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What I Learned at #SPC11

This week, I attended the Microsoft SharePoint Conference 2011 (#SPC11) in Anaheim.  Not my usual beat, to be sure, but our company is starting to use SharePoint more, and we have no internal resources trained on it.  We have a "wild west" set of sites already, plan to add more for cross-functional project team sites, want to host BI solutions delivery, and we've got a project on the books to migrate an existing old-tech Intranet to SharePoint.  Better late than never, we're taking this opportunity to learn a little more.
I'm A Newb Here
Overall, the conference was pretty good - I learned things I needed to know and got more comfortable with the usage, architecture, and management of SharePoint.  Of course, having not known these things prior to our "wild west" deployment, I now know we did it all wrong.  Some good news is that even though I may not yet know the "perfect" way to deploy SharePoint for our needs, I know what questions to ask, and generally how to "fix" our current deployment.
There was one more good opportunity I took advantage of at the conference.  I found myself in a fairly typical position for other people: I'm an almost complete newbie at the technology, and I didn't know anyone in the community.  That sounds eerily familiar to the situation that first-timers have at the SQL PASS Community Summit.  I was in the same position with SharePoint that they'll be in with SQL Server.  The difference is that I now know what I didn't when I was a first-timer at Summit.  I now know a great deal about the technology, the community, and the conference itself.  I'm participating as a "big brother" or "guide" for a gaggle of first-timers... Could I put my own "first-timer" experience at the SharePoint conference, contrast it with my "veteran" status at Summit, and help my first-timers get great value out of the Summit?  You bet.
And It Wasn't A Great Experience
To start off, I'll describe my experience at SPC11 for you - the discomfort, unfamiliarity, and frustration of it all.  Yes, I wasn't terribly comfortable at the conference.  Despite what you may assume from reading here or meeting me in person, I'm an introvert.  I only exhibit this extrovert type of behaviour when I'm around friends, or in an environment where I'm comfortable with my perceived "expertise."  I didn't really want to start conversations with people I ate breakfast and lunch with in the convention dining hall.  Saying more than hi - even to the bare extent of offering my name as an introduction was difficult.  I forced myself to, but my reluctance was reinforced by the lack of responses I usually got.  I hardly acknowledged people sitting next to me in sessions - I often sat two or three seats away from anyone else.  Sound like your typical convention-goer?  It does to me.
Add to that that I'm completely unfamiliar with the technology.  How do I know what sessions to go to, or what vendors to talk to?  I know that my organization has issues with SharePoint - not knowing how to use it, manage it, or architect it well.  But is there a session that covers that?  Not that I could find.  One may argue that a convention isn't the place I should be going to find this stuff out... but here I am at SPC11 in exactly this boat, and I'm positive there are other wallflowers bailing water with me.  I don't even know the terminology well enough to know where to start!  From what I now know about SharePoint and language used to describe it, I missed some helpful sessions.  Luckily they'll be online for me to review later.  But I won't get the opportunity to talk to the speaker after the session, or meet others who were also up at the podium asking similar questions (making me feel better about being a dummy) or talk to other experts that were trolling the area, offering assistance.  Opportunity definitely lost...
Being uncomfortable with the setting and unfamiliar with the technology made me frustrated.  I'm not used to being in that position, and the frustration drove me to learn more so I didn't stay in that situation.  Unfortunately, there's not much in the way of hand- or foot-holds to help me climb out of that pit... so I got more frustrated!
It wasn't a complete disaster, I did get a lot of useful information out of the conference.  Thanks in no small part to Mahmood Jaffer - he helped fill in that basic knowledge I was missing.  Yes - it only took one contact to "make things better."  But the experience itself was illuminating to me as to what little things could have helped me get so much more out of it.  I'm glad to say that PASS' programs - of which the first-timer program is an example - do help.  But even though PASS is doing many things "right", I think they could do more, and relatively easily. 
Necessity Is The Mother...
Here were my issues on being a first-time conference attendee at the SharePoint Conference:
  • I couldn't identify "experts".  (Perhaps I should clarify that I'm equating "experts" with "people that will help me".)  I think speakers had a different badge accent colour - but I'm not sure.  Vendors definitely did.  MVPs did not.  No ribbons either.  I spent the entire welcome reception in vain trying to find one - not even vendors knew who or where they were.
  • I didn't know my (independently reserved) hotel had a shuttle to the conference until I registered.
