Slightly Chilly Reception for COMMON in Minneapolis
May 9, 2011 Alex Woodie
The weather was a barometer of sorts for last week’s COMMON conference in Minneapolis. Just as snow flurries and gusty winds drove people to find cover, and embarrassed natives of the Minnesota city swore that it was warm and sunny just a week earlier, officials with the largest IBM i user group struggled (and mostly succeeded) in finding success with the annual gathering, which recorded a slight uptick in attendance but ho-hum reviews from vendors.
Light snow fell during the first and second days of last week’s Spring COMMON conference, which could rightly have been called the Winter Summit. But what really caused people to flee the streets for the Habitrail-like maze of tubes that connect the buildings of downtown Minneapolis was the 20-degree wind chill reading. While the conference was based in the Minneapolis Convention Center, many sessions were held in the nearby Hilton, which made the heated tubes a popular place.
“You should have been here last week,” a Minnesota native said in response to the hat-and-glove inducing conditions. Perhaps. And while nobody could have foreseen what the weather would bring to the area during the first week of May, the fact that the show was located so close to the IBM i platform’s holy city of Rochester led to predictions that the Spring 2011 event would attract a bigger, more technical crowd.
That didn’t happen. The official attendance reported by COMMON was 1,221. Although attendance was about 70 people higher than the spring 2010 show in Orlando, Florida, last week’s show was the third-worst ever showing. It’s worth noting here that IBM attracted 1,500 attendees to its STG Technical Enablement Conference, which was held the previous week in Orlando. Clearly, the technical crowd flew south, where it was warm and partly, ah, mousy. With next spring’s COMMON conference at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, perhaps the show will have all the conditions (warmth, techi-ness, and mice, but alas no Habitrails) necessary for attracting today’s top IT talent.
Despite the attendance, which was lower than many predicted, COMMON chairman Pete Massiello was upbeat in his assessment of the group’s future. Since the Orlando conference in spring 2010, the organization had a very strong year, and was able to put money back into reserves and to reinvest in new member offerings, Massiello said during his opening session speech on May 1. COMMON also succeeded in selling out the vendor expo portion of last fall’s show in San Antonio, which attracted 275 attendees, he said. This October’s show in St. Petersburg, Florida, should offer a similar success, he said.
Massiello presented a logical argument for the basis of COMMON’s future success: That IBM i professionals should not be worried about the cost of education (about $1,500 per person for access to 300 sessions over four days in the case of a COMMON show). The greater threat is the cost of not getting educated, he said. By adding new skills and certifications to their resumes, IT professionals have a better shot at remaining relevant in a fast-changing field. Keeping pace with technology also insulates IT professionals against a difficult market that’s marked by job cuts, lower IT budgets, and greater uncertainty, he said.
COMMON Remains Relevant
COMMON, which is the world’s largest IBM i association and one of the oldest user groups in existence, is also adapting to new market conditions, and there was evidence of this at last week’s show. For starters, the group began testing attendees for a new COMMON certification, called Business Computing Professional. This is a higher-level certification than COMMON’s first certification, the Business Computing Associate, which it released at the 2010 show in Orlando. The user group did not comment on the success of the introduction.
Here’s another new thing that COMMON did last week: live streaming of conference sessions over the Internet. COMMON made its LiveTrack streaming available for nine sessions. A simulcast of the COMMON opening session was made available free of charge, while access to others cost $299 for COMMON members, and $399 for non-members.
The launch of LiveTrack marks a subtle shift in COMMON leaders’ attitudes on virtual events. While the user group has offered webinars and webcasts for years, it avoided making its core educational sessions–its bread and butter, so to speak–available online. But with only 10 percent of COMMON members attending physical conference, that means that COMMON is not reaching the other 90 percent, said Massiello, who maintains that virtual events do not come at the expense of physical events. Making session handouts available to conference attendees over the Web is another way the group is using technology to help members.
The results of COMMON LiveTrack were not available as this issue of The Four Hundred went to press. At more than $30 a pop and only nine sessions to pick from, the per-session price tag was almost certainly too high and the selection too low to put much of a dent in the 90 percent-crowd who stayed home. But it’s probably a good bet that COMMON will test the virtual waters again in Anaheim. There is too much to lose by not adopting the medium.
While Massiello is clearly more supportive of virtual events than his predecessor, Wayne Madden, he also gave props to being on-site and the value of “hallway networking.” The opportunity to meet experts at physical events like COMMON can help attendees find solutions to business or technical problems they confront in the future. “Business is all about networking,” Massiello said.
User Reviews, Election Results
There was clearly a lot of IBM i networking going on in the COMMON halls and Habitrails of Minneapolis last week. The show always presents a good opportunity to rekindle old friendships and to make new associations with others who work with the IBM i platform, and for those who had the means and motivation to make it to Minneapolis, the results were mostly good.
A quick scan of the Twitter feeds, using the recommended hashtag “#commonug,” shows these positive reviews: “Back from a FANTASTIC #communug meeting,” tweeted Larry “Dr. Franken” Bolhuis. “Very productive Board mtg this morning, Absolutely exhausted from the week,” tweeted COMMON board member Kevin Mort. “Thanks to Pete M, all the staff, speakers and volunteers for a fantastic conference in Minneapolis,” tweeted Paul Rogers, a local user group (LUG) participant from the Northeast. “Great conference. Great people,” tweeted Eric Kempter, who founded the JDEList. “So long Minneapolis, it’s been a good #COMMONUG,” tweets David Gibbs, the founder of midrange.com.
The reviews from vendors in the Expo were not as good. The vendors were happy with the turnout Sunday night, when attendees fresh off a dissertation on the Watson supercomputer at the end of the opening session were wrangled into expo area for food, drink, vendor pitches, and free stuff. That was the high point of the show from the vendor’s point of view.
But after the initial Sunday night crowd dispersed, vendors sounded mostly disappointed in the turnout during the next three expo sessions on Monday and Tuesday. Vendors who were expecting to build on the success of the Orlando show were in for a let down, as attendees flocked to the mid-day expo session for the free sandwiches, then left, leaving the aisles between vendor booths open and bare. Monday night’s session, which featured free beer and wine, was a bit better. One vendor said he was close to reaching the minimum number of prospects for the show. Mostly, they complained about low turnout at their booths.
COMMON also got some business done. Voting for the next board of directors was closed at the end of the conference, and the election results were announced on Wednesday. Jeff Carey, Bob Krzeczowski, and Phil McCullough received the most votes, beating out Russell Myers for the three open COMMON board seats. Krzeczowski was re-elected, while Cary and McCullough are starting new terms. Madden and Dan Kimmel leave the board after each served two terms.
COMMON also unveiled the slate of officers who will lead the group for the next year. Pete Massiello will continue in his role as president, and Trevor Perry his as executive vice president. New board member Carey has taken the role of treasurer, a post that was previously occupied by Jim Oberholtzer, who was re-elected in 2010 and remains on the board until his term expires in 2013. The secretary’s seat will be occupied by Pete Helgren, who was elected a year ago and is eligible for re-election in 2013.
COMMON executive director Ralph Gervasi also announced on Friday that members of COMMON’s nominating committee will be able to serve three consecutive one-year terms, instead of the previous two term limit. The nominating committee is responsible for soliciting nominations for people to serve on the COMMON board of directors, which is composed of nine elected directors, the executive director, and the IBM liaison.