COMMON Exceeds Expectations in Reno, But Group’s Future Uncertain
May 4, 2009 Alex Woodie
Looking back, we’ll likely view the 2009 COMMON conference held last week as a turning point for the user group, and perhaps the midrange industry as a whole. Despite the significant drop in attendance compared to last year’s show, conference-goers expressed a glimmer of optimism that things are about to get better. And while COMMON coped admirably after being dealt a mixed hand in Reno, the group’s financial situation means significant changes are likely before the group’s big 50th anniversary show a year from now in Orlando.
By most accounts, the System i industry’s biggest conference of the year, which was held at the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino, was successful. Sure, there were the usual gripes about prices, accommodations, Internet access, long lines, and the like. But that is to be expected whenever you gather more than a thousand people under a single roof for half a week or more. All in all, the show managed to deliver under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Take attendance. While there is no official word from COMMON, the unofficial tally of paid attendance (not counting IBMers, vendors, and the press) was in the 750 to 800 range. That’s down an (un)healthy 50 percent from last year’s show in Nashville, Tennessee, where about 1,600 people were estimated to have shelled out the $1,500 or so for the right to choose from hundreds of educational sessions, participate in labs, browse the expo floor, and get involved in the various volunteer activities. Considering that nearly all IT trade shows have been seeing drops of 50 percent or more, COMMON didn’t do so bad.
The timing of the swine flu outbreak actually helped COMMON. Had the show been held a week later, many paid attendees and last-minute registrants may have opted to stay home instead of venturing across the continent to a trade show. As it was, the scope and severity of the outbreak only became evident once people were safely tucked inside the Grand Sierra Resort with a thousand other souls from various parts of the world. (Indeed, when you think about it, trade shows are veritable melting pots for global virus propagation. [On second thought, don’t think about it.])
COMMON did all the things that computer user groups commonly do at their annual shows. One example is announcing a certification program. The program will actually consist of two levels, the COMMON Business Computing Associate (CBCA) and the COMMON Certified Business Computing Professional (CCBCP), and will be targeted at early college graduates who need more experience and training before attempting the higher-level IBM certifications. System i training guru Bill Hansen, who is COMMON’s strategic education team manager, will be working with other COMMON members to develop exams for students.
COMMON also encouraged members to participate in the Power Systems requirements process, which was recently moved from the IBM Website to the COMMON Website, and is being run in conjunction with iSociety. The iSociety System i Feature Requests and Requirements process, as it is called, allows members to provide technical feedback to IBM on the System i server. Compared to other communication mechanisms, such as the elite Large User Group, this requirements process gives a voice to small and midsize businesses. It should not be confused with the Global Top Concerns survey, which is currently being conducted by COMMON Europe, and which we covered in last week’s newsletter.
The week also saw the last few days of the election for the COMMON board of directors, and the announcement of the winners. Pete Massiello and Trevor Perry were elected, and will take the seats formerly occupied by Beverly Russell and Lèo Lefebvre. Bruce “Hoss” Collins was re-elected to the board, which consists of 11 directors. Wayne Madden, who has sat on the board since 2007, was elected president. In other news, COMMON honored the work of dozens of volunteers; held a charity 5k race; and announced the winners of the Speaker’s Excellence Award (now called the Speaker’s Hall of Fame).
The name Al Barsa, the popular midrange pro who died at his computer during the show last year in Nashville, was spoken of fondly many times, and attendees were encouraged to donate to the Al Barsa Memorial Scholarship that COMMON set up. This photo on the Flickr picture hosting Website expressed many people’s feelings about a Barsa-less show. Interestingly, COMMON has stopped hosting a “Sound Off” during the show’s opening session, where attendees get to pepper IBM managers and executives with questions and comments (sometimes nice, sometimes not-so-nice). Barsa was always the first to Sound Off at every show, and IBMers dreaded it. His 10-minute speeches would alternate between loving praise for the latest version of the Rochester product and righteous indignation at various flaws. Sound Off started with Al, so perhaps it’s fitting that it dies with him, too.
