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Interview with Mike Swanson, Director, Microsoft Developer & Platform Evangelism Group (DEP) & PDC2008 Content Owner

ActiveWin.com: Who are you and what do you do at Microsoft?

Mike Swanson: My name is Mike Swanson, and I’m a Director in our Developer and Platform Evangelism (DPE) organization at Microsoft. I started at the company in May of 2000 and worked as a Consultant in our Michigan office before moving to Washington in 2005 to evangelize what was then called “Avalon.” We now know it as the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). Many people know me as the guy who wrote the XAML export plug-in for Adobe Illustrator or the Flash to XAML conversion tool. Recently, I’ve focused much more of my energy on the two conferences that DPE owns: MIX and the Professional Developers Conference (PDC).

ActiveWin.com: What does it mean to be the "PDC Content Owner"?

Mike Swanson: Being the PDC Content Owner means that it’s my job to define and drive the process we use to come up with our themes, topics, and sessions for the event. The most obvious result is the content that our attendees will see in the 200+ sessions that we present both at the event and online in recorded form. But, it extends to many other areas of the conference, including the keynotes, the pre-conference training sessions we do for people who want to fly in one day early, the hands-on lab area where attendees can sit down and spend “quality time” playing with our latest technologies, “The Goods” that we give attendees that contain hot-off-the-press bits, the panels where we have industry experts discuss current and future trends, and the symposia we schedule on the last day.

I depend on a content team that’s made up of technical experts from across the whole company who help select our topics, identify the right speakers, help create the presentations, refine what we say and how we say it, and do a lot of work. Without them, there would be no way we could pull off an event the size of the PDC. It’s definitely a full-time job and then some.
 

ActiveWin.com: What will be on the PDC2008 website during and after the event?

Mike Swanson: During the event, the site will change to make it easy for attendees and our online audience to follow along. We’ll be streaming the keynotes on Monday and Tuesday morning live, and the other two keynotes will be recorded and published to the site within 24 hours. We’ll also make it easy to create, view, and print your personal agenda.

For the first time, we’re pulling Flickr photos that are tagged “pdc2008” and showing them on the front page of the site. We’ll also watch for Twitter messages directed to #pdc2008. In addition to news and announcements from the event, we’ll publish recordings of each session, including a video of the speaker, their presentation, any demos they may show, a downloadable version of their slides, links to related content, and a discussion forum to ask questions and join-in the conversation. The web site will definitely be the online hub of the conference.

After the event, the web site becomes a resource that contains over 240 hours of brand new content that can be accessed by anyone, for free. This year, we’re using Channel 9 to host all of the videos. Visitors will be able to watch videos online or download them for offline viewing in multiple formats.
 

ActiveWin.com: What are you excited about most with this year's PDC?

Mike Swanson: Our announcements! PDC is the futures conference, and it’s where we tell the world all about our upcoming products and technologies. This is our 13th PDC, and in prior years, we’ve announced big things like .NET and Windows Vista. This year will be no different.

We’re at a point in time where bandwidth and connectivity make it possible to extend computing resources from your personal laptop, over a network cable to a server rack in the back room, out over the public internet to a massive data center, and project it to any of the mobile devices in your pocket or the entertainment system in your living room. We’ll talk a lot about Software + Services and how Microsoft gives developers the power to choose when and where to use local or online resources, depending on their unique scenario.

For the first time, we’ll talk in-depth about Windows 7. We have over 20 sessions that dig deep into the new features, and every attendee will receive a pre-beta build. This is an exciting release, and I can’t wait to hear what everyone thinks.

I’m excited about a lot more than these two things, but I’ll stay true to the “most excited” aspect of your question.
J 

ActiveWin.com: When did planning for the event start? What are some obstacles you've had to face in planning such a large event?

Mike Swanson: It’s difficult to pick a single point in time, but we started looking for a location way back in September, 2007. Otherwise, a core team of folks began meeting regularly as early as November, almost a full year ago. At the time, many of us were still focused on delivering the MIX08 conference we had in March, 2008. Our core team has been meeting once a week since early 2008, and the content team has met twice a week since April. It takes a lot of time and effort across the company to pull off an event the magnitude of PDC.

The first obstacle is always finding a suitable location for such a big event. Once all of the factors are considered, there are relatively few cities that can accommodate us. We have to think about things like airports, hotel rooms, food, transportation, convention centers, fire marshal limits, other events, and much, much more.

Another behind-the-scenes challenge is ensuring that we find the right people from across the company to best represent the keynotes and content. PDC is a significant time commitment that is often in addition to a regular day job, and we depend on a virtual team of hundreds to pull it off.

One more milestone that comes to mind is the dry-runs we have on campus leading up to the main event. We require all of our speakers to present their session in front of a Microsoft audience that includes members of the content team and their peers. It took us nine full days, starting as early as 8:30am and going as late at 6:00pm across multiple rooms to review and provide feedback for all of the content. I’ve personally never sat through so much content in my life. It felt like the geek equivalent of the Ironman Triathlon!

ActiveWin.com: Who came up with the idea for the 160 GB drives to give to attendees?

Mike Swanson:  We have a core team of people who try to improve the attendee experience for each event, and this is the result of some innovative group thinking. We’ve wanted to do this for a few events, but there were always logistical issues that made it impossible. This year, we have David Aiken to thank for making the idea a reality. There’s a lot of data on the hard drive, and the additional space made it easier for us to provide even more to attendees.

