Monday, May 11, 2015

2015 Ignite Review. Was it Really That Different? #MSIgnite #MSExchange #iammec #Office365

It’s been a couple of days since I’ve left Chicago and the Microsoft Office 365 and Azure haze is starting to lift! Ha. After some time reflecting on the week, I’ve left Chicago with a mix of emotions. This is the first time that Ignite/TechEd was a business trip and not a paid week of training for me. 

I spent the majority of time at my employer’s booth talking with customers and finding ways to solve problems. It is always extremely satisfying when you are able to help people and see his or her face light up during that “ah ha” moment. 

Love it.

Over the years we have come to view TechEd as a large Microsoft conference that has always included a certain degree of level 100 marketing material with a plethora of level 200/300 sessions. Oftentimes the level 300 sessions leaves much to be desired. But there are several members of the Microsoft delivery and product team that always over deliver and are incredible teachers. The complaints are “always” plentiful about the lack of seating at these sessions – always has been.

So what were my expectations for Ignite? Past history has taught me to expect more of the same. In the time leading up to Microsoft Ignite we all talked about expectations and everyone generally thought it was going to be more of the same – a larger TechEd - and I feel like it was.

The conference just did not feel that drastically different to TechEd in look and feel. The sessions around Exchange seemed to have the same look and feel of TechEd’s past. If the TechEd brand were still present in Chicago would anyone feel like they were at a different conference? I argue not.

Many in the Exchange community compared the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) to Ignite and I DO NOT feel like that is really fair. The last two MEC’s delivered much better content than any TechED that I’ve attended over the past 10 years. 

The whole MEC experience had a carefully branded look and feel in 2012 and 2014. This was absolutely a celebration of messaging and the availability of Microsoft personal at these events was incredible given the lower attendance.

Personally, I felt like the original message from Microsoft that Ignite was consolidating MEC and the Lync Conference to be pure marketing and a message to ease the outrage from the ones that held MEC as sacred. I can empathize with that, as I too was upset upon learning of MEC’s demise.

But let’s realize that MEC was under the control of a gentleman that understood the Microsoft Exchange community and was part of it. Ignite on the other hand was a large corporate training event for 20,000 people. The consolidation of events was a purely financial one given the large costs to fly out product group teams and take them away from their day-to-day responsibilities several weeks a year.

What was wrong?

There have been a lot of criticism aimed at Microsoft over the delivery of Ignite and I agree with some of them. For instance, fellow MVP Gary Steere noted the lack of effort by Microsoft to limit the environmental impact of such a large conference. I totally agree when many of these items had been addressed by TechEd in years past.

Don Jones also pointed out how the dining staff used at Ignite was not the most professional and was a little bit harsh. I also saw this firsthand and thought it was incredibly unprofessional.
While Microsoft stated that they were consolidating MEC and Lync Conference into Ignite they certainly did not work to keep the UC groups in the same general areas! The synergy between the Lync and Exchange community has always been strong and was felt while at MEC and Lync Conference.

In talking with customers throughout the day many of them complained that the buses did not run throughout the day and trying to get a taxi was an hour-long proposition. This certainly added to my frustration when trying to get to other conference hotels during the day for customer meetings. This was certainly a fail in my book.

Let’s just call a spade a spade and all agree that the food was absolutely horrible. To make matters worse, on Monday the exhibitors could not actually sit in the same dining room as the attendees. Really! The outcry on this was so swift and strong that this was changed by Tuesday morning. I’m not sure the thought behind this as lunch and breakfast is a great time for Microsoft partners to catch up with customers without the noise of the expo floor.

What was positive?

There was evidence available that Microsoft did listen to a lot of the positive feedback funneled back from MEC. One item that I did take note of was the continued use of panel sessions moderated by Microsoft and independent voices like MVP’s. I liked to see the independent voice represented in several panel sessions and greatly appreciated this. Personally, I feel like the community could tolerate another 4-6 of these types of sessions next year. How about you?

Since this was Microsoft’s only conference for the year it was great to meet and spend time with all my MVP, MCM, Microsoft and partner peers during the week. A lot of long-term relationships and bonds are forged at events such as these.

Ideas for next year?

Going forward sessions for the tightly knit communities like Lync and Exchange should kept close together. It would be nice to provide independent brandings within the Ignite umbrella for tightly knit communities. This would go a long way to help foster the small community feel of MEC while at the large corporate backed Ignite conference. The blueprint for MEC, Lync Conference and MMS is plain for all to see!

More panel sessions please! I really like when the independent voice of MVP’s or MCM’s is mixed in with Microsoft employees. Who doesn’t love when a stock Microsoft answer is provided and someone pipes up and says “well actually…in my last engagement…” The conversation that ensues is incredibly engaging, genuine, and one can argue an amazing way to learn. More please.

My assumption is that the food can only improve. The food at TechEd has always been tolerable and actually surprisingly good given the scale and speed by which it is delivered.


Given that Microsoft already has long-term experience with delivering a highly technical conference at massive scale (i.e. TechReady) much larger than Ignite, some of these blunders were surprising.

At the end of the day though, smaller conferences like MEC have vastly different goals and vastly different measurements of success then Ignite. You cannot just simply take a boutique conference like MEC and scale it out to accommodate 20,000 attendees and expect to have the same look and feel. Removing the creative voices that come from each Microsoft community and forcing a corporate template across the board is not going to result in MEC – it is going to result in what we saw at Ignite. Meet the fiscally responsible corporate Microsoft.

The winners of the consolidation of TechEd is clearly the independent conferences that have maintained the boutique “MEC-like” feel and can drive deeply technical content that is free of a carefully crafted marketing message. 

Microsoft has played their card with Ignite and now it’s up to the independent voice to be heard and see how it measures up. I’m excited!


  1. "Many in the Exchange community compared the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) to Ignite and I DO NOT feel like that is really fair."

    I don't understand why. Ignite was clearly marketed as the replacement for TechEd, MEC, SharePoint, Lync and some other conferences. Why is it fair to compare the new conference with TechEd and not with MEC?

    I agree with you that this was done for financial reasons. Even more reasons to be very clear in our feedback that Ignite did not measured up to the standard Microsoft had with MEC, in fact it didn't even meet TechEds.

    1. I fully agree that Microsoft marketed Ignite to be the successor to MEC, Lync Conf, and MMS etc. I would argue that this was in name/content only. I don't think it's fair to compare lets say MEC 2014 to Ignite because of several reasons.

      First, Navin had most of the control in creating the brand, look and feel of MEC in Austin. It was branded in a special way and had a "vibe" to it. Within Ignite, did anyone ever REALLY think that someone on the Exchange marketing team would be given the control that Navin had? The look and feel of Ignite was branded across the board for all technology disciplines for a consistent look and feel. To me it was TechEd but with thousands more people. I'm sure behind the scenes a lot of people at Microsoft had really cool ideas that just became lost in a sea of political fighting. The people that produced MEC came from Exchange and understood the community. Those same voices were not listened to as Ignite was put on with a more generic corporate look and feel.

      Another reason was the mere size. Yikes! It was hardly impossible to spot someone between sessions and catch up. The size of the rooms made it hard to talk to speakers and the crowds at the Exchange booths made it hard to converse organically with the product team. The size did not lend itself to a comparison of MEC. I felt like Ignite could really only be compared to - well - Ignite! lol. I think the small look and feel will now only be found in smaller independent conferences.

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