I am a week late in writing this but month six in my new job came and went so quickly. I celebrated the 6th month in my new role on Wednesday, June 14. The experiences I have had at work this past month, or at least as a result of where I work and the people I work with, were so monumental compared to previous months that I wanted to make sure I wrote something complete which required time that I simply have not had until now.
Around the time of my “Month 5” post, I was presented with the opportunity to participate in my first keynote as a person responsible for driving an on-stage demo at arguably the largest developer and IT professional training conference in the world: Microsoft Tech-Ed.
Tech-Ed is an annual event run by Microsoft (with the help of numerous partners and vendors) to educate the people who develop and deploy solutions using Microsoft technologies about our current offerings and provide them with a glimpse of what’s to come. The events draw upwards of 10,000+ developers and IT professionals from around the world and Microsoft sends over a thousand of its employees to present, interact and coordinate at the massive event — there are tons of press as well. This year’s Tech-Ed was held at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center June 11-16.
While I was definitely excited to be presented such a rare opportunity, I was also somewhat apprehensive considering 1) I had never done a keynote before, 2) I had never spoken in front of more than a thousand people before (I think my high school graduation ceremony was the largest audience and that was a long time ago), and 3) I only had about a month to prepare which may seem like a long time but, for these things it really isn’t (as I’ve since learned). While apprehensive I never hesitated to accept the opportunity since it would perhaps put me on the radars of key people around the company. It is true doing a horrible job would also put me on their radars but not in a good way. I figured I had to take the chance since the risk/reward curve was in my favor. How poorly could I do, right?
As you may recall, I also had a role in the keynotes at the MIX06 event in March. That keynote involved a tremendous amount of preparation and trepidation and I was safely backstage the entire time and the MIX audience was a fraction of the size of that planned for Tech-Ed. My manager, Brian, was supportive from day one and probably tied TB as the 2nd-most excited person after me. He forewarned me to expect my involvement in the preparation surrounding the keynote demo to literally consume a great part of my life in the weeks leading up to the actual event. “Yeah, right!“ I thought.
You see, I was going to be on stage with Bob Muglia, Senior VP of Microsoft’s Server & Tools Business. Not to mention, Ray Ozzie and Chris Capossela also had key roles in the keynote and there were 4 other demo “owners” (affectionately referred to as “keynote b!tche$” internally) including me. As a result, the army of people (both internally & externally) pulling together content and helping us all prepare would be massive so all I needed to do (or so I thought) was learn my part, show up and not look like an idiot.
Of course, about a month before the event all this sounded peachy and, in theory at least, everything would be perfectly orchestrated. In reality, nothing really happened for four or five weeks then Brian and I became more and more concerned:
Once we got to the T-10 (10 days before the big event date of June 11) we seriously threatened to graciously bow out since the idiot potential had risen astronomically.
At T-6 my demo was still crashing, my click-steps (the actual steps necessary to navigate the products and features being showcased in the demo) were still changing and my talking points were still in a rapid state of flux.
At T-5 I had my very first run-through in front of a live audience of 5 people. I stunk. My entire demo was supposed to be 8 minutes from start to finish and I took 18! My messaging wasn’t crisp or even coherent. I botched several click-steps. Etc., etc., etc. Everyone present was very polite and offered suggestions on what things I could say and how I could speed things up. Deep down, I knew I was about to leap dead into Idiot Ocean if I didn’t pull things together quickly for the “real” run-through that was less than 24 hours away with the set of people who needed to be completely at ease with my ability to deliver (yes, including Bob). Later that afternoon, Brian shared some sage advice and gave me some tips on how to prepare which really helped me streamline my approach. Since there was no going back I had to ready and steady myself to move forward. I practiced my messaging and click-steps ad nauseam to the point TB, always the trooper and supporter, even got tired of hearing about the myriad ways Visual Studio Team Edition for Database Professionals, Expression Interactive Designer and Visual Studio Team System conspire to catapult database administrators, professional software designers and software developers to unprecedented levels of productivity and collaboration. Fear is a powerful motivator. At some point, it did dawn on me that I wasn’t responsible for any of the products I was demoing. Alas, it was too late to play the “Uhh, I’m a web guy” card. I will say I never once considered backing out even after performing so horribly although the thought probably crossed the minds of several people present in that first run-through.
T-4 arrived, June 7th if you’ve lost track, and the day started really, really early for me. I don’t remember if I actually slept. Brian came by my office around 7AM (I had already been practicing) which gave us a couple solid hours to work on delivery, pace and messaging before entering the lion’s den. I felt much more prepared and much more confident in our practice sessions but there was still the challenge of doing it in front of a large group as though it were game time. Well game time quickly arrived, as far as my Microsoft career was concerned, and we headed over to Bob’s private conference room to do a run-through with him, a few of his directs and several other key people in the chain between Bob and me. I was second in the queue of 3 demo run-throughs (the 4th had happened the day before). A few moments before the demos got underway, and much to my amazement, in walks my boss’, boss’ boss (who was supposed to still be in Tokyo) with his luggage in tow. My adrenaline immediately reached mercurial levels though, in hindsight, I’m not quite sure why since his boss and his boss’ boss had been comfortably seated in the room for several minutes prior to his arrival. I guess when 1 of the only 2 people missing from your entire management chain shows up to see if you get drenched by the icy, unforgiving, unrelenting waters of Idiot Ocean it seems like a big deal. Even after that shock the entire run-through went well. Extremely well, actually. I even surprised myself. Feedback was minor and easily actionable. I would have been jumping for joy if I hadn’t been so darn drained.
