After a year of 'in person' hiatus, its almost time for re:Invent, Amazon Web Services' (AWS) annual showcase of all things cloud.
re:Invent is a tech conference like no other since it primarily targets a technical audience—builder's in Amazon parlance—which is reflected in the amount of high quality technical content available throughout the week. It also serves as a forcing function for service teams to continually innovate and launch new products at a regular cadence. As a builder, it's an unparalleled opportunity to immerse yourself in a week of intense learning from AWS field experts, get inspired by what others are building, and network with likeminded technologists/partners who are also passionate about building cloud enabled solutions.
I first attended re:Invent as a customer back in 2016 and found myself overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the event. There were thousands of people everywhere and I was running between 'fully booked' sessions and frustrated with the time I was wasting on traveling between venues. I realized that it was essential to have a strategy for the week to maximize time and monetary investment. After several years of attending as both a customer and employee, I wanted to share my learnings to help others get the most out of the week.
Tl;dr: Skip recorded events e.g. Keynotes, Breakouts etc. Prioritize 'hands-on' 3-400 level workshops, Chalk Talks, Builders Fair, Expo & networking events. Remember to practice self-care and of course attend the infamous after party, re:Play!
- Reserve seats for sessions using the Event Portal: workshops fill up very quickly with reservations before the conference and most people attend, leaving no room for 'walk ups'. The conference staff are strict and no-one gets in when capacity is reached. Being punctual is also important, any more than 5 mins after the session start time and you forfeit your seat to someone from the walk up line.
- Plan for travel time between venues: Las Vegas casinos are enormous, and traveling between them involves up to an hour of walking. When you are planning your week, make sure to look carefully at the event/session locations to ensure that you have enough time to get between venues to prevent rushing and making it a stressful experience.
- Prep work: if you are a developer with some prior AWS experience, I would highly recommend visiting AWS Workshops and working through the ~200 level content before re:Invent. This will provide you with a strong foundation of basic concepts which enables you to focus on the 3-400 level sessions while at re:Invent in an environment in which you can ask for help and ask any questions that you may have.
- Register when you arrive in Las Vegas: there is a registration booth at Las Vegas airport and I would recommend registering there to receive your conference pass/swag, otherwise, you typically have to go to a specific venue location to register when the event starts on Monday. This can take time away from valuable in-person events and may conflict with your existing sessions.
- Avoid the bus/shuttle: AWS provides transport that run between venues, but in my experience, it takes a long time to walk to the transit centers of each venue, load people onto the bus, slowly drive up the strip and then unload. I think it's better to walk, if possible, since its usually quicker and you get to enjoy being outside for some fresh air and winter sun.
As a builder who is developing solutions on the platform, I recommend focusing your time on the following session types during the week to get maximum benefit from the event. Sessions are rated on a scale between 100-400 representing introductory through expert material respectively.
- Workshops: these sessions are developed by the global Solution Architect (SA) community and structured around specific use-cases that focus on innovative areas of the platform. They are typically ~2 hours in length and consist of a short presentation to set context followed by a series of 'hands-on' labs that guide you through building out a use-case in your own AWS account. SA's are on hand to answer any questions and help with any issues that might arise. By the end of the workshop, you have gained experience with multiple services for a real-world use-case which helps frame a mental model of what's possible with the technology and how to approach implementing a solution. If you have some prior experience with AWS, I would recommend attending sessions at a 3-400 level to really accelerate your learning and challenge yourself.
- Chalk Talks: these are unique, intimate events, which consist of a short 10-15 minute presentation around a particular concept e.g. 'Developing .NET Applications on AWS', followed by a ~45 minute open-forum for technical architecture discussion. The ideal scenario is that you have a particular use-case/project in mind when attending a Chalk Talk so that you can have a list of questions prepared for the presenter and extract maximum benefit from the sessions. There are sessions across many different technology types including AI/ML, IoT, Serverless and use-cases Migrations, Video streaming etc.
