Why I cancelled my teched talks

This was written the morning of my session at TechEd and has been sitting for a while. I wanted to give some time to see if Microsoft would have some kind of follow up.

A bit jetlagged now. Why? I flew from Bali into New Orleans to speak at TechEd, yeah that’s about two days of travel and 15 hours of jetlag. It was awesome waking up at midnight my first night here (at least in New Orleans you know you can get a good breakfast at 0200).

This morning I managed to get out of bed to go do my talk at TechEd. Upon arrival at the venue we went to registration for speakers. I got my badge. I asked how we should handle my wife coming with me for the hour duration of my talk (she wanted to take pictures). I was told they can’t handle it and we need to go to the speakers’ room at 238.

As such we walked to room 238. Security however told my wife she can’t go to room 238 and escorted her from the building (even though we explained registration told us to go there). Thinking its a small misunderstanding (security is almost always contracted through the venue not the conference) I went to room 238 to try to figure things out. After explaining the situation going on to three staff members I was given the “opportunity” to buy a ticket (full conference on the last day) for her. They then handed me a shirt and said “you need to head over to your talk”. Are you kidding me? I immediately gave them the choice. Either they fix the problem or my talks (including european teched will be cancelled). They replied there is nothing they can do and I need to get moving to my talk, as such I cancelled my talks. What man would just leave his wife in a foreign country stranded outside a conference hall for almost two hours without even letting her know what was going on.

I apologize to anyone that really looked forward to attending my talk. Drop me a line offline and I can at the least send you over my slides.

This is not how you treat people. There were a huge number of ways this situation could have been diffused. How hard would it be to even just say “hey, you have to get to your talk, I will walk outside to find your wife, explain to her what’s going on and bring her to starbucks”. Or perhaps “your wife can’t go to the talk but we will grab her and let her hang out in the speakers lounge”. There are a lot of things that could have been done here to alleviate the problem.

But this is only the last straw, let’s start at the beginning of the “experience”.

For travel. They pay for your travel but only from your home city and only through their travel agency. As I was not at home and travelling with my wife I suggested that they could get two tickets one way (my wife and I) from Los Angeles instead of me round trip from Vilnius (no brainer the two one ways are $400 vs >$2000 round trip from Vilnius). After 2 weeks of emails and escalation we managed to make this work (all the while I am receiving emails about my travel not being booked and it needs my immediate attention). What’s missed in this? Yes we paid our own way from Bali to Los Angeles and then from New Orleans to London.

Along with this they tried booking us on the “best flight” 0600 take off. From some quick looking it was to save $20. How many people do you know enjoy waking up at 0300 to be able to meet their flight?

Now the fun starts. I get an email asking if I can do some Birds of a Feather. I say sure no worries. I love talking with interesting people and gave a list of five I would be happy to participate in. I get back an email scheduling me for two Birds of a Feather on days before I arrive! I inform them that I will not be able to do them as I won’t actually be there (travel booked by Microsoft). I offered to adjust our travel but requested to be reimbursed the $400 that it would cost us to rebook our tickets from Los Angeles. They thought better to cancel sessions. Apparently sessions are not worth $200 each (of course we are adjusting our travel by two days).

On Monday I received an email from the same contractor asking why I did not attend my Bird of a Feather session and asking if she should cancel the other one. What was hilarious was it was a reply in the same email chain where we discussed my not being able to attend them a week before and her saying she will cancel them.

I was also asked to do an interview for Channel 9. It was scheduled to be right after my talk (eg finish talk and walk straight to interview). I mentioned to them that normally after a talk there are people with questions that want to discuss them. I was told “tell them to find you later in the conference”. Really? How many thousands of people are there?

TechEd is on the whole the worst organized conference I have ever seen. It contains some lessons however.

1) You need a decision maker on site. No competent decision maker would decide that throwing my wife out is a good idea <30 minutes before my talk. Every single person we talked to was a v- contractor who were selected by being the lowest bidder.

2) People need to be empowered. The travel agent had a no brainer choice before her but was unable to act even if in their own best interest

3) Bureaucracy is often needed in scaled up situations but does not work well in things that require personal relations. Good support managers realized this decades ago. Give a point person that handles everything instead of forcing the client to handle your bureaucracy a conference the size of teched could easily have 15-20 temp employees to make sure the insanity of their internal process ends at a point person and is not publicly visible.

4) Conferences are not about filling in numbers. They are about personal interactions. Speakers are not commodities, they are people who are giving much to help the conference.

fail

Update: Received an email from Microsoft. While you would expect it to be an apology (over 200 tweets the first hour about it) it was not. It was letting me know about breach of contract and to pay for my hotel. This was 30 minutes after I cancelled. I guess its good they are efficient at some things.

