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Tuesday 17 October 2017

After Ignite–Bots and Brains Meetup–Part 1

What is a Community Meetup at Ignite

This year, in September I attended Microsoft Ignite in Orlando Florida for the first time in many years (since the days of TechEd actually) and for the first ever as a speaker.  I was deeply honoured to be selected as a speaker and even more so that I was selected for what is a relatively new format, the Community Meetup format.

I took my role seriously and spent a good amount of time preparing for this unusual presentation format.  Typically at these sorts of events the presenter gets up at the front of the room with a projector, some PowerPoint slides and perhaps a copy of Visual Studio to show some code.  At a community meetup presentation the participation shifts a bit to the attendees.  To get the most out of the session, attendees have to find the subject interesting, have some opinions and be willing to share those opinions.

As the community meetup host my role was to present the ideas and concepts to the attendees backed with my expertise and experience in the field and hopefully my comfort in facilitating discussion.  Our session (for it was both my and the attendees session) was BRK2388 “Bots and Brains: The Microsoft Bot Framework and Cognitive Services, better together”.  The idea was to discuss the difficulties with making a chat bot application that was responsive to the needs of people using it.  This included three main topics, frustration, inclusive design and deciding if a chat bot was even the best delivery mechanism for the application.

Our room held only 85 people and I’m happy to say we filled the room.  However, I do regret that perhaps hundreds were turned away at the door as our room and format dictated a much smaller attendance than were registered for the session.  I will continue to work with Microsoft to improve the format as I feel that the format presented a number of valuable benefits to attendees that they might not get in other more traditional passive sessions.  I believe that attending a well run community meetup should offer a great chance to network with other people interested in the same topic.  It offers the chance to come up with some possible solutions or considerations to problems that many of us face on a regular basis and perhaps just as importantly give a chance to be actively involved in the Ignite conference as opposed to the typical passive nature of attending presentations.

This is the room I spoke in.  Seats 85 people.  350 showed up.

Getting Started

So… what did we do?  We had a room of 85 enthusiastic attendees that came ready to participate.  We had ten tables of 6 people each with additional chairs around the perimeter.  We began by getting everybody to introduce themselves at their particular table.  My plan was to get each table to work together as a team.

Next we introduced everybody to a shared OneNote notebook that would provide all the attendees a place to take notes that we would make available after the conference.  Each table would hopefully record notes of discussions and ideas right in the shared OneNote notebook (It turns out that they did… enthusiastically, more on that content in Part 2)

Now it came down to me where I introduced the topic we wished to discuss and more specifically what questions we would be addressing as a community.  I began by introducing my background in the Microsoft Bot Framework and Cognitive Services, my expertise in application development and some examples of  Bot/AI projects I have worked on.  Then we got to the meat of the meeting.  In a chat bot, how do you deal with Bot Frustration?  How do you make a chat bot that includes everybody and lastly how do you decide if a chat bot is the right solution in the first place.

When we got started with the first topic I was surprised to see everybody at each table actively participating in the table discussion and even more surprised that those sitting along the walls formed ad-hoc discussion groups without a table and began working on ideas.  There did not seem to be anybody I noticed that was left out of the discussion.  That made me feel pretty good.

What Could have been Better

I wish, in some ways that the session had been recorded for others to enjoy some of the feedback but it might not have presented well as a recording as there were 5-8 minute gaps of discussion where nothing obvious was happening to a recorded session.   I also wish that we could have accommodated the many people who were not permitted entry to the session due to seating availability. 

The difficult balance was between a community feel where everybody could participate and having so many people in the room that it becomes difficult to let everyone’s voice be heard.  We could easily have had a much bigger room available to a lot more people, but at what cost?  This is one of the challenges we will need to address for next year.  The fact that the meetup sessions were so popular was gratifying, concerning and encouraging, all at the same time.

I wonder if the elevated stage was more of a barrier to the presenter, me.  I spent a lot of time walking among the tables, listening to the discussions, offering some suggestions and advice and eliciting feedback from various tables and having to climb up to a podium separated me from the groups perhaps too much.

What Worked

The table discussion format actually exceeded my expectations.  Before the session I really didn’t know if what I had planned would work, would be fun and would provide valuable information to the attendees.  I thought it would (else why would I do it?) but it was satisfying to see that it worked out even better than expected.

We ended up with a whole bunch of information collected in the OneNote notebook on all three topics.  Some tables came up with some interesting names for their “team” (Revolving Table, Wall, Table Unique, etc…) and people seemed to have fun.  At the end of each 8 minute period of discussion we had two or three tables present their ideas using hand-help microphones we had available.  There were some great ideas (Part 2).

The size of the room was great for discussion purposes and Microsoft really spent quite a bit of time thinking of how this session format would work to reflect the community meetup feel.  We were, I think, the only room that had it’s own permanent snack station for attendees.  We had a Microsoft Surface Hub provided for which I used it to host the OneNote notebook so we could see progress being made and we had great technical support in the room at all times.

Part 2 –  The Results

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