I'm staring at my monitor with empty editor window open trying to come up with words to describe what has just happened. 3 days of being caught in some kind of whirlwind. Smiles and hugs, presentations, discussions, eating and drinking. And more discussions. And more drinking. And more discussions. And lots of laughing. And then it all slowly evaporates and we each make our way home. How to write down something that remotely approaches the experiences of those 3 days? Here's an attempt.
We just wrapped up the first ever 100% DNN Connect conference. Last year in Italy the local crew had taken care of everything, but this year it was really a combined effort of the DNN Connect team (Philipp Becker, Vicenç Masanas and myself) and a local crew (Nevoweb's Cathy Lee, her husband Dave and her brother Frank Caumes). We took care of things like content and financing, while the Nevoweb team took care of the location, food, drinks, etc.
Right from the start we had a good feeling about this event. I've known Cathy and Dave for a few years now and I had already been to Millau before. The location Cathy had scouted called the Domaine Saint Estève, seemed a perfect fit for our event. Without any reservation we started this project roughly a year ago. And despite a couple of hiccups, the ride has been smooth and culminated in a near perfect event. As many have told me over the weekend, it'll be hard to top this one.
One of the key changes to last year was that we chose to hold the actual conference part on Friday and Saturday. That would avoid people leaving halfway through the second day of the event to catch flights or drive home. Instead we'd finish with a "gala" dinner and people could travel on the Sunday. Given that we opt for a rural setting for our events so that attendees can stay on site and interact without distraction, the attendees have to invest in travelling as the nearest airport is usually quite far away. So on Thursday we began the event slowly. Participants began trickling in during the afternoon and that continued until midnight (poor Cathal got stuck somewhere in Lyon due to air travel woes and only arrived the next day).
After an aperitif and the first of many delicious meals, conversations continued around the open bar. A beer tap had been made available to us and kegs were left in a room that was open until 3 AM. This proved to be quite a success. We had planned for two kegs a night, but come Friday morning the tap was on its fourth keg. Luckily it's easy to find new sponsors when everyone is slightly tipsy and the kegs are about to run out. "I'll sponsor!!"
Friday morning and slightly worse for wear we opened the conference in the "Grange", an old barn with huge windows towards the amazing view. And we ran into our first issues. Beamer not quite right, sound not optimal and attendees 20 minutes late. We'll need to get that better in the future. The internet also proved to be flaky despite the last minute installation of a 4G box by SFR. It was better than last year, but we still did not achieve the connectivity we set out to get.
The keynotes set the central theme for the rest of the conference. Eilon Lipton from Microsoft (who flew in all the way from Redmond) and DNN Corp's Joe Brinkman outlined the overall directions of asp.net and DNN. As you're probably aware, 2015 is the year Microsoft has officially launched asp.net vNext and moved all of the framework over to GitHub. And as web forms is mothballed, DNN has some tough decisions to make and for a large part this conference allowed the attendees to discuss these decisions with those that actually have their hands on the levers.
The technical sessions revolved for the most part either around mobile or the next major version of DNN and how it will fit with the future directions of asp.net. Other than that we looked at performance, collaboration or we let us be inspired to generate more income using DNN (always a good idea). We hope to make slide decks and videos (some sessions were recorded using a screen recorder) available online in the coming weeks.
After the sessions on Friday we tried something new: the poster sessions. DNN Connect (or more precisely its predecessor DNN Europe) originated as a networking platform for the European community and the focus at meetings more on "what did you do with DNN?" rather than "what's new with DNN?". But as we attract a wider audience we decided that we should no longer have product presentations as sessions. But to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we created this concept where a room was covered with posters of projects created by attendees. With drinks being served we provided other attendees to walk around and chat with the people behind these projects. We'll refine the concept moving forward, but the overall impression was that it was well received. Both by the presenters as well as the audience.
Friday-night we were bussed to a nearby location called the "Comptoir Paysan" for some local wine and tapas. It has become tradition that during our events the organizers take the opportunity to introduce us to the local cuisine. In fact I cannot imagine us ever doing this differently. It is one of the highlights of the conference. During this conference we had nothing but local produce and this was an opportunity to do a tour of the shop and see what the region has to offer. And what you might not know is that the owner of the establishment was the one that graciously provided us with the wine that was distributed as presents to our speakers. The Roquefort, by the way, was given to us directly by Roquefort Société (the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is only 25 km from Millau).
Back home the bar was open again as we returned. Feeling rather old, I left those still gathered there at 1 and headed for bed as we were only half way through our conference. Saturday would start early and I'd need to be in good shape as would be a very full day. By this time we had arranged that our help Megan would come into sessions to warn speakers to not transgress their time limits. And as a result we managed to keep to the schedule this time. I spotted a few people who preferred to sit in the shade or by the pool and take it easy. But others were buzzing around the conference rooms and otherwise locked in discussions just outside them.
It was during this day the workshops took place. We had struggled extensively to find a good format for these. The very first meeting of DNN Europe consisted of only workshops. And we wanted to reintroduce these at the event. An opportunity for people to get away from the unidirectional presentations to a bi-directional setting. We will definitely need to improve on how we go about organizing them, but the ones that took place produced some happy faces at the end of the day. The venue combined with the splendid weather provided us with ample places where little groups of attendees could huddle together to focus on a single theme. One of the biggest and most successful workshops was given by Eilon from Microsoft on asp.net vNext. We were very lucky to have him there.
