COMMON is Fun Again
October 2, 2006 Brian Kelly
Over the last ten years, I have written a number of articles about COMMON and how the board of directors has siphoned out the fun and has actually made it prohibitively expensive for the fun-loving programmer analyst or other attendee to have a pleasant experience without using personal funds. But COMMON is getting better, in my opinion. And here’s why.
I’ll admit it. A lot of the reduction in fun at COMMON over the years, as far as I am concerned, came from cuts in the number of scheduled hours for the formerly open-bar CUDS–COMMON Users Discussion Session, once known as COMMON Users Drinking Session. But this is about more than alcohol and social lubrication. Let me explain.
As a test a number of years ago, COMMON had a Wet Cuds and a Dry Cuds. Even the advocates of the Dry CUDS joined the Wet CUDS after the echoes in their room became more than they could handle. There was the perception that the Dry crowd was subsidizing the fun habits of the Wet crowd. Though there was no similar outcry from the COBOL crowd that most sessions were about RPG or from the TCP/IP crowd that SNA was getting too much time, the COMMON leadership felt they had to take action.
So COMMON changed longstanding practices to reduce the financial impact on the Dry crowd by limiting the benefits for the Wet crowd. Conference fees however continued to rise. The Wet crowd had to pay (reduced price) for their beverages while the Dry crowd got theirs for free. Interesting switch! And with that and more, the fun started slipping out of the conferences one by one until CUDS was reduced from three rooms to one room and most of the tables were empty.
At my first COMMON in 1979, the conference extended from Sunday through Friday and CUDS was every evening (not just some) from 6 p.m. to midnight. Moreover, CUDS was always top shelf. Because IBMers (I was one then) are basically cheap when it comes to out of pocket expenses, the CUDS hall was loaded with them. In other words, experts were everywhere. The experts and non-experts alike enjoyed the happy environment of CUDS and exchanged ideas about solving several problems amidst the witty and casual environment. There was no need for a “Meet the Experts” night, because the experts were there just about every night.
During this time, I started to go to every other conference instead of every conference and recently I reduced that to every third. The opportunity to learn and hear from the best of the best still draws me to COMMON, but the fun of going to a conference alone had almost disappeared. But something different was in the wind at this latest conference held in Miami Beach. No, the days of the old Wild West have not fully returned, but there is definitely a recognition that a good deal attracts a lot of people.
When I arrived at the conference Sunday afternoon, the major rush was over and the lines were reasonable. I got in a short one. When I was next in line I looked up and saw a sign that I had not seen before doing my wait in the line. It said “Exhibitors Only.” I looked to the right of the sign and it said “Registration.” So, I asked the two gentlemen from Texas whether they were in the registration line and they promptly said “yes.” I said well, I guess my little wait in the next line was to no avail and I began to go to the back of the line.
Then, one of the Texans said that they had been waiting in that line for forty-five minutes and nobody had come to serve them. The young lady at the exhibitors line heard this and said, “Oh, I am taking care of all the lines.” So, I went to my old spot in that line with my wife and we were out of there in two minutes. Meanwhile the two Texans looked like “Wild Men” as they quickly realized that being gentlemen had not helped their registration mission. Knowing that their blood was boiling and finding humor in their plight, I could not resist giving them a little ribbing. I had almost gotten behind them and now I was fully registered, my wife was registered and the “Wild Men” from Texas were still in line. They were not happy–but then again, they were “Wild Men.”
For the next five days my wife and I would run into the Wild Men several times a day. We always took the opportunity to introduce them to attendees that even we did not know as the “Wild Men.” They loved it; we loved it; and everybody that we met loved it. They had become the “Wild Men.” They were no longer Al and Steve. They were the “Wild Men.”
The next event was the exciting introduction of the iSociety and a brutally frank Town Hall meeting (as frank as those long past). At this event, we all came to realize that IBM does not have the $100 million to invest in television advertising and that we all (we and IBM) need to be more clever to help spread the word. Mark Shearer, general manager of the System i division, gave a humble and honest response to Randall Munson’s charge–which netted out to where’s the beef?– was refreshing. It was obvious that the head of the System i family wanted to do the best job he could for we, the people, and that within his capabilities and his budget he would do just that.
The Expo reception Sunday, with champagne toasts galore, was a fitting start to the formal part of the conference. There was a big Fajita Fest at the same time to nourish the famished. Everything was first class. Al Barsa and Jim Sloan sponsored a Meet the Experts for two hours at the beautiful Loews hotel ballroom. The experts showed and the crowd was much denser than CUDS of the past. And, yes, the Wild Men were there–still cooling down.
Monday’s all-attendee reception at the Expo on Monday evening was another chart topper, with both free refreshments and a feedbag that just would not stop. On Tuesday, IBM put on a Rock and Roll Revival at CUDS and provided two tickets for complimentary beverages of the Wet or Dry variety. The feedbag got bigger and provided a barbecue extravaganza of hot dogs and great burgers along with popcorn, and an ice cream bar. Wednesday brought the meeting of all members followed by yet another CUDS and though I had to leave earlier in the day, Thursday’s closing event was reported as another one that spelled F-U-N.
On Tuesday, the word of the Wild Men was spreading through the conference. By Wednesday, in order to protect their anonymity they had to split up to attend sessions in peace. On Tuesday night, a group of Texans and Oklahomans tracked down the Wild Men. This group of COMMON professionals came for one reason only. They wanted to become Wild Men. When asked for their secret, the Wild Men had no problem telling the other Texans the whole truth and nothing but the truth: “Wait in line.” They bellowed whenever asked. When my wife and I left CUDS that night with Steve and Ron and the two Karens and Cindy, we had had the time of our lives. It seems like COMMON now knows for sure that F-U-N is important for its sessions and I think that bodes well for the future of COMMON and for the iSociety and for the System i. It won’t be hard to get me back to Anaheim in the spring.
The best of the best were giving it their best. Even the COMMON Guest program was revitalized. From having attended other Guest sessions, my wife, Pat, did not want me to spend $125 on the Guest ticket. For all the years with little to offer COMMON was still exacting $125 from its guests for the right to be with their spouses or friends. But this time, this was no exploitation. To my surprise, it was worth every penny. With the finest blintzes and epicurean breakfast delights each morning and fantastic food at the CUDS in the evening, the guests were treated to some wonderful receptions that helped immortalize this COMMON experience in all of our memories. I know for one that when my wife likes something, there is a good chance we’ll be back sooner, rather than later.
So, my hat is off for a great conference and a major fun event. The COMMON team did its best to make this quite a show and for my money and my tickle-bone and it paid off big time.
For the future, I do have a little list that may help add more F-U-N and actually increase attendance by 500 to 1,000 registrants or even more. Assuming that the 2,001st attendee costs less than the 100th, there’s a lot of marketing that can go on between now and the spring to bring in 3,000 or more attendees. Without further ado, here is the list broken down into marketing changes, session changes, and guest session changes:
Increase COMMON Membership/Attendance
Session Oriented Suggestions
Guest Session Suggestions
I am sure there are more ideas than this; consider this a starting point and a call for more brainstorming. Emphasizing all of the salient and F-U-N aspects of COMMON can increase Anaheim attendance by as much as 1,000 attendees. There just has to be something wet, something dry, and something to keep the twinkle in the attendee’s eye. And, just as we tell IBM’s management about the System i, COMMON has to tell somebody about the value of the conference and membership or they will not know enough to register.