So the news is out: Microsoft is rolling MEC, Lync Conference, and SharePoint Conference into a single “unified commercial technology conference” in Chicago next year. MVPs were notified that this change was in the works, and there was a lot of vigorous discussion. Now that the cat has been debagged, I wanted to share a few thoughts about this new conference. For perspective, I should say that I attended almost all of the original MEC conferences back in the day and hit both “next-gen” MECs and this year’s Lync Conference. I have also spoken at TechEd around a dozen times all told; I co-chaired Exchange Connections for a number of years and am a repeat speaker there as well, so I am thoroughly familiar with the landscape of Exchange and Lync-oriented conferences. (Since I haven’t been to SPC, any time I talk about MEC or LyC you can just mentally search-and-replace “SPC” in there if you like.)
Is this just TechEd 2.0?
The announcement, bylined with Julia White’s name, says that Microsoft is combining MEC, LyC, and SPC to provide a unified event that will give attendees “clearer visibility into Microsoft’s future technology vision and roadmap” and “unparalleled access to Microsoft senior leaders and the developers who write the code.” One of the most valuable aspects of the current set of product-specific conferences, of course, is the deep engagement with people from each specific product group. The enthusiasm and passion that the developers, testers, support engineers, PMs, and leaders of the Exchange and Lync product groups shines through: they are just as happy and excited to be there as the attendees are, and this creates a unique energy and sense of community that are consistently absent from TechEd.
Microsoft has been very successful at positioning TechEd as the generalists’ conference, with coverage of every part of their stack. Developers, architects, security engineers, and business decision makers all had content targeted at them, but it was often driven by Microsoft’s marketing agenda and not by customer demand. As the number of products in Microsoft’s portfolio has grown, TechEd hasn’t lengthened to accommodate more sessions; instead, the number of Exchange/Lync/Office 365 sessions has remained roughly constant even as those products have expanded. I think it’s fair to say that as a vehicle for deep technical information, TechEd’s glory days are far behind it. On the other hand, as a vehicle to showcase the Microsoft party line, TechEd thrived. It became clear several years ago that individual product communities would greatly benefit from having their own conferences to focus on their unique needs. Exchange Connections did a good job of filling this niche, of course, but first SPC, then LyC, then MEC proved that these product-specific conferences engendered a very high degree of attendee (and exhibitor) satisfaction and engagement, and they proved the high value of having a Microsoft-led and -organized conference with enthusiastic participation from the big wheels in each product group.
The announcement goes on to say “feedback from attendees across the past conferences asking for more content and product team engagement across Microsoft versus just within one product area.” In complete sincerity, I can say that none of the hundreds of MEC or LyC attendees, or MVPs, or Microsoft product group folks I have spoken to have said “gee, what we really need is a big conference that covers all of Microsoft’s UC&C products.” I do know that the product groups have aggressively sought and carefully considered feedback from attendees at these conferences, so it’s certainly possible that they’ve been hearing something very different than I have. It is true that people whose duties or interests span multiple products have to go to multiple conferences, and this is a valid complaint. Many consultants can’t spare multiple weeks of bench time to attend all of the relevant conferences, and many smaller companies that are using multiple products aren’t able to budget multiple conferences either. So from their standpoint, perhaps this unification is a win.
Tony points out that there are great logistical and cost-savings benefits to Microsoft in consolidating the conference, and that exhibitors may prefer to have a larger, more diverse audience. I agree with the former; on the latter, I’m not sure. Companies whose product lines span multiple parts of the UC&C ecosystem may benefit; for example, ENow makes both Exchange and Lync monitoring solutions, so having both Lync and Exchange admins in the crowd is great for them. I’m not sure the same is true for exhibitors such as Polycom, AvePoint, or Sherpa Software, whose products focus on one Microsoft server.
Julia goes on to promise that “this unified conference will be every bit as awesome, every bit as valuable and in fact, it will exceed on both these measures. That is our maniacal focus and commitment to you, so hold us to it!” While I am naturally skeptical of broad and unsupported promises such as this, the many, many people involved in the existing round of conferences— from Julia and her staff to the individual product group folks like Jamie Stark and Brian Shiers to the MVP and MCM speakers— all have a huge interest in making sure that the new event meets the high bar set by the existing conference. That helps temper my skepticism with a high degree of optimism. The announcement promises more details on the conference (perhaps including a name?) in September, and I’d expect to see more details at TechEd EMEA in October.
One last note for speculation: if you were Julia, and you were planning on introducing new versions of your flagship products, wouldn’t it be logical to do it with a big splash at a new event? May 2015 is, conveniently, in the first half of calendar year 2015, and at MEC 2014 Microsoft told us to expect a new on-prem version of Exchange in the second half of 2015.