For all of us, there was a time before Tech Field Day. But rarely does one meet Tech Field Day and continue the same course, unchanged.
I’d been slogging through the usual suspects—Indeed.com, for example—for interesting and worthwhile ways of ending my unemployment, but really, would have settled for almost anything roughly in my pay-grade. Then came, “Do you love working with people, travel, technology, and social media?” While the rest of the job description alluded to things I was less than familiar with, like “enterprise datacenter” and “cloud market,” I was intrigued by the promise of an “unusual position,” so I perused the websites, found Stephen Foskett’s name and number, and called right away. After a lengthy and curious conversation, I sent Claire and him my resume, and long story short, was soon in the Hudson office for a morning of interviews with everyone (all 5) in the company. That night, I was hired and moved from Event Support to Jr. Event Lead for Cloud and Security. Four nights later, I landed in Vegas for VMworld, where Stephen and Tom were running an “Extra” event.
Stephen met me in the lobby and immediately began introductions. It was clear that I was meeting people important in the IT sphere and who all knew—or knew of—each other. I shook hands, tried to remember names, faces, professional affiliations while getting coffee and doing what I could to be useful. Soon enough, Stephen handed me a small, heavy, fancy camera and had me take pictures, and I started learning to document and Tweet everything.
The room was buzzing with energy, and despite being #unqualifiedfortech, it felt right. Company representatives and delegates came and went, and there were slides and speakers and talk of SSDs, integration, HCI, provisioning, storage and compute nodes, and, of course, virtual machines. While I didn’t grasp it at the time, there were some heavy hitters in the room. And even more who weren’t official delegates to the presentations but came by to say hello. Little did I know at the time, but I would quickly develop a strong fondness for these members of the Tech Field Day family. And the presenters were treated as family, as well.
I hadn’t heard of Kingston, Druva, Pluribus, or NetApp, but it was clear the folks from the companies have relationships with the Stephen, Tom, and the influencers that often go beyond the transactional to the personal. And that the relationships remain even as positions and companies change.
Stephen started Tech Field Day almost 10 years ago because he recognized the need to bring together independent experts, get all these smart people in the same room. Add a bottomless pot of coffee and some new ideas, products, and services, and “gestalt” (where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) happens. Similarly, the significance of Tech Field Day isn’t evident from just exploring the website: Getting blasted by the Las Vegas heat and throngs of people was the fitting entree into the world of Gestalt IT and Tech Field Day.
It was nonstop from the moment I stepped into the Mandalay Bay. I’d driven through Las Vegas many times and never stopped for more than coffee, but Stephen was clearly in his element. After presentations all day, we had a short break—during which Stephen opened the tech-info faucet and I tried to be a sponge—before we joined Tom and 40 of their friends at Lotus of Siam (of course). Though I had a very nice room, I had just a few moments there of non-sleep time: breakfast came early, and was an exclusive, 4-course meeting with more of Stephen’s friends—hosted by a company emerging from start-up status and repositioning itself in the backup market—before heading to the expo floor for the day.
I was swimming in coffee to mask the jetlag while I met dozens of people, all of whom welcomed me warmly and genuinely. It was clear that I had just become part of something special. When I met the Hudson office just the week before, I had wanted to work there if for no other reason (and there were plenty) than to work with Megan and Rich (Tom and Claire are non-Ohio-based, but them too). Here was more confirmation that I had lucked into good folk. After a long day of handshakes, I left the Mandalay to catch a red-eye, even as more people kept showing up to join the post-dinner, Tech Field Day family reunion.
The next week, after just a few days in the Hudson office, Ben Gage (who was hired at the same time) and I met Stephen at CLE to board a plane to meet Tom in Silicon Valley. Networking Field Day is Tom’s baby, but he had a family situation and had to fly back Oklahoma before things really got underway. And since Stephen was running a Storage Field Day Extra at the Storage Developer Conference concurrently, I got to introduce an event for the delegates in the room and the livestream audience after witnessing just two presentations in person. I also got to ride in a fancy limo, get into a fender-bender on the 101, eat at my favorite restaurant of all time (Din Tai Fung—my go-to when I lived in So Cal), and wear Princess Leia hair buns (a gift from one of our presenter friends
The content of the presentations was all so new and fascinating. I sat in the back of the room Googling unfamiliar terms and following the delegate conversation on Twitter and Slack. In the limo, restaurants, and hotel lobbies, the delegates had plenty to talk about besides networking: piano, rock-climbing, travel, boating, books, movies. And when the talk drifted to tech, as it inevitably did, I tried to soak up as much as I could. I loved being around these smart, interesting people. And they were also kind and funny and generous. I felt lucky to finally sit at the cool kids’ table.