By all accounts, attendees got their money’s worth from the various technical and educational sessions that are at the heart of any COMMON show. There is nothing surprising or unusual about that. Randy Dufault, who was COMMON’s president until last Thursday, touted the availability of 40 sessions on AIX and Linux topics during the opening session as evidence of COMMON becoming the “Power Systems User Group” and not just the biggest educational gathering of AS/400-types. However, while COMMON is doing its best to offer AIX and Linux education and attract AIX and Linux vendors, the group and its show remain, at their core, devoted to the i-based Power Systems server (or whatever you want to call it these days).
A bright spot was evident on COMMON’s expo floor, where business partners and vendors come to hawk their wares. Dozens of new and updated products abounded at the show. Product hot spots include virtual tape library (VTL) backup and recovery, business intelligence and reporting, and Web development and re-facing tools. There was also a bit of interest around security and document management. Stay tuned to Four Hundred Stuff in the coming weeks for a complete round-up of the new and improved System i products unveiled at the show.
Many System i vendors said they got some very solid leads from conference attendees, and that booth traffic was surprisingly good, especially when food and drinks were wheeled out, which seemed like every couple of hours. Very few vendors said they were disappointed in the traffic or the quality of their sales leads, which had been the common refrain over the past few years. (COMMON bylaws forbid vendors and attendees to conduct transactions at the show, but vendors rely on it to drive business anyway.)
Layoffs in attendees’ IT departments appeared to spur interest in the expo. Many vendors say they were approached by System i professionals who were intent on getting tools to help automate their IT processes after operators, administrators, or programmers were laid off in their shops. In that respect, there was a bit of a survivor mentality evident on the expo floor. While the global financial crisis (or GFC as looksoftware‘s Marcus Dee aptly put it) is taking its toll on consumers and businesses, it is also driving a new wave of innovation, and that sense of urgency to streamline and automate IT processes was palpable at the show.
There was also a sense of urgency at COMMON’s meeting of the members (MOM) last Tuesday, where outgoing president Dufault painted a raw picture of the group’s financial situation. IT Jungle did not attend the MOM meeting, but it was well-reported on by others, including Scott Klement, who kept an excellent day-by-day video blog (or “vlog”) of his COMMON experiences at www.youtube.com/user/darkbagel69, and Leah Rosin at Search400, who blogged about COMMON’s dire financial situation.
Here’s the gist of it: COMMON is projected to lose $839,000 this year at the current rate of expenditures and income, Dufault told members at MOM. That will cut in half the group’s reserve, which is currently at $1.6 million. Clearly things must change to keep the group afloat.
Dufault discussed several money-saving ideas for the 2010 show, which is already booked for early May at the Hilton Orlando hotel; no reservations have been made for future conference sites. Dufault’s plan calls for fairly dramatic cuts in the size and scope of COMMON activities, and is sure to be a high-priority item for the new board and the overall membership to tackle over the next 12 months.
For starters, the group is considering scaling back the annual meeting from five days to four. That would mean the number of sessions would drop from about 500 to around 320. Fewer sessions means COMMON could get by with renting only 15 rooms to host the sessions, down from the current 20-plus, and just a single lab. The vendor expo would be cut from three days (really two-and-a-half) to just two. COMMON is also considering eliminating the social events and the serving of hard liquor during social events, in lieu of sponsorship. “Hard liquor is tremendously expensive in a hotel-banquet setting,” Dufault said, echoing earlier cost-cutting attempts by the COMMON board. Beer and wine would have to suffice.
But the biggest cuts would affect volunteers. Depending on the number of sessions volunteers present, they would still receive a discount on the registration fees, but nobody would get by without paying any registration fees. Even COMMON directors would have to pony up some cash to get in the door. And no longer would COMMON pay the hotel or travel bills for the most active presenters. That could have a huge impact on the depth and breadth of COMMON’s educational sessions–the hallmark of the group.
Scott Klement summed it up in his final vlog from the show. “It sounds like COMMON is asking me to spend about $2,000 on hotel and travel to come here, and I just can’t do that,” he said. “It’s my own personal $2,000, and I just can’t afford it. So based on what Randy said, this is probably my last COMMON.”