Getting the Most Value out of VMworld Technical Sessions

All conferences – even VMworld – have a mixture of great and horrible sessions. The trick is figuring out what content can be gathered by the session and how to subsequently make the most out of that content. While I often hear folks skip sessions with a mindset of watching the recordings later, I have gleamed a few different methods for selecting sessions that end up paying knowledge dividends. With that said, there’s always the Duncan Epping blog post available for those looking for a catered list. 🙂

On a more personal note, it was kind of weird to see myself in the @VMworld Europe feed recently.

Van Halen’s Concert Contract Required No Brown M&Ms

The reason for this? Attention to detail. If a venue couldn’t read down to the fine print and comply, they probably missed larger, more critical details, too.

A presentation synopsis is no different; if the speaker has slapped together a short, buzzwordy marketing pitch for the session details (synopsis, abstract, etc.), then it stands to reason that the session is questionable from a content perspective.

I tend to read through the session details and see if I can glimpse into the presenter’s mind. Are they telling a story? Perhaps adding some humor? Is the description dry and boring or nerdy and to the point? These can help give more insight into the content above and beyond the title and speaker’s name. Really great descriptions will also focus on what you get out of the session, too.

Take this example from William Lam and Emad Younis entitled Migrate to the vCenter Server Appliance You Should [SER2958BU]. The “Yoda-speak” title is catchy, and the description is to the point without any fluff:

This session will cover the available options for migrating from a VMware vCenter Server for Windows to VMware vCenter Server Appliance. We’ll go over best practices and provide tips and tricks to successfully guide you through the migration process.

That one sounds interesting! Plus, Emad appeared on the Datanauts to talk about the VCSA recently.

Lean, Don’t Sit, on the Recordings

While in a session, I see some folks holding up their tablets to take photos of the slides or trying to jot down every word that is mentioned. Instead of trying to be a courtroom clerk, focus on the high level details. If the presenter is using section breaks, those can be a good start for organizing your notes.

I tend to like bringing an offline device – such as a notebook (dead tree) or a tablet with the Internets turned off (to avoid distractions) – while focusing on these types of content:

  • Resources – any references to books, white papers, technical documents, or knowledge base sites that are promoted by the speaker.
  • People – any colleagues, mentors, team members, product managers, or others who are a part of the speaker’s story that I may want to follow, read up on, or contact in the future.
  • Questions – if the speaker isn’t able to hit on something important to me, I’ll circle that item or write down a succinct “140 character sized” question to ask later.

If I need any bits of deeper detail, I can always go back to the recording. This also goes for the slides – they are either going to be full screen (no presenter view at all) or shown as the camera goes back and forth between the speaker and the deck. Here’s an example from the 2015 vSphere Distributed Switch 6 –Technical Deep Dive session that I presented along with Jason Nash. It’s much easier to just snag a photo or pause on a technical slide after jotting down notes to do so, which means spending more time “in the moment” with the presenters and being mindful of any content you may have missed.

Another cool fact? The most popular sessions at VMworld show up in their daily top 10 list and are posted to YouTube almost immediately after completion. Here’s a playlist showing all of the free, popular sessions from last year, including some featuring my bearded mug presenting with Duncan Epping and Kyle Ruddy on PowerShell stuffs. 🙂

Questions or Stories?

Most of the sessions have limited amounts of Q&A time due to the size of the crowd and scope of the topic. There might be 5-10 minutes leftover at the end of the session, which allows for only a small handful of live questions. This means that the odds of your question being asked are close to nill.

Let’s break down this section into two perspectives: the presenter, and the audience member with a question.

The Presenter’s Mad Dash to Vacate the Podium

As soon as my presentations are done, I’m in a hurry to pack up my gear, hand over my lav (mic), put my lanyard back on, and get out of the room. It’s not because I don’t love you all, but rather because I’ve been told to do this by the event staff – they have a mere 5-15 minutes to completely revamp the room for the next speaker and I’m in their way. I’m often in such a panic to get my stuff in order that I forget something. I’ve lost half a dozen power adapters this way (thankfully Amazon Prime Now exists).

I’ll typically start answering a few questions if I feel there’s some time left over, but feel rude because I’m packing while listening. It’s easiest for me to head outside the room and stand around the entrance, but clear of the next speaker’s line, and answer questions. In one case, I wrote a blog post with responses to feedback. 🙂

The Audience’s Mad Dash to Swarm the Podium

From the audience’s view, the presenter has knowledge that is important. Plus, there’s dozens or hundreds of others that want to ask a question and are rivaling you for the chance to do so before you have to perform a mad dash to your next session / event / party / meeting / lunch.

Unless you have super speed powers, I’d suggest one of the following:

  • Async Message – If you’ve jotted down the speaker’s details as suggested in the previous section on taking notes, you can just take your pre-written question and Tweet / email / reddit message that person. Done. And now you’re ready to move on to your next session!
  • Move Outside and Exchange Contact Details – Not everyone is public about their methods of contact. If your speaker is shy about sharing an email or doesn’t have Twitter, just stand outside a bit and ask them for a card or method of contact for a question. You can then follow up via your notes and even slide the card into your notebook on the page of the session.
  • Move Outside and Ask the Question – If the speaker isn’t in a rush to go anywhere, it’s pretty cool to have an informal Q&A session outside the presentation room. I did that with Jason Nash after our VDS session, and we spent about half an hour just talking with a large ring of folks who benefited from listening to each other’s question. It’s kind of rare for a speaker to have that sort of time, though, so don’t bank on it.


Believe it or not, there have always been and always will be awesome sessions at VMworld! I was so blasted with presentations last year that I barely got to attend anything, but did sit down and watched a number of recordings that focused on technical deep dives or introductions to new technologies. Remember that the goal of any conferences is to make YOU better – through learning, certifications, networking, and generally having a good time. So long as you feel like you gained something valuable from the experience, it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing at VMworld. It’s impossible to experience even a small percentage of all the show has to offer!