Work Post – Looking Ahead at re:Invent

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So after my last post I did just want to quickly point something out. These aren’t related events, I haven’t suddenly become the guy at work who flies around and does stuff, they’re separate situations and conversations that happen to have ended up being scheduled in the same time period. But whatever the reasons for the trips, being able to fly off for three weeks has meant a lot of people changing their routines to fit around my plans

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I’ve no illusion as to how lucky I am to experience any of what’s happening, let alone all of them, but that can only be made possible by the efforts going on at home to allow it to happen.

While my wife and I were away last week, we had friends and family looking after our daughter and getting her to and from school every day.

For this week and next my wife has to look after our daughter on her own, which puts pressure on her at work – as well as make things difficult as we try and get ready for Christmas and our daughter’s birthday; she’s understands what an opportunity this is but it’s still a lot to ask.

I’ve never been away from my daughter for longer than a week since she was born. When I came back from Japan we saw each other for a few hours, but that’s it for the three weeks travel; her understanding has been the most important of all. Technology helps – obviously – but with my schedule and the time difference it’s still pretty irregular contact and she’s been great about it.

Trip #2 – Las Vegas

36 hours after I landed back in the UK from Japan, I was being picked up at 4am to be taken down to Gatwick so I could fly out again, to Vegas! In our part of the company the platform we work on is built with AWS infrastructure and every year Amazon put on their big tech conference – re:Invent.

As this is the place to find out about new services being announced, best practice on existing services from those that run them, as well as finding out about partners and other companies who build on and enhance AWS – it’s important we have representatives attend. Now obviously with flights, hotels, conference tickets and expenses it all adds up to a pretty penny to send us – so what I like about how we do it is that it’s not a matter of rank, management pick the people who they want to go but it’s not because of how long you’ve worked here or what your title is. This year happened to be my year.

The schedule

All this being set up so myself and my colleagues can go to re:Invent, you’d expect there to be some pretty specific objectives – because you can’t see everything; the schedule is immense. For every session I can attend, I have at least four I need to download so I can watch it at some not too distant future date, and that’s ignoring the others that are on at that time that I personally didn’t want to watch but other’s would.

But this is another huge tick in the box for me about how we’re viewed. Work trust us not to waste the opportunity we’ve been handed, and we all want to help improve the work we do, as well as expand our own interests. So when the topic came up of what to go for with the sessions, we were simply told to take advantage of the experience and really go into it with an open mind. How great is that!

From my point of view that means a mix of sessions on security, devops, continuous delivery as well as Alexa (obviously). I’ve never been to a conference where I’m going to know several other attendees and not expect to see any of them during the day!

Conferencing at Scale

This conference is beyond anything I’ve seen before. 53 thousand people all there to find out what’s new and where the gaps are in their knowledge right now. It’s spread throughout the length of the Vegas strip, in half a dozen different resorts full of sessions, as well as the vendor expo, AWS certification, regular lab sessions – oh and (if you remember to get some between sessions) food and drink.

But even before the content – the organisation is incredible. The number of people involved in making it run smoothly (and these are just some of the people we see, let alone how many we don’t!)

  • In each resort there are literally dozens of people wearing big re:Invent signs, and their job is to help you navigate the resort to get to the re:Invent area
  • Once you’re there you pass security personnel making sure everyone has a badge and the badge matches your face. Oh, and they’re being backed up by K9 units
  • Once you get through the security check, you have several staff attending each room, each breakout area, every junction to make sure no-one is lost and that everyone gets into the appropriate queue
  • If you need to change hotel, there are staff helping you to and from transportation – be it uber or provided shuttle
  • Oh, and ya know – the people presenting, the AV team, several DJs for those areas that need music, cleaners etc etc etc.

*deep breathe* So yeah, it’s a lot to take in. And then you have the content

The Content

So you’ve registered, you’re in one of the venues, and you’ve already booked yourself into a session. Now forget tracks or alignment – every hour there are dozens of different sessions going on across all the venues. So just walking from where you are to where you want to be involves passing screens and screens of session lists and each one has you looking at the app going “ooh, that sounds interesting, should I still go to this one?”.