Update 2: It is now about six weeks after the conference and I still have not heard a word from Microsoft over the incident. They are aware what happened and apparently its not important. I waited this amount of time to see if there would some reasonable response from them.

29 Comments

  1. Dmitry
    Posted July 24, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I was looking for your talk on channel9 and was wondering why I can’t find any. Idiots!

  2. shev
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 12:13 am | Permalink | Reply

    The worst thing is that Microsoft should be paying people to attend these conferences or at least making them free. TechEd should be call TechAd, because basically that is what goes on, an advertisement for there next iteration of tools that they hope people will buy.

    The last one I went to was a Microsoft patterns and practices conference, which gave the impression of being a serious developers conference, and basically the presenters spent half the time showing off the next version of Visual Studio / .NET rather than talking about patterns. One presenter even spent his whole talk just outlining the architecture of vNext and trying to drum up enthusiasm for it. It was the biggest waste of money in my life, it cost ~$2000 to attend plus ~$3000 in lost income for me (I’m freelance).

    Never again.

    • Andrey
      Posted July 26, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink | Reply

      The funny thing is, when I was a student in Russia, a lot of these MS conferences were free. Not only that, but people actually got gifts for showing up — because nobody would pay that much for things you can read in blogs anyway. These days it is more aligned with everywhere else I suppose.

  3. Posted July 25, 2013 at 1:03 am | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on This page intentionally left ugly and commented:
    Microsoft. Winning fans at every opportunity.

  4. Posted July 25, 2013 at 1:33 am | Permalink | Reply

    This shouldn’t happen to Conference speakers. This shouldn’t happen at all.

    Microsoft’s treatment of you and your family was deplorable. TechEd and its organizers should be ashamed of themselves.

  5. Bill Jackson
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 1:35 am | Permalink | Reply

    This is why Microsoft flounders on, surviving on the picked over bones of it’s assordid windows OSes and Word.
    Everything they touch turns into broken pieces. There is some sort of ramrod at the top and that stupid regime permeates the whole company.
    Just look at their failures in the past few years.Apple could kill them totally dead if they created a way to sell their latest OS as a stand alone to be installed on x86 etc.
    Apple has it’s own flaws, greed being the main one, greed brough Apple down before and it will again.

  6. Withheld
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 3:11 am | Permalink | Reply

    Sadly you learned this too late. You were comfortable when you were being treated like gold and the rest of us were being treated like.. well like you were treated this time.

    Hopefully this will awaken you and help you see the injustices that happen to the people around you before they happen to you also someday. ;)

    Cheers

  7. Posted July 25, 2013 at 3:18 am | Permalink | Reply

    You are not the first and I am sure you will not be the last to realize that the Ted talks are very occultist.

  8. Posted July 25, 2013 at 3:55 am | Permalink | Reply

    Some great discussion (and supportive comments) on ycombinator: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6099796

  9. Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink | Reply

    Hell, cau’s of that i had to miss your talks? Damn… :-(

  10. CarlosDanger
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink | Reply

    This is not a big surprise to me having attended the New Orleans TechEd. I was not impressed in the least and got very little out of the conference for such a big cost to our agency. The sessions overall lacked good content. Some seemed thrown together last minute. Heck even the conference bag they gave us was cheap. Most people had to return theirs at least once just to get through the conference. I returned mine once and by the end of the week that one was falling apart. I left it in the trash can at the hotel. After a week of lack luster sessions I was at least hoping the conference party would be ok. Not…stayed there maybe an hour and had seen enough. I have attended 6 TechEds and this was by far the worst. Our training dollars are very limited and so we have to make the most of them. The will not be spent at TechEd next year that is for sure.

  11. Posted July 25, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I can absolutely feel you. This is ridiculous. btw: I think the CSS of this site is not loading. You might have a look at it

    • Capt Obvious
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink | Reply

      The site is loading fine, this is how it’s supposed to look.

  12. Posted July 25, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink | Reply

    While there are lots of things Microsoft did wrong, you should have discussed your desire to have your wife take pictures before you arrived.

  13. Posted July 25, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink | Reply

    When I started reading it looked like a classic overreaction, meltdown. But you made a bunch of really great points. I never enjoy attending conferences of that size. Many times they have the most interesting speakers but they become very impersonal, very quickly.

  14. Posted July 25, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on theatre of consciousness and commented:
    Well then. Good to know that when my wife-to-be and I start traveling in the next couple years, this is one thing I can preemptively cross off my list. As eksith said: “Microsoft: winning fans at every opportunity.”

  15. Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    You show up at a “paid” conference, just before your talk, and tried to get your wife in for free? I have no idea why that didn’t work out for you. They pay for your flight, and then you cancel your talks because they didn’t work out a last minute request that you didn’t work out before hand? You should sue them. They definitely overreacted.

