Six (6) Tips for the Best VMworld Experience
Being a public employee for most of my career, I haven't had many opportunities for formal training. On the job learning (aka Google) has definitely gone a long way in filling in the gaps, as well as working on teams full of really smart, passionate IT pros. However, I've been fortunate to have been sent by my employers to several VMworld's in the past, in particular VMworld 2008, 2016, and 2018.
My experience at each of VMware's annual events has varied considerably due to my age, maturity, and professional experience; however, I can unequivocally say that my time at VMworld 2018 has been the most beneficial.
While I was wrapping up some technical notes on the last day of the conference, I began reflecting on why this time was so much better than the previous years, and came up with a few reasons. I've compiled this list of tips in the hopes that others planning to attend VMworld (or similar conferences) can have a fun and productive time.
Tip #1: Set a goal for attending
Like many things in life, approaching VMworld with a specific purpose or goal in mind will make the entire experience less overwhelming. There are dozens, if not hundreds of sessions, labs, round tables with experts, etc. and if you don't go in with a plan, you'll be like I was at VMworld 2016. Imagine a young IT guy hopping from hall to hall listening to talks at various levels of expertise about topics as diverse as vSphere, vSAN, VDI, and NSX. I'll be totally honest, I didn't really get much from attending that year, other than a belly full of mediocre Mandalay Bay Convention Center breakfasts and lunches.
This year though, my purpose was clear: learn more about NSX. In particular, I wanted to learn enough that I felt comfortable explaining the architecture - the basic components and their purposes - without the use of VMware's diagrams. If I at least got this much, the rest would be gravy. My secondary goal was to meet a handful of new professionals and learn about them, their environment, and challenges.
Tip #2: Do some research
I'll keep this one short. You won't be able to do a good job choosing what sessions to attend if you don't at least have a basic knowledge of the solution(s) you're planning to learn about. Go to VMware's site and look for the free classes on the technology you're interested in. Complete the courses, then proceed to schedule your sessions for VMworld. You'll be glad you did.
Tip #3: Carefully prepare your schedule
Once I knew the why I was going to VMworld, came deciding on the how. This is where the helpful My VMworld calendar came into play. When you register for the conference, you are required to create a My VMworld profile so that you can access the web site (or app) full of resources about the event. The most useful of these, in my opinion, is the session scheduler/calendar. SPOILER ALERT: If you're like me (and only somewhat familiar with the solution I was planning on learning about), this is where you'll spend a lot of your time.
First things first, we'll go over how to use this tool. Basically, the default view is to simply present ALL the sessions in a list. However, if you know which technologies you're interested in, you can narrow the list down significantly from there. Further, you can decide to narrow the sessions down by target audience, expertise level, and more. I decided to just use the subject (technologies I was interested in) and target audience filters.
I had the misfortune of getting my VMworld registration one week before the convention, so securing spots was difficult. Despite this, I made it a point to schedule what I could, and add the other sessions I was interested in as favorites. When you do this, your calendar view shows every single time a session is offered throughout the week, which made my calendar look really busy. In fact, I went a step further and exported the My VMworld calendar to my Google Calendar so that I could have it all in one app. Your scheduled sessions will appear on your Google Calendar with all the details, as will your favorited sessions, albeit with the "Favorite: " prefix.
Final note on this. Don't be afraid to revisit your schedule and add/delete sessions. I'll touch more on this later, but this process of refining my schedule proved exponentially beneficial.
Tip #4: Show up early on Sunday
I know what you're thinking, "JC, Sundays are just for partner sessions." Normally you'd be right, but this year due to demand, there were a ton of breakout sessions, instructor led hands on labs, etc. on Sunday. In fact, after I got my badge at 7 AM, I made a bee line for the hands on labs area to get into the HOL 1903 (NSX) series of instructor led labs. I was only able to successfully preregister for the last one later in the afternoon, but getting in early and joining the waitlist ensured that I got into the first two, as well.
An unexpected side effect of doing HOL 1903-01 through -03, was that I was able to learn enough about the product on Sunday and therefore drop 80% of the sessions I had originally booked or favorited. This lifted a big weight off my shoulders since I didn't want to be running around the Mandalay Bay Convention Center rushing to get to my next session (a mistake I had made the other times). As with travel, I find that my favorite way to experience VMworld is to have a handful of must sees and leave space to explore or change direction.
Tip #5: Sit in the front
This goes against everything in my being. All throughout my scholarly career, as well as now, I am perpetually seeking to sit in the back of any room. However, emboldened by the fact that my first session/hands on lab of VMworld 2018 was being led by someone I knew, I decided to sit in the front. This ended up being a game changer.
Not only did I benefit from the brilliantly led labs, but I got to overhear questions to the instructors from others that waited until the presentation was over. You know how sometimes you don't know what to ask if you don't have a certain level of requisite knowledge? Well that was definitely me, but thanks to these curious IT souls, I was able to learn from the questions I didn't even know to ask.
Another bonus from sitting in the front is that the instructors will recognize you because you're always in their line of sight. There are only so many NSX (or other solution) instructors at VMworld, so you're bound to run into them again later. This proved hugely helpful on Wednesday while I was trying to learn about vRealize Network Insight, and I had 3 lab captains around teaching me what they knew.
Other bonus: Sometimes VMware's CEO, Pat Gelsinger, will be around and stop to chat, give you advice, and take a picture at the request of one of the lab captains. I have to take a moment to recognize my NSX solutions engineer for going above and beyond to help make this conference a joyful learning experience.
Tip #6: Interact with the people around you
I hate the term networking. It has taken on a negative connotation invoking thoughts of superficial interactions that end with exchanging business cards. I also dislike starting conversations with strangers. My inner INTP-T sometimes gets anxious and it doesn't always feel natural. But networking (or whatever you'd like to call it) is key at VMworld.
Whether it was talking to a Sys Admin from Missouri about his farm, his family, the challenges he faces at work, and his past experiences at lunch, or playing ping pong with a Systems Engineer VMware partner in which I learned about the Workspace ONE product; every time I took the time to form a genuine connection with someone at VMworld, the effort was appreciated and reciprocated. This is just human nature as I've learned as I've traveled around the world, and can be mutually beneficial as long as both parties are willing to engage. It usually just takes one party to make the effort, so why not be the one who takes the lead?
It's important to realize that your mileage may vary, even if you follow all these tips. As I mentioned earlier, I was extremely fortunate that the Solutions Engineer that I had been interacting with frequently outside of VMworld, had done his best to make this experience as beneficial as possible for me as a customer. I also recognize that some of the things I suggest may not come naturally to others. But if you can take anything from this post is that it's up to you how much you take from attending VMworld (or any other conference event). I can say that for myself this has been the most educational, fun, and inspiring conference I've attended. I hope that you can say so too.
I encourage feedback, so if you have anything to say, please comment below!