Kilted Monday happened. Engineering Deathmatches happened. Everywhere you looked, communities were doing great things.

As great as it was to see so many people coming together, it’s just as important to understand that we have to keep the momentum going. Networking doesn’t keep rolling along without new ideas and new people expressing them. Four years ago I could never have guessed the impact that Matt Oswalt (@Mierdin) and Jason Edelman (@JEdelman8) could have had on the networking community. They didn’t start out on top of the world. They fought their way up with new ideas and perspectives. The community adopted what they had to say and ran with it.

We need to keep that going. Not just at Cisco Live either. We need to identify the people doing great things and shining a spotlight on them. Thankfully, my day job affords me an opportunity to do just that. But the whole community needs to be doing it as well. If you can just find one person to tell the world about it’s a win for all of us. Convince a friend to write a blog post. Make a co-worker join Twitter. In the end every new voice is a chance for us all to learn something.


Tom’s Take

As Dennis Leary said in Demolition Man,

I’m no leader. I do what I have to do. Sometimes people come with me.

That’s what Cisco Live is to me. It’s not about a corner or a table or a suite at an event. It’s about people coming together to do things. People talking about work and having a good time. The last five years of Cisco Live have been some of the happiest of my life. More than any other event, I look forward to seeing the community and catching up with old friends. I am thankful to have a job that allows me to go to the event. I’m grateful for a community full of wonderful people that are some of the best and brightest at what they do. For me, Cisco Live is about each of you. The learning and access to Cisco is a huge benefit. But I would go for the people time and time and time again. Thanks for making the fifth year of this community something special to me.

Thoughts on Cisco Live 2015

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We’ve secretly replaced Tom with Mike Rowe. Let’s see if anyone notices…

Cisco Live 2015 is in the books. A great return to San Diego. A farewell from John Chambers. A greeting from Chuck Robbins (@ChuckRobbins). And a few other things.

The Community is Strong, But Concerned

The absolute best part of Cisco Live is the community that has grown from the social media attendees. More than once I heard during the week “I can’t believe this used to be 20-30 people!”. The social community continues to grow and change. Some people move on. Others return from absence. Still others are coming for the first time.

The Cisco Live social community is as inclusive as any I have seen. From the Sunday night Tweetup to the various interactions throughout the week, I’m proud to be a part of a community that strives to make everyone feel like they are part of a greater whole. I met so many new people this year and marveled at the way the Social Media Hub and Meetup Area were both packed at all hours of the day.

That being said, the community does have some concerns. Some of them are around institutionalized community. There was worry that bringing so many people into the Champions community threatened to marginalize the organic community that had grown up in the past six years. While some of that worry was quieted by the end of the show, I think the major concerns are still present and valid to a certain degree. I think a discussion about the direction of the Champion program and how it will interact with other organic communities is definitely in order sooner rather than later.

Gamification Continues, And I’m Not A Fan

Many of the activities at Cisco Live revovled around prizes and giveaways for interaction. As we’ve seen throughout the years, any time a prize is awarded for a game there is going to be some trying to work the system. I even mentioned it here:

I’m all for having fun. But the reward for a well-played game should be in the game itself. When things have to be modified and changed and curated to ensure no one is taking advantage, it stops being fun and starts being a competition. Competitions cause hurt feelings and bad blood. I think it’s time to look at what the result of this gamification is and whether it’s worth it.

Power Transitions And Telling The Story Right

As expected, John Chambers gave his farewell as CEO and introduced Chuck Robbins to the Cisco Live community. By all accounts, it was an orderly transfer of power and a great way to reassure the investors and press that things are going to proceed as usual. I was a bit interested in the talk from Chambers about how this transition plan has been in place for at least ten months. Given the discussion in the tech press (and more than a couple private comments), the succession wasn’t a smooth as John lets on. Maybe it’s better that the general Cisco public not know how crazy the behind-the-scenes politics really were.

