Recapping Microsoft Ignite 2015 Conference, Chicago, IL

I had a wonderful chance to experience first ever Microsoft Ignite, which was termed as ONE Microsoft conference for IT Pros and Office Pros. Ever since news of Microsoft Ignite came out, industry wasn’t sure what to expect from this conference. Since Ignite is replacement of formerly product specific conferences like SharePoint Conference, Exchange Conference, and TechEd, it was labelled as arguably biggest conference Microsoft would offer.

MSignite 2nd logo MSignite 3rd logo

Key Note and Conference Theme

Microsoft Ignite started with bang as Satya Nadella opened the conference with some of the key messages of how Microsoft itself is transforming and motivated to change industry along with them. His keynote was mainly focused on three major categories with sub plots demoed by corporate VPs – Personal computing, reinvent productivity, and intelligent cloud. In my opinion, keynote was successful to connect dots of how Microsoft will meet future workforce & business needs by the time it’s ended.

IT at Intersection

Some of the major innovations and taking points during keynote was:

  • Personal computing – Windows 10 and start menu, Cortana integration in Windows, Continuum for Phone for PC experience, next-gen Microsoft Edge browser, Windows Hello biometric sensors for secure login, and selective file-based encryption feature
  • Reinvent productivity and business processes with modern workplace – Real-time video and audio conferencing with Skype for business, intelligent experiences like Office 365 Graph and organizational Delve analytics, and real-time word 2016 client co-authoring
  • Build the secure intelligent cloud – Windows Azure innovations and Windows 10 Business Update

One more key take away for me was to hear Satya’s perspective of what Microsoft thinks about their conferences landscape – Convergence is for business, Build is for developers, and Ignite is for IT Pros.

Sessions – Focus on Modern Workplace

When I was looking at the Ignite session builder, it was clear enough for me that where I wanted to focus being Office 365 and SharePoint professional. From pre-day SharePoint hybrid training to conference days – my preference was attending sessions around SharePoint 2016 and Office 365. Although I would have preferred to have many community based level 300-400 sessions, Microsoft’s level 100-200 product announcements didn’t disappointed and provided loads of information.

Some of my key takeaways here are:

  • SharePoint 2016 – Bill Baer’s Wednesday morning session in McCormick Place’s biggest room – Aire Theatre’s was jam packed with both attendees and session content. Bill unveiled upcoming vNext SharePoint architectural innovations like zero-downtime patching, new min-role topology, and higher SharePoint product boundaries. This was definitely one of the most important sessions I had attended at this conference as far as SharePoint roadmap, which would require me to watch again and again to digest everything.
  • SharePoint Hybrid – With hybrid being first class citizen in vNext (and upcoming SharePoint 2013 update), new cloud search application and cloud based Unified index, hybrid user profiles, and hybrid extranets, Microsoft has strengthened their vision to make both SharePoint cloud and on-premises environment transparent. This would be definitely key to success for SharePoint deployments in coming years.
  • Office 365 Groups – Last year at SPC14, I was sold on Codename Oslo (Delve) with its personalized insights feature, this year I was sold on Office 365 Groups as either future replacement for SharePoint team sites or parallel feature to bring all Office 365 productivity tools together. Microsoft has some of the biggest challenges to bring all productivity tools like SharePoint, Exchange, Yammer, and Skype for business together and sounds like Office 365 Groups would provide that solution.
  • Office 365 Delve – Within year of unveiling Delve and Office Graph last year at SPC14, it’s quickly becoming Office 365’s intelligent fabric and unifying all products together with amazing predefined people experiences where content and people able to help finding each other to improve employee productivity. This is definitely becoming core features of the Office 365. It’s kind of funny but there was hardly an Office 365 session where Delve wasn’t demoed and after a time – I was so frustrated that I didn’t wanted to see another Office 365 Delve’s upcoming feature called “Boards”.
  • Office 365 Next-Gen Portals – This is one of those features I haven’t been sold yet. I do understand the needs of pre-built portals but Microsoft should focus on APIs, platforms, and extensibility instead of building predefined portals. Video portal is still huge question mark (I should confess here that I love media services architecture behind it). New knowledge portal seems like half-baked at this moment (similar as InfoPath story told at SPC14). I would be curious to see where Microsoft takes Next-Gen portal architecture and what kind of platform extensibility it would provide.
  • Office 365 Unified APIs – Yina’s session on Office 365 Unified APIs was one of my favorite sessions along with Bill Baer’s SharePoint 2016 session. Importance of having Unified APIs for developer was fully demonstrated on Yina’s session and it was great to see Microsoft investing where it really matters for Office 365 developers. With all these hundreds of Office 365 standalone products, Office 365 Unified APIs, Office 365 Group APIs, and Office Graph APIs would soon become developer’s best friend to build unified business solutions.
  • Yammer – This is no longer buzz word anymore. Yammer along with SharePoint was hardly mentioned in the Keynote. Both of Yammer’s co-founders David Sacks and Adam Pisoni are no longer at the Microsoft. Yammer has been quickly becoming underlying social computing thread spanning across various Office 365 technologies and moving into direction of previously acquired companies like FAST, ProClarity, and Vermeer Technologies. There wasn’t any key innovations worth highlighting in conference keynote and whatever Yammer sessions available, it was offered around best practices by the communities and product managers.