As the day wound down we had a moment to enjoy the pool. It even led to a pool group photo which I'm now eagerly awaiting. It was definitely a first to hang around in a pool with a beer in hand discussing DNN with my neighbors. It was yet another one of those things that prompted others to say "we should do it here every year". We'll keep it on the reserve list in any case. The view of the bridge was also inspiring. The Millau viaduct is the tallest bridge in the world and it's deck is one of the highest. Together with a beautiful design this was very inspiring and humbling to this group of simple software engineers.
The entire Saturday evening was devoted to celebrating our community over a meal with copious amounts of local wine in the Grange. After an entrée of Roquefort salad we had the local dish called "Aligot" which is a mixture of mashed potatoes and cheese (with some butter and garlic as well). At the front of the room there was a small podium and while we were enjoying our meal we raffled off the gifts. These included a voucher donated by Managed.com and the brand-spanking new DNN 7 books donated by WROX. Given that almost half the authors of that book were in the room these copies are now fairly unique in that they are signed. Collector's items!
We also brought a few of those present to tears during the round of thank you's. Cathy was treated to the warm DNN Connect bath of a standing ovation for her work. And quite rightly so. She was instrumental in stringing together our event with a wider network of local businesses. She's a respected business owner in the region and I was fascinated by how she created an all round win-win between DNN Connect and others. We really had fantastic offers from local businesses and we really helped them with our social media flooding of how much of a good time we were having. On the Sunday I sat down with her to talk to a journalist of the regional paper to chat things through and Cathy is on top of this. Respect. Obviously she's greatly supported by her team at Nevoweb (Dave and Frank) to whom we are also indebted.
Finally the community had decided to bathe Shaun in similar fashion. He stepped down as CTO of DNN Corp last year and he was offered a T Shirt with a big thank you on it with all of our signatures. I've never seen him at a loss for words, but this time he needed to swallow a few times before he could address the crowd. And there were a few others around the room fighting back tears as well. It seemed a fitting (albeit somewhat emotional) end to DNN Connect 2015.
As the night continued the first wave of participants said their goodbyes (those that had to get up early to start their travels). But the night continued until the early morning again as we walked around slapping each other on the shoulders on a job well done. I am forever grateful to my team Philipp and Vicenç for making this happen. They also sank countless hours into this event. When someone from the US approached me asking me if we could do something like this in the States I walked over to Philipp and Vicenç and told them we were going to do this twice a year. I barely got away before they could grab me and throw me in the pool.
Sunday we held our General Assembly. With a reduced audience we presented the not so exciting financials of last year and our vision for 2015. And as that unfolded the audience sank their teeth into it and we discussed those plans. Lots of debate and lots of passion. But at the same time everyone was probably also somewhat tired after 3 days of interaction and we wrapped it up for lunch promising to do what we can for next year with all those ideas. We also hammered in Declan Ward as our new secretary freeing up Philipp to now focus on events. It was a good note to end the event with. DNN Connect is healthy and going places.
All of the above brings me to the following. This was a truly unique event. We'll see where we go next. Plans are to hold our next event in Germany May 19-22 2016. But this is still very premature. We first need to wrap up this event as well. Collect your and our evaluations. Publish the generated content. Improve the tooling probably. And focus on what lies between this event and the next: doing what we can to keep the DNN project humming and supporting our community.
And it's on this note I'd like to leave you. I'd like to thank once again our sponsors for the event DNN Corp, 2Sic, Managed.com, ITM Consulting, Xcess, Iowa Computer Gurus, Vendorlink, ITX, Glanton, Altamys, Engage and OPSI. Without them the event would not have been as affordable as it has been. I'd also like to thank Aveyron Vivre Vrai, the municipality of Millau, the Domaine St Estève (Mandy and Dominique) and the Comptoir Paysan for their hospitality. Their staff was magnificent. We offered Mandy a paragliding flight for her work and she flew on Sunday afternoon. Our student Megan did an outstanding job as point contact for our sponsors and the association as well as going around and being very useful for various tasks that cropped up. Thanks also to Microsoft for sponsoring Eilon to come over and talk to us. It was a huge opportunity for us to interact directly with someone who works on the platform we all use. Thanks to WROX for sending the DNN 7 books to us for the raffle. And thanks to DevPCI, Glanton and Bond for Websolutions for impromptu sponsorship of kegs of beer. And I'd also like to call out those that flew in from the US and Canada. Especially those on their own ticket. They made a larger financial sacrifice for this event than most of us did from Europe. I know for a fact that some were not there that desperately wanted to be there but couldn't make the numbers work. Hopefully next year. But to those that made it I just want to say: thanks for coming over and sharing this with us. After all we're all in this together.
If there is one feeling I'm left with it is that the DNN Connect group is a "family". And this year we introduced a bunch of new members to our family. I've heard it said multiple times by others over the weekend so I must be right. As people left there were prolonged hugs and "see you next year"s. So: see you next year and keep DNN'ing!