    • Posted July 26, 2013 at 2:01 am | Permalink | Reply

      “Paid” as in those who are not presenting have to pay to get in.

      Sarcasm aside, you definitely went overboard in your article which was not even partly a mea culpa. If you had contacted them ahead of time, and they said no, then there would not have been a problem. You didn’t contact them ahead of time, then you tried to blackmail them into letting your wife in for free. How you spin this into a “Microsoft is horrible” article is beyond me.

      Did Microsoft lead you on to believe that your wife could get in for free? Since you didn’t present, did you have to pay for the airfare?

      • Don
        Posted July 31, 2013 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

        Seriously? It’s his wife. She isn’t attending sessions. She’s helping a speaker. He is an important asset you know like they call “the talent” in Hollywood and needs to be given every possible assistance to make for an informative and entertaining presentation. To think otherwise is just insane. He could have his wife, kids and freakin 10 strangers off the street with him on stage if that helped is comfort zone or made a better talk. Most likely the cause of all this wrong thinking is the wrong metrics somewhere in the management chain that is rewarding some quality other than the best possible customer experience!

      • Michelle
        Posted August 1, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

        AMEN to that!
        I have a budget next year at work to go to ONE conference or training, I am seriously thinking about making a different choice than TechEd! Like some have commented, what they are covering is what you can dig out of the web. There are other training’s out there that actually help! So sorry, but my company will most likely not be seen at TechEds any longer

      • Les Noland
        Posted July 31, 2013 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

        It didn’t sound to me like he “tried to blackmail them into letting your wife in for free”. When they told him that his wife couldn’t go in and take pictures he didn’t argue the point — they told them to go to the speakers’ room and he was apparently fine with that. The problem came when security escorted his wife from the building rather than to just let her wait for him in the speakers’ room, which would not in the least be like having his wife attend the conference for free. Their inability to make that tiny adjustment and their total apathy about the fact that his wife was just being stranded outside with no information about what was going on is ridiculous and well worthy of criticism. I don’t think he went “overboard” in his reaction or his article.

    • Andrey
      Posted July 26, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink | Reply

      You kind of miss the point here — of course they are in their right to block her from entering. However, you can’t work with people by the rulebook alone.
      And it just does not make any practical sense to lose a speaker and annoy a lot of people instead of letting an extra person in. Any discussion could have been addressed after the talk and resolved for future talks — and it is the job of organizers to organize and handle unexpected situations.

      Note that conference speakers do not just read feature lists in a monotonous voice for a bit of money — they have to care about their topic and do their best presenting it. So if conference organizers do not actually care about their part organizing it, why would the speakers care to do their part?

  16. Stephen Lead
    Posted July 26, 2013 at 12:45 am | Permalink | Reply

    The title of this post should have been “what that was the last time I’ll ever speak at TechEd” in the past tense

  17. Posted July 26, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink | Reply

    So you could probably have arrange stuff before hand, but still these things happen and a good conference should be able to deal with it.
    We believe at http://SQLBits.com that partners are a critical part for some speakers to be able to speak at conferences and so embrace partners. They get to go the parties, get excursions arranged. So we aren’t as big as teched but we also don’t have the budget.
    Happy partner = happy speaker = great talks = great conference. Shame others don’t embrace the same feelings

  18. Kyle Szklenski
    Posted July 26, 2013 at 6:21 pm | Permalink | Reply

    @leavelbw – I disagree with you. It seems clear to me that you didn’t read the entire post. One of the very last non-update lines is:

    “TechEd is on the whole the worst organized conference I have ever seen.”

    He did explicitly NOT say “Microsoft is horrible” anywhere in the article, so quoting it like that was disingenuous, at best; italicizing would have made more sense (or some other way of denoting that you weren’t actually quoting Greg). Furthermore, he did offer several things which could be implemented in order to improve the organizational aspects of TechEd, and of conferences in general.

    This post dissected a bad experience Greg and his wife had and yet still offered advice – something you might very well consider learning how to do.

    @Greg – Thank you for this. I have never had enough money to travel to one of these types of conferences on my own, and my employers, whomever they may be, rarely pay for such things. This post has helped me on a more personal level to ensure that in the future, I will research very heavily the conferences I wish to attend, especially if I’m intending to spend a lot of my own cash on it (rather than relying on reputation/big names at the conference). I don’t think you went overboard, and in fact think what you wrote was characteristically well-reasoned and reasonable. Not to mention, back when I was married, if this same thing would have happened to me, there’s no way I would have reacted as rationally as this. At the first sign of hesitation from them, I’d probably have stomped out of the building telling people to get their money back; it’s just straight-up not acceptable.

