IT conferences for the CIO: microcosms of industry trends

I’m back from attending ServiceNow’s Knowledge13 conference last month in Las Vegas, and have a grab bag of random thoughts and reactions to share as a result. As usual, these thoughts reach beyond any particular vendor or product niche.

For anyone not familiar with this company, ServiceNow is slowly and steadily developing a generalized platform (“ERP for IT”) for enterprise IT management, all the way from IT service management (ITSM) to (now, in a new offering) cloud orchestration and management of instances.

My attendance last year at this same conference broke a personal streak of almost 8 years of avoiding conferences altogether. My recap post from last year discusses how I discovered what I’d been missing: exposure to new approaches, new energy, and new perspectives that, like it or not, don’t just come from online.

In fact, it reminds me of the classic Woody Allen line about “I need the eggs”. Conferences are messy, chaotic, overwhelming, sipping from a firehose, and so on. But we keep going, because we need those eggs.

Here are some “eggs,” large and small, that I took away from this year’s experience.

  • Attendance. There were reportedly 3,800 people at the conference, double the total of the previous year. And the previous year’s attendance was twice the year before that. Can you say exponential growth? Most notably, the level of energy was high, and palpable.
  • The Right Stuff. I’m known to be chronically skeptical about vendors and sales pitches. At a conference like this one, all my antennae are set for potentially being overpitched. But that didn’t happen.

Yes, there was marketing throughout the experience, but every time I looked closely, I saw substance. From the keynotes (spot-on presentations from both the CEO, Frank Slootman, and founder and CTO Fred Luddy), to the sundry presentations and my own examination of the industry trends getting reflected in new features in the software, I’m convinced that this company has both an appropriately tuned vision and a rare ability to execute and, especially, to scale (in fact, the company has four times the employees that it had just several years ago).

It was especially gratifying to hear Luddy scoff, in his presentation, at the odd trend that so often serves as fodder for my own blog posts: the raft of pundits declaring that IT is now a mere commodity. He dismissed the trend with a single trenchant remark: “I have no earthly idea what kind of crack those people are smoking.” He went on to point out that “businesses that don’t use technology to create important differentiators are just going to wither and die.”

  • Citizen developers. A major theme of this year’s conference, this trope reflects how ServiceNow is moving its product towards being a generalized platform where relatively non-technical users can, with the ease of something like an Excel experience, create their own mini-applications that powerfully leverage the data and tools within the ServiceNow universe. This trend is exactly the right direction and something that IT practitioners in general should embrace.  That said, I’ve seen enough “rogue apps” from non-technical developers (Excel and Access are the most common platforms for these) to know that there are huge pitfalls that lie down this path, related to robustness, integration, frailty, maintenance. But the genie is out of the bottle, as it were: users need and demand control of their own destinies, and we’d better figure out, over time and despite initial pain, how to support and steer them in that goal.
  • Hackathon. I’m not a frequent conference goer, as I mentioned, so perhaps this sort of thing is now a common conference occurrence. Nonetheless, I was startled and pleased to see the institution of a ServiceNow “hackathon”, featured and promoted prominently, replete with a formal competition and an announced prizewinning team at the end of the conference.  This effort was chartered as “create an application in just under twelve hours starting from scratch using the ServiceNow platform“. I walked into the hackathon venue at one point, and saw the various small teams clustered in groups around the large presentation room, collaborating, typing, arguing, designing. The energy was infectious. Citizen developers? Not sure whether that was exactly true in these cases (those teams looked pretty hardcore, frankly), but they were certainly all engaged in producing something meaningful in a very short span of time, effectively demonstrating what can be achieved with the platform.
  • Twitter as conference-enabling. Throughout the conference, I tapped into what was going on by monitoring the Twitter #know13 hashtag stream. In fact, I can’t fully imagine what the experience would have been like without that mechanism. At any such event, no one can possibly get to all the sessions; the stream gives you a window into what else is going on and where the “life” is. It spawns dialog and debate, and lifts the event way above just a set of fragmented presentations.  As with most social networking streams, one has to be willing to sift through some manure to find the ponies. (Most notably, it’s always surprising to me how blunt and rude people are willing to be, just because they’re typing into a keyboard).
  • Attendee and vendor respect. Three words: no booth babes. Even in Vegas. Kudos to ServiceNow and to the set of vendors in the exhibit hall for not falling prey to this still-common (but hopefully moribund) embarrassing, sexist, and detrimental side of our male-dominated industry.

My conclusion: IT people need to get out and about, and need to grapple with some of the issues above concerning user development, systems sprawl, IT commoditization. If you’re not going to conferences at all, I can’t imagine how you’re tapping into the energy, trends, and knowledge that seeps from every corner of a well-run event like this one.  At the best events, you’ll get insights into not just tactical how-to aspects of what you’re interested in, but into the larger picture: how to incorporate that progress into the achievement of business differentiation through technology. And believe me, all of us in IT need those eggs.

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