The survivor's guide to the technology conference

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 28, 2013
It's been a busy couple of weeks, from BoxWorks to OpenWorld. Random jottings on the beast that is the tech industry conference.

The past couple of weeks of my life have been book-ended by a couple of tech industry conferences, beginning with Box's BoxWorks and rumbling through to the behemoth that is Oracle OpenWorld.

The two stand as an interesting comparison: one conference still in its infancy with great places to go, the other an established leader on the conference circuit and on the technology landscape.

It was my first BoxWorks and my first OpenWorld in a couple of years - although my Oracle conference going dates back further than I care to remember to the last century! So I was intrigued to see what I'd make of the former and how the latter would measure up against previous years - and indeed how both would measure up as events in their own right.

I was struck by Constellation Research's Ray Wang comments at the start of this year's OpenWorld when he noted:

"Let’s be frank. The past five years at Oracle Open World have disappointed even the faithful. The over emphasis on hardware marketing and revisionist history on cloud adoption bored audiences.

"The $1M paid advertorial keynotes had people walking out on the presenters 15 minutes into the speech. Larry Ellison’s insistence on re-educating the crowd on his points subsumed the announcements on Fusion apps. Even the cab drivers found the audience tired, the show even more tiring.

"Oracle went from hot innovative must attend event to has been while most industry watchers, analysts, and media identified shows such as Box’s BoxWorks,’s DreamForce, and Exact Target’s Connections as the innovation conferences in the enterprise."

Tech conferences can be funny beasts. My very first encounter with one goes back to 1990 in Atlanta for what was then the first jamboree held by D&B Software, the hybrid creature that emerged from the last ditch bid for survival against the client server industry by mainframe applications giants MSA and McCormack & Dodge.

Since then, I've come to know the insides of conference centers all around the US and Europe, with greater or more typically lesser degrees of affection, been overwhelmed by the sheer scale of many conferences and underwhelmed by the lack of ambition of others, and learned to approach them all with varying degrees of anticipation and downright dread.

What makes a conference work? More importantly what makes a long-running conference work and not slip into torpor as it becomes an 'establishment event' rather than a 'buzzing with energy' new kid on the block?

There are some obvious pre-requisites, such as a firm grip on logistical issue and internet connectivity that is going to stand up to thousands of people using it all at once.

But with OpenWorld and BoxWorks fresh in mind and Dreamforce looming on the horizon, a few random thoughts from this grizzled conference veteran on what works and what doesn't:

I expect you're wondering why I called you here today…

[caption id="attachment_2812" align="alignright" width="150"]Aaron-Levie_BoxWorks-2013-keynote-736x368-300x150 Aaron Levie[/caption]

What's your point in getting the faithful in one place at one time? To educate them? To evangelise to them? To paint them a vision of innovation and the future - or to flog them some more product?

I asked Marc Benioff over at what his vision - if there was one - for Dreamforce, an annual event that now seems as much a cultural, spiritual and philosophical gathering as it does a tech event.

His response began somewhat ruefully:

"Well, I don't get to participate in Dreamforce, so for me it's the same every time. I do my presentation and I get to meet some people and get a few meetings in.

"But I get quite jealous of our attendees. They get the keynote, they get two phenomenal guest keynotes and they can attend 1100 sessions. We have personal development keynotes.

"We can't help but make it fun. We want people to have a good time. But you know that's coming from them. It's not to do with us. It's each other. It's other people's energy. People are excited to be there."

A similar conversation with Box CEO Aaron Levie elicited the response:

"As with everything we do we try to do the conference with a different style. I don’t just want to do things the way they’ve been done. There’s nothing at this company that I don’t enjoy and the conference has to be the same.”

Both of these seem to me good philosophies to follow. As we know:

All work and no play makes the conference goer a dull boy (or girl)

It's important to strike the balance between the work element and the relaxation element. People have flown in from around the world so you want to put on a good show with plenty of downtime to balance the work.

Blink 182 rock the Box

In recent years the battle to make the downtime elements ever more dramatic and spectacular has become ever more intense to the extent that there's as much interest in who the guest band for the show party is going to be, resulting in this element of the conference becoming a selling point.

Oracle and this year boast the appearance of Maroon 5 and Greenday respectively. Over at BoxWorks, the enfant terrible started early down the rock band route with a roof-raising appearance by Blink 182 (complete with anti-Microsoft rhetoric from the stage!).

But the main point is, make it a fun experience that delegates will remember and want to come back to. Oh - and put the appreciation party near the end of the conference so that the hangovers don't eat into next day's keynotes.

