Reflections on Microsoft Ignite 2019


By Nicholas M. Hughes

November 10, 2019

I was very nervous about attending my first Microsoft Ignite. So, I set a goal for myself. I would seek out, meet, and learn about 50 new people while at Microsoft Ignite 2019. It was a very ambitious goal, especially for someone who normally met that many people in the span of several months… not 5 days.

It may come as a surprise to some people who know me, especially those who have just recently met me within the last year or two, but I categorize myself as an introvert. Like many stereotypes, typical depictions of introverts don’t take into account the varying shades of gray in which many us live. The thought of injecting myself into one of the largest Information Technology conferences just didn’t sound appealing. So many people. This would be my first conference as a business owner, and making connections with other humans is important when you have others depending on you for their livelihood. Blending into the wall and riding it out was no longer an option.

To be clear, this wasn’t a selling opportunity to me. My goal wasn’t to leave the conference with new revenue. I’m a firm believer that businesses are founded on relationships. That’s how EITR started. A good relationship with some folks that believed in us as human beings and also valued our technical skills. I wholeheartedly believe that the more good people I can interact with and show that I’m a person who cares about their business and personal goals, the more likely I am to have that same goodwill returned to me, directly or indirectly.

The Largest Place on Earth

I completely underestimated the sheer scale of the Orange County Convention Center.

MS Ignite 2019

I arrived at my hotel early on Sunday afternoon. Since I had some time, I decided to head over to the convention center to get my swag and attend a “How to Get the Most Out of Microsoft Ignite” session on foot. My hotel was about a mile from the northwest corner of the convention center. I had read some articles which stressed the importance of “good shoes” when attending this conference, and I thought my leather-soled dress shoes to be very comfortable… as far as dress shoes go.

Glad to arrive inside the North Concourse of the convention center after scaling three flights of exterior steps, I took a moment to cool down and get my bearings. It wasn’t terribly hot outside, but walking a mile in dress clothes in Orlando humidity had caused me to sweat more than I wanted to when I would have to sit with a group of new people. Nobody wants to sit with the stinky guy. As I composed myself I quickly began to realize, this clearly wasn’t where I was supposed to be. It was pretty dead in there. I turned around to face the doors I came in through, and found a big sign directing me to the West Concourse. Great, I had walked to the wrong section of the conference center.

Continuing on this adventure, I then walked down the longest exterior corridor I’ve ever encountered. It seemed to go on forever. My excitement at finding the end faded after seeing the signs at the next junction. Evidently I had only walked to the entrance of the South Concourse. The West Concourse was over yet another raised bridge according to the signs. This is starting to get old…

After passing the Hyatt Regency and crossing yet another bridge, I finally arrived at the West Concourse. I had left my hotel with what I thought was plenty of time before the session began, but now I was starting to get nervous. Not only that, but my feet were absolutely dead and I felt the blisters starting to raise. I checked my location against the location of the session, only to find that I was on the complete opposite side of the West Concourse from where I needed to be. Time to really pick up the pace and make these blisters worse… sounds like a great plan.

I was able to get to the session just before it started and rest my feet for a little over an hour. Unfortunately, that hour also gave my blisters a chance to really expand. I left the room walking with a pretty heavy limp, but I couldn’t favor one leg over the other because they were both in pretty bad shape. I’m certain I looked like a cross between the Frankenstein monster and zombies from the old-time horror flicks… a straight-legged, stilted, shambling walk that drew many stares as I went to find the swag pickup location… back on the other side of the West Concourse.

I hope this part of the story is a cautionary tale to first-time attendees of large conferences. Don’t be like Nick. Wear extremely comfortable shoes and don’t be too stubborn to get a ride. I probably walked 3 to 4 miles in dress shoes, and that was just on the Sunday before the conference even started. Moving on…

Big Announcements

There were quite a few big announcements throughout the conference. I won’t go into much detail here, because it’s been all over the tech news sites. Here’s my short list of hot items.

Azure Arc

Azure Arc extends Azure services and management to customers on other clouds or infrastructure, including on-premises, multi-cloud (including Google and Amazon), and edge.

