So, What Are WE Going to Do About It?

Well, I hardly imagined there was anything out of the ordinary with my last post; just another conference write-up. But apparently I hit a nerve with regard to my complaint about how most conferences are structured. It seems LOTS of people are fed up—vendors and users alike.

I’ve since had various conversations about this across multiple platforms, so I thought I’d consolidate my views here, in one place, along with my thoughts about what we can do better.

I mean WE in the broadest sense. There’s plenty of unhappiness with the current state of affairs, but for an industry that prides itself on “innovation”, we—sponsors, attendees and event organizers—are mostly just going with the flow laid down for industry conferences ages ago, rather than thinking about how to make them better instead of just bigger.

First, I have no quarrel with vendor sponsorship as such: it costs money to host a large event, and for some organizations, it’s an actual revenue stream. For some (Upperside Conferences, Layer123), it’s their raison d’être. For others, it’s a codified part of the revenue mix (Gartner, for example, reported that 11% of their revenues came from conference sales in 2014). If a tech vendor hosts its own event (eg VMworld, SAPworld, etc), it’s primarily viewed as a marketing activity: less of a revenue stream than an awareness and customer/partner contact event—but still not a small budget item.

As any arts organization can tell you, ticket sales only cover a portion of the cost of an event. The rest has to be made up by deep-pocketed benefactors. And so event organizers, by and large, are just giving their biggest customers what those customers have been trained to want.

And that’s the problem. Not because it’s inherently evil or corrupt—it’s just standard business practice to make your biggest customers happy. The problem is that the deliverables sponsors have been trained to expect, and therefore want, don’t necessarily deliver the kind of value that sponsors actually want or could get. Instead, there are probably better ways to provide value to the largest customers and do more for smaller ones (attendees) at the same time. In other words, I’d like to see more creative sponsorship packages.

For example:

  • Sponsors spend lots of money to obtain booth space, and then lots more money on big fancy booths. Some of us then book juggling or unicycle or magic acts to draw people to our booth, and offer up giveaways as an incentive for badge scans. The sponsor scans some number of badges of people interested in their giveaway. Actual qualified leads that can be used by Sales are typically under 1%. Where there’s genuine interest, ie the attendee has had a meaningful conversation with a qualified booth staffer, the staffer usually gets the attendee’s business card and promptly gets in touch with the relevant salesperson and/or product people at corporate, thereby circumventing the whole lead-gen flow.

Now, events are absolutely a good place for users to meet with a lot of current or potential suppliers in rapid succession. Sometimes good sales reps are proactive about arranging meetings at events. But maybe event organizers could help facilitate the process: all attendees fitting a certain profile automatically get offered meeting matching services with up to 3 vendors of their choice, plus a “wild card” in an area in which they have a general interest (“DevOps tools”, say) which could provide luck-of-the-draw opportunities for small, potentially interesting startups without a lot of name recognition. Or heck, maybe a vendor-user speed dating event.

  • Speaking slots are probably the most valuable portion of any standard sponsorship package, but there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to do it. More often than not,unfortunately, it’s pure advertising. I’ve even known of individual speakers who tried to do something more interesting than straightforwardly “push the message”, only to be “corrected” by their corporate people. Some events try to encourage or even mandate a user speaker in their sponsor sessions, but even when that’s possible (and it can be remarkably difficult even for a large vendor), the user speaker knows they’re there to help the vendor, and the end result is the same.

On the other hand, event organizers who are in touch with users themselves are in a good position to find good speakers with interesting stories. For example, the 2011 Gartner Data Center conference featured several “How we got to private cloud” sessions, which were all packed. Because the speakers weren’t naming any of their vendors, they were less constrained by internal rules against discussing their deployments. And the knowledge-sharing was widely appreciated. The speakers were typically surrounded 5-deep after their talks.

  • What’s wrong with working sessions?? This is absolutely possible, even at a big event. I expressed by boredom and frustration at the last OpenStack Summit to a friend, who told me he’d been spending the week in an ancillary session that was apparently open to all attendees but completely unadvertised. “It’s awesome! I don’t know why every product person isn’t there. I mean, it’s actual users sitting there telling devs, ‘I want it to do something like this,’ and the dev quickly scripts out a rudimentary idea and they go from there.” People actually talking to each other in a collaborative context to figure out real solutions—wouldn’t that be useful to everyone involved?

What about a little competition? A panel of users poses a problem they’ve been grappling with, gives relevant vendor teams 30-60 mins to draft an idea for a solution, and 3-5 minutes apiece to pitch them. Judging criteria should include points for complete solutions which demonstrate an understanding of the entirety of the customer deployment experience—not just how to build a better mousetrap.

As I said in my last post, I’d even be good with gripe sessions. Customer Advisory Boards tend to be all very polite and not terribly useful because no one wants to be rude to their hosts. But at an independent event? Put together a panel on a given topic (“Identity Management”), invite vendors, and have them sit in the audience where they have to listen and not talk while the panel members talk about what they love, hate and need from their IAM solutions. A slightly less intimate version of the OpenStack hackathon, but also perhaps a bit more scalable. And certainly a refreshing change from the current state of affairs, in which vendors mostly lecture at users.

In general, I’m not fond of things being structured to further the distance between users and vendors. It’s no secret that many user orgs deeply dislike working with a number of their suppliers, but often those same suppliers don’t fully grasp the intensity of dislike, much less the reasons behind it. Wouldn’t it be better if they did, so they could do something about it? Instead, event organizers enable and perpetuate bad marketing habits which are all about unidirectional shouting, instead of a mix of talking and listening. Which make users dislike vendors all the more and further deepens the adversarial, predator/prey dynamic you find in many interactions—especially on the conference show floor.

