An IT Pro’s Perspective of TechEd 2014

I’m writing this post on the way home from an interesting TechEd North America 2014 conference. Prior to the conference, I was wondering what the talking points of TechEd would be. Microsoft corporate vice president for the Cloud and Enterprise Division, Brad Anderson, took the stage in Houston on the morning of Monday, May 12th, and laid out Microsoft’s vision of the future. In this opinion post, I’ll analyze the keynote in this post and ask the question that might be on the mind of some IT professionals: Is Microsoft trying to kill off the IT pro by forcing businesses into the cloud? 

Editor’s Note: We’ve also summarized some of the key product and services announcements in our TechEd 2014 keynote recap.
Brad Anderson TechEd 2014
Microsoft Corporate Vice President Brad Anderson takes the stage at TechEd North America 2014 (Photo: Jeff James)

The Mood Before TechEd 2014

IT pros around the world feel like they’re under attack. Amazon, Google, Rackspace, Gartner, IDC, Forrester Research, some in the media, and many more keep telling CIOs that (public) cloud is the only right option for IT services. Those of us who worked through the outsourcing craze remember how IT shops were lifted and shifted to far-flung places around the world. They remember losing our jobs through no fault of their own. Someone looked at a balance sheet, underestimated the value of IT as a business enabler, and saved a few bucks (in the short term) by contracting out IT to a service company that barely spoke the same language, and had no interest in innovation, didn’t provide customer care, and had no investment in making the business more competitive. Those memories have been stirred up and brought to the surface over the past year by some of the actions of Microsoft.
TechEd has become the sole Microsoft conference for IT pros. In previous years, an IT pro could attend the Microsoft Management Summit (MMS) to learn about new and existing technologies for managing enterprise networks using Microsoft technologies. MMS said farewell in 2013; I know that many IT pros enjoyed their annual trip to the Las Vegas desert. Sure, there are the obvious distractions of Vegas, but they valued the education and the networking that this IT pro conference gave them. MMS became more than a conference: It was a comfortable community.
The Microsoft TechNet subscription, a way for IT pros to get high-value and low-cost access to Microsoft product for test/evaluation, was terminated by Microsoft in 2013. My own education as an IT pro would have been impossible without the TechNet subscription. For just a few hundred Euros I had access to the entire collection of Microsoft media (not including the developer content). The only limitations on my learning were time and hardware. It was as if Microsoft wanted me to explore their products, improve my skills with them, and then deploy them.
The incredibly difficult and expensive to achieve Masters certification program was killed off by Microsoft with almost no notice too. In the Microsoft world, the MCP, or the MCTIP certification — or whatever it is called this year — has become meaningless. It’s a hurdle that Microsoft partners need to jump every few years to stay involved in competency programs. Few outside of Human Resources care for Microsoft certifications. But the Masters was different. This incredibly difficult to achieve certification meant something. An IT professional that held one was considered a guru. The certification indicated that they knew that product inside and out, and you knew that they really were an expert.
And some would say that Microsoft is pushing (public) cloud down our throats, possibly at the expense of our jobs as IT pros. One couldn’t blame people for thinking that considering recent history and how Microsoft account managers around are talking. Microsoft account managers have been ordered to sell more Azure. They see it as a more difficult sell than on-premise software, so they are pushing it. They still have targets for on-premise products, but they have to spend more time selling the more difficult to ship service.
TechEd North America 2014 in Houston was the first conference that IT pros would attend since the major shift in public focus by Microsoft from “on-prem” to Azure. What would Microsoft have to say? How would IT pros react? Would there be any big announcements?
But something more obvious has been noticeable. If you attend a Microsoft developer conference such as Build, you are rewarded. You’re given tablets, phones, subscriptions, and you get new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella for your Keynote. Attend TechEd, and you might get a small discount in the store or the change to buy an overstocked tablet at a discount. There are no freebies. Are IT pros less important than developers in the eyes of Microsoft?