- Builders fair: this is a fun, interactive 'science fair' like event in which you get to learn how to use cloud services to build solutions for real-world use-cases. There are dozens of working prototypes of end-to-end solutions that they have designed and built by SA's during their nights and weekends over the past ~12 months. Internally, there is a highly competitive process to have a prototype featured at re:Invent so the bar is very high. There are a broad set of solutions across themes such as environmental, sustainability, optimizing industrial processes, robotics and more. I had the pleasure of participating in the Builders Fair in 2018/19 and personally believe this is one of the best events at re:Invent, because it clearly demonstrates what is possible with cloud technology, no marketing just cloud, software and hardware coupled with an opportunity for deep 1:1 technical discussion around real-world use-cases with SA's who spend their days working with customers—this is truly where the rubber meets the road. I promise that as a fellow builder, you will leave inspired, energized, and excited to start building something yourself.
- Ask the expert: you can meet 1:1 with an AWS expert and discuss anything related to AWS architectures. These are particularly useful if you are designing a new project and/or working on existing problem and would like guidance.
- Builders Sessions: these are ~1-hour intimate sessions in which an AWS field expert demonstrates the build out of a solution—you then build the solution on your own laptop alongside the expert and a small group. These are great sessions to get 'hands on' and ask questions along the way, try to find sessions that either align with a project you are working on or a personal interest/passion.
- Restaurant Receptions/Quirky Events: these are new for this year, but I would strongly advise attending a few events, since they are great networking opportunities, a key part of the value of re:Invent.
- Hackathon: a 'hands-on' developer centric event in which you get to build something cool around a specific use-case. I believe the theme this year is focused around sustainability so this will be a great way to contribute to a worthwhile cause and meet likeminded participants.
- Expo: this is a huge array of booths staffed by AWS partners who are excited to show you what they are building. It is at the Venetian spread over a few days and it's highly worth going to walk around and connect with partners. There are competitions, giveaways, and lots of swag so you will stock up on T-shirts and Hoodies for the next year. AWS usually has an "ask the experts" booth where you can talk to service team members and SA's who can answer technical questions for specific services such as IoT, ML etc.
- re:Play party: no explanation necessary 🙂
Sessions to (probably) avoid
- Breakouts: these sessions consist of a lecture style presentation with interesting use-case and technical details, but they are all recorded and uploaded to platforms such as YouTube and can be watched at a later time. The only reason I see to attend a breakout is if you have specific questions for the presenting team that can be answered in the Q&A session and/or after the presentation.
- Keynotes: this is mainly a sequential announcement of the new services in a presentation style. It is usually difficult to get into the main theatre and I personally don't see any value in attending synchronously in person as this is time that could be spent on one of the higher value session types. If you really like to know which services are being launched in real time, then you can always follow the live Twitter feed or one of the many "influencers" who attend.
- Leadership Sessions: unless you are looking for less technical sessions or planning a leap into management, I don't feel these are useful for anyone building on AWS.
re:Invent can be an overwhelming experience, especially if its you're first time and even more so due to the events of the past few years in which we have all been isolated and working remotely. I found the following helpful to stay at my best during the conference.
- Stay hydrated: the climate of Las Vegas is extremely dry and air conditioning of the conference venues dries out the air even more which means it is essential to stay hydrated. There are hundreds of water coolers located every few hundred feet so bring your own reusable bottle and keep filling up regularly.
- Pack a variety of snacks: there is always food provided at the conference but you will find that you become busy with sessions, moving between venues, networking etc. so I recommend packing snacks in a back pack—protein bars, fruit, nuts and sandwiches are all good options.
- Bring comfortable shoes: you will be walking and standing lots so prioritize comfort over aesthetics.
- Decompress: there is usually a really cool "chill out" room with a DJ. I highly recommend going there to decompress if you feel overwhelmed and need downtime.
Last year was Amazon's first attempt at a virtual conference, and as such, the online platform was a bit clunky, and it was difficult to see that you could ask questions to technical experts while attending virtual events. I was moderating several of these sessions and sadly I didn't receive any questions. Therefore, if you are attending virtually, I highly recommend that you leverage the opportunity to ask any questions and to ensure maximum learning from the session.
I hope this was useful, I would love to hear about your re:Invent experience in 2021, feel free to reach out on Twitter with any questions or thoughts.