Andrew Watt

Andrew Watt talks about a topic near and dear to my talk: are conferences really the best way to teach? Well, actually, he asked a stronger question than that: “Is PDC an anachronism?”

I've been in the conference business for about a decade now, my wife's been doing it for almost as long. It's a question I ask myself every day.

One thing up front: you haven't yet seen how PDC itself will push technology. I've been asked to keep “radio silence” on that front for a while longer. But, make no bones about it, the PDC is pushing the envelope.

One mistake Andrew makes is to assume that the PDC is the end of a process. No, quite the opposite: it's the beginning of a process. If PDC is a success, it'll be because it helped prepare its audience for what comes next. If it really is a success, we'll have thousands of PDC bloggers and/or newsgroup participants, all sharing information about what they are learning, and all exploring the depths of the new APIs and tools we're going to expose for the first time.

But, Andrew also misses some real innovations in the conference. For one, in every planning meeting that I was a part of, we asked ourselves “how can we put the audience on stage?”

See, there's nothing more boring than just sitting in a big room and listening to a speaker talk without being able to talk back. Imagine you were at a cocktail party and you weren't allowed to talk. Wouldn't that be a bore? Not to mention that you couldn't ask for more information on a topic that you didn't understand, or needed to learn more about.

The PDC is gonna be different. Here's how:

1) Everyone will have newsgroups specifically setup so they can talk back to us from their WiFi connected laptops and TabletPCs. Tons of Microsoft employees are gonna watch those and we're going to try to react to whatever we see there. I saw this used at a design preview in the spring and it really was awesome. I recommend using them anytime you have a question about our technologies.

2) PDCBlogs. Enough said. We'll be watching these for any feedback.

3) Something I'm not allowed to talk about yet. Coming this weekend.

4) Thursday's Panels. Nearly the entire day on Thursday is set aside for attendees to come and ask questions and get them answered from Microsoft's top technical experts. You can even ask questions virtually here.

5) Ask the experts. There are areas where you can drop by and ask your deepest, most technical, questions and get them answered by both Microsoft employees and experts from the communities.

6) Bird of a feather sessions. These were planned and implemented by community members only. No Microsoft involvement allowed (in fact, I was asked not to be involved with the weblogging BOF to ensure that the sessions would feature the attendees and not be yet another way for Microsoft to push around its communities). We really are taking the “put the attendee on stage” mantra very seriously.

7) Hands-on-labs. There will be a ton of hands-on-labs. I've seen the one on building an Avalon Screen Saver and these are a great way to learn interactively with the coaching of Microsoft's top technical experts.

8) Commnet. Onsite we'll have hundreds of computers. Tons of wireless access points. And lots of ways for you to publish your thoughts and ask questions live and interactively.

9) We leaked quite a bit of information ahead of time to try to prepare our attendees. So much so that even the press is starting to notice something different is up. Plus, it's pretty clear where things are going: managed code. If you haven't been studying .NET, you'll be a little bit behind the attendees who have been.

Finally, even in the “traditional” sessions we've done as much as humanly possible to raise the bar. All over campus for the past week there have been dozens of “PDC previews” where the speaker could practice his session in front of a very technical and very critical audience. Then there's speaker training. These are much more than I believe Microsoft has ever done to prepare speakers properly for a conference before. It should mean that the session quality is better and the information will come along better.

Anyway, yeah, this is a big event. But, for a big event, we really tried to push the boundaries on getting attendees involved. More to come this weekend.  [The Scobleizer Weblog]

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