Posey's Tips & Tricks

20 Years of IT Conferences: How Tech's Mega-Events Have Evolved

Today's IT conferences are no longer the three-ring circuses they were during the dot-com boom, but they're also not the fuddy-duddy events that became common right after the crash. Case in point: Microsoft Ignite 2018.

I am writing this from Microsoft's 2018 Ignite conference in Orlando, Fla. While I was walking around the expo hall, I ran into an old friend who reminded me of when we attended TechEd 1998 in New Orleans together.

In case you're not familiar with TechEd, it was the predecessor to Ignite. Even today, Ignite very much resembles TechEd. During the walk back to my room after dinner, I started thinking about TechEd 1998 and began to realize just how much Microsoft's flagship conference -- and all of the other big tech conferences -- have changed in the last 20 years.

If someone were to travel back in time to 1998, there are several aspects to the TechEd conference that would be immediately recognizable. Even back then, the conference was jam-packed with sessions (almost all of which relied heavily on PowerPoint), Microsoft put out lots of snacks between sessions just as it does today, and there was an epic attendee party on the last night of the conference.

The attendee party has always been a staple of TechEd and Ignite, although some years have seen more extravagant than others. In case you are wondering, TechEd 1998 was in the Superdome. Microsoft brought in lots of carnival rides, video games, Cajun food and midway attractions. The party also featured performances by Steve Winwood and Cheap Trick.

Of course, plenty has changed over the years. In 1998, Bill Gates delivered a keynote at the show and Windows 98 was the shiny new product of the moment.

If you put the tech aside, though, I think that by far the biggest difference between TechEd 1998 and Ignite 2018 is the expo hall. TechEd 1998 took place during the dot-com boom. Hence, many of the vendors in the expo hall were spending absurd amounts of money on their marketing efforts. Exotic sports car giveaways, celebrity appearances and swag that went far beyond T-shirts and water bottles were the norm for tech conferences back then.

I also seem to recall that political correctness wasn't really a thing at the time, and tech conferences (not necessarily TechEd) had a reputation for certain goings on that would be considered scandalous today. In the interest of decorum, I will leave all that to your imagination.

For a period of about three years, culminating in 2000, the major tech conferences were an absolute circus. If I am to be completely honest, most of the conferences that I attended at that time felt more like a week-long party than a bonafide educational or networking opportunity.

The dot-com crash brought all of that to a screeching halt. I recall attending the Comdex conference in Las Vegas shortly after the dot-com crash. For several years, Bill Gates had opened the Comdex conference with a Sunday-night keynote; it was a staple of the event. His keynotes up to that point had always been light, fun and, dare I say, entertaining. This time, though, things were different.

Before Gates took the stage, someone came out (I can't remember who it was) and laid down the law. He told the audience in no uncertain terms that the party was over. Going forward, the conference was to be all about business, and attendees were told that if they were looking for a good time, then they were in the wrong place. I remember thinking that the guy would probably be booed off of the stage, but ultimately his remarks set the tone for technical conferences for years to come.

Over the last few years, I have felt as though the tech community has finally struck a reasonable balance between fun and business in its conferences. IT conferences definitely aren't the three-ring circuses that they were in the dot-com heyday, but they aren't the stuffy, fuddy-duddy events that became so common after the dot-com crash, either.

My assessment of Ignite 2018 is that it seems to be a nice mix of education and networking, with just enough diversion thrown into the mix to keep the event from being boring. It's been a nice change from what we had five or six years ago.

At one time, I used to leave tech conferences feeling a bit guilty for wasting a week on an event that was only thinly disguised as being work-related, and actually more festive than productive. At the same time, something is seriously wrong with planners who intentionally engineer all of the fun out of an event. I think that Microsoft has done a good job putting together Ignite 2018, and I am looking forward to seeing what it has planned for next year's conference, which will once take place in Orlando in November.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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