The First Timer’s Guide to TechEd

After nearly 2 decades supporting Microsoft products (going back to Windows 3.11 for those of you keeping score at home) I attended my first TechEd this year at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. TechEd is part Expo and part social-function for the IT crowd, but mostly it’s the single biggest opportunity to binge on training that a Microsoft platform expert could ask for. TechEd is your chance to hear about a Microsoft product from the godfather of that product. You can see how this might be useful.  The next time a customer wants to argue your solution to his technical problem wouldn’t it be nice to answer with “well sir, beyond my answer to your question making total logical sense, may I suggest we follow this course of action because Ned Pyle said it is the best way to perform initial sync of the replication group. We should probably take him at his word on this particular DFSR matter given that he’s, you know, Microsoft’s DFSR product manager….” Then just sit back and listen to the crickets at the other end of the phone.   Okay, hopefully most of us have more tact than that.  The point is that TechEd is an opportunity to get information at the source: Microsoft.

Going into it I didn’t know what to expect and by the looks of it there were plenty of others in the same boat. In response, this is my effort to inform, inspire, and possibly protect the uninitiated so you don’t appear as poor and helpless as those of us that have gone before you. Here is a breakdown – admittedly one refracted through the lens of one solitary convention-goer – of what TechEd has to offer, what it’s like, and some tips to help you enjoy your first TechEd to its fullest :

  • Put the Channel9 app on your phone. As with all Microsoft products, I’m sure in the future this will be called something else. Whatever mobile app Microsoft creates that lets you make a schedule of the sessions you want to attend, the conference room for said session, presenter, and so on, you want it. That is unless you want to be the IT version of a lost motorist looking at a full-size map on the hood of their car. Yeah, me neither.
  • The dress code is that there is no dress code. Unless you are presenting, there is little need to impress. Actually, even if you’re presenting no one cares what you wear. The one caveat being that if all convention centers have a similar cooling plan to that of the George R. Brown, I highly recommend bringing a jacket. I wore a North Face pullover the entire time inside while it was 80+ degrees outside.  The doctors said feeling should return in my fingers by roughly next week.
  • Bring your tablet. When doing the sideways shuffle down a row (think “movie theater seating”) there is no way to get by the guy who has already unfolded his laptop unless you’re a contortionist. Ditch the laptop & bring your tablet. It’s easier to deal with, weighs less in your backpack, and any session notes are typically sparse.  You can download the slides later if you want the full Monte. This reminds me….
  • Sit in the middle of the row when you enter a session. For some reason the end seats are always taken first. Getting through to the inside represents the same moral dilemma summed up when Brad Pitt’s character in Fight Club meets Ed Norton’s character on an airplane. Move to the middle next time, Mr. Endseat; you are not the sideline and I am not Randy Moss trying to stay in-bounds.
  • Don’t bring a backpack. You are issued a backpack upon check-in and it is awesome. You will live in this thing for the next 4 days. Bring nothing to check-in but your tablet, photo id, registration sheet, and a smile.
  • Breakfast & lunch (& snacks & coffee & juice &….) are included. Dinner can be on the house too if you’re a small eater or play your cards right. Between sessions there is always an assortment of free snacks, coffee, drinks, candy, and it gets even better in the TechEd alumni lounge. The food bill at the conference can be pretty minimal so use that to relieve the boss’s initial sticker shock from the up-front costs.
  • Skype the family. For those with family back home there are Skype stations en masse. Remember that Microsoft bought Skype, if presumably for no other reason than to provide this service to TechEd attendees. Everyone is in the same boat so Skype the kids with complete disregard for the guy next to you, who is likely doing the same thing.
  • The parties. There is one every night. Some are well-publicized and others less well-known. Some are given/sponsored by a vendor and others by Microsoft itself. The parties are a good place to network, blow off steam, take in some free food and drink, and sing Journey at the top of your lungs at the piano bar just as a random example.
  • Get a hotel next to the convention center. Don’t get me wrong; the shuttle service at the convention is top-notch. However for the sake of mid-day naps from staying up too late the night before, or trying to grab dinner with coworkers after the Expo cocktail hour, the shuttle thing doesn’t work nearly as well as simply being able to walk.  This means registering for the conference early to get your pick of hotels, so it’s best to start making these decisions now.
  • The 8:30 session is a bladder buster. We IT nerds are birds of a feather. We wake. We get dressed. We check our handheld devices. We drink coffee before, during, & after breakfast. At 9:45 this means a line to the bathroom that makes waiting for a ride at Disney look convenient. Do yourself a favor and find the convention-hall-bathroom less travelled. It’ll save you the embarrassment of doing the pee-pee dance as a fully grown man.
  • You don’t have to stay for the session. Did you just walk into a session you thought was Office 365 federation architecture and come to find out it’s how to deploy Office to the desktop? You can leave. When you create your schedule it’s helpful to have a backup session in case this happens. However if none seen….
  • You can do Hands-on labs at any time. There are instructor-led labs available and I’ll bet they are great. As an efficiency junkie I preferred knocking out 3 labs in the Hands-on area during the time it took for 1 instructor-led lab. These can fill any “dead time” between a meal and the next sessions or two sessions you’d like to attend that are about an hour apart.
  • Consider attending a Pre-Conference session. Yes it is 9-5. Yes it is an additional cost. Yes it is on a Sunday. It’s also typically a chance to learn a subject face to face from one of the leaders in the field . After attending a pre-conference class on identity in the cloud by John Craddock, the rest of the week seemed like a high-level overview in comparison.

Ultimately TechEd is a great opportunity to learn as much as you can from the experts in one week without the distractions of being at work. It’s what you make of it and hopefully this will encourage some who read this to take the plunge as I did, and make the most of it.

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