The Attendee Track

Helping the industry through altruistic capitalism

Posted by Cads on 18th Jun 2019

The software industry prides itself on a number of things. One of those is the amount of exposure to vendors that is granted to professionals. The number of conferences per year is just amazing. Just looking at blog.bizzabo.com shows gives us 300 conferences, not including DevOpsDays, Monitorama, DOES and others. And conferences are hugely important for learning about the ongoing trends, techniques and technology advances across the industry.

The underlying reason for them to exist though is to sell something to the particpants. Even well run industry conferences (think Monitorama, DevOpsDays, Velocity) have to cater to the vendors. This is an obvious statement, because without the vendors, conferences would cost very much more than they do today, thereby reducing membership, increasing cost etc. etc. ad infinitum.

The need to learn from industry peers and exposure to new products is important. And vendors use these fora to be able to see trends and adjust to them. Representatives from vendors though are mostly (in my experience) of the sales and or marketing organizations. This is an inherently outward facing focus for the vendor, and one that puts the average attendee at a disadvantage. Every conversation with a vendor is seen as a lead generation opportunity.

Anecdotally though, lead conversion from trade shows is terrible. According to statistica in 2015, 50% of the organizations didn't know what their lead conversion was, and 30% of respondees said that it was 10% or less.

There are 3 main tracks at a software conference. Any given industry conference is likely to have a similar breakdown. The tracks are : Vendor, Technical, Hallway. The Vendor track consists of sponsored talks and spaces. The Technical track consists generally of "lessons learned doing/adopting/breaking" some thing. The Hallway track is the networking track and is a known track even though it is not formal. Missing from this list is a place for feedback into the vendors. An Audience or Market track.

This track would be a space for the Vendors to listen to the attendees with no agenda other than to learn. This differs from the Technical track in a very simple, but deep-reaching way. Technical talks are rarely about approach and generalization. They are most often about using a toolchain to show improvement. An attendee track would be about the pain points, the current inconclusive ways to solve those pain points, and a place for vendors to hear what things need to be addressed. Not addressed in a specific manner by their product, but rather in general by any product.

Example time. Let's say that Vendor A has a product that creates widgets from potatoes. Vendor B has a product that can create widgets from carrots. At a typical conference an attendee would approach Vendor A saying "Hey I have corn. Can I use your product?" and the vendor would say something like "if you have a way of getting the corn to look like a potato, and potentially par-cook it, so that the consistency is similar, then yes, but the results won't be as good as with a potato. We are working on a corn to potato conversion machine available sometime in the next {insert time frame}". The same question to vendor B would result in "if you paint the corn orange, and can make it carrotshaped, then yes, but the results won't be as good as with a carrot. We have no plans to produce a corn to carrot machine".

Now imagine a world where there is an Attendee forum. Both Vendor A and Vendor B have product manager and engineers in attendance. Attendees are asked before the conference if they are willing to share their pain. Those that accept are given a forum.. They come in and say "We have corn. We have no way to convert them to your vegetable type. Our market is corn related. It would be awesome if there was some way to make widgets from corn." Now the Vendors have a clear understanding that there is something marketable here. They can go ahead and analyse the corn widget market. They can work with their teams to create something.

Now, of course, this is a ridiculous example, but there is a kernel of truth here. Rather than being bombarded with t-shirts, tcotchkes, stickers and other random marketing pieces just to get a potential lead, attendees become an involved participant in the conference. They have a forum to share their pain and potentially grow the usefulness and responsiveness of the companies attending as vendors.

Of course this would be a slow track, a slow movement. It revolves around altruism and trust on both sides. Attendees need to know that they are in a place where what they share is trusted and does not lead to more bombardment by sales. Vendors need to know that the information that they are getting is accurate and relevant. It is incumbent on both sides of the conversation, to ensure that the information is freely offered and fairly used.

In the world of software, the adoption and use of Free and Open Source Software is ubiquitous. According to a survey in 2015 less than 3% of companies did not use OSS in some way. 78% of respondent companies ran on open source. The feedback loop and attendee track for that software is of course Github and its competitors. Just creating pull requests is a form of feedback. The ethos though at the heart is that information and improvement for a given problem is likely to be useful to others. That adjusting a product for one's own use does not actually exist within a vacuum. Rather, that a given problem is likely to exist outside of the realm in which it was originally found.

How fantastic then, would it be to have an industry forum wherein problem sets were clearly stated, and vendors would be able to work on them in their toolchains, if relevant, and if the market warranted?