This is a huge deal if it works well. I’m going to try to sign up for preview and report back later.

Azure Synapse Analytics

Microsoft launched this “limitless” analytics service, and it seems to serve as a combination offering of data warehousing and big-data analytics.

It can use either serverless or provisioned resources to enable data professionals to collaborate, manage, and analyze their most important data with ease all within the same service.

Project Cortex

Project Cortex in Microsoft 365 is a new service that leverages AI to automatically classify all of an organization’s content into topics. This forms a network of knowledge that improves individual productivity and organizational intelligence, helping identify experts on specific topics, and surfacing knowledge through interactive experiences across Microsoft 365.

Flow is now Power Automate

In case anyone else has trouble keeping up with the name changes… Microsoft Flow is now Power Automate.

Chromium-based Edge Browser GA Date

General Availability approaches! I have to be honest… I don’t care too much about this one. It looks cool, but I run a Linux laptop so I can’t engage in the preview and I have no idea if they’re going to support me at some time in the future. I’m mostly including this so I can mention that THE NEW EDGE LOGO IS CLEARLY INSPIRED BY OURS! I didn’t know they were watching us… I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Web-based Visual Studio Preview

This is pretty cool as well. I love the idea of having access to an IDE on the go. I mostly program in Vim, just because it’s on all of the systems I work on. Maybe I’ll switch up if it works well. I’m already a fan of VS Code.

Power Virtual Agents

Built on top of Azure’s existing AI smarts and tools for building bots, Power Virtual Agents promises to make building a chatbot almost as easy as writing a Word document.

This is pretty cool stuff. I love that Microsoft is making everyone a developer.

Recurring Technical Themes

I generally stuck inside of a couple of my “main” focus areas when choosing sessions, so I can’t speak to what occurred across all of the ones I didn’t attend. However, I did notice a few concepts that came up in many of the sessions, even when it wasn’t the primary focus of the discussion.

Security

Microsoft’s strong commitment to security is very apparent. Everything they’ve done lately has had very well thought out security features baked in from the start. Additionally, they’re undertaking a number of initiatives to improve the security of their customers through process changes as well as moving toward cutting-edge security architectures in their own internal areas.

Multi-factor Authentication (MFA)

I don’t think there was a single session I was in where the speaker didn’t implore everyone in the audience to enable MFA for every account in their organization. It was really nice to see that level of prodding, since MFA is such a large deterrent for account credential misuse. The constant reinforcement caused me to want to bring up this issue with all of my clients as soon as I returned home from the conference.

Passwordless Authentication

Many presenters were using “Windows Hello”, Microsoft’s biometric login mechanism, in conjunction with a hardware key to access their laptops for the presentations. It’s a pretty neat concept since you can still get the “multi” in MFA without passwords.

Zero Trust

Microsoft is currently in the middle of a project to move their corporate network toward a Zero Trust architecture. This is really exciting to me, as it makes so much sense in my world. I don’t have a perimeter. There’s nothing to put a wall around. I employ remote workers and take advantage of SaaS and cloud infrastructure for my applications. In this model, strong identity and device health play a huge role in determining allowable access to resources.

Data Protection

There were a number of announcements surrounding Data Loss Prevention and Information Protection. With the large amount of data that organizations are creating, an eye toward the classification and protection of that data is very important. Microsoft is recognizing this trend and is (in my opinion) at the forefront of the implementation of technical controls in this area.

IoT

The Internet has “Things”!

IoT got a lot of play in the sessions during the week. Azure is building out a lot of great IoT functionality, and Microsoft is even reaching all the way down to help design the chips going into the devices. Since I got my start in technology with a shop working on distributed controls, IoT is a passion. Having a bunch of smart devices around feeding data back to a central location is really cool. However, many organizations don’t think about the maintenance requirements of securing and updating these little guys. Azure is making full-lifecycle management of IoT devices much easier, with what could be the best cloud platform for IoT at this time.

