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That Conference Year 2: What worked and didn’t work for me

Returned last night from my second year at That Conference. I enjoyed myself a lot more this year than last year. I wasn’t sure if it was me or the conference last year, so I wanted to give it one more year, and I’m glad I did. Here are my biased thoughts on what I like and don’t like about the event.

What I like

Overall I like the venue. The Kalahari Resort is huge and sprawling and was kind of over-whelming the first year, but it was easier this year. That may also be because I had a better room location. The hotel staff does a good job – they are friendly and personable. They responded quickly to technical issues. And overall the food is pretty good.

That Conference itself is organized by a dedicated team that does a fabulous job of making the event successful. They handled logistics really well. They adapted when they needed to. Nice, friendly, helpful people all the way around.

In addition to regular sessions, the conference also includes “open spaces”. I appreciated the space this year – it meant there was a great area to just have conversations with people and let people know you were available for a conversation non a particular topic. I’m glad they intend to continue doing this in the future. I’ll note that last year I was annoyed at how frequently the staff reminded us about using the open space. Being constantly told to get out there and talk to people was a big turn off for me. I’m not sure if I just missed them doing that this year, but it wasn’t an issue for me this go around.

The conference created phone applications for Android, Apple and Windows Phone to help navigate users navigate the venue and keep track of their schedule. The app wouldn’t install for me last year on my old Windows phone, but this year worked great for me and was very helpful. What I wish they would include in the app AND on the website is a more traditional view of the schedule. Here’s what I mean: A grid with time slots down the first left column, and all subsequent columns a different room with the title of the session in it (linking to the detailed info). I would love at  chance to be able to see a list of session titles at a particular time.

What I don’t like

To be honest, the speaker presentation quality is fairly uneven. There are many speakers who are experienced, thoughtful speakers who provide deliver their content at a very high level. There are also speakers whose speaking skills were at a much lower level. (And then there were those of us who are in the middle. I count myself in that group.)

As I understand it, That Conference uses an approach for session selection that removes the speaker name during the decision process. That means the selection is based solely on the content and quality of the abstract. I understand why they are doing this, but to be honest, I think it hurts the event overall. Good speakers can make even a topic I don’t care about interesting. If I have a choice of 2 sessions, one with a phenomenal speaker on a topic I don’t care about, or a bad speaker on a topic I do, I will often pick the better speaker. I’m happier with the experience and I gain more from it

I’m not saying that should be the only criteria, but it shouldn’t be eliminated completely from the selection process. Giving a chance to some newer presenters is okay, but those people also have other more appropriate venues for trying out their talks, like code camps and user groups. That Conference is a great value for the price, but it is a for-pay conference, and if I’m paying for something I expect a higher quality.

Also: some form of speaker evaluation would be useful for the conference over time. They could use that to help them craft a better overall conference.

Ambivalent

That Conference is promoted as a family-friendly conference. It is held at a hotel resort with a water park. They encourage you to bring your family, and they have some kid friendly sessions, too. If you have little kids – this is great. it certainly changes the feel of the conference.

From my perspective, it is a wash. My kids are grown up. I’m not interested in the water park. I’m glad it makes it easier for families (if that’s what they want), so long as there aren’t a bunch of screaming, misbehaving kids giving me a headache. So far, that hasn’t been an issue, but I can imagine that it could become one.

Perhaps the one way this family-friendly approach works well for me is that it seems to take some of the pressure off attending all the late night stuff. I don’t typically enjoy the after hours events. I don’t drink. I’m not a gamer. I find large crowds exhausting. Because so many families are there and people are doing other things, no one really questions why you skipped a particular event.

Conclusion

That Conference is a great developer event, and one I expect I will continue to attend. If you are looking for a way to combine your technical development with family time, this could be the right event for you.

Posted by Avonelle on Thursday, August 15, 2013.

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