At CA Worlds in New Orleans, keynotes would be timed for a 5pm kick off so that the stragglers from the previous night in Bourbon Street stood a chance of making it there!

But at the end of the day, delegates are here to work as well as party. With that in mind:

Content is king, queen and the whole darned royal court

On this front, Oracle OpenWorld is frankly terrifying - in a good way. The sheer volume of sessions is near overwhelming and it's impossible to believe that there isn't something there for everyone.

In fact, anyone who returns from San Francisco to their office this week and says they couldn't find anything of interest probably spent too much time in Macy's.

Given the scale of the event, BoxWorks had a more immediately manageable agenda this time around, but Dreamforce has the same issue as Oracle here.

It becomes vital to make it as easy as possible for the conference goer to access and navigate those sessions. Online and mobile agenda planners have become a critical part of such gatherings. Frankly you need those reminding you and telling you where you're supposed to be at any given moment as constantly staring at the printed agenda diagrams is likely only to result in a headache, blurred vision and several missed sessions.

But the one session you're not going to miss is…

The keynote, starring…

This is the money shot. This is the CEO standing up to address the faithful. This is the session that everyone's going to try to get into, which at the likes of OpenWorld and Dreamforce, can mean standing in line for an hour!

Working the crowd

(Moscone Center officials are the world's 'finest' at sticking to exact entry times, even if that means conference goers stacked several layers deep waiting to get into an empty keynote chamber!)

So it's important that (a) the CEO is going to live up to his or her top billing and (b) is actually going to show up!

The success of the first point depends on the CEO of course. Over at Box, Levie literally flings himself on stage, before bouncing into a stand-up comedy routine and then on to the business at hand. It's fast-moving, it's vibrant, it's energetic, it's all the things that we think about 'brand Box' being.

And it's short and to the point. It doesn't sprawl over several hours. My buttocks still twitch at the bum-numbing torture of ex-Apple CEO Gil Amelio's never-ending final keynote at the first Apple event after it was announced Steve Jobs was returning to the firm as advisor. Perhaps sensing his number was up, a rambling and clearly unrehearsed Amelio hogged the stage for hour after hour after hour, constantly aware that the only person anyone really wanted to see was waiting in the wings for a last minute cameo appearance!

At Dreamforce, Benioff walks among the faithful, stepping down from the stage - which is set in the round - to shake hands with people as he delivers the keynote, almost all of which is done from memory. He'll deliver the party line, but bring up guests to chat with him, both customers and partners. He'll use props and sight gags and stage marketing stunts that stop the show.

Think back to his pulling every type of mobile device out of his pockets to illustrate the ubiquity of mobile tech, climaxing with the unexpected removal of an iPad from the back of his pants! Or the occasion when Microsoft ran ads around Bernard the unhappy customer, only for Benioff to wheel out Bernard - a male model - on stage the next morning to welcome him back to the fold. Touché.

Such showmanship is part of a personal DNA of course. John Imlay, CEO at D&B Software all those years ago, had it in spades, coming on stage dressed as ringmaster to do lion-taming in front of his customers among other stunts. Others don't. I still mentally recoil from being exhorted as an audience member to 'Let's do the Time Warp again' as part of some ghastly and ill-judged Rocky Horror Show inspired stunt.

At that moment I wished I hadn't turned up. Or that the CEO hadn't. Which brings us to…

Or not starring…

Of course Benioff and Co are following in the footsteps of the master here. Larry Ellison's keynotes of old have been fiery, tempestuous beasts that have often been most closely followed by nervous Oracle product managers wondering what Larry will announce unexpectedly on stage and they'll have to explain a few minutes later to media,analysts and customers.

Larry on Day One

My favourite remains his quip at a European Oracle conference in Cannes many years ago when he unexpectedly slipped into the presentation that this latest version of the Oracle database would be the last relational one and that the next would be fully object-oriented. The pallid and drawn complexions of the product managers an hour later spoke volumes.

For those of us who've seen him on fire so often over the years, there has perhaps been a sense that recent times have seen Ellison on slightly too corporate form. We are of course the same people who perked up happily when he returned to form and laid into as "the roach motel" in that blistering attack from the OpenWorld stage a few years back.

But more corporate or not, he's the main draw for the Oracle faithful, the one they want to hear from. We don't know what he'd have been like this year of course as he chose to stay watching the America's Cup rather than turn up to do his closing keynote. This of course left 60,000 people in a less-than-favourable frame of mind and resulted in worldwide headlines as the only story of the day.

