The “Unconference”: IT Chief Architect/CTO Forum Takes New Approach to Idea Sharing

It may not take a village to create cohesive IT architecture in a changing high-tech world, but forging a small community of Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) and Chief Architects is proving to be a helpful tool. At least that is the consensus of the feedback EMC and VMware have gotten to our Chief Architect/CTO Forum that debuted at EMC World last spring.

As an IT Architect I can tell you that CTOs and Chief Architects don’t just focus on technology, though it is certainly central to their world. They also deal day-to-day with a more holistic set of problems, including resources, employee skill sets and ensuring that their organization’s architecture comes together as need. And, until earlier this year, they didn’t have a place to discuss these challenges with their peers at EMC events.

In May at EMC World, however, we decided to give this unique group of professionals a chance to do just that at our first Chief Architect/CTO Forum. We invited some 20 CTOs and Chief Architects to a day-long event in the midst of EMC World 2014, which ran from May 5-8, 2014 in Las Vegas. I co-hosted the event with Job Simon, Vice President, IT Architecture and Strategy at VMware.

We wanted to start small in an effort to create a community to link our colleagues in a new kind of setting—an “unconference” format featuring “unpanel discussions,” meaning we were not trying to stuff information down peoples’ throats. And we were not trying to sell any products there.

We lined up speakers to talk about topics that tapped in to Chief Architect and CTO priorities. Matt Eastman of IDC covered industry trends, while three venture capitalists shared their perspective on what they were seeing in the IT marketplace. Then we opened the floor up to the CTOs and Chief Architects themselves. We had five of our attendees come up and talk about the kinds of issues they were facing and their approaches to resolve them.

The discussions were extemporaneous. They spoke on today’s hot topics, in a peer-to-peer setting. There was also a lot of networking time so people could connect with each other and talk, rather than just listening to the usual conference presentations. We also had a Q&A session where attendees could ask questions of CTOs from EMC, VMware and Pivotal.

The small-scale forum was such a success, we did it again in a somewhat larger forum at VMworld 2014 in late August in San Francisco. The intent of the forum was to keep the technologists coming back as a community at least twice a year if not more. This time we invited 60 Chief Architect and CTOs. Fifty attended, from organizations like Bio-Rad, Honeywell, SAP, Wipro, Charles Schwab and more.

We had featured speaker author Geoffrey Moore talk about business IT imperatives and next-generation IT deployment, as well as a venture capitalist discussion. We also had two CTO “unpanel” discussions, another question and answer session with attendees querying our EMC, VMware and Pivotal CTOs and a lot of audience-driven discussion. Topics included hybrid cloud, software defined enterprise, end user computing and more.

The biggest thing that we noticed was that the “unconference” way of doing things definitely brings out more feedback on what customers are interested in or upset about. Without being constrained by a set presentation, they feel free to actually come up and talk about the issues that are facing them. They might not just be pertaining to the topics we throw out. For instance, what came up a lot in our forums was risk and security.

There was also a lot of discussion on how you marry the old ways with the new. How do you continue to do disruptive innovation when you still have to run a legacy platform in the old non-cloud model? Those were the kinds of discussions that might not come up if we were just on stage talking about EMC’s cloud journey. Here the customers were definitely front and center and able to bring up the kinds of things they wanted to.

Freeing up networking time and discussing issues as a professional group created a unique environment for exchanging ideas. Yes, you could just sit down with a CTO of a customer individually and discuss these issues, but it’s the group thing that generates a lot more energy and a lot more people saying, “Hey we have the same kind of challenges.” And in that group setting, customers have been able to answer their peers’ questions by bringing to the fore how they handled a particular situation or problem and that’s valuable too.  The whole group thing, the connection is extremely valuable.

We came away from both events better informed about what customers are looking for and what their pain points are. For example, forum-goers told us loud and clear that we should offer more full-suite-type solutions because it can be a nightmare to install all the management stack components for some offerings—definitely the kind of insight Chief Architects and CTOs can best supply.

Based on the feedback we got, we intend to continue to offer Chief Architect/CTO forums at future EMC and VMware global events as well as beyond the U.S. in EMEA and elsewhere.

About the Author: KK Krishnakumar