My favorite tech conference, AWS’ re:Invent is coming up next week. I attended the last three as an Amazon VP, and was hoping to attend this year as a customer, but unfortunately can’t make it. I’ll be streaming the keynotes, but really would have loved to experience the dynamics from the other side. I’ve had that (both employee and customer) experience with some of the Microsoft conferences. So hopefully next year with re:Invent. If you are going to re:Invent for the first time you are in for a treat.
If we go back 40 years ago there really weren’t vendor conferences. There were industry conferences such as the Joint Computer Conferences (JCC), and user group conferences such as DECUS and SHARE. DECUS was technically owned by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), but other than DEC providing administrative support, it was run by volunteers. I attended many DECUS conferences. First as a customer and later as an employee. Thirty years ago COMDEX replaced the JCC as the big industry conference. At the same time vendors were beginning events of their own. While DECUS continued on as a user group, DEC held it’s first DECworld. DECworld ’87 set the standard by which today’s vendor conferences are (or should be) measured. COMDEX peaked nearly 20 years ago, and by the early 2000s there was a clear bifurcation in approach between IT and Consumer focused conferences. The IT audience would be addressed primarily by vendor conferences while the Consumer ecosystem would be addressed by industry conferences such as the Consumer Electronics Show and the Mobile World Congress.
Conferences have always served as major venues for product and technology unveilings. Most people don’t realize, or don’t know, how profoundly the Internet has changed how products are launched. Forty years ago you held a press conference, or just sent out a press release. It would take a week or two for it to appear in Computer World or Electronic News, which were weekly newspapers, and a couple of months later it would appear in magazines such as Datamation. If you were an existing customer you’d probably here about a new product from your sales rep, since all sales were direct in those days. Industry Conferences became increasingly important for product launches for one major reason, press coverage. Only in rare circumstances could you get a large number of members of the press to travel to your press conference, but they all attended COMDEX. Although the Internet now allows for virtual attendance to press conferences, the depth of engagement is still better in-person. And if you are a small vendor, no reporter is going to attend your press conference. But if they are already at an industry conference looking for interesting things to write about, well then you have a shot.
Big vendors realized a couple of things. First, they had little trouble gaining press attention on their announcements, particularly with the advent of the Internet, without the high costs of participating in industry conferences. Second, a show of their own allowed for much better direct engagement with their customer base. Consider that for IT executives, developers, etc. tracking and deep learning about new vendor products and services is a side job. Few are going to have that in their annual goals. Normally you are trying to get a few minutes of their time between their worrying about if the website changes are going to be ready for Black Friday, and how they are doing on their budget, to pay attention to your new products or services. But at your own conference you get a day, or two, or three where you are their day job. They can pay attention to news about new offerings, and gain deep knowledge in both those and existing offerings. Now they can engage with other customers on how your products and services are being used. Now they can engage with your partner ecosystem to find solutions for their business problems. Now they can take the time to dig deep on areas of interest. Now you can get an amazing amount of direct feedback from customers in a very efficient way. Vendor conferences are primarily about deeper customer engagement, but while you have their attention it is the ideal time to introduce new offerings. And of course, most customers attend to hear about new things. You need both the meat (e.g., deep dive sessions) and the sizzle (e.g., keynote launches) for your conference to succeed.
I don’t think most vendors target their product cycles specifically to their conferences, but it is a somewhat natural part of their annual life-cycle. For example, notice how Microsoft’s three major conferences bracket the end of their fiscal year. Build is 6 weeks before the end of the fiscal year, Inspire is a week into the new fiscal year, and Ignite is late in the first quarter. Given planning, budgeting, and goal setting in any company tends to be around fiscal year boundaries you just naturally tend to have more to say at the end of a fiscal year than in the middle. If in the spring you have planning discussions and make product decisions, and the headcount to deliver doesn’t formally materialize until July 1, and then you have to ramp up, your new deliverables are going to be more heavily weighted in late spring or early summer of the following year. Moreover, the conferences do act as a forcing function in that teams really want to be able to launch at one of those conferences. So they will go the extra mile to be ready.
Amazon’s fiscal year is the same as the calendar year, so it ends December 31st. re:Invent, which covers the purposes of all three of Microsoft’s major conferences, comes a few weeks before the end of the year. You have the same dynamics of the planning/budgeting cycle and teams wanting to be ready by re:Invent. You have an additional dynamic of the goal setting process that Jeff Bezos has talked about in shareholder letters. You are coming down to the wire on meeting year-end goals, so you are making the extra push to finish things up. The result is an explosive set of announcements ready to go. There are so many that AWS has gone to doing many just before re:Invent. This year there were 85 launches in the week and a half leading up to Thanksgiving, up from 56 in 2016. If you saved those launches for re:Invent itself many, if not most, would be lost in the noise. Despite them often being the most customer impactful of the years’ launches. Adding storage scaling to RDS SQL Server is transformational for customers using, or interested in using, RDS for their SQL Server workloads. But how does it compete for attention on a scale of rolling out a tractor trailer (Snowmobile) during Andy Jassy’s keynote last year? Better it was launched just before Thanksgiving than at re:Invent.
While there are likely more of the modest sized launches coming next week, what we are all waiting to see are the big launches that re:Invent is known for. For those, and the rest of the re:Invent 2017 keynotes, you can live stream them here.