PDC for Novices, 2008 Edition

I started doing these a few years ago for Tech·Ed (2008 and 2007) and received a lot of good feedback so I decided to continue the series for PDC as well.

Session Types

This year PDC is offering a slightly different mix of session types with what they are calling “UnSessions”. The bottom line is that UnSessions are everything that isn’t an official breakout session. If you’re still a bit confused, keep reading to see the differences. There may be some other session types once the schedule has been finalized, and if so, I’ll update this post with the new information.

Breakout Session

Breakout sessions are what everyone probably thinks of when they think of a convention like this. These are the speaker-lead presentations. They are usually not very interactive (except for a Question and Answer period at the end) and are a great way to learn about new technologies from some of the industries leading experts. These are the most common type of session you will probably be attending.

Open Space

If you’ve been to a Tech·Ed conference and participated in a “Birds of a Feather” session or any of the Alt.NET conferences you already know what Open Space is. Simply put, Open Space is a way to bring together groups of people who share a common interest to have an interactive discussion.

Hands-on Lab (HOL)

The Hands-on Labs are self-paced technical labs. They are a great way to get direct access to the technologies being presented at the conference and “play”. The labs come with a lab manual and additional resources about the topic as well as lab assistants to help you out if you run into a problem.

Other UnSessions

The rest of the UnSessions are either one-time events or don’t fall into any specific categorization. They are:

Amazing Scenarios: These are real customer examples of extreme technology use and are showcased in the Expo area.

Ask-the-Experts: An evening with Microsoft technical experts representing all of the major technologies and areas of the Microsoft platform. This is your chance to have some one-on-one time to get questions answered, provide feedback or find out more details on a topic.

Microsoft Product Pavilion: Think of this as the Microsoft product showcase. It’s your chance to learn about existing products or technologies as well as new ones that will be released in the coming year.

PDC Lounges: These are a great way to unwind and help deal with the information overload. It’s an open area to relax and talk with people. They are located in the “Big Room”, next to the Hands-on-Labs, Expo area and Microsoft Pavilion.

Building Your Schedule

While Microsoft generally considers the “Communications Network”, also known as CommNet, as the place to start for PDC, I think the place to start is with the online schedule builder before you get to the event. Hopefully the schedule builder will get a much needed overhaul to make it more user-friendly, but we won’t know for another few months.

No matter what, the point is that you need to have an idea of what sessions you are going to before you get there. Sessions are generally broken down in to tracks, which simply provide a way to group session content on a large scale. Sessions can, and often do, cross multiple tracks and sessions aren’t always in the track you might expect. As a result, don’t try to focus on any one track and only go to sessions in that track. It’s a good starting point, but that’s it.

For example. if you are a solutions architect (or any kind of technical architect), chances are that the majority of your sessions will fall under the “Architecture” track, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be sessions in the “Developer Tools and Languages” track or the “Web and User Experience” track that aren’t important.

The other thing to understand about the tracks is that they are only useful if you want sessions covering a broad (or high-level) technology category. If you want information specific to a certain technology, such as Smart Clients, you will need to spend some extra time looking at each of the tracks and finding the sessions that are relevant.

Deciding on your sessions

Deciding on sessions is not a trivial task and can take at least several hours. When picking sessions, don’t choose them based solely on what your employer has you working on. That’s right, just because they are paying for you to go does not mean that you should restrict your sessions to what you think is important to them or your current project. Now, I’m not saying you should completely ignore it, either. Usually you’re working there (and on that project) because your technical interests and skills match to some degree. If there is a technology that you are using that you feel you need more in-depth information about, then pick some sessions about it. Just remember to also pick sessions that are going to be interesting to you and help you in the long-run of your career. If you don’t have any interest in the topic and are going to the session only because your employer told you to (or you think it’s what they want you to go to) you aren’t going to enjoy the experience and you won’t get a whole lot out of it.

Don’t forget that some of the sessions repeat on a different day. If the session is going to be repeated the first session should say “Repeated on xxxx” (where xxxx is the day) and the repeat session should say “Repeated from xxxx”. The other indicator is that the session “code” for the repeated session should have an “R” at the end of it.