As an Office 365 professional, my key takeaway was Office 365 Delve, Office 365 Groups, and Office 365 Unified APIs as some of the biggest innovations happened since SharePoint in Microsoft office division for employee productivity solutions and sounds like they have just started with their innovations.

Networking

Many of us would agree that best part about these conferences are not sessions (they are recorded and you can watch afterwards) but it’s more of networking, talking to vendors in expo halls, and getting insight from Microsoft product managers.

Slalom team

Without doubt, Ignite provided great platform for anyone who wanted to interact with partner and product community in addition to Microsoft product mangers. I had my fair share of interaction to meet with some of my fairly common tweeps who I haven’t met earlier. I might be bias but it felt like SharePoint and Office 365 community had biggest presence at this conference which proves need for standalone Office 365 conference in future.

Conference Logistics

Any conference with more 20,000 attendees have their work cut out from get go. It was interesting to see Microsoft finalizing Chicago’s McCormick Place as Ignite host. This place is massive with 4 large halls connecting all of them with grand concourse. As you walk into McCormick place and looking at large ignite signs, one can wonder the sheer size of event location.

Spark the future Mccormic place

MSignite stairs

But, in my humble opinion, large building size wouldn’t be only criteria for conference location. Some of the most common needs of big conferences like this would be wifi, timely food services, snacks/coffee/refreshments, transportation, unwinding options, and after-hour activities. Although coffee and refreshments were constantly provided, food lines and quality of food was probably one of the worst of all the Microsoft conferences I have attended. To make it worse, there were hardly any other options either within conference center or nearby as alternatives.

While Chicago is great location for the after-hour activities and sightseeing, location of McCormick place didn’t make it easy for anyone. Ever since McCormick place was announced as conference location probably due to its sheer size, I was skeptical about this location being Chicagoan. There is no easy way to get there, it’s far enough that you can’t walk from downtown, and there isn’t large presence of restaurants or hotels nearby. In my book, it’s nightmare for attendees unless you are driving. Apart from food, transportation was arguably second biggest complaint I have heard from attendees at this conference. Even though shuttle services were running from various hotel locations from the downtown, it wasn’t useful in most cases if you want to unwind during afternoon sessions due to their morning and evening schedules. Cab lines were ridiculously long and CTA lines were far enough for people to walk to unwind or recharge at whim and attend sessions again.

In short, I never liked the idea of McCormick place for Microsoft Ignite event for various reasons mentioned above.

Parting Notes

Me at Ignite

My take on this event is – many of us who attended Microsoft Ignite conference this year may not come back again. Microsoft has tried their best to share as many as new innovations they can but they were still 100 and 200 level for many senior IT professionals. This conference was all about high level announcements and less about deep dive and best practices. For seasoned IT professionals, it wasn’t worth much. Perhaps Microsoft rather split Microsoft Ignite into two – TechEd (which would cover .NET framework, Azure, SQL, and Windows) and Office (which would cover Office 365, SharePoint, Yammer, Skype for Business, and Exchange). This may allow Microsoft to bring best of both worlds – announcements and deep dive/best practices/MVP community based sessions.

Having said that, I wasn’t loud enough during the event and Ignite will be back again in Chicago next year – same time and same place. Hopefully lessons would be learned and event would be better but trust has been broken.

MSignite next year

As a final parting note, regardless of pros and cons of large conferences like this, one of the best outcomes came out from this conference was approx. more than 600 recorded sessions (30 per time slot) available for public consumption on Channel 9 covering virtually latest and greatest of every single Microsoft IT Pro and Office technologies. That’s a gift from Microsoft and it’s up for grab!!!

Additional Ignite Takeaways

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