  19. Michelle
    Posted July 27, 2013 at 8:57 pm | Permalink | Reply

    OMG your wife should have been able to at least stand in the hall while you gave your talk, or you should have been able to tell her.
    I’m not sure if you all are aware, it’s not actually Microsoft who organizes these conferences. They hire an outside company to do all that, I know this because my niece works for that company (not in charge of TechEd though, thank goodness!)
    I agree 100% with having decision makers onsite, etc. and yes your travel arrangements were a JOKE! If it were me after all that circus I wouldn’t have come. Shoot did you expect any less when they couldn’t even get the plane tickets right, lol.
    Anycase, I would like your slides :)

  20. Glenn
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I have always know Microsoft sucks, this just confirms it. Sorry you had to suffer through that mess.

  21. Max Carr
    Posted September 4, 2013 at 12:36 am | Permalink | Reply

    I am currently attending Tech Ed 2013 at the Gold Coast and it is amateur hour in terms of organisation. This is my third Tech Ed and honestly it is the worst so far. It seems to become more tech evangalism and advertising each time I attend. Forget trying to organise your time around the schedule! Also, do MS realise that it is not just “developers” that attend this event. Tech Ed 2006 was great, they covered so much in terms of systems integration and security.

    On the plus side, at least this year the Expo has some interesting and relevant things on offer!

    A great event, that unfortunately only happened once, was the Security Camp 2007 at Charles Sturt University that was organised by Rocky H. It was FANTASTIC. No tech evangalism just a bunch of people who were interested in a particular topic coming together and sharing information. I thought that was what Tech Ed was supposed to be???

  22. Michael N. J.
    Posted January 19, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink | Reply

    The following is only based on me being a attendee at conferences, so i’m not talking from an presenters point of view.

    Normally i attend both TechEd and VMworld (altering between the US/EU ones every year).

    Its just a day and night difference in the experience, you on one hand have VMworld which is _extremely_ well organized, where things _just work_, where you feel you get extremely good value for your money from the conference, both from the presenters/presentations and from all the other stuff that’s happening around the conference, while on the other hand at the Microsoft conferences everything (from a attendee perspective here) seems extremely badly managed, disorganized, basic things not work as they should, and you are left with the feeling you just wasted a lot of money on nothing.

    To give some more details why i feel this way lets list both conferences one by one:

    VMware VMworld:
    – Wifi is rock solid, works even in very crowded areas, you can connect the instant you arrive at the conference, it it just WORKS on your phone, pc, tablet etc.

    – When you book your hotel at the same time of the conference, you actually get better deals than normal (some times >40% off the normal prices)

    – The conference fee is alot lower, its probably a loss to VMware, but they care about their attendees/customers.

    – If your certified in their products, you get in cheaper, if you attend more than 2 you get a alumni rebate, if your part of the community driven users groups you get discounts. and this is on the already pretty low conference fee.

    – Something as simple as the badge/keyhanger, it just feels like quality, not something that was sourced for the cheapest available price, its hard plastic, it looks great, it has useful info like conference maps etc on the other side, the keyhanger is so good that i use them for my normal keys and they last the whole year easily before i get a new one at the next conference.

    – You can preregister for sessions, so you are sure you have a spot when you show up, this might sound bad, but i honestly think its the better solution having tried both ways.

    – Really good information provided during the conference / good info on how to get where shown everywhere.

    Microsoft TechEd:

    – Nothing works as expected, wifi only partially working on the 2nd day if your lucky to get one of your devices online.

    – If you book the hotel at the same time as the registration, you actually end up with a worse deal than if you order from the same hotels directly, it just feels like Microsoft is trying to earn even more money on your behalf.

    – Which brings me to the conference fee, its extremely overpriced compared to VMworld, you don’t get any rebates if you actually spend your money getting certified in their products.

    – Your lucky if you even managed to get into the more popular sessions.

    – The badge looks crap, and feels like something they sourced at the cheapest place in China, i actually feel embarrassed wearing it.

    – Microsoft seems generally disinterested in receiving feedback on their conference.

    Don’t get me wrong i do enjoy sessions from both conferences, i just always leave with a fealing that TechEd is disorganized and tries to rip me off at every given opportunity, i was temped to just skip TechEd since all presentations are online, but then you don’t get to network with other people.

    This was just my two cents, sorry if it got a bit long :)

2 Trackbacks

  1. By This is Why We Should Vote | Chris Shaw's Weblog on August 20, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    […] (blog | @gregyoung) had an issue with his family at an event. If you want you can read more here. We could talk all about how it could have been handled differently. My point is that many people […]

  2. […] (blog | @gregyoung) had an issue with his family at an event. If you want you can read more here. We could talk all about how it could have been handled differently. My point is that many people […]

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