MEC 2014 wrapup

BLUF: it was a fantastic conference, far and away the best MEC I’ve attended. The quality of the speakers and technical presentations was very high, and the degree of community interaction and engagement was too.

I arrived in Austin Sunday afternoon and went immediately to dinner at County Line on the Lake, a justly famous Austin BBQ restaurant, to put on a “thank you” dinner for some of the folks who helped me with my book. Unfortunately, the conference staff had scheduled a speakers’ meeting at the same time, and a number of folks couldn’t attend due to flight delays or other last-minute intrusions. Next time I’ll poll invitees for their preferred time, and perhaps that will help. However, the dinner and company were both excellent, and I now have a copy of the book signed by all in attendance as a keepsake— a nice reversal of my usual pattern of signing books and giving them away.

Monday began with the keynote. If you follow me (or any number of other Exchange MVPs) on Twitter, you already know what I think: neither the content of the presentation nor its actual presentation was up to snuff when compared either to prior MEC events or other events such as Lync Conference. At breakfast Monday, Jason Sherry and I were excitedly told by an attendee that his Microsoft account rep insisted that he attend the keynote, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why until the tablet giveaway. That raised the energy level quite a bit! I think that for the next MEC, Julia White should be handed the gavel and left to run the keynote as she sees fit; I can guarantee that would result in a more lively and informative event.  (For another time: a review of the Venue 8 Pro, which I like a great deal based on my use of it so far). One area where the keynote excelled, though, was in its use of humor. The video vignette featuring Greg Taylor and David Espinoza was one of the funniest such I’ve ever seen, and all of the other bits were good as well— check them out here. The keynote also featured a few good-natured pokes at the community, such as this:

Ripped

For the record, although I’ve been lifting diligently, I am not (yet) built like the guy who’s wearing my face on screen… but there’s hope.

I took detailed notes on each of the sessions I attended, so I’ll be posting about the individual sessions over the next few days. It’s fair to say that I learned several valuable things at each session, which is sort of the point behind MEC. I found that the quality of the “unplugged” sessions I attended varied a bit between sessions; the worst was merely OK, while the best (probably the one on Managed Availability) was extremely informative. It’s interesting that Tony and I seemed to choose very few of the same sessions, so his write-ups and mine will largely complement each other. My Monday schedule started with Kamal Janardhan’s session on compliance and information protection. Let me start by saying that Kamal is one of my favorite Microsoft people ever. She is unfailingly cheerful, and she places a high value on transparency and openness. When she asks for feedback on product features or futures, it’s clear that she is sincerely seeking honest feedback, not just saying it pro forma. Her session was great; from there, I did my two back-to-back sessions, both of which went smoothly. I was a little surprised to see a nearly-full room (I think there were around 150 people) for my UM session, and even more surprised to see that nearly everyone in the room had already deployed UM on either Exchange 2010 or 2013. That’s a significant change from the percentage of attendees deploying UM at MEC 2012. I then went to the excellent “Unplugged” session on “Exchange Top Issues”, presented by the supportability team and moderated by Tony. After the show closed for the day, I was fortunate to be able to attend the dinner thrown by ENow Software for MVPs/MCMs and some of their key customers. Jay and Jess Gundotra, as always, were exceptional hosts, the meal (at III Forks) was excellent, and the company and conversation were delightful. Sadly I had to go join a work conference call right after dinner, so I missed the attendee party.

Tuesday started with a huge surprise. On my way to the “Exchange Online Migrations Technical Deep Dive” session (which was good but not great; it wasn’t as deep as I expected), I noticed the picture below flashing on the hallway screens. Given that it was April Fool’s Day, I wasn’t surprised to see the event planners playing jokes on attendees, I just wasn’t expecting to be featured as part of their plans. Sadly, although I’m happy to talk to people about migrating to Office 365, the FAA insists that I do it on the ground and not in the air. For lunch, I had the good fortune to join a big group of other Dell folks (including brand-new MVP Andrew Higginbotham, MCM Todd Hawkins, Michael Przytula, and a number of people from Dell Software I’d not previously met) at Iron Works BBQ. The food and company were both wonderful, and they were followed by a full afternoon of excellent sessions. The highlight of my sessions on Tuesday was probably Charlie Chung’s session on Managed Availability, which was billed as a 300-level session but was more like a 1300-level. I will definitely have to watch the recording a few times to make sure I didn’t miss any of the nuances.

Surprise!

This is why I need my commercial pilot’s license— so I can conduct airborne sessions at the next MEC.

Tony has already written at length about the “Exchange Oscars” dinner we had Tuesday night at Moonshine. I was surprised and humbled to be selected to receive the “Hall of Fame” award for sustained contributions to the Exchange community; I feel like there are many other MVPs, current and past, who deserve the award at least as much, if not more. It was great to be among so many friends spanning my more than 15 years working with Exchange; the product group turned out en masse and the conversation, fellowship, and celebration was the high point of the entire conference for me. I want to call out Shawn McGrath, who received the “Best Tool” award for the Exchange Remote Connectivity Analyzer, which became TestExchangeConnectivity.com. Shawn took a good idea and relentlessly drove it from conception to implementation, and the whole world of Exchange admins has benefited from his effort.

Wednesday started with the best “Unplugged” session I attended: it covered Managed Availability and, unlike the other sessions I went to, featured a panel made mostly of engineers from the development team. There were a lot of deep technical questions and a number of pointed roadmap discussions (not all of which were at my instigation). The most surprising session I attended, I think, was the session on updates to Outlook authentication— turns out that true single sign-on (SSO) is coming to all the Office 2013 client applications, and fairly soon, at least for Office 365 customers. More on that in my detailed session write-ups. The MVPs were also invited to a special private session with Perry Clarke. I can’t discuss most of what we talked about, but I can say that I learned about the CAP theorem (which hadn’t even been invented when I got my computer science degree, sigh), and that Perry recognizes the leadership role Exchange engineering has played in bringing Microsoft’s server products to high scale. Fun stuff!

Then I flew home: my original flight was delayed so they put me on one leaving an hour earlier. The best part of the return trip might have been flying on one of American’s new A319s to Huntsville. These planes are a huge improvement over the nasty old MD80s that AA used to fly DFW-HSV, and they’re nicer than DL’s ex-AirTran 717s to boot. So AA is still in contention for my westbound travel business.

A word about the Hilton Austin Downtown, the closest hotel to the conference center: their newly refurbished rooms include a number of extremely practical touches. There’s a built-in nightlight in the bathroom light switch, and each bedside table features its own 3-outlet power strip plus a USB port, and the work desk has its own USB charging ports as well. Charging my phone, Kindle, Venue 8 Pro, and backup battery was much simpler thanks to the plethora of outlets. The staff was unfailingly friendly and helpful too, which is always welcome. However, the surrounding area seemed to have more than its share of sirens and other loud noises; next time I might pick a hotel a little farther away.

I’ll close by saying how much I enjoyed seeing old friends and making new ones at this conference. I don’t have room (or a good enough memory) to make a comprehensive list, but to everyone who took the time to say hello in the hall, ask good questions in a session, wave at me across the expo floor, or pass the rolls at dinner— thank you.

Now to get ready for TechEd and Exchange Connections…

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