It's not the first time a CEO hasn't shown - SuccessFactors former CEO Lars Dalgaard famously didn't fly into Europe for one of that firm's customer conferences, a fact that the marketing team only found out about a few hours before he was due to arrive.

The disappointment on that occasion was limited to a few thousand people. Ellison's absence this week and the resulting bad vibe demonstrates amply the double-edged sword of having a charisma CEO.

But any CEO can't carry the whole show and needs some good supporting acts such as:

This week's special guest star

What is always interesting is the balance that gets struck between the host company's own content and that of third parties, particularly those flagged up as keynote partners or as guest speakers.

BoxWorks guest starring...

At OpenWorld, Ellison's keynotes are typically preceded by a keynote from one of the main Oracle partners. For example, in days of yore, before the great falling out, we'd have HP's Ann Livermore on stage helpfully telling us about all the things we could buy from HP.

This year we had Fujitsu filling the same role with the same sort of speech and sadly receiving- it has to be said - the same level of response from much of the audience based on Twitter feedback.

These guest slots are peculiar things. The speaker in question goes on stage in the full knowledge that they are a very expensive warm up act to the main man, but also conscious that these are the prime slots, the ones that everyone has lined up to get into because the top billed act is coming on next. The temptation to sell to the crowd must be huge.

But it always frustrates me that, when presented with that captive audience and that primetime slot, too many sponsors seem unable to see beyond the basic product pitch, a check list of all the stuff we could find on their websites anyway, and fail to seize the opportunity to position themselves as visionaries and thoughtleaders in the industry.

Of more interest in terms of content typically are those who are invited guests with no agenda other than perhaps to plug their latest book, should the opportunity arise (see Malcolm Gladwell and Gavin Newsom at this year's BoxWorks, for example). Such guests are there to talk about their specialist subjects, entertain/educate the audience and hopefully remember to namecheck the host company at some point.

So this year's BoxWorks scored highly with Gladwell and Newsome among others. Gladwell in particular held the audience captive with his oratory, as well he might given the number of times he must present to similar audiences, and then fielded unscripted questions from the crowd, always a plus point in my book.

Over at Dreamforce, such special guests have been a regular feature for years. Last year's Benioff chat with Virgin's Richard Branson was a great case in point where Branson's readiness to discuss matters as far removed from cloud computing as the legalisation of drugs made for a memorable session.

Sometimes the guest star influx can get downright surreal. The point a few years back when Benioff conversationally vamped on stage with Stevie Wonder in an unscripted, unplanned session while the pair of them awaited a late running and apologetic President Clinton sticks in my mind for perhaps obvious reasons.

But it's a big event and it needs big names because:

Size matters - or does it?

Oracle's tents

It's now part of the city's DNA, but it's worth remembering that the first time that Oracle got permission to close down Howard Street and build its own tent city, there was something of an uproar from the natives. Now it's just part of the calendar and Dreamforce has followed suit.

Both shows are now so large that they've outgrown even the three giant Moscone Centre buildings and have to host sessions in hotels in the vicinity.

I went to the first Dreamforce all those years ago when it could comfortably fit into the St Francis Hotel on Union Square. Now it sprawls across the whole of downtown San Francisco. From tiny acorns etc etc.

I was reminded of that at BoxWorks which this year could be comfortably accommodated in the Hilton. Not for much longer though I suspect.

Too big for a hotel, not yet big enough for the Moscone Center, where to go next is always an issue. For example, up until this year, NetSuite held its SuiteWorld user event in a hotel in San Francisco. This year its growing pains meant it needed to head south to San Jose and the convention center there.

Where BoxWorks tips up next year will be interesting to see, although Levie declared an interesting ambition:

"If you have 100,000 people at Dreamforce, it can be hard to maintain that type of tone. So I think we may continue to keep BoxWorks at a certain level. Instead of being the largest trade show, maybe we can host the largest conversation about technology.”


From BoxWorks to OpenWorld, two conferences, two extremes, both with their own excellence.

BoxWorks reminded me strongly of the early Dreamforce events with all the energy and drive that a young, agile company can deliver. It had compelling content, enthused delegates and a great after party.

OpenWorld is just the daddy of them all, an immensely impressive display of logistical prowess for which the Oracle events and marketing teams can take due credit. Just try to avoid clashes with big boat races in the future…

And on we march to Dreamforce…


Disclosure: at time of writing, Oracle and are premium partners of diginomica; Box is a partner of diginomica. 


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