Lotusphere and the "coins of the realm"
Fri 27 Jan 2006, 06:36 PMTweet
by Ben Langhinrichs
I have been to a lot of Lotusphere's, and I always try to find some way to make it fresh. In the early years, I went to sessions, in the middle years I spoke at sessions, and in recent years, I have avoided sessions like the plague. Having tried all of those things, I thought it was about time Genii Software had our own pedestal, so what I did was stand at the pedestal and talk to people and listen to people... and talk to people and listen to people... and talk hoarsely to people and listen to people. Well, you get the picture. It was wonderful and exhilarating in some ways, and supremely frustrating in others. In recent years, besides avoiding sessions, I have tried to hard to take the pulse of the our community and industry and have gotten some great product and feature ideas, and have also met a lot of people with varied interests.
But being on the Product Showcase is different. Certainly, you meet very interesting people, and hear lots of interesting ideas, but there is a different hum, and the ideas are different. I'll get to that.
Outside the Product Showcase, the "coins of the realm" at a conference like Lotusphere are contacts and information. Who do you know and what do they know? The least well connected get information exclusively at sessions, and their barter with others is primarily a barter of which session they made it to and what trick or technique or concept they learned or just now understand. For these people, the information currency comes in three and four letter acronyms: RAD, AJAX, DXL, J2EE, XML, IIOP, etc.
Understanding that better this year, I also understand better why I have avoided sessions in recent years. The better connected get information by chumming up with Ed Brill, or making friends within the developers at the Meet the Developer's Lab and having drinks with them after hours, or scoring an invite to the Penumbra dinner and rubbing elbows with IBM muckamucks, or talking with people who went to IBM's Software University internal conference last week and heard some less filtered information,or, scary as it seems, finding people like me or Andrew Pollack or Richard Schwartz or John Head, who just seem to "know things", and finding out the scuttlebutt about emerging technologies. Though the information exchanged might be less certain or verified, it might be a lot more important to your career goals or strategic direction. The information in sessions is almost entirely tactical, and so of less value in this information currency exchange. On the other hand, social networking is key.
Having very gradually moved from those in the hunt to those in the know over the past few years, it was somewhat startling to be on the Product Showcase floor. At first, even with all the activity and potential customers and noise, I missed the information flow. I barely heard about Sametime 7.5, missed all the Hannover demos, didn't get to hear first hand about the shifting priorities at IBM. Also, for a while, it was hard to understand the new currency of exchange.
On the Product Showcase floor, the "coins of the realm" are both more obvious and deceptive. The most common currency is tchotchkes, the little throw away blinking and flashing and colorful items that most vendors have to entice passersby to stop and listen to the spiel. They are, by and large, worthless and disposable, and people seldom want them for much more than gifts to placate those kids left at home who don't get to go to Disneyworld in January. The next most common currency is the t-shirt, and especially the ubiquitous and iconic C.U.L.T. shirt. Again, this is enticement almost as worthy as the "booth babes" who hand them out. [Aside: as a liberal and feminist and semi-enlightened person, I am appalled as could be at both the term and the concept of trawling for business by putting pretty young ladies out as bait. As a capitalist, I was certainly glad that Granite Software, with whom I share both product sales for CoexLinks and a long friendship, had thought to invite Abby along, as she attracted lots of would be customers. Finally, as a matter of interest, I talked to my daughter, who is about Abby's age and even more flaming liberal and feminist than I, and she said she would love to be a "booth babe". Go figure! I guess, when in Rome, sell what the Romans want]
So, what is deceptive about these apparent "coins of the realm", t-shirts and tchotchkes? It is somewhat like looking at early North American history and the native Americans and falling for the apparent currencies of shells and beads and pretty trinkets. Only one side of the transaction actually thought they were worth something. The other side had a different assumption. On the Product Showcase floor, the real currency for those people is contact information. Scanning badges is crucial, but scoring business cards is even better. Contact information mean potential sales, so everybody wants to scan everybody else, and there are quite a few companies that even exchange these contacts in another form of Lotusphere barter.
But even then, many are deceived. Like those out in Lotusphere scurrying from session to session, trying to glean enough information to barter with colleagues and others, and even those who search for the well connected, many miss the real point. The real currency of the Product Showcase floor is information, just like at the rest of the conference, but the information is quite different. Instead of product direction or emerging technologies, the information is very simple. It is all about supply and demand. What can we, the vendors, supply, and what do they, the customers, demand or need? It all comes down to a customer or customer representative, such as IGS or an integrator, saying "I have this need. Do you have a product to fill the need?" or the vendor saying "I have this product. Do you have the pain this will ease?" In that moment, if there is a match up, the sale is really made. The customer will go back home and start the evaluation process, and the vendor will go home happy that he or she has connected. Unlike the random scans, which as unlikely to really reach anybody, or the product brochures, which are only useful as reminders after the connection is made, and certainly unlike the tchotchkes, which vanish in a virtual instant, the connection lives on. If a true need and a true solution for that need are expressed, the sale will follow. Capitalism will prevail, the invisible hand will have made its invisible handshake, and the Product Showcase will have been a success for that vendor and that customer. For those who don't get it or don't have a product or solution that meets a need, or even those who do but who didn't manage to connect with the right people, and the Product Showcase will have been a disappointment. I'll leave you to guess what I think of the show, but I will say my feelings are less determined by the stack of business cards and loads of scans than by the many excellent customers who we met who have to live with the real world of Notes/Domino and Exchange/Outlook coexistence or who have applications they can't put on the web without a way to edit rich text acceptibly or who have a pressing and urgent need for real fidelity in exports to Word and HTML. These aren't emerging technologies, but pressing current needs, yet they also expose information that may not be out there in the conference.
Copyright © 2006 Genii Software Ltd.
What has been said:
426.1. Ethann Castell (28/01/2006 11:17 PM)
I was very disappointed to miss the conference this year but that's a long story which I don't want to go into at this time. All going to plan I'll be there to have a drink or two with you next year, milkshakes of course.
I was wondering what the male/female split was at the conference. I would imagine 80 - 90% male. Am I right ?
426.2. Steven Tomaselli (01/30/2006 10:00 AM)
A very interesting and astute set of observations.
But I have a more general question. Based on this new unique perspective you experienced at the 'Sphere, what are your thoughts on the future of the Lotus product line within IBM and in the market? And I will admit that I ask this as someone who is on the verge of abandoning Notes/Domino as the focal point of my work after thirteen years with the product, but also has the opportunity to continue working with it, potentially doing more interesting work with the product than I have for a couple of years now.
426.3. Ben Langhinrichs (01/30/2006 11:23 AM)
Ethann - I look forward to seeing you, whenever that may turn out to be.
Steven - I feel very positive about the Lotus product line, but that may be skewed by my success selling products in this area. What I would say, at the risk of sounding like "The Graduate" is one word, coexistence. Most companies today are facing some sort of coexistence between technologies. So, rather than switching technologies, I would suggest focusing on the intersection of technologies, using your Notes/Domino knowledge and leveraging it with some other technology. Become an expert in how they work together. That is what I would do, if I were not so busy building and selling solutions in that same space.