I love speaking at conferences, in general, and DevConnections, in particular. I also love listening to presentations at user groups, code camps, and other conferences. This standard "highly structured" format with an expert speaker in the front of the room sharing his or her expertise and/or experience on a subject is invaluable and very often a great way to learn a topic. As a conference chair for over ten years, I also know thatconferences can only afford to bring in so many people to speak at a show. For example, DevConnections will spend several thousand dollars for each speaker at the upcoming conference in Las Vegas. DevConnectiosn pays for speaker hotel and travel expenses, speaker party, speaker shirts, speaker honorarium, and all the AV needs for the room. Plus, there is a lot of work behind the scenes creating the call for abstracts, sorting though speakers, and making the final decisions on who will speak. But even if you ignore the cost, there's only so many speaking slots we can have running at any one time during a show. Furthermore, since conferences require advanced planning and marketing, we have to nail down the topics pretty early--usually about 5-6 months prior to the show (with the exception of the talks by Microsoft which are finalized much later).
And because attendees pay so much to attend a show, conference organizers don't want to take risks on new, unseasoned speakers or on oddball topics. Attendees expect (and almost always receive) top notch talks by top notch speakers like Scott Allen, Ward Bell, Scott Guthrie, Julie Lerman, Dan Wahlin, Billy Hollis, Kimberly Tripp, John Papa, and other outstanding Microsoft and indepdendent speakers. Still, there are alternative approaches to sharing technical information at conferences that also can and do work. The Alt.net community in Seattle and other cities regularly sponsor community-based events that are much less structured than a typical highly organized and planned conference like DevConnections. Many of these alternative conferences such as Alt.net employ a methodology called Open Spaces that, according to wikipedia "...is most distinctive for its initial lack of an agenda, which sets the stage for the meeting's participants to create the agenda for themselves..."
Well it doesn't have to be an either/or decision. A year ago, we tried out an evening Open Spaces event that gave attendees as well as vendors and speakers a chance to speak on a topic they were passionate about. And it was well received! This year, we are set to do it again in Las Vegas. Thanks to the generous sponsorship by the Microsoft MVP Award Program, DevConnections is holding its second Open Spaces evening event at the upcoming DevConnections show in Las Vegas. So in addiiton to expert sessions on ASP.NET, Silverlight, Windows Phone 7, Visual Studio, WPF, WCF, EF, SQL Server, and SharePoint, you will have an additional opportunity to attend less structured sessions on new or emerging technologies, best practices, or passionate discussions by both expert and non-experts in the field. It's also an opportunity for you to stand up and host a session. And thanks to the Microsoft MVP Award Progam we will have food and drink at the Open Spaces event.
By the way, Open Spaces is a great way for new speakers to be heard. And you can bet that as conference chair, I will be using Open Spaces to look for potential speakers for upcoming DevConenctions shows. It's also a way for our invited conference speakers to explore new or emerging topics that didn't fit into the daytime conference agenda. All in all, I think it's a win-win for eveyone involved: structured and unstructured sessions all in one conference.
I've posted a wiki at DevConnections Open Spaces Wiki which people can use to post possible session topics for the event. So if you are already coming to the show (or considering registering), please come to the Open Spaces event and consider presenting on a topic you are passionate about. And use the wiki to suggest a session you would like to deliver, suggest a session you'd like someone else to deliver, or to view sessions that others have proposed. Of course, the final agenda will be decided at the start of the Open Spaces event on Nov 3rd so you by no means have to post them in advance on the wiki. It's just an option for those who like to plan ahead more than others.