Microsoft has a history of running very successful technology conferences. Personally I have attended TechEd and MEC (Microsoft Exchange Conference) multiple times over the years. The last two MEC conferences were simply outstanding events to attend. I truly held Microsoft's ability to execute a conference in high regard, and I had high hopes for Ignite.
Unfortunately, Ignite failed to live up to the Microsoft conference legacy.
When compared to previous Microsoft conferences, Ignite failed on many fronts. Let's take a look at a few of the areas that need significant improvement:
Several years back, Microsoft cut the hot lunches from a conference and attendees responded with major complaints. Hot lunches were back the very next year. I always assumed that Microsoft learned a valuable lesson on meals. Apparently that was not the case as this year's food was truly abysmal.
How bad was it you ask? Here's a screenshot of a poll that was running on the Yammer group for Ignite:
At the time I saw the survey, the only choices with votes were in the bottom two positions. While I chose "NOT GOOD AT ALL", I certainly understand the position of those that refused to eat the food - I threw out my entire boxed lunch on day 1. It was absolutely disgusting. It was also environmentally disgraceful as well, but I'll cover that in more detail in the next section.
I hope Microsoft is monitoring their own Yammer network for Ignite as it contains plenty of helpful information. My favorite food related entry on the Yammer group was the use of the hashtag #MSIgniteMyIntestines. Also on Yammer, someone started a post saying lets not be 100% negative, there must be something good at Ignite. The fact that such a topic had to be added (by Microsoft staff perhaps?) shows how bad the feedback truly was. But the item that is my second favorite: One of the responses to that post was "The pizza place in the Hyatt hotel is pretty good". No one complimented the food provided by Microsoft.
Overall Grade: F
I am not perfect when it comes to the environment. But I do try very hard. My home is powered by 100% wind energy which comes at a 23% premium over the cheapest electricity supplier. I recycle anything I can, and I avoid buying products such as styrofoam plates. When I was on campus in Redmond for my Masters rotation, I was very impressed with how heavily Microsoft promotes and supports recycling.
I am absolutely disgusted with the lack of effort by Microsoft at Ignite. Two massive failures were allowed to happen at Ignite.
- The first lunch came in a polypropylene plastic container. 23,000 large plastic containers were added to a landfill on that day. What's wrong with brown paper bags? We would have thrown the lunch out all the same in a brown paper bag.
- No recycling containers were placed out on the lunchrooms or on the expo floor. Yet all of the beverages came in plastic bottles or aluminum cans. Aluminum is highly recyclable, yet it went to the landfill anyway.
Overall Grade: F
(I'd like to give a grade lower than F.)
This topic ties closely with the two topics listed above. At the closing party food was only available by standing in a 20-30 minute long line, and all you got in return was ONE 2" x 2" snack-sized bite. If you asked for 2 bites, they said NO.
There were very long lines for the mens room as well. But there was no line to get alcohol. And while on that topic, the event ran out of beer other than light beer by about 8PM. By the time Fall Out Boy came on stage all beer was gone.
That's ok you say, switching to water is fine and probably a good balance. Sorry, you couldn't get bottles of water - they were not offered at all.
UPDATE 05/01/2015: I have received feedback that bottled water could be found around 8:50PM. The beverage stand I last checked was around 8:30-8:40PM. I did not check later than that time, plus it was a big event. Thank you for those that let me know you found water.
Overall Grade: F
The transportation service was OK. But you were guaranteed long wait times and bus drivers that didn't know Chicago. For example, my route passed my hotel without stopping and then did a loop to get back to the hotel 11 minutes later. On the last day of Ignite a driver challenged the transportation company rep sitting in the front and said I can save between 10-15 minutes if I go in this order. The bus drivers also let us know that they were flown in from out of town to do the driving, hence the lack of familiarity with the best routes.
My biggest issue with the bus service was the scheduling. Buses stopped running during the middle of the day. You were locked in this building with terrible food, and you couldn't leave without incurring the cost of a taxi.
It was also very important to run after your last session for the bus lines. For example, sessions ended at 6:15, and the buses stopped at 6:45. While waiting in a very long line I was talking with a person who said "they won't leave us here if people are waiting." So this gentleman asked the bus company representative and the response was "the buses stop at 6:45, regardless of who is in line."
This was not a walkable convention center. The bus service was mandatory and could have been done a lot better.
UPDATE 05/10/2015: I have heard from a few people now that the bus service seemed to be very good on some routes, with other routes being troublesome.
Overall Grade: C
This topic is a bit of a mixed bag, if you will. Some of the sessions were very strong, but other sessions were not strong at all, and were delivered by people that clearly were not the best qualified.
I blame the variance in technical sessions on Microsoft's selection policy for Ignite. In past conferences, Microsoft had individuals submit session ideas for review. Speakers got to choose the topics that he or she wanted to cover.
For Microsoft Ignite, speakers submitted detail on their skill, and they were assigned topics to cover. Individuals were being assigned topics that Microsoft wanted covered, not topics on which the speaker was passionate. In some cases, speakers were assigned topics that aligned directly. But in many other cases, speakers covered what they were told to cover.
It's also worth noting that the layout of sessions and the size of session rooms were wrong in many cases. Some sessions had three times the attendees that a room would fit, while other sessions were 75% empty. In my opinion, Microsoft is not as closely tuned in on what people want to hear as they would like to believe.
Technical Sessions when the speaker aligned with his or her skill: A
Technical Sessions that Microsoft assigned to the wrong person: D
Sadly, I could keep writing pages on what I did not like. Every person I talked to during the conference or while I was delayed at O'Hare for 8 hours shared the same sentiments I have here.
The only reason I would come back to Ignite is spend time with fellow MCMs and MVPs. But that has nothing to do with the conference itself. If a smaller conference attracted the people I want to see, my dollars will go to the new conference, not Microsoft Ignite.
Microsoft, if you are reading this I hope the message is clear: significant improvements are needed if you want people to keep coming to Ignite.
UPDATE 05/10/2015 - I have received a wave of feedback in the last few hours since publishing this post. I want to make a few items clear.
First off, I am comparing MY experience at Microsoft Ignite combined with feedback from people I talked with along the way. If you felt this met the same bar as TechEd, MMS, MEC, please let me know. If this was your first Microsoft conference, then I have good news for you - they can be much better.
Second, yes, I am personally very disappointed by Microsoft's performance because I have seen so much better. But that doesn't mean I wish a poor experience on everyone. For those of you that had a good Ignite, I am very happy for you. With the financial and time investment, everyone should have a positive experience.
Unfortunately the people telling me I am wrong is far too LOW. I'd love to hear that 75% of attendees thought this was fantastic. In the last hour, I have about 10 responses on Twitter telling me that my review is largely their convention experience, and 2 that disagree and say this was a good conference.
17% supporting the execution of Ignite, but 83% saying they agree it needs significant improvement isn't a great ratio. Let's hope more people tell me I am wrong