We need a different name for non-technical tech conferences

We need a different name for non-technical tech conferences

I recently returned from Google Cloud Next. Typically I wouldn't go to a vendor conference like this, since they're usually thinly veiled sales meetings wearing the trench-coat of a conference. However I've been to a few GCP events and found them to be technical and well-run, so I rolled the dice and hopped on the 11 hour flight from London to San Francisco.  

We all piled into Moscone Center and I was pretty hopeful. There were a lot of engineers from Google and other reputable orgs, the list of talks we had signed up for before showing up sounded good, or at least useful. I figured this could be a good opportunity to get some idea of where GCP was going and perhaps hear about some large customers technical workarounds to known limitations and issues with the platform. Then we got to the keynote.

AI. The only topic discussed and the only thing anybody at the executive level cared about was AI. This would become a theme, a constant refrain among every executive-type I spoke to. AI was going to replace customer service, programmers, marketing, copy writers, seemingly every single person in the company except for the executives. It seemed only the VPs and the janitors were safe. None of the leaders I spoke to afterwards seemed to appreciate my observation that if they spent most of their day in meetings being shown slide decks, wouldn't they be the easiest to replace with a robot? Or maybe their replacement could be a mop with sunglasses leaned against an office chair if no robot was available.

I understand keynotes aren't for engineers, but the sense I got from this was "nothing has happened in GCP anywhere else except for AI". This isn't true, like objectively I know new things have been launched, but it sends a pretty clear message that it's not a priority if nobody at the executive level seems to care about them. This is also a concern because Google famously has institutional ADHD with an inability to maintain long-term focus on slowly incrementing and improving a product. Instead it launches amazing products, years ahead of the competition then, like a child bored with a toy, drops them into the backyard and wanders away. But whatever, let's move on from the keynote.

Over the next few days what I was to experience was an event with some fun moments, mostly devoid of any technical discussion whatsoever. Rarely were talks geared towards technical staff, when technical questions came up during the recorded events they were almost never answered. Most importantly there was no presentation I heard that even remotely touched on long-known missing features of GCP when compared to peers or roadmaps. When I asked technical questions, often Google employees would come up to me after the talk with the answer, which I appreciate. But everyone at home and in the future won't get that experience and miss out on the benefit.

Most talks were the GCP products marketing page turned into slides, with a seemingly mandatory reference to AI in each one. Several presenters joked about "that was my required AI callout", which started funny but as time went on I began to worry...maybe they were actually required to mention AI? There are almost no live demos (pre-recorded which is ok but live is more compelling), zero code shown, mostly a tour of existing things the GCP web console could do along with a few new features. I ended up getting more value from finding the PMs of various products on the floor and subjecting to these poor souls to my many questions.

This isn't just a Google problem. Every engineer I spoke to about this talked about a similar time they got burned going to "not a conference conference". From AWS to Salesforce and Facebook, these organizations pitch people on getting facetime with engineers and concrete answers to questions. Instead they're opportunity to try and pitch you on more products, letting executives feel loved by ensuring they get one-on-one time from senior folks in the parent company. They sound great but mostly it's an opportunity to collect stickers.

We need to stop pretending these types of conferences are technical conferences. They're not. It's an opportunity for non-technical people inside of your organization who interact with your technical SaaS providers to get facetime with employees of that company and ask basic questions in a shame-free environment. That has value and should be something that exists, but you should also make sure engineers don't wander into these things.

Here are the 7 things I think you shouldn't do if you call yourself a tech conference.

7 Deadly Sins of "Tech" Conferences

  • Discussing internal tools that aren't open source and that I can't see or use. It's great if X corp has worked together with Google to make the perfect solution to a common problem. It doesn't mean shit to me if I can't use it or at least see it and ask questions about it. Don't let it into the slide deck if it has zero value to the community outside of showing that "solving this problem is possible".
  • Not letting people who work with customers talk about common problems. I know, from talking to Google folks and from lots of talks with other customers, common issues people experience with GCP products. Some are misconfigurations or not understanding what the product is good at and designed to do. If you talk about a service, you need to discuss something about "common pitfalls" or "working around frequently seen issues".
  • Pretending a sales pitch is a talk. Nothing makes me see red like halfway through a talk, inviting the head of sales onto the stage to pitch me on their product. Jesus Christ, there's a whole section of sales stuff, you gotta leave me alone in the middle of talks.
  • Not allowing a way for people to get questions into the livestream. Now this isn't true for every conference, but if this is the one time a year people can ask questions of the PM for a major product and see if they intend to fix a problem, let me ask that question. I'll gladly submit it beforehand and let people vote on it, or whatever you want. It can't be a free-for-all but there has to be something.
  • Skipping all specifics. If you are telling me that X service is going to solve all my problems and you have 45 minutes, don't spend 30 explaining how great it is in the abstract. Show me how it solves those problems in detail. Some of the Google presenters did this and I'm extremely grateful to them, but it should have been standard. I saw the "Google is committed to privacy and safety" generic slides so many times across different presentations that I remembered the stock photo of two women looking at code and started trying to read what she had written. I think it was Javascript.
  • Blurring the line between presenter and sponsor. Most well-run tech conferences I've been to make it super clear when you are hearing from a sponsor vs when someone is giving an unbiased opinion. A lot of these not-tech tech conferences don't, where it sounds like a Google employee is endorsing a third-party solution who has also sponsored the event. For folks new to this environment, it's misleading. Is Google saying this is the only way they endorse doing x?
  • Keeping all the real content behind NDAs. Now during Next there were a lot of super useful meetings that happened, but I wasn't in them. I had to learn about them from people at the bar who had signed NDAs and were invited to learn actual information. If you aren't going to talk about roadmap or any technical details or improvements publically, don't bother having the conference. Release a PDF with whatever new sales content you want me to read. The folks who are invited to the real meetings can still go to those. No judgement, you don't want to have those chats publically, but don't pretend you might this year.

One last thing: if you are going to have a big conference with people meeting with your team, figure out some way you want them to communicate with that team. Maybe temporary email addresses or something? Most people won't use them, but it means a lot to people to think they have a way of having some line of communication with the company. If they get weird then just deactivate the temp email. It's weird to tell people "just come find me afterwards". Where?

What are big companies supposed to do?

I understand large companies are loathe to share details unless forced to. I also understand that companies hate letting engineers speak directly to the end users, for fear that the people who make the sausage and the people who consume the sausage might learn something terrible about how its made. That is the cost of holding a tech conference about your products. You have to let these two groups of people interact with each other and ask questions.

Now obviously there are plenty of great conferences based on open-source technology or about more general themes. These tend to be really high quality and I've gone to a ton I love. However there is value, as we all become more and more dependent on cloud providers, to letting me know more about what this platform is moving towards. I need to know what platforms like GCP are working on so I know what is the technology inside the stack on the rise and which are on the decline.

Instead these conferences are for investors and the business community instead of anyone interested in the products. The point of Next was to show the community that Google is serious about AI. Just like the point of the last Google conference was to show investors that Google is serious about AI. I'm confident the next conference on any topic Google has will also be asked to demonstrate their serious committment to AI technology.

You can still have these. Call them something else. Call them "leadership conferences" or "vision conferences". Talk to Marketing and see what words you can slap in there that conveys "you are an important person we want to talk about our products with" that also tells me, a technical peon, that you don't want me there. I'll be overjoyed not to fly 11 hours and you'll be thrilled not to have me asking questions of your engineers. Everybody wins.