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The Rise Of The Small Independent Conference

24 August 2015
Justin Warren

VMworld, arguably the main attraction of the yearly conference season in enterprise technology, starts in just under a week in San Francisco. Attending the yearly event has become something of pilgrimage for enterprise technology people keen to meet up with like-minded folk.
An emerging trend, in contrast to these vendor controlled mega-conferences, is a handful of small, focused events run by industry insiders. These events are trying to provide an independent space for technologists to meet and learn from each other about what’s really going on in the industry, instead of the more controlled message provided at a vendor run event. They follow a model used successfully by developers, particularly in Open Source, and hint at what I believe could be the start of new era of how enterprise technology is done.

The Rise of the Vendor Conference

The popularity of VMworld as a meeting place for the world’s IT geeks reflects, in part, the virtualisation trend of the past decade. As VMware partner in some capacity.
The hypervisor joined all these other technologies together, from server and storage to networking and software. In parallel, VMworld has grown to become the central meeting place for the people from these disparate niches.

Simultaneously, independent conferences have been on the wane, as the move of advertising dollars online disrupted the funding of the media companies behind the big independent conferences. The US-based COMDEX was discontinued in 2004, essentially replaced by the Consumer Electronics Show, evidence of the shift to a focus on consumer and mobile computing for large conferences. I

They’ve been replaced by vendor conferences, organised by one vendor and centred around that specific vendor’s products and partner ecosystem. The list of technology vendor conferences is long: Oracle) to name just a few.
Newer startup companies are getting in on the act, setting up their own conferences, such as Nutanix’s NEXT and Veeam’s VeaamON. It’s almost a rite of passage; having your own conference is a way of saying “we’ve arrived, take us seriously.”

Independent Events

Against this backdrop are a few well-connected industry insiders who are trying a very different approach to Tech Field Day (http://techfieldday.com/) series of events, started by Stephen Foskett in 2009. Each event brings together a group of deliberately named delegates to hear about enterprise technology from a set of vendors who collectively sponsor the event. With an extremely technical focus, analyst opinions and sales pitches are frowned upon (sometimes aggressively) in favour of company CTOs diving deep into the technology behind their products. Vendor employees are disqualified from participating as delegates to enforce independence, and they are selected from the somewhat nebulously defined influencers of the enterprise IT industry.

In a similar vein is the TechUnplugged (http://techunplugged.io/) concept put together by Enrico Signoretti. Based in Tech Field Day: a one day event bringing independent bloggers, sponsoring vendors, and technology users together to talk about technology in a vendor neutral way. Signoretti makes clear that 70% of content comes from independent sources, rather than vendor marketing teams.

I spoke with John Mark Troyer, who recently left VMware to start TechReckoning, another attempt to create a vendor neutral community. His first event, titled The Reckoning 2015 (http://thereckoning.techreckoning.com/) will be held in Half Moon Bay, California in September.

“The big conferences are all vendor driven,” he says. “It’s hard if you want to have a conversation that crosses [vendor] boundaries.”

He believes the newer, smaller conferences have more in common with developer conferences than enterprise technology conferences. “The rise of open source has a lot to do with it,” Troyer believes. “Small meetups are very common in the web developer and independent developer space. They’re about new technologies, new frameworks.”

“In general, they’re driven from the bottom up,” he says. “You can’t but a slot, but you can sponsor the whole thing. There’s money for them, particularly in Silicon Valley. Plus it’s easier than ever to put on a conference,” thanks to online tools like meetup.com.

“My conference is not about lead generation,” he says. “I want to capture a group of people who are interested in their careers and doing IT better. It’s about networking and the shared experience.” Troyer has plenty of credibility when it comes to building a community of VMware products, but regarded as having a particularly collegiate atmosphere.

Troyer was originally inspired by the EMC Elect programmes.

But in an era on online collaboration through platforms like Slack and github, and where recorded talks can be watched online, is there still value in flying across the country, or the world, to be physically present at a conference?

“You can watch the talks all day long, but being there in person gives you a better ‘sniff test’ of what’s real, and what’s vapour,” he says. “You’re not getting the information you need from media outlets. You’re more likely to get the truth from people at a conference. Part of it may be that things are moving so quickly. Going to the conference gives you a much better feel.”

Disclosure: I am regularly invited to cover vendor conferences as a guest of the vendor, and have been to several Tech Field Day events as a guest of GestaltIT. GestaltIT are supplying me with accommodation at VMworld 2015, but my organisation (PivotNine) is paying for conference tickets and flights. I have been awarded vExpert status in 2014 and 2015. I am not planning to attend TheReckoning 2015 and wrote about it because I think it’s interesting, and hope that you do too.

This article first appeared in Forbes.com here.