Chuck finds himself in a very precarious position. He’s the person that follows the legend. Love him or hate him, Chambers has been the face of Cisco forever. He is the legend in the networking community. How do you step into his shoes? It’s better that John stepped down on his own terms instead of being forced out by the board. Chuck has also done a great job of rolling out his executive team and making some smart moves to solidify his position at the top.

The key is going to be how Chuck decides to solidify the businesses inside of Cisco. Things that were critical even two years ago are shrinking in the face of market movement. John’s speech was very pointed: there is another tranisition coming that can’t be missed. Chuck has a hard road ahead trying to stabilize Cisco’s position in the market. A cheeky example:

Cisco has missed transitions, SDN being the most recent. They need to concentrate on what’s important and remove the barriers to agile movement. A start would be cutting back on the crazy amounts of business units (BUs) competing for face time with the CEO. You could easily consolidate 50% of the organizations inside Cisco and still have more than anyone else in networking. A racecar that goes 200 mph is still unstable if it isn’t streamlined. Chuck needs to cut Cisco down to fighting weight to make the story sound right.

Cisco Finally Understands Social, But They Don’t Quite Get It (Yet)

I applaud the people inside of Cisco and Cisco Live that have fought tooth and nail for the past few years to highlight the importance of social. Turning a ship the size of Cisco can’t be easy, but it’s finally starting to sink in how powerful social media can be. I can promise you that Cisco understands it better than companies like IBM or Oracle. That’s not to say that Cisco embraces social like it should.

Cisco is still in the uncomfortable mode of using social as a broadcast platform rather than an interaction tool. There are some inside of Cisco that realize the need to focus on the audience rather than the message. But those are exceptions to the general rule of being “on message”.

Social media is a powerful tool to build visibility of personalities. The messenger is often more important than the message. Just ask Pheidippides. Allow your people the freedom to develop a voice and be themselves will win you more converts than having a force of robots parroting the same platitudes on a scheduled basis.

Cisco has some great people invovled in the community. Folks like J Metz (@DrJMetz), Rob Novak (@Gallifreyan), and Lauren Friedman (@Lauren) how how dedicated people can make a name for themselves separate from their employer. Cisco would do well to follow the example of these folks (and many others) and let the messengers make the audience they key.


Tom’s Take

Thanks to Tech Field Day, I go to a lot of industry events now. But Cisco Live is still my favorite. The people make it wonderful. The atmosphere is as electric as any I’ve been a part of. This was my tenth Cisco Live. I can’t imagine not being a part of the event.

Yes, I have concerns about some of the things going on, but it’s the kind of concern that you have for a loved one or dear friend. I want people to understand the challenges of keeping Cisco Live relevant and important to attendees and find a way to fix the issues before they become problems. What I don’t want to see is a conference devoid of personality and wonderful people going through the motions. That would not only destroy the event, but the communities that have sprung from it as well.

Cisco Live 2016 will be intensely personal for me. It’s the first return to Las Vegas since 2011. It’s also the fifth anniversary of Tom’s Corner. I want to make the next Cisco Live as important as Cisco Live 2011 was for me. I hope you will all join me there and be a part of the community that has changed my life for the better.

 

Can Community Be Institutionalized?

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As technology grows at a faster pace, companies are relying more and more on their users to help spread the word about what they are doing. Why pay exorbitant amounts for marketing when there is a group of folks that will do it for little to nothing? These communities of users develop around any product or company with significant traction in the market. But can they be organized, built, and managed in a traditional manner?

Little Pink Houses

Communities develop when users start talking to each other. They exist in numerous different forms. Whether it be forum posters or sanctioned user groups or even unofficial meetups, people want to get together to talk about things. These communities are built from the idea that knowledge should be shared. Anecdotes, guides, and cautionary tales abound when you put enough people into a room and get them talking about a product.