And this is where pre-planning really comes in handy. There’s such a large number of attendees and large numbers of sessions that not everyone makes it to everything. Sessions are recorded, but other kinds of talks (workshops, “chalk talks” etc) aren’t. So you’ve the decision to make of whether or not to go to what you’ve booked because you know you’re guaranteed to get in – or do you risk becoming a walk-in for something else and potentially the room being full. I was pretty lucky with my content, In the whole week I only got turned away from two sessions – and they were toward the end of the week.

And actually, I was quite okay with being turned away! The casinos are wonderful places, but if you’ve several sessions together in the same venue you can suddenly realise you’ve walked a few thousands steps and not seen sunlight in the last half day…or eaten….or visited the restroom. There’s so much information that suddenly realising you have a spare 20 minutes is like a shock to the system and you can process everything you’ve picked up (first two days for me were 8am-8pm, there was a lot to process!). And as I finish up this post (the day after leaving Vegas) I have 50 videos bookmarked on YouTube – I haven’t finished yet!

Avoiding “I’ve been to a conference!” Syndrome

We’ve all known that person, or been that person maybe. They go away on a conference, see all this new or disruptive tech and process and suddenly believe that everything their team is currently doing is so last year and we need to rewrite everything because they can’t stand to look at it!

It’s natural, your mind is making connections and seeing avenues of innovation that weren’t possible just a week ago – that kind of excitement causes endorphins to do what endorphins do, and that’s great that you feel so good about it. But there’s a difference between disruptive and irritating.

Now everyone’s different, as is every workplace. From my point of view I can feel the synapses firing in that excited energy that I get when the jigsaw gets a few more pieces filled in, lets me see a little bit more of the big picture that is my professional sphere of influence and makes me want to push against what we’re currently doing. And as much as I’m twitchy to get near a keyboard and start firing off emails and writing proof of concept code, it’s also a pretty big red flag for me.

Our teams are really good. They’ve worked hard to get to a position where they feel comfortable with the processes they follow (for the most part) and that those processes are theirs. Each team follows a pattern – but each has tweaked or outright changed to make it fit what worked for them. Although some of what I’ve learnt is useful but not really applicable for us at work – there are some real key points that have either reinforced an existing belief or given me an avenue of investigation. The red flag is that that’s not what I need to take back to the office.

The biggest issue with conference syndrome is that in the excitement you forget that what’s in your head is the goal, not the starting point. And it’s the goal in its purest “only works in a conference demo” world. So you have to bookend it.

The first place to spend all that energy is in figuring out “what’s the first step?”. Because that’s the trick, that’s the hardest part. How do you see the goal in the distance and get your team moving toward it so that they not only feel like you’re not ripping up all they worked hard to achieve, but also that you’re taking them along for the ride. You know these people, you know the ones who are slow to change – what’s the hook or advantage or improvement that will make them want this too? And then what’s the first thing you can get your whole team to do that sets you on that path?

And then, with the first step in your head, ready to share…check that goal. In your head you’ve seen the demo, heard the speech, for you the utopia is a clear vision. But it’s a long way away, and with the best will in the world it’s never as clear as you first think. Keep the excitement, keep the energy, and then apply your professional experience. In your heart of hearts you know utopia is probably not realistic – but where’s the sweet spot? Where do you get most of the happy fun times, and the business is able to bend to see those advantages realise business value? That’s where you want to be aiming for.

Plus – what is that business value? You know it’s a more powerful composition layer – does that mean reduced time in maintenance or fixing integration issues? It gives you more access, does that mean faster release times? Take the endorphins and use them to aim at an optimistic give and take scenario. Maybe a 70/30 split in your favour? Maybe 80/20 with the knowledge it’s a hard sell and you may end up with 60/70 anyway? Because at some point your team needs to justify that change and when you’re hyped up and anything’s possible is the best time to start thinking about it

Now it’s over

re:Invent is an experience. The scale, the volume of information, Vegas, it’s a lot. Equally, it’s an unparalleled level of access to all the teams and sources of knowledge within AWS. To be able to ask all the questions you’ve had, get your views changed or reinforced and get answers to questions you didn’t even know you needed to be asking. There’s literally something for everyone and I would recommend it to anyone who gets the opportunity.

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