Creating your calendar

Just because cloning isn’t feasible and you can’t be in two places at once doesn’t mean you can’t schedule multiple sessions at the same time. The best way to build your calendar is to do it in steps.

The first step should be all of the sessions you have an interest in. Don’t worry if there is a lot of overlap. My own schedule usually has at least 3 sessions in most of the time slots. The goal here is to get all of the sessions you are interested in put on the calendar.

The second step is to look at each time slot and prioritize the sessions. If you are using Outlook 2007, you can do this using the color categories. (Outlook 2003 users can use the Label feature.) The idea here is that you want to rank the sessions in order of priority interest to you. The ones you most want to attend should be green, second most would be yellow, and third (or more) should be unmarked. This is a great way to see where your interests are heading and helps narrow the field.

It’s alright to end up with multiple priority 1 sessions at the same time. Your schedule is not set in stone and it will change. Leading up to the event, Microsoft is still adding sessions and once the conference starts sessions will be canceled, rescheduled and repeat sessions will be added.

Communications Network (CommNet)

No, this isn’t like SkyNet (from the Terminator movies or the UK), but it is the central hub for everything that is going on at PDC. CommNet gives you key logistical information about the conference:

  • conference agenda
  • floor plans
  • bus shuttle schedules
  • city highlights
  • session schedule

At the end of each session, you will be asked to fill out an evaluation survey for the chance to win…something. You do this through CommNet. You can also download presentation materials for your session ahead of time (and sometimes after the session as well). Not all of the sessions get their content up before the session, so you will have to keep checking.

Wireless Internet Access

If you have a laptop or mobile device equipped with 802.11a/b wireless, then you can connect to the Internet throughout most of the convention center. Microsoft has Wireless Help Desks set up throughout the convention center to help configure your laptop or mobile device if you run into problems. Remember, the wireless network is an open, shared network, so there are no security protocols (WPA, WEP, etc.) enabled. Treat this just like you would any other public wireless network.

To be safe, follow the following steps:

  • Install all Microsoft critical patches and updates for your operating system. Visit www.update.microsoft.com/windowsupdate
  • Download and install the latest anti-virus signatures for your software
  • If you suspect that your system is not properly patched, visit the wireless help desk PRIOR to connecting to the network
  • Ensure that your personal firewall software is active
  • Ensure that your system is set to infrastructure wireless use only and is not associating to, or broadcasting, ad-hoc networks
  • Monitor your connections—do not connect to the wireless and wired networks at the same time

Dealing with the Information Overload

As you can see, there is a ton of information and it can be quite overwhelming for the novice attendee (and even some veterans). The best way to deal with the information overload is to:

  • Plan your schedule so you are going to sessions that you have an interest in.
  • Try to break up the content type, don’t do just breakout sessions. Try some Hands-On Labs or Open Space sessions.
  • Don’t worry about missing a session. All attendees will receive a DVD set containing all of the presentations a few months after the conference ends. A lot of the breakout sessions are recorded during the event, so you can actually watch them from the DVD.
  • Hit the exhibit hall. It’s a great way to relax between sessions and find out what other companies are working on or what’s new from your favorite company. Yes, you will end up getting your badge scanned and probably have to deal with sales calls afterwards, but it can be worth it.
  • Take advantage of the free food.
  • Go to the event party and other after-hours events. They are worth it. I make it a point to go each year and usually bring my family to it. Having them around helps decompress at the end of the day and gives them a nice mini-vacation.

Some other Odds and Ends

  • Don’t miss the keynote, but get there early if you want a good seat.
  • If you want to buy anything from the conference store, wait until the end of the week when the prices drop.
  • Take advantage of the networking opportunities presented. There will be some big names at the conference who are more than happy to talk to you…but they aren’t going to come to you.
  • You can should be able to get the food “to go”, but you will have to ask one of the catering staff.
  • The wireless “lounges” fill up quickly so you may have to sit on the floor near one of the tables, or just find any convenient area that still has connectivity.

In the end, enjoy the conference. It’s a great way to get some excellent technical information and some excellent networking opportunities.