As far as we know, this is the first time that something like this has been done at such a large conference. Western Digital was a great partner to work with, and even they were surprised at our initial request. The company we used to load data onto the drives faced their own challenges. For example, a few of the files exceed the 4GB maximum limit of a FAT32-formatted drive, so they had to re-write some of their duplication software to accommodate the NTFS file system. They also didn’t anticipate the additional power draw of a hard drive over a USB thumb drive, and when they plugged so many drives into their duplication equipment, they realized that they’d need even more duplication machines to accommodate the load.

ActiveWin.com: PDC2008 is one of this year's most anticipated tech events. What do you think makes this year so different compared to previous PDCs?

Mike Swanson:  To start, Microsoft had just over 60,000 worldwide employees back in 2005, the last time we held a PDC. We’ve grown to over 100,000 in the past few years, and as a result, we have a lot more products and technologies to talk about! If anything, this growth has made it more challenging to fit all of our new content into the event. We’ve had to do the technical equivalent of a reduction in cooking to concentrate our information. I imagine a red warning label attached to PDC2008 like: “please consume PDC content responsibly.” J

Otherwise, as I mentioned earlier, this year marks—at least for me—a paradigm shift in the industry. It’s becoming possible for almost anyone to easily provision computing resources “in the cloud” without having to buy and maintain their own hardware. And perhaps best of all, the flexible nature of these resources makes it easy to accommodate widely varying demands. Have an idea for the next big social networking site? Right-click, provide a credit card, write some code, push a button, and you’re ready to meet the traffic demands of your new site. It really changes the game.

ActiveWin.com: Do you have any funny, off-the-wall stories that come to mind that occurred during all the preparation for PDC?

Mike Swanson:  I wouldn’t call it funny, but on Tuesday morning, September 30th, Pacific Sportswear informed us that they had a fire in the facility where they were producing the PDC2008 attendee t-shirts. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but some of the t-shirts were damaged, and Pacific Sportswear quickly found another facility in Tacoma to print new shirts in time for the event. They definitely went the extra mile to ensure that everyone gets a cool shirt!

ActiveWin.com: Can you give us any hints what we should expect at MIX09?

Mike Swanson:  Awesomeness. J

Seriously…MIX is an exciting annual event for our group. This is the fourth year of the conference, and we’re back at The Venetian in Las Vegas from March 18-20. We just launched our MIX09 event site, and we did a “reset” on our sister community site, MIX Online.

It’s a bit early to get specific about what announcements we’ll make, but overall, we’re using attendee feedback to improve the event for everyone. For example, we’ve added pre-event workshops, expanded our contests to include the popular ReStyle and the new 10K, and increased the focus on our core audiences: designers and developers. We’re trying to “shake things up” a bit this year, so you can expect some surprises.

Your readers may write me off as a tease (after all, I am an Evangelist), but I do know about some of the products and technologies you’ll hear about at the event, and they are very exciting! I hope to see everyone there.

ActiveWin.com: Some people suggest PDC may be a "dying event." Do you agree? Can we expect more PDCs in the future?

Mike Swanson:  Overall, the event industry is feeling a push to become more virtual. However, over half of our attendees tell us that one of the top reasons they attend PDC and MIX is to “network with peers and Microsoft employees.” And, as I mentioned earlier, we have so many new products and technologies that—if anything—it seems like we need to hold a PDC more often than every other year or so. We have a great relationship with our developers and architects, and PDC is one way to ensure that we include them in the conversation.

To answer your question, I do not believe that PDC is a “dying event,” and while we will address the issues of becoming more virtual, if anything, I believe we should do a physical event more often. I’d love to hear feedback on this topic.

ActiveWin.com: What do you expect developers to accomplish by attending the event?

Mike Swanson:  That’s a great question! We realize that it’s a significant investment—especially given the current financial situation—to step out of the office for a full week and travel to Los Angeles. Our goal is to provide enough value to make that investment an easy decision to make.

Specifically, we expect that attendees will become aware, educated, and inspired about the future of the Microsoft platform and our industry. Based on surveys, we know that over 90% of our attendees show up “to learn about new products and technologies,” and over 75% of them use that information to “plan future versions of my products.” I often think of PDC as the “headlights” that illuminate where we’re heading, and I want our developers and architects along for the ride.

ActiveWin.com: Do you have anything to add?

Mike Swanson:  There are a few more things that I’d like to highlight.

We’ve added a new component to PDC2008 called MSR@PDC, where Microsoft Research will be showing off some of their latest innovations. This is a rare opportunity to interact directly with the researchers who are responsible for cool technologies like WorldWide Telescope and Pex.

We’re also working with Doc List, a popular and effective moderator of Open Space Technology, on an Open Space area at PDC2008. Think of this as a “conference within a conference” that is organized and driven by attendees. If you’re attending PDC2008 and would like to either talk about a topic or listen-in, you’ll definitely want to check out this area in the “big room” at the convention center.

Last, we’re always trying to improve the quality and value that we provide at our events, and we’d love to hear your feedback. If you’re attending the event, please feel free to stop me in the hallway or find me and other members of the PDC team at Ask the Experts on Wednesday night.

Thank you for taking the time to interview me! I’ve been a fan of ActiveWin for years, and it’s on the short list of sites that I read every day.

I’ll see everyone at PDC2008!


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