Layoff news day by day, major conferences are getting canned left and right. In lean times, the Conference-in-the-Cloud concept starts looking more and more attractive. Still, there’s no true substitute for real, live, face-to-face discussions and networking. Except it does not really happen at a lot of major conferences: session rooms are often deserted, there’s more life in the hallways, or the attendees are off sight-seeing. I will now present the opposite: two “boutique” conferences that are real gems.
Defrag in November was a Really Good Conference. Why? I don’t really know. If I did, I’d be in the conference business. But organizer Eric Norlin seems to have the secret recipe – I’m just trying to discover the ingredients one by one.
I’ve discussed the importance of infrastructure and connectivity at length: Defrag is now the Gold Standard to follow. Location: the entire conference is traditionally in the Denver Hyatt Regency, all on one floor, with a well-organized flow. All sessions are easy to find, the exhibit space is right next to sessions – not too cramped, but not large enough to get lost either – cozy is the word that comes to my mind.
Let’s move on to the most important ingredients: content and people.
Never in a thousand years would I have expected to hear about Napoleon or Picasso at a technology conference, let alone learn from them. Or, rather from Columbia Business School Professor William Duggan who suggested that great strategists, artists, innovators all have creative sparks and the greatest “aha moments” in human achievement came from mashing together ideas and concepts from different disciplines.
Napoleon, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Pablo Picasso, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin all had flashes of insight into how to improve an existing practice. These flashes of insight, or strategic intuitions (the title of Prof. Duggan’s book), in which entrepreneurs combine a number of pre-existing innovations to revolutionize an industry, are fueling the high-tech market today. A less dignified way to say this is that the greatest innovators often “steal” ideas from others, dissecting them, re-assembling parts to create a new quality, as opposed to copying something in its entirety, which is imitation, not innovation.
Of course we did not only learn from history, we also got into a peak into the furture. At least that’s how I feel about Charlene Li’s presentation, Harnessing the Implicit Value of the Social Graph now, with two months hindsight: the Facebook Connect and Google Friend Connect launches shortly after Defrag certainly brought some of Charlene’s predictions in the realm of reality.
Or just look at her slide# 20:
The fallacy of ITV – that people would want to interact with a television.
Instead, they want to interact with each other.
Well, anyone who watched President Obama’s inauguration on CNN could share the experience and chat live with their Facebook friends. Strictly speaking it wasn’t ITV, in fact wasn’t TV at all – since users accessed it via their computers. But does it matter? Not for Dave Winer, whose TV itself is on the Net.
Another memorable presentation was Stowe Boyd’s Lifestreaming at the Edge, living proof that I don’t have to agree with the key tenet of a session to find it valuable. Stowe discussed how message control moved away from large organizations (center) to the edge, how the new networks are all edge and no center, and how we all live in a constant stream of messages. People are continually broadcasting their life to their “friends”, who know where they are and can ask them questions any time – the concept of life-streaming.
He showed his desktop: Friendfeed flow UI, Flickr, Snackr, Twitterfox, and a bunch of other flow apps. My first thought was: there’s no space left to do actual work. Stowe says there is no such thing as information overload. The world is full of information and we’re finding better ways to deal with it – we’re all in a state of continuous partial attention.
I tend to agree with Andraz Tori, who I finally met at Defrag (another benefit of conferences):
Continuous partial attention is useful in some types of work, but highly counter-productive in others.
Stowe makes a living of being cutting -edge in flow applications, this is his entire professional life, so there’s no "overflow" for him. I know I switch off Twitter if I really have to focus on work, and at the conference I talked to attendees from Honeywell, Johnson & Johnson..etc, who deal with real work, real apps like supply chain management in real life, where the priority is get the job done, not feel good and know-it-all about friends.
Ironically I jotted down some if these thoughts at the conference while Jonathan Yarmis of AMR Research was discussing … guess what, information overload. I guess he thinks it may just exist, after all. This is what makes a good conference alive: different, often dissenting views presented by great minds leading to lively conversations.
Talk about lively conversations, I had a pleasant surprise with a panel where I jumped in as substitute moderator in the last minute: Re-imagining the metaphors behind collaborative tools with Atlassian’s Jay Simons, Bruce Henry from Liquid Planner; Aaron “Mindtouch” Fulkerson and Steve Kickert of One Place.
We did not have a lot of time to prepare other than dinner the evening before at a former-bank-vault-turned-into-restaurant with too much culinary disruption, but as it turned out I had no reason to worry. The audience – well, what is typically the audience elsewhere, but became true participants here – took over, the panelists were peppered with good questions, whatever mental script we may have had we could throw away and just go with the flow. But I don’t have to get into details here, PC World did that for us.
Summing up it is the people, the unusual level openness, intense participation, great site and infrastructure, all brought together by a very enthusiastic and skilled organizer, Eric Norlin that made Defrag the perfect conference for me. Actually, there’s probably a lot more… instead of trying to figure it out, I invite you to experience it yourself.
Eric is presenting a new conference, Glue this May at the same venue. It is my great honor to be on his Advisory Boards along with great thinkers like Amy Wohl, Phil Wainewright, Chris Shipley, Mike West, and Albert Wenger. ClouAve is the Media Sponsor for Glue, and you well hear a lot more on the subject soon.
For now let me just say, the fact that this conference is brought to us by the Defrag organizer guarantees that Glue will be another event worth attending, and given the economic climate it’s worth noting this will be an extremely affordable conference.