On T-3 I practiced a little, packed for my 8-day jaunt back east and flew back to my hometown, Dayton, Ohio, for my sister’s wedding. The wedding was actually just outside Cincinnati so TB and I drove about 50 minutes to the hotel and finally got to sleep just after 2AM EST (a total of 12 hours of travel).
I spent T-2 catching up on sleep and practicing. We also attended the family meet-and-greet hosted by the parents of the groom.
T-1 we enjoyed the wedding ceremony and the reception immensely but had to leave the party early since we had to wake up at 3AM the following morning to drive back to Dayton and catch a flight to Chicago.
The big day, Sunday, June 11, started at 3AM and 9 hours later I would be at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center doing a final dress rehearsal. After our flight from Dayton to Chicago, I caught my connecting flight to Boston and TB’s flight to Seattle departed a couple hours later. Once I arrived in Boston, I caught a taxi to the hotel to drop off my things. I got a call from Brian shortly after I arrived at the hotel informing me that I needed to get to the convention center posthaste. Bob wanted me to shorten my demo to 7 minutes and wanted to do a dry-run with me on-stage since I had missed the dress rehearsal on Saturday evening due to the wedding. The idea of changing what I had been practicing in the 11th hour was unsettling but that’s the way these things go and I had already mentally prepared for “flexible” to be the word of the day…in addition to “caffeine.”
I made it to the convention center and realized I’d left my phone back in the hotel and had no way of linking up with Brian after I picked up my registration materials. I made it to Hall C and, as I approached the guard posted near the entrance to keep people out, Brian came out to meet me. The guard found my name on his list, handed me my full access credentials and Brian and I quickly made our way to the stage.
The room was huge as one would expect for a venue that was configured to comfortably seat 10,000 people. Brian walked me through the demo stations on-stage and then we were whisked to the back by the stage manager so I could get fitted for my mic and do an audio check.
Next up was figuring out how to whittle a minute off my already too-short demo to get under the 7 minute mark as Bob requested. Brian and I came up with a workable script, Bob was called over to see and hear the modifications which he excitedly gave the green light. Another crisis averted!
For the next 5 or so hours I alternated between practicing, admiring the scale of the production, being briefed on changes that involved me and trying to stay sharp mentally after such an early start to my day. I was summarily told I would not have time to return to my hotel room to change and that someone would find a Microsoft logoed shirt for me to change into. I had planned to wear black slacks and a freshly ironed shirt. Instead, my “I’ve been traveling all day” blue jeans and a newly-acquired & complete with just-out-of-the-wrapping wrinkles Microsoft event shirt would have to suffice. Great! Remember the word of the day?
6:30 rolled around, the doors opened and people started being seated. I had not left the backstage area since I arrived there around noon. The keynote started promptly at 7PM and then it was hurry up and wait since I was the last of Bob’s demos. I had to cool my heels for a painstaking, adrenaline-racked, fatigue-inducing hour and 40 minutes.
It was very cold backstage to keep all the A/V and computing equipment from overheating. When I sat my blood felt like it was congealing inside my veins. When I stood I paced uncontrollably which made me even more tired.
About ten minutes before it was time for me to go on, the stage manager came to get me just as he said he would and escorted me to the holding tank which was nothing more than a makeshift room separated from the main stage by a flimsy fabric door. I heard the stage crew chatter springing from the headphones of the woman assigned to open the “door” and direct me onto the stage once she was given the cue. I controlled my breathing and went over my intro. (I had been told by several people to have my first couple lines memorized to the point that I could recite them cold since it was highly likely I would go blank once I walked onto the stage and got into position.) I was also fearful of the echo since the acoustics of the room had changed considerably between my dry-run earlier in the day and at that moment since ~8000 more people were now present. It’s really weird to hear ones words amplified and echoed back with a ½-1 second delay. There was no time to fret now. It was showtime…
I remember Bob saying something like, “I would like to welcome Keith Smith to the stage,” the door opening and then walking out to what to me was thunderous applause and some high-wattage lights. Ignoring the “don’t look down” advice, I quickly glanced out at the crowd after shaking Bob’s hand and the room was so dark and deep that everything was black after the first 15 or so rows. No time to waste (remember Bob wanted 7 minutes) I jumped right in.
To put it mildly, I and everyone else involved with the keynote from day 1 was completely ecstatic with my performance. Sure there are some minor flubs here and there, I said “absolutely” absolutely too many times, and I went 9 minutes instead of 7 but Bob was elated when it was all said and done and that’s really all that matters.
You’ve read this far so I feel you should be rewarded with your own private screening of my very first keynote experience. Enjoy and let me know what you think. Did I sound natural? Did I bore you? Did I sound hurried? Well, I was. 😉
You can also watch the entire 2:22 minute keynote if you are so inclined…at least until the video stream disappears. (I hit the stage at the 1:40 minute mark.) Why would you want to do such a silly thing? Mary Lynn Rajskub, the woman who plays Chloe on “24,” was the celebrity host of the keynote and she did some skits and spoofs based on the show.