First ever AWS Community Day Midwest

Mostly because of AWS community rock star Ross Barich, the AWS user group leaders in  the Midwest are got together to make an über community event. Ross got the idea rolling at re:Invent at the end of 2017, and I jumped at the chance to start the planning and find a venue. By default almost we went with Chicago since it’s the largest city and user group but mostly because I was the most hands on for the venue search.

After the holidays and folks got back into the swing of 2018, I had a list of a few options and ideas. We met with leaders from Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, the ‘burbs, and Columbus. After a few calls we narrowed down what kind of event we wanted to have, when, where, and brought in more leaders from St. Louis and Cincinnati.

Our key event parameters:

  • full day conference in downtown Chicago
  • talks and workshops by users and community members
  • AWS sponsoring food, swag, and any event costs to keep it vendor-free
  • A $10 sign up fee, refunded only if people attend and check in
  • some schedule talks, with an ‘unconference’ space for open discussions

We caught the biggest and most decisive break when CIO Mike Allen of Morningstar volunteered their space in their offices. We’ve had Chicago AWS events there before, and it is an amazing space on a full floor of the building, with a big theater-style auditorium and a 2 story atrium space that fits about 300. Boom, free venue space with built-in A/V and a great location. That freed up a lot of planning and budget for us to focus on content.

The most important part of the AWS Community Day for us would be that the content be from the community. We selected and planned the talks and presenters from our AWS community.  We shared a link to an informal Google Form to collect talk ideas, emailed out to our groups and users. There were a few submissions that were clearly self-promotional and from vendors but a bulk were great, user-based talks that came from experience.

By this time it was early May and the event was set for June 7. We didn’t have much time to sort through and create an agenda from 30+ talks. We decided to ask a few submitters to squish talks down into lightning talks. From there we divvy up talks into 3 tracks to fit the rooms – the auditorium fit 200 while the other 2 were closer to 30 or 40.

Ross and AWS were awesome sponsors. They paid for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and happy hour. They brought in name badge printers, lanyards, socks for giveaways, handouts, signs for each room, and even shirts for volunteers that named us “community ninjas”.

We had way more people interested than able to attend, and it is always a tough call to turn people away. It did cause problems with lunch, crowded rooms, and loud “hallway tracks.” I know I can’t keep everyone happy but I’m always bummed to hear negative reviews – talks were too technical, talks were too basic, someone didn’t get lunch, others couldn’t hear.


Notes for next time:

  • Give more lead time between picking talks and the event start. It was all a bit rushed to get it together, but I wish we could have let speakers know and rsvp then promote speakers for about a week before selling tickets. I hope that might bring in more out of towners for next time.
  • Print / share full talk descriptions for all the talks. Some titles were vague, even for us deciding on the agenda. It would have been helpful to have talk descriptions for attendees to choose their day a little easier.
  • Signs for the bathrooms. Silly, but each volunteer got asked for directions about 20 times.
  • A plan to share and announce that slides would be shared with attendees. I forgot to ask speakers beforehand if they could share slides so I had to wait a few days after to collect them all. We could have also announced that we would be sharing slides in the notes for the event and at the kick-off. More than the bathrooms, volunteers got asked that about 400 times!
  • test A/V for smaller rooms. We had a lot of unhappy folks who couldn’t hear in the smaller room sessions. Luckily Morningstar folks brought in some giant speakers to boost room #2. This was probably the biggest legit complaint.
  • More lunch. Not really anyone’s fault, except maybe the caterer should have known better. We estimated about 130 attendees for lunch and they brought only enough for 130. That also lead to hungry meat eaters taking veggie / Kosher / etc options and leaving very limited choices. And an emergency Jimmy Johns run. Oy.
  • Talks overlapped with each other or weren’t in big enough rooms to fit all the attendees. A problem of too much good content!

List of silly complaints:

  • A line for the men’s bathroom
  • Free lunch wasn’t good enough
  • Type was too small on the handouts
  • “Make people speak into microphones”
  • Puddles in the men’s bathroom

Overall, it was a great success. We’ll build on this one and make the next one better, and hopefully bigger!