The TechEd 2014 Keynote

Unlike TechEd NA 2013 in New Orleans, Brad Anderson made a rather subdued entrance on stage. There was no James Bond music, there was no video of Anderson driving through the city in an Aston Martin. Anderson simply walked on stage and briefly talked about the excitement of working in a new Microsoft under the leadership of Satya Nadella. We held our breath.  Would Nadella take the time to visit with us at TechEd?
No. Nadella, who has made more appearances at events than a Kardashian, was a no-show at TechEd. To quote an old 1990’s pop song, these are “things that make you go hmm.”
Anderson didn’t delay in reaching out to the IT pros in the mixed audience at TechEd. The Microsoft Cloud OS is a mixture of three clouds: Azure, on-prem technologies such as Windows Server, Hyper-V, and System Center, and partner clouds powered by Windows Azure Pack (WAP).  You can bring the Azure experience on-prem to create private clouds using System Center for the enabler with WAP providing the portal and the automation (Service Management Automation or SMA). IT pros, said Anderson, should not fear the cloud. The cloud is here to expand opportunities for IT pros. It provides additional capacities at cloud scales. If anything, the cloud will expand our roles in the business.
Anderson used an interesting sales and marketing phrase. He referred to some Azure services as “on ramps”. Like a road joining a larger and faster moving motorway or interstate, IT pros can get a taste of the cloud by using some easy to pick up technologies such as Azure websites or online backup. These are technologies that simplify and enhance what we do, and are non-threatening. In Anderson’s experience, IT pros that sample these on-ramps start to explore Azure and learn what the service does, and importantly, what it does not do. Azure does not replace IT pros. What Azure does is give us capacity to work quickly, at the scale we require at the time, and refocuses our efforts from machines to services. In other words, we start doing higher value work. As I’ve said in a previous article on Azure, all that Azure IaaS is doing is giving you virtual machines with an operating system. If your job consists of northing more than installing Windows then you are doing a low value job. The interesting and the higher paying work starts at that point … and that’s where Azure starts. Microsoft don’t do that work for you, they only provide you the capacity to do that work … very quickly.
A large number of interesting Azure announcements were made, including a few more of those on ramp services that IT pros have actually been asking for, such as Azure Site Recovery (Hyper-V Replica from on-prem to Azure). But there was no discussion of what is happening with WAP, System Center, Hyper-V, Windows Server, or the client OSs. The keynote shifted to talk to the other parts of the audience, namely the devs and the BI folks that also attend TechEd. It felt to me that the keynote lost steam at this point. It appeared that much of the audience agreed, because I noticed a lot of people walking out from my position near the stage. A mood was definitely there. Some IT pros were unhappy.

A Look Back at TechEd 2014

I talked to a number of people on Monday about their expectations and opinions of the keynote. After the exciting Build keynotes, where Satya Nadella appeared and there was some discussion of futures for Windows and Office vNext, there were higher expectations for the TechEd keynote. TechEd has been a launch platform for so much over the years. Had the IT pro audience really become so devalued to Microsoft?
In my opinion, it’s a mixed bag. It’s quite obvious that if you want freebies then you attend the Build conference, and get bored by .NET# frameworks or something like that. But I do understand a few things that not everyone gets to hear about.
Most users of Microsoft technology never attend Microsoft conferences. They don’t get to hear the vision. They never hear program managers and presidents explain how they are developing a hybrid cloud ecosystem. IT pros normally have a very limited, second-degree interaction with Microsoft; in other words, a Microsoft account manager that is under pressure to sell Azure comes to talk with the boss of the IT pro, and sells Azure hard. The IT pro only hears the Azure message from their boss, and then they feel under attack. I work with a very good Microsoft Cloud and Enterprise lead in Ireland, and he explains the Microsoft message very well. It is all about hybrid cloud. You choose the right pieces for you from the entire Microsoft Cloud OS, spanning your site, Azure, and partner hosted clouds.
Why was there no mention of on-prem software? I talked to Brad Anderson about this on the evening after the keynote. He was really disappointed that he didn’t have news for the audience regarding Windows Server and System Center. He really wanted to share something with the IT pro audience, the market for the products that he leads. The reality is that on-prem software and cloud software have very different release cycles. Yes, Windows and System Center updates are now coming out every 12-18 months (some of us think this is too often!) but Azure has features coming out every few weeks! There is no version to Azure. It’s a nebulous thing that is constantly changing and adding functionality. On the other hand, Windows and System Center are products with specific versions that increment functionality using the staircase model (up, flat, up, flat). There was no on-prem announcement because it was too early to share. However, Paul Thurrott has reported that Microsoft should be releasing Windows vNext around April of 2015. I wonder what technical conference will be held around 6 months before that … hmm … will it be TechEd Europe 2014 in Barcelona, the city where Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 were announced?

I, an IT pro, am not worried or depressed. Actually, I mostly attended Azure and hybrid cloud sessions for IT pros. I found lots of material that give me new technologies that can enhance my value in the business. My investment in on-prem skills continues, but I will add more value to employers and clients by being ready to work on the entire hybrid cloud solution from Microsoft.