I have just returned from one of the best and unforgettable experiences of my life. This year, I was privileged and honoured to have been selected as one of ten global roaming reporters for Microsoft’s largest technology conference, Microsoft Ignite which was held in Orlando Florida. I heard that over 29 000 people attended the conference, while anything up to 50 000 was expected to watch the livestream over the four days.
The call was put out by Anna Chu (@_achu) to the Microsoft Technology Community of which I’m part of through my work with Microsoft Partner, Adopt & Embrace to submit a 2 minute video and fill out some other details and audition for the role. Naturally, I gave it a go with the support of my manager Paul Woods (@PaulWoods) who alerted me to the tweet in the first instance.
In all honesty, I didn’t think I would get the role because amusingly, I submitted my 2 minute video based on a report I did from my KITCHEN. That is, compared to the others, I felt that my report wasn’t creative. However, I was told that my camera presence and style came out and as I had linked the report to modern workers being able to work anywhere and anytime – at in any location (like a kitchen), then it was relevant. Regardless, I was chuffed. I was going to Orlando.
In the lead up to the event, we were all invited to be part of a team in Microsoft Teams.
Every week on Thursday, we attended an hour long virtual meetup where we could meet our peers and the co-ordinating team Anna Chu, Ally Reckman (@ally_rec) and our producer Jill Lucas from Mighty Media Studios who was responsible for the media production and co-ordination of interviewees. Over the weeks, we organised a program over the 4 days of the event where we were paired to interview various people and to report on different segments. We were also provided coaching around how to report and work with the production crew (consisting of a producer, camera person, lighting and audio person). As the days drew near, all our excitment was culminating and I dare say, my anxiety was beginning to show. I had never done anything like this below and I was determined to stay fit and healthy before I went because people were giving me all sorts of advice on what to expect at the venue – everything from how much water to drink and what shoes to wear.
Saturday Night Meetup 2 November 2019
The Saturday night before the event, all the community reporters met each other in person for the first time. We had connected in Teams before and heard each other’s voice but it was great to come together over a delicious meal and some wine and really get to know where we were from and how excited we were anticipating the week ahead. Jeffrey Palermo (@jeffreypalermo) had brought his audio recorder and took some first audio recordings of this excitement so that he could share it on his podcast.
I loved the evening because it was a chance to also express how I was feeling. A mix of excitement, anticipation but also some nerves especially when told that we were going to open the show on Monday morning and that we all had a part to play right at the get go! The Saturday night meetup was just the perfect and laid back introduction to us all and to set the scene for the next day which was to be about the rehearsals.
Sunday Rehearsals 3 November 2019
Distressingly, jet lag had well and truly set in for me and I got very little sleep. Two hours – interrupted at most and this made me panic a bit. I know I wasn’t the only one in this situation but I knew enough that I had to pace myself and find any time to rest and recuperate.
Some years ago, a similar situation meant that I had fainted in the shower, smashed my jaw and knocked out teeth and well, I’m lucky to be alive today – so this was at the back of my mind that I had to get sleep, I had to keep myself fit and healthy, hydrated and rested if I was going to be at my best over the next five days. It didn’t help that the usual body aches and pains started to show, general tremors and shakes, and lethargy began. I was coming down with a cold! (Argh, this is NOT what I wanted).
After drugging myself up with aspirin, Vitamin C and Echinacea and making sure I drank lots of water, I trudged onto rehearsals. If I think about it, everything I forced myself through feeling like a zombie. I didn’t want to let the team down and couldn’t fathom the thought that they had invested in me to be here and that I couldn’t participate. After drinking teas, water and eating something, my energy came back and I was amazed at how the venue was being set up on Sunday. I loved the behind the scenes action – people were cycling from one end of the Hub (the hall way expo) to another; others were putting up their booths or getting their swag ready. The lights, the sounds of the people practising their presentations – even the CEO Satya Nadella was up on stage doing a practice run of his session for the next day. It was a bit surreal to say the least.
My most favourite part of this event was being an observer behind the scenes. Seeing the production crew, all dressed in black and mic’ed up in the backstage area set up in a makeshift office that was crammed with computers, screens, cables and other audio and visual equipment. They worked in the dark only under the shine of blue lights over the five days and I wondered if being in the dark – their faces only reflected by the light of their screens ever made them tired or anxious. However, what I saw what that they were always positive, inspired and saying things like, “let’s get this show ready!” To them, this is what it was about – getting the show that they had co-ordinated and planned for all these months, now a reality.
During our rehearsals we were given what we were going to do on the first day so we ran through the entire program for the first day event only. I was slightly nervous at this stage because we had to pretend to do our talk into the camera to see what it would look like the next day. Initially I breathed in and out to slow my heart rate but I think it was more to keep myself steady and not keel over and faint from being sick. However, when the producer gives you the signal that you’re on – you’re on – no going back. You put your game face on, face the camera, smile and talk.
You can see the run down of the Rehearsal Day as I embedded tweets through a timeline here
— Helen Blunden #MSIgnite Community Reporter 🎤📸🤳 (@ActivateLearn) November 4, 2019
Or you can watch the video of the entire day here.
Monday 4 November 2019
Microsoft Ignite is ON! It was an early roll call at 6:30 am where we gathered in the dark. I went into the Green Room slightly nauseous from nerves but everyone was in such high spirits. The production crew, the hosts, we even had a make up lady do our hair and make up. Now was the time to shine. We all knew our places and we went out to our locations. I was paired with Stefan Malter, a journalism lecturer from Germany and we decided to do ‘pull outs’ where we find people walking by and ask them questions about their expectations. When the doors opened, attendees streamed in and headed straight for the Vision Keynote area which held about 3000 people and any others who missed a seat, could be seated at anywhere in the large expo hall that had a big screen. There was plenty of space.
Ten minutes before CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella had his keynote, Stefan and I were psyching up the crowd and asking people what they were going to get out of the conference. You could feel the excitement in the air as people were rushing past us to get to the end of the hall to see Satya. Everything about the livestream was planned to the minute. We had exactly 5 minutes to do our segment before cutting back to the live stage where hosts would introduce the segment to the viewers watching the livestream around the world.
Here’s Stefan and I doing our first gig of the day!
This felt to me the closest I’ve ever been to real life television and tell you what – it was addictive. The adrenalin of having to think on your feet when the camera is on and people around the world are watching you is something else. For some reason, I actually felt comfortable. The only nerves came during my first interview at the Microsoft Learn when I felt I struggled to ask more in depth questions to my interviewer but I’m hoping that didn’t show. All I had to do was to keep reminding myself to smile, the biggest smile I could muster, stay positive and always ask a question to keep the interviewee talking – it’s not about me – it’s about them.
Of course, I also had to consider my Producer who was also giving me signals throughout the interview to either stretch the segment out or to wrap up and toss it to the next segment.
How exciting – