10 things I’ll do differently at next year’s re:Invent

I was lucky enough to get to AWS re:Invent in Las Vegas this year. I had a really good time, and a pretty successful one, but because I was a re:Invent newbie, and because the event is so big (like 43,000 delegates and over 1,000 sessions big!), some things went slightly awry in my planning.

Here’s some things I’ll do differently next year(*):

1 Travel over earlier

I travelled out on the Sunday for a Monday start. Las Vegas is 8 hours behind the UK so it took me a while to get my bearings properly. An extra day before the conference would have helped. It would also have meant that I could have gone to Midnight Madness on the Sunday night, which I was too tired to even contemplate after being awake for 24 hours. Of course, given the scale of re:Invent, I might not have got in — lots of things at re:Invent were over-subscribed and I heard rumours that quite a lot of people who turned up to Midnight Madness didn’t manage to get in. But at least I could have tried.

2 Pick a hotel close to the action

The sessions at re:Invent were spread across 4 or 5 hotels. When I booked my accommodation at the MGM Grand I naively thought that I’d be walking between venues — I was actually looking forward to it. Turns out that wasn’t really possible. The MGM worked out OK on the Monday, because I had unintentionally booked most of my sessions for that day in that venue. After that however, apart from Werner Vogels’ keynote later in the week, I was mainly elsewhere — which meant extra travelling.

Distances in Las Vegas can be misleading. On a couple of occasions I started to walk between venues but then regretted it. Vegas is weird (in all sorts of ways)… and A to B is never a straight line, even when A and B are both on the strip. There’ll be at least one interchange where you have to cross the road by going up one escalator and down another. And between any two points, there are always at least two casinos (the layout of which is designed to lead you in the wrong direction).

Also, I challenge anyone not to get lost inside the Venetian!

Also, also… remember that even inside your own hotel, distances can be pretty big. From my room in the MGM, it took me a good 10 minutes to walk to the conference venue inside the same hotel!

3 Get onto the session picker site quicker

About a month or two before re:Invent, the sessions are announced and you are able to reserve seats. However, you have to act quickly. I reckon that I was on the session-booking website within about 30 minutes of sessions being announced and I still didn’t manage to get reserved seats at all the sessions I wanted. I didn’t do too badly, but I had quite a few ‘walk ups’ — sessions where you weren’t guaranteed a place and you had to arrive early and queue. AWS suggested arriving about 30 minutes before the session but for the more popular sessions it was more like an hour. That’s quite a lot of queuing.

4 Plan for mid-keynote announcements better

So… believe it or not, nobody told me that when new announcements are made during the keynotes, the session listings get modified in real-time and you have to be on the ball to get signed up for them. I have no idea how I missed this critical bit of information!

Two examples during Andy Jassy’s keynote.

Firstly he announced a number of container related services, notably EKS and FarGate. As the announcements were made, new sessions on EKS and FarGate were added to the conference programme. This took me by surprise. Coincidentally, I had a reserved seat that afternoon in a session called ‘Containers: State of the Union’ which sounded like it might cover the new announcements anyway. I didn’t know what to do. Should I retain my reserved seat in the ‘state of the union’ session and hope they’d add details about the new releases to the talks. Or should I give up my reserved seat and hope that I could get a seat using a walk-up ticket in one of the new sessions. In the end I chose to stay where I was. Not a terrible decision actually. It wasn’t a bad session but they only touched on the new services very briefly so I might have been better to move.

In the same keynote, Andy Jassy also announced DeepLens, a deep learning enabled video camera, saying that there would be a series of workshops about DeepLens at the conference and that every attendee who attended would be given a DeepLens for free.

These were obviously very popular sessions!

I made a tactical error and tried to re-book for those workshops using the mobile conference app. For various reasons, re-booking using the app was slightly convoluted. I’d have been better off opening a web browser and using the web interface. The web interface had better search functionality and was generally easier to use — and less susceptible to getting confused by the wifi! By the time I’d done what I needed to do, I’d both lost my reservation for the existing session in the time slot I was going for and failed to get a reserved seat in the DeepLens session. In the end, the DeepLens sessions proved so popular that they removed any walk-ups for them — if you didn’t have a reserved seat, you didn’t get in.

So I missed out. Oh, well — live and learn.

5 Do more workshops

When I originally planned my trip to re:Invent I didn’t sign up for many workshops. These were longer sessions and were hands-on. I guess I was worried that the length of the sessions meant missing out on other stuff. In practice, the workshops I did attend were really good — even the ones that didn’t go 100% to plan.

Firstly, they were much more interactive — so you could more easily ask questions of the speakers and the people sitting around you. Secondly, they felt like a bit of downtime. Many were in the evenings. If you didn’t know people to go out for a meal with, the workshops were a great second best. Well, first best really. Next time, I’ll definitely do more of them.

6 Take (some of) the team

Going on your own to a week long conference is pretty hard work. Yes, you can make a point of chatting to everyone you meet — and I did. At meals. In the queues for the shuttle busses or sessions. On the shuttle busses. Waiting for sessions to start. Etc., etc. But it’s basically lots of small talk — which gets pretty tiring. For me, re:Invent looked like a great place to go as a team. There were lots of team-based activities — not least the re:Play party — and having people to chat thru the day’s events with would have been really nice.

Of course, from a UK perspective, taking multiple people at a time is pretty expensive and probably not that realistic. (See costs below). But I can dream.

7 Take a decent backpack

There were lots of warnings about taking comfortable shoes because of the amount of walking we’d be doing. I took 3 pairs of shoes including a semi-smart pair because I wasn’t sure what the dress code would be for the public sector party that I wanted to go to. Of my two ‘comfortable’ shoes, one pair was quite new. Not totally new… but quite new. Big mistake. Only bother taking completely broken in comfortable shoes. You’re going to be doing a lot of walking! That left me with one decent pair of shoes to wear…

But that was fine.

Weirdly, what caught me out was my backpack, which wasn’t as comfortable as I’d thought. In the UK, a lot of the time I’m wearing my backpack is when I’m cycling, so it doesn’t move around much. But in Vegas I was walking. And I had my laptop and my power supply in the bag. It wasn’t exactly heavy, but it was heavy enough to rub on my lower back because the type of backpack I have has a leather strip running around the bottom of it.

Next time I’ll take a better, more comfortable, one.

8 Don’t make changes to my schedule without thinking thru the consequences

I touched on this above. The way the scheduling app worked was that if you wanted to change sessions you had to first give up your existing reservation or walk-up, then try and book the new session. On a couple of occassions I gave up a reserved seat only to find that I could only get a walk-up, for which I had to queue quite a long time.

The other thing is that you needed to plan which hotel your chosen sessions were at quite carefully. The app helped by pointing out when you were trying to book two sessions that we too far apart (geographically) but you had to be quite careful not to leave yourself spending the whole time sitting on shuttle busses!

9 Don’t enter the 4K fun run when you are still jet-lagged

I entered the 4K Fun Run, which was great. Unfortunately, it started from a different hotel from mine and you had to get there for about 5.30 or 6.00am. So it was an early start, against a body that was already suffering from bad night’s sleep and jet lag. I’m glad I did it — and it was for a couple of good causes — but I might have thought twice had I realised how knackered it was going to leave me.

That was sent at 5.30am local time :-(

10 Get up early for the keynotes

For the first major keynote (Andy Jassy’s) I totally overslept! I missed breakfast, ran thru my hotel, rushed along the strip using the monorail, took the back way off the monorail, ran thru the Ventian car-parks and entered thru a side door.

I made it in time! Phew.

Then found that the keynote venue was full and people were being shifted upstairs to an overflow room. I spent the keynote with 5,000 other people watching on a big screen. The reality is that I might as well have watched from my hotel room — or from the UK for that matter.

Bit of a shame and at least partly my own fault — but I also think it is weird that AWS would charge people $1,800 for a conference but then not size rooms big enough to seat everyone in the main keynote? Isn’t that a bit odd?

Final thoughts

On Las Vegas… it’s a bit of a Marmite place. I loved it and hated it equally. But I was quite sad to leave. I will say one thing though… learn to love cigarette smoke again. It’s everywhere :-(.

Being certified helps (at all AWS events) because they always provide a certified area where you can get extra coffee and, usually, a place to sit away from the main rabble :-). Clearly, that’s not the main reason to get certified… but it’s a nice bonus!

Oh, and one other thought for the AWS re:Invent organisers. I was surprised how little interaction there was in most of the non-workshops sessions that I went to. I mean a couple were explicitly panel sessions, and in those they explicitly asked the audience to contribute. But in most of the other sessions there was relatively little engagement.

In only one of the sessions that I went to (the EFS update session) was there an actual microphone provided that you could walk up to and ask a question during the Q&A. My sense was that the people in that session really appreciated the opportunity. I certainly got to ask my question about performance problems when using EFS as storage to underpin a web site. And I got the answer I expected. “We know about it and the work around is to create lots of dummy data to improve performance”.

Finally, the ‘on the ground’ help was amazing. There were loads of helpers in all the venues and out on the strip, so you were never lost — or lonely!

To sum up. It’s a great conference and I thoroughly recommend it but it is so big and there is so much going on that it takes some work to get the best out of it. I’m guessing people get better at doing that over time.

(*) And as for next year? Hmmm… will I go again? I’m not sure actually. Personally, I’d love to. Was it worth the cost of sending me for my business? I’m less sure. In terms of costs, my flights and hotel came to around £1,300 and then there was some additional travel on top of that. The conference pass was around £1,350 ($1,800). Although food in Vegas was pretty expensive, I didn’t have to eat out much (the conference provided breakfast and lunch) so expenses there weren’t too bad. But I guess we’re looking at a around three grand (£) in total. For the sectors we deal with — UK public sector, UK charities, UK health and UK universities — the London Summit and other UK events are much better value. We don’t get the big announcements in London but you can watch those online anyway. But what we do get is the ability to meet a lot of UK partners, existing customers and potential customers. I didn’t get that in Vegas.