This isn’t healthy. Nobody really likes working this way. But sponsor expectations will need to be reset. Event organizers will need to show that alternative approaches really can deliver value, and be prepared to articulate the kind of value that is—beyond lead generation. Attendees can be far more vocal to organizers about what they do and don’t want to experience more of.

So—what would work for you? And what can you do about it?

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ONUG Spring 2015 & the Cancer of Vendor Sponsorship

Based on feedback from attendees of earlier ONUG events, I was looking forward to this conference. Right now, most of my customer conversations are at the “1a” level (“What is SDN? What does my company mean when we say SDN?”). There are certainly some that are more sophisticated (we have paying customers for our controller, after all), but I was looking forward to a concentrated gathering of users to hear what’s on their minds.

Here are my observations from Day 1:

Speaking of vendors–most of the vendor attendees were small startups, many in the SD-WAN space. Of the established players, Juniper was notably absent. And despite the clear interest in white-box with this group, Cumulus opted not to invest in this event.

There were some bright spots, notably Adrian Cockcroft’s talk about how to DevOps. You can view his slides here. Ted Turner from Intuit (Ananda Rajagopal’s guest) later in the day talked about how Intuit is taking 15-year-old apps and breaking them into microservices, and then leveraging AWS for the non-core portions of the app workflow. The reliance on AWS for a significant portion of one’s IT operations was actually a fairly common theme in both speaker and offline comments.

Unfortunately, the rest of Day 1 was given over to “Working Group test results presentations”, aka the aforementioned vendor panels. Or as Andre Kindness of Forrester put it:

Today the morning sessions were closed to us vendors–fair enough, I suppose…on the one hand, I can appreciate users’ desire for frank discussions without getting aggressive phone calls to their management from certain suppliers. On the other hand, hearing what users are really struggling with (which isn’t always the same thing as engineering’s neat ideas) is always instructive for those of us who might be in a position to help provide solutions. I’d be good with seats in the peanut gallery and a strict behind-the-red-velvet-rope, listen-only policy for vendors for these sessions–especially since there was no bar on media attendees.

The first open session of today featured Najam Ahmad of Facebook. Facebook is doing some very interesting things with their infrastructure, and although it’s certainly not, in its entirety, a blueprint for most other companies, there are always interesting nuggets in their presentations that can be applied in other contexts. For example, when an audience member asked about getting the right skillsets in the networking organization, here’s what he said (slightly paraphrasing):

“We have a free-hacking month once a year. Anyone can go work on any team they’re interested in, and at the end of the month, if they want, they can stay with that team, or go back to their old team. For a while we weren’t getting any of the software engineers. Networking just seemed boring and weird to them. Then we started framing it as a big distributed systems project, and that started drawing them in. Then you have the problem of developers not knowing much about networking and vice versa, so we paired networking people with software devs and had them work together on projects, with the expectation that each would learn from the other. Now everyone on our team codes, to some extent. Some more, some less, but they all have an appreciation for each others’ knowledge and skills.”

There were some luncheon sessions that I couldn’t stay focused on because they mostly had the same problem as Day 1’s panels. This was followed by an investor panel, which mostly focused on two questions:

  1. Will SDN/NFV/whitebox hurt Cisco?
  2. What are the prospects for startups in these areas?

On #1, the view was that if Cisco and other established networking vendors lay down strong strategies now, once we start seeing active deployments a year or so from now, it shouldn’t make a significant difference for them. The hype around SDN of a year or so ago, which appeared to be hurting Cisco’s stock price, has died down as the reality of the length of this transition (10 years, one speaker posited, which seems very likely) has set in, and there’s plenty of time to get the go-to-market execution in place. Interestingly, the institutional investor commented that he didn’t see VMware NSX breaking out beyond the security segmentation use case it’s currently positioning. NSX’s architecture as a vertically integrated software stack anchored to a specific hypervisor probably does limit its use cases more than other, more general-purpose controllers, but given the very long runway the same speaker gave other vendors in the space to work out their strategies, I was left wondering what other knowledge and commentary was behind the comment.

On #2, no one expected any significant moves to IPOs or strong exits in the next year, owing to the expected leadtime on real SDN deployments. One speaker also commented that the bar would likely be higher for IPOs than in past cycles, with an expectation that the company actually be making money before entering into the public markets. That would be refreshing, wouldn’t it?

The final session today was a discussion on DevOps, which was covered very adequately by other bloggers. In fact, here are links to several other live blogs posted by my Networking Field Day friends:

ONUG Spring 2015 Live Blog – Day 1 (Ethan Banks)

ONUG Spring 2015 Live Blog – Day 2 (Ethan Banks)

Tom Hollingsworth/John Herbert – Day 1

Liveblog from ONUG Day 2 (John Herbert)

Now, about the “cancer” comment in the title of this post: I had gone all the way over to the other side of the world (Paris, not horrible) in March to the MPLS/SDN/NFV World Congress, having heard good things about it from past attendees. I heard from the same people (vendors) I’ve heard from many times at conferences in the US. I already know my colleagues’ and competitors’ schticks. I don’t need to hear it again. ONUG turned out to be much the same. I said this to an analyst friend at Gartner Data Center a couple of years ago. I’m dreading ONS at this point. I get that events are revenue opportunities (and for Mr. Lippis of ONUG, a primary one), and also that when vendors pony up large chunks of money to help cover the costs of the events, the marketing departments expect something (visibility, since the value of leads is honestly very negligible) in return. But–YUCK. I know I’m not the only one who’s tired of hearing the same thing at every event. There have to be other, better ways to do this.

Update: Some ideas to get the ball rolling here.