Last week, I had the privilege of presenting at the first Office 365 Engage conference. Billed as a practical, no-marketing-content conference, and chaired by Tony Redmond, the conference offered a pretty impressive lineup of speakers from across the Office 365 world, mostly from Europe. One big drawback to the way that Microsoft and Penton have organized their respective conferences is that it’s often difficult to get European experts and MVPs here to speak, so I was looking forward to seeing some fresh material presented by people I don’t usually get to hear from, and I was not disappointed.
I arrived midday Tuesday after changing planes in Reykjavik (more on that later). A quick train ride got me to the Haarlem Centraal station, after which I grabbed an Uber to the hotel. The conference was booked into the Philharmonie Haarlem, and I must say it was the nicest conference venue I’ve ever been in– a far cry from the typical US conference facilities located in echoing, soulless conference centers or noisy, smoky Vegas hotels. The location was excellent as well– Haarlem is a beautiful city and quite walkable. The conference hotel was a mere 3-minute walk from the Philharmonie and the area contained a wealth of restaurants and shops.
After I got registered, I wandered around talking to attendees and speakers. My first session (on monitoring Office 365, big surprise!) wasn’t until Wednesday morning so I got to drop in on a couple of sessions, which was nice. Unfortunately, I spent most of my time Tuesday either working on my slides and demos or on the phone with folks back in the USA– that’s the big downside to being in Europe. Tuesday night I met a group of MVPs for dinner, at a Mexican restaurant, of all places.
Wednesday I had my monitoring session in the morning, along with more work on my third session’s slides. I got some good attendee questions that I’ll use to make the presentation better for the next time– as Microsoft is always changing the monitoring and reporting functionality in Office 365, this is definitely an evolving area. In the afternoon, I was able to go to Tiago Costa’s session on Office Graph development, which I found quite valuable. Wednesday night the organizers had set up a canal cruise for the speakers, which was a lovely treat– Haarlem looks even better from the water.
Thursday was a big day. I had two sessions: one on Skype Meeting Broadcast and one on Windows Information Protection. Fellow MVP Brian Reid was kind enough to help salvage my demo; I filed a support ticket with Microsoft about an hour before my session because my tenant didn’t work, but his did. We even got to demonstrate the real-time automated closed captioning feature that Skype Meeting Broadcast now includes, which resulted in quite a few laughs from the audience. It works surprisingly well, better with Brian’s English accent than my own American one. Then it was back to the speaker lounge for still more work on my information protection slides, which I delivered to a curious audience without a hitch. (I had a great side conversation with a lady who works for, shall we say, an allied power and had a lot of interesting questions about ways to use the Information Protection features in what might euphemistically be called a nuclear bunker.) The afternoon sessions were accompanied by a loud, heavy thunderstorm that wouldn’t be out of place in Alabama– I think some of the locals were a little surprised by its ferocity. The rain had cleared and left the air cool and clear afterwards, perfect for the closing session, after which I jumped in a taxi to get to Schiphol for my flight on to Reykjavik.
A quick note on logistics: the venue’s Internet connection worked well for nearly everyone, seating was comfortable and plentiful, and the snacks, coffee, and lunches were good. Overall the logistics were far better than average, especially for a freshman offering. I believe that reflects the experience of the event team, all of whom have put on many such similar events in the past.
Overall, this was a solid first-year conference. With only a couple hundred attendees, it preserves the small-group feel that was formerly so attractive about first MEC and then Connections, but with a great deal of attention paid to ensuring that the content was relevant, unique, and practical. I’m looking forward to next year’s version!