Fall DevConnections Session Comments

Posted by: Steven Smith, on 03 Jan 2008 | View original | Bookmarked: 0 time(s)

I've been speaking at the DevConnections conferences since Fall of 2001 and have really enjoyed the experience.  The speakers are a great group of people to hang out with, Shirley and Erik and Paul and the rest of the team put together a very well-organized event, and this last show was very impressive in terms of its attendance and breadth of content.  Over the years, the level of feedback speakers receive, in terms of how the evaluations turned in by attendees are handled, has steadily improved.  In the last couple of years, we've been given a very good summary of how the evaluations came in, and I thought (in keeping with my goal #1 from my last post) that I would share some of the comments from my sessions and my thoughts on how I'll try to improve my presentations in the future.

First, let me give my own evaluation of my talks.  I had three of them as usual, with one on the AJAX Control Toolkit, one on ASP.NET Membership, and one on TDD and CI with ASP.NET and VSTS.  Of the three, the last one is the only one I'm particularly passionate about.  We're encouraged to submit at least 5 or 6 topics for each show in order to give the track coordinator a wide variety of sessions to choose from (and to increase one's chances of being selected to speak), so the ASP.NET Membership talk was one of my "filler" sessions that I knew I could talk about but which wasn't terribly exciting or new.  However, given that there are often talks about Master Pages or Themes or other ASP.NET 2.0 features that have been around for some time, I threw it in there and was chosen for inclusion (and surprisingly was well-received for the most part).  The AJAX Control Toolkit talk I gave primarily for evangelism purposes and because I know that AJAX is still a very popular topic that many people want to learn about, but a relatively small number of people have any deep knowledge of.  Most developers want to be able to add AJAX coolness to their apps without having to spend hours learning the intricacies of JavaScript, cross-browser issues, and XmlHttp protocols.  So it's a pretty basic overview style of presentation with lots of breadth and not much depth, and I apologize if that wasn't clear from the session's description.

The first talk I gave was the AJAX Control Toolkit talk, and it was a packed (smaller) room.  The room was definitely not large enough for the level of interest.  61 attendees turned in reviews for this session (I'm guessing the room's capacity was about 200 - I'm not sure what a typical response rate is), and the overall evaluation was 3.29 out of 4 (with a mean of 3.4 and a min/max of 2.68/3.75).  So, clearly it was a below-average talk in evaluation despite an above-average turnout.  I think my session description must need improvement, even though the "Accuracy of Session Description was a 3.36, so most people thought it was been Good and Excellent.  The reason I suspect it was Poor is that for the Technical Level of the session, 31% thought it was Too Basic, 24% thought it was Just Right, and 39% thought it was Too complex.  Obviously I want most people to find it to be Just Right, but the fact that 70% were split between Too Easy and Too Hard makes me think a lot of folks came into the session expecting something different than what I planned to present.  35% of attendees said the material was 100% new to them and 65% said that 75% of the material was new.  Not one response said less than 75% was new material, so that's good.  And 69% said they could use the information "At once" which is also pretty good.  Some comments:

* One of the best!

* Very good intro into AJAX

* Most useful session to me so far.

(wow, sounds like I rocked)

But then:

* Basically just stuff I could have got from the AJAX website

* He spent way too much time covering every control.  We could do that on our own.

* Disappointed because all he really did is go through the examples on the toolkit website, though it was still a little valuable because I never looked at all of them.

There were a few more like this.  Overall there were 25 comments, of which about 1/3 were comments about how the samples could be done on their own and 2/3 were proclaiming how cool the session and controls were and how they could be used immediately.

I agree with the criticism that the toolkit is out there and folks can check it out on their own, but of course that's true of everything at the conference.  I also agree that very little of what I showed in this talk was new and original work on my part (the last 10-15 minutes showed how to create a simple Extender control).  But again, my vision of this talk was to get more people to realize the value of the Toolkit and help more people learn about and start using it.  Sure, anybody can go learn about them on their own, but a very large number of developers simply haven't.  Or didn't know they should.  So I was hoping to rectify that and it looks like I succeeded with some, but at the expense of wasting the time of some more advanced attendees, and for that I'm sorry and if I do give another Toolkit talk I'll either bump it up to 300 level for talk about extending it, or make it very clear that it's an overview with little advanced or non-publicly available material.

I recall that my next talk immediately following the AJAX Toolkit talk was on ASP.NET 2.0 Personalization and Membership.  This session was, for some reason, held in a ballroom about 1/2 or 1/3 the size of the room used for keynote (room capacity of at least 1000).  However, it was not a terribly popular talk and I'm surprised that it got 25 responses turned in, since that is probably close to 100% of the people that attended.  The overall evaluation for this talk was 3.54, though, which was well above the 3.4 mean, and since this wasn't a talk I expected to do especially well because of the somewhat dated subject matter, that was a pleasant surprise.  I remember asking some attendees before getting started if they were already familiar with ASP.NET 2.0 Membership, and a few said they'd been using it for some time, so I suggested gently that they might want to try another session since, again, this was pretty much an overview of that feature set and wasn't going to provide much new for them.  In hindsight perhaps I should have done something similar in my AJAX Toolkit talk.

Even given that Membership and Personalization have been around for a while, and aren't terribly complex technologically (IMHO), I was surprised that 47% of the respondents found the technical level to be To complex.  But then, 42% found it just right and 10% found it Too basic.  In my experience, getting close to 50% Just right is pretty good.  96% found 75% of the material to be new to them, and 4% found 100% of the material new, so it's good I kicked out the ones who already knew about this stuff or they'd have brought down this statistic...  There were only three comments for this one:

* An important topic.  The presentation could use more modulation, it was very good but lacks emphasis.

* He engaged the audience well and answered questions well.  Demos were well presented and involved the audience.

* There were times when the demos moved too quickly to follow.  This is probably necessary to keep the presentation on time."

I'm not sure about the modulation comment - maybe my voice was monotonous.  Otherwise it seems the topic was well-received.

The last session I gave the following day, and was my favorite of the three.  There were 32 responses and the overall eval was 3.55, which is good but only slightly better than the Membership talk, which somewhat surprised and disappointed me (really I'm pretty happy with the 3.55 and just surprised that the Membership talk didn't fare worse).

I hit the sweet spot on technical level with this one, with 50% saying just right and 23.1% each saying it was too basic or too complex.  And 97% of attendees found 75% of the material to be new (3% said it was 100% new), which again is pretty good.  I think if a lot more found 100% of it to be new, there would be a lot more people saying it was Too complex.  Overall the various categories of ratings were between 3 and 4, with a lot more 4s than 3s, so I'm pretty happy with how well this talk was received.  There were 10 comments, and all of them included kudos that I appreciate.  The bits of negative or constructive feedback included "would be more user-friendly as a hands-on session" and "would be nice to see real world test".

My takeaway for this talk, then, is that I need to come up with a kickass real world demo for it, which is difficult to do without several servers and perhaps a partner to be doing some checkins and breaking things at the same time I am.  That could be fun, though, and I did bring one of the developers from my company to the Fall show so if I do that again perhaps I'll recruit him or another speaker for assistance with something like that.

I'll try to improve my future presentations based on this feedback (I always do, but as I'm blogging it now it'll be more evident if I succeed, and I'm hoping that will make me all the more likely to take these to heart).  I'm speaking again in Orlando, so if you'll be coming to that show stop by and say hello.  These are my sessions, all of which are new:

Pragmatic ASP.NET Tips, Tricks and Tools (200 level)

What's New in ASP.NET 3.5 (100 level)

Improve User Experience through Asynchronous Processing (200 level)

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