I think it made things easier that the first presentation was Veriflow and was at the hotel—and that one of the presenters, co-founder Brighten Godfrey, and I had played some piano (he’s good!) together at VMworld. Clearly, NFD16 was off to a good start as the delegates were intrigued by Veriflow’s Continuous Network Verification technology. Then we were off to a very different kind of company: not only did Arista have a gorgeous building with a state-of-the-art presentation room, one of the presenters was none other than Andy Bechtolsheim. That a co-founder of Sun Microsystems considered this meeting important enough to participate in was not lost on me; neither was it lost on the delegates, as they appreciated his expertise, as well as his and Ken Duda’s presentations on the higher network speeds, customer-embedded code (thanks to Arista’s commitment to Linux), APIs, and their “CloudVision Telemetry.” That day ended with a reception for delegates, company representatives, and friends of Tech Field Day who were in the area.
The next morning I was given my Leia buns by Apstra (I’m suspect Derick Winkworth, “Bit Wrangling Telepath and Beard Achiever,” had something to do with that) and got my first moments in front of the camera. They presented their pioneering work in “intent-based networking,” which sounded like woowoo-y automation dark arts. But in this case, the delegates were generally impressed that Apstra knows what it means by “intent” and is clear about how it works. Next, what stood out to the delegates about Kemp was their load-balancing features, including their UI that can handle non-Kemp load-balancers and ease migration.
We then piled into the limo to go to Pluribus for a presentation on their Insight Analytics Platform and how they were using technology from the Open Compute Project to develop interesting features in SDN. The last presentation of the day was at Cisco, where Stephen had returned from SDC, and introduced me to the joy of Jelly Bellies: it’s magic how 48 flavors keep the beans interesting for hours. Cisco did a deep dive into their Tetration analytics, explaining how metadata filtering gives visibility into every packet on the network—without the explicit configuration of a network engineer. They also gave a sneak preview—embargoed for a few days—into Intersight (then “Project Starship”) with its innovative handling of HCI and network security. Because of traffic and delays before and during the Cisco setup, we ran late, and Ben Gage and I experienced what we had been apprised of during interviews: the best-laid plans sometimes need to be scrapped so that the delegates (and companies) have a good experience; flexibility and a upbeat attitude are keys. We adjusted the plans behind the scenes and no one was the wiser, and all had a good evening.
The next morning, after breakfast (I was excited that the hotel had miso soup and seaweed salad, in addition to eggs, oatmeal, and the usual American fare), we checked out of our rooms and loaded into the limo again to go visit Gigamon. Gigamon used their time for a focus on security, outlining their “Defender Lifecycle Model,” as well as sharing time with their partner companies, Splunk and Phantom. And NFD16 finished off with Kentik. Even I could tell this was a different kind of presentation: CEO and co-founder, Avi Freedman did more than just introduce their “Data Engine”; he spoke the delegate’s language and matched them in technical expertise and sheer geekiness. And they had “Ones N’ Zeros” t-shirts—a la vintage Guns N’ Roses—for each of us. Lunch was the final official event of NFD16, and we celebrated the birthday of one of the delegates with a surprise cake.
A Whirlwind Week
Back at the hotel, I fought to stay awake after our whirlwind week, as Stephen started showing me how to use Final Cut Pro to put the presentation videos together. We sat around the pool as some delegates swam and some just relaxed, the conversation drifting around networking, family, hobbies. And it was striking to me that after all the hours we spent together from dawn ‘til way past dark, the delegates still wanted our and each others company. Sure, I was looking forward to being home and seeing my significant other, but I also was savoring the time there and being part of something one-of-a-kind. Soon enough, after a week at home, I’d be back to the Valley for another Field Day, and then to Copenhagen for DockerCon and DC for Commvault GO before the year ended. Stephen’s Indeed.com ad was right about it being the “unusual position.” But if I had written the job description myself, I couldn’t have come up with something I like more.