Low-code/No-code Automation

There was a heavy focus on the “Power” suite at Ignite. The announcement for Power Virtual Agents I covered above was a very interesting thing, but Microsoft is also making Power Automate and other low-code/no-code platforms a big part of their strategy going forward. It makes sense. Why write a bunch of custom software for some processes that are lightweight enough to live someplace else? It also frees up your software engineers to work on features for things that can’t be automated through one of these tools.

Diversity and Inclusion

Before attending Ignite 2019, I had never seen something like this at a conference… especially at this scale. There were many sessions in the “Diversity and Inclusion” track, and I think they were a welcome addition to the agenda. The theme was also pervasive in every aspect of the conference as well. I applaud Microsoft on taking such a strong stance on these items and dedicating resources toward building a culture of diversity inclusion both internally and their external events.

Human Connections

I read an article some time before I left for Ignite which advocated for reaching out to other attendees before the conference. This tactic promised to help start a dialogue prior to your arrival and give you some folks to specifically link up with instead of blindly making conversation with other people in the hope that it would turn something more than “What brings you to Ignite?”

I thought this sounded like a good idea, so I adopted it and used the networking section in the event app to look up other attendees. This is something like looking for a needle in a needle stack. Who should I contact? After some (over-)thinking, I decided that I would look up some security folks. The majority of the sessions I was interested in were of that variety, so it made sense to look up other people who might be attending them and also might provide some talking points over new product features.

It turns out that the attendee networking feature of the event app isn’t really great for initiating a dialogue with other attendees. You can schedule a meeting. That’s it. I imagined receiving a cold meeting invite from a random Ignite attendee and decided very quickly that I didn’t want to be that guy. So, I took my list of security folks and tried to see if any of them had LinkedIn profiles. I suspect that some number of my connection requests went unaccepted due to adverse reactions ranging from “This guy is stalking me” to “How did he know I’m going to Ignite?”

Luckily, some actually accepted my request. I had a number of really good conversations over messaging, and even linked up with a few at the conference and had great conversations in person. It was interesting to see some of the responses (or lack thereof) though… Toward the end of the week, my theory was that these people were likely thinking I was trying to sell them something. I’m sure that my tactic for meeting new people sounded very much like a door-to-door salesman to them, as they’re likely inundated with requests like mine (“Hey, let’s chat!”) year-round by sales professionals seeking to sell their wares.

On the evening of the closing celebration, I was in line to get onto the bus and feeling defeated. I wasn’t on pace to meet my “let’s meet people” goal, so I resigned myself to going over for the free food and leaving early to wallow. By chance, I ended up in line next to someone with whom I struck up a great conversation and ended up spending the evening with their team who came from around the country. They saved me from my wallowing, I had a spectacular night, and I’m forever grateful that they allowed me to tag along for the ride.

Conclusion

Microsoft really impressed me at Ignite. I’ve been a fan of Azure for quite a while now, but the security-first mindset and level of thoughtfulness they are showing with their service integration is without parallel in my opinion. I’m looking forward to working more with many of the products I mentioned in this post, and I hope that anyone reading this seriously considers some of them on their merit and as part of a multi-cloud strategy instead of just accepting whatever your “primary” cloud offers as gospel.

On a personal note, I didn’t reach my goal of meeting with 50 people. Not even close. However, I did meet quite a few really great people and I’m glad I tried. It was a really great and eye-opening experience, and I’m looking forward to my next opportunity to break out of my “old ways” and connect with more people.



Nicholas Hughes is a founding partner and CEO of EITR Technologies LLC. As part of his daily duties, he’s responsible for all of those super awesome elements of the CEO job that you read about as a kid, like setting the strategic direction of the company and modeling corporate values. Additionally, Nick stills performs technical consulting work with specializations in Automation & Orchestration, Cloud Infrastructure, Cloud Security, and Systems Architecture. He has over 15 years of experience in a wide breadth of roles within Information Technology, which is invaluable to clients seeking comprehensive technical solutions to business problems. Nick highly values pragmatism, logical thinking, and integrity in both his business and personal life… which is a decidedly boring set of core values that reap great results when applied to the task at hand. He also has a wonderful wife and two boys who keep him on his toes.