Friday, October 14, 2011

Speaking at RSA Europe: I never asked for this

I've done a lot of conferences, and I expect a lot of things to go wrong when I'm on the move.
It just does.

However, I expect the conference itself to be organised and have their act together. People pay a frankly terrifying amount of money to go to these events and listen to dancing monkeys like me ramble about things for 40 minutes or so. The way I see it, the best I can do is give them something useful they might not have heard before and you better believe when I do my talk it is nailed to the wall to the best of my ability.

So.

I get told my submission - which was a reserve talk, which means it would replace someone who had been selected but died or had to pull out or whatever - is now going to be in RSA Europe. This is at the start of September, deep into conference season when I'm over in Manila for Rootcon and then I'm off to Barcelona for VB2011 shortly after that - then onto RSA.

Observation: if a big corporate conference wants you to speak at the last minute, they should have a thing in place where they can help the speaker actually get a room. As it was, every single thing was booked out solid apart from a couple of ludicrously expensive £1000+ a night type efforts. In the end, I was still dicking around trying to get a room the same day I flew back from Spain and the place I did get was creepy enough that the first thing they told me was "breakfast is served in the basement."

Lol, nope.

Anyway, the conference itself is in a hotel and (to me, anyway) it didn't seem to be laid out very well. Basically it's a bunch of small offshoots going up a central staircase over three or four floors and a good portion of the talks were absolutely buried in the middle of nowhere, across a confusing mess of corridors, fire exits and magical Narnia wardrobes. Here is a hopefully short summary of what I felt could have been better and assisted me in the act of giving a good talk to people who had been waiting patiently for it.

1) This isn't something I'd use myself, but it could be useful to people who haven't done an RSA talk before. You can book a rehearsal slot to run through your talk, except that the rehearsal sessions are 15 minutes long and most of the talks are about 45. Unless you have serious issues moving a slide forward I'm not sure how much use this is to anyone.

2) A helpful feature of the RSA events is the "speaker's lounge" - ie a room, with chairs, a table, maybe two tables, and some stuff in it. When you just want to focus on your talk and get your game face on it's a pretty handy thing to have around. So of course I see "speaker's lounge" listed as being on the fourth floor. Up I go, only to be slightly puzzled because despite the signs I see no lounge. As it turns out, the speakers lounge isn't a room - it's just the random floor space at the top of the floor opposite the elevators.

In other words, some chairs in front of the disabled toilet. Hilariously, there's a sign that says "speaker's lounge closes at 5PM". I'm not sure how you close an open floor space, unless you have some police "do not cross" tape handy.

For Day Two of the conference, the speaker's lounge was my hotel room.

3) Day Three of the conference, my talk day. After sitting on (anonymous hotel floor goes here) for a while, I decide to ask the people who work at the hotel and are standing guard at the various conference rooms where the session rooms are.

Three people and three sets of wrong directions later, I randomly strike it lucky and discover - oh dear - that there is a whole collection of talks (mine included) that are just stuffed away in the bowels of this place and an epic hike past toilets, more toilets and random corridors begins.

This place is so big, I'm pretty sure they could have been located somewhere a little more sensible. I reckon a fair slice of people didn't bother to go to those talks as a result, and I'd be amazed if at least one speaker isn't still wandering around in there wishing they'd brought a ball of string.

4) I get to the door of the room I'm talking in. I try the door - uh, it's locked. There's nobody on the door to ask if this is the right place, if I'm too early, if it got moved, nothing. Just this door locked via a keycard.

I'm about to walk off looking puzzled when it opens, some dude comes out from a previous talk and before I can even get in the door slams shut and I'm stuck outside again.

Well, that's a new one on me.

5) I get in there, and there's a laptop set up with the presentations on it. Now at THIS point, I don't want any messing around - it's go time, kids. Let me get in, set up, load up the presentation and get on with it.

The tech guy loads up a presentation - not mine. Tries it again - not mine. He proceeds to go through about four more presentations and none of them are mine. At this point, we're at least five minutes late and someone has already walked out because I'm standing there looking like a moron while people are trying and failing to find my content.

The most basic thing of all - have the presentation on the machine - has become a massive bust. I ask if I can just plug in my laptop to the projector instead, because it has the presentation on it. I'm told this isn't possible, as "RSA doesn't allow you to use your own machine".

Yeah, well, you don't have my presentation on your machine so unless you want me to act out 40+ slides through the medium of interpretive dance you'd better try harder.

I ask if they have a USB stick so I can transfer it, and he looks at me like I'm asking him the square root of eleven billion. I ask again, slower this time, while people sitting in the room are probably wondering what the Hell is going on.

The answer, of course, is "no we don't".

Beyond the obvious question of "how can you people not have USB sticks to hand" or what horrible thing they think my laptop is going to do if plugged into their projector, I then have to start digging around in my two laptop bags for a USB stick of my own.

Then I have to very slowly boot up my not very good laptop, wait for it to find the stick, transfer, wander over to the official conference laptop of champions and plonk it onto the desktop.

They won't let me connect a laptop to a projector to speed things up, but I'm okay to transfer data from said laptop onto a USB stick and place those files onto their machine without any sort of virus scan.

What.

In case you hadn't guessed - and I'm usually pretty good at knowing the best way to start a talk for a bunch of people who have been sitting patiently for me to start rambling at them - this is not how you want to be introduced to people. As the woman present from RSA (I assume she was, anyway) didn't apologise to the assembled crowd on my behalf I just did it myself and pointed out this wasn't of my doing, but who knows if anybody bought it. All I know is, it started off like a complete amateur hour trainwreck and must have been at least ten minutes late getting going.

This should not be happening at an event like this.

I did have some sweet, sweet revenge when I totally ignored her increasingly frantic waving of the "Stop, we're out of time" sign from the back of the room so I could field some more questions - I'm not sure if they accounted for the time wasted at the start of the talk, but by this point I really couldn't care less.

There's a lot of dickery involved in speaking at conferences at the best of times, but at least they make for entertaining blog fodder. When that dickery starts to bleed over into the event proper, then I'll probably be making rude gestures in your direction the next time I'm asked to submit something to your event.

Sorry, everyone: must try harder.

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