That’s not to say that all communities can be positive ones. Some communities are even built around the idea of a negative reaction. Look at these groups that formed around simple ideas like getting their old Facebook page back or getting their old MySpace layout returned to them. Imagine the reaction that you get when you have a enterprise product that makes changes that users don’t like. That’s how communities get started too.

Whether they are positive or negative, communites exist to give people a way to interact with other like-minded individuals. Community is a refuge that allows members to talk freely and develop the community to suit their needs.

Community Planning

What happens when the community needs more direction? Some communities are completely sanctioned and sponsored by their subjects, like the VMware User Group (VMUG). Others are independent but tend to track along with the parent, such as the Cisco User Groups that have developed over the years. These tend to be very well organized versus other more informal communities.

With the advent of social media, many ad hoc communities have formed quickly around the idea of sharing online. Social media makes meeting new members of the community quick and easy. But it’s also difficult to control social communities. They grow and change so rapidly that even monitoring is a challenge.

The wild and unpredictable nature of social communities has led to a new form of sponsored community – the influencer outreach program. These programs have different names depending on the company, but the idea is still roughly the same: reach out to influencers and social media users in the immediate community and invite them into a new community that offers incentives like insider information or activities outside of those regularly available to everyone.

Influencer outreach programs are like a recipe. You must have the right mix in the correct proportions to make everything work. If you have too much of something or not enough of another, the whole construct can fall apart. Too many members leads to a feeling of non-exclusiveness. Too few members-only briefings leads to a sense that the program doesn’t offer anything over and above “normal” community membership.

The Meringue Problem

One of the most important things that influencer outreach communities need to understand is something I call the “Meringue Problem”. If you’ve ever made meringue for a dessert, you know that you have to whip the egg whites and sugar until it forms soft peaks. That’s what makes meringue light and fluffy. It’s a lot of work but it pays off if done right. However, if you whip the mixture too hard or too long, those soft peaks fall apart into a mess that must be thrown out.

The Meringue Problem in influencer outreach communities comes when the program organizers and directors (chefs) get too involved in directing the community. They try to direct things too much or try to refocus the community away towards an end that the community may or may not support wholeheartedly. That ends up creating animosity among the members and a feeling that things would be better if everyone “would just back off for a bit”. There are a hundred different reasons why this overinvolvement happens, but the results are always the same: a fractured community and a sense of disappointment.

The First Rule

If you want a textbook method for building a community, take a page from one of my favorite movies – Fight Club. Tyler and the Narrator start a community dedicated to working out agression through physical expression. They don’t tell everyone in the bar to come outside and start fighting. They just do their thing on their own. When others want to be invovled, they are welcomed with open arms (and closed fists).

Later, the whole idea of Fight Club takes on a life of it’s own. It becomes a living, breathing thing that no one person can really direct anymore. In the movie, it is mentioned that the leader moves among the crowd, with the only important thing being the people fighting in the ring. But it’s never exclusionary. They’ll let anyone join. Just ask Lou.

Tyler finally decides that he needs something more from Fight Club. So what does he do? Does he try to refocus the community to a new end? How can you control something like that? Instead, he creates a new community from a subset of the Fight Club members. Project Mayhem is still very much a part of Fight Club, as the space monkeys are still Fight Club members. But Project Mayhem is a different community with different goals. It’s not better or worse. Just…different.


Tom’s Take

I’m a proud member of several communities. Some of them are large and distinguished. Others are small and intimate. In some, I’m a quiet member in the back. In others I help organize and direct things. But no matter who I am there or what I’m doing, I remember the importace of letting the community develop. Communities will find their way if you let them. A guiding hand sometimes does help the community accomplish great things and transcend barriers. But that hand must guide. It should never force or meddle. When that line is cross, the community ceases being a collection of great people and starts taking on attributes that make it more important thant the members. And that kind of institutionalization isn’t a community at all.

Special thanks to Jeff Fry (@FryGuy_PA) and Stephen Foskett (@SFoskett) for helping me collect my thoughts for this post.