  • I didn't know my (independently reserved) hotel internet access was covered until I checked out.  (I bought it anyway - had to in order to do office work, and was prepared to expense it.)
  • Apparently, there was a "birds of a feather" area.  The only information I saw on it was on a room directory, but I didn't investigate further.  I don't know what kind of "feathers" they were - industry or feature - and I didn't know when it was either.
  • Apparently, there were Hands-On labs available.  Again, I only saw passing reference to rooms on signage, without any description of lab content in the conference registration package or emails.  (They did promote certification exams though.)
I think it's also important to note I had the double-whammy of being a product newbie as well as a conference newbie.  Here were my issues on being completely unfamiliar to the technology of SharePoint:
  • I didn't know the product features or purpose - not even enough to know what I didn't know.
  • I didn't know how important knowing certain things was. Was understanding claims-based security more important than knowing how to leverage content types?
  • I still don't even know what I don't know...
Even though I'm sure some of the above two lists was in the documentation or registration package, I was more interested in addressing other issues than in reading all that to pull out a nugget or two. 
...Of Invention
I think the conference organizers could have helped me out with those problems by:
  • Delivering better preparatory email to new/all attendees.  I was actually shocked by the grand total of two - yes TWO - emails from the conference organizers that only served to help me prepare logistically... minus key shuttle and hotel internet information.
  • Targeting emails by attendee "type".  I don't want a ton of spam either.  Separating communications for "newbs" versus "returnees" would help keep content from being inadvertently categorized as spam or irrelevant by the receiver.
  • Identifying experts.  SPC11 didn't have the ribbons all us PASS vets know (and I hope you love as much as I now do).  Yes, they had a "badge customization" booth you could go to after registration to "add bling" to your badge (their words, not mine) with fairly unhelpful ribbons like "Internet Sensation" and "Hire Me".  (Really?)  Summit's ribbons are better, but perhaps they aren't as helpful as they could be.  Instead of a ribbon for "MVP" or "Speaker" (can't remember all the ones I've had), they should have one of the colours (say red) with technology words.  Pasting a red "Clustering" ribbon on your badge would mean "I know clustering, and I can (and want to) answer your questions about it."  SPC11 didn't put those "bling" ribbons in everyone's packet (nor would I want PASS to), they had a free-for-all booth to pick and apply your own.  That would work for a set of "I'm here to help with" ribbons (borrowing Andy Leonard's trademark).
SPC11 could have helped a product ignoramus like me more easily by:
  • Having an experts area manned at all hours of the conference.  Heck, "experts" is asking too much.  "People with a passing familiarity" would do!  I would have LOVED to have sat down with someone at the Welcome Reception who could have:
    • Found out what I knew about SharePoint and what I didn't
    • Found out what my learning goals were for the conference
    • Given those, helped me to identify appropriate sessions/events to attend
  • Having an "I'm new to SharePoint" track.  I know that program selection is a hard job - one of the problems is having appropriately leveled content.  If there was a dedicated "I'm new to <product>" track with ONLY 100-level sessions in it, I think a newbie would do quite well, thank you.  Yes, as a SQL newb, I might only care about DBA type content, not BI, cloud, and/or modeling content that would (should) be delivered in such a track.  But if the first session(s) in that track explained the big picture - the stack, the different tech, AND the typical job descriptions associated with SQL Server, I think that would help newbs a LOT.  Follow that up with intro sessions to the sub-products and features.  With that taken care of, the program committee could feel more freedom in loading up on 300/400 level sessions.
  • Alternatively, have an "I'm new to <product>" pre-con to cover that...
  • Pass out/win "I know <product> <feature>, thanks to <conference>" shirts with "Ask me about <feature>" on the back.  Have them at the ATE booths for "experts" to give to attendees they think learned something about the subject... with a soft commitment from attendees to WEAR THE SHIRT during the conference and bring it next year.
Make Conferences Better!
The above lists are directed at the SharePoint Conference - but I hope PASS can take away some nuggets as well.  I think most of those points could help make the first-timer and/or newbie experience so much better, and draw attendees into the awesome community that we have already.  Since this has turned into an "open letter" to PASS (I'll be drawing their attention to it), I would also encourage members of the PASS board to attend a conference every year that they've never attended before - big, small, on a technology which they're completely new to, doesn't matter - for the express purpose of putting themselves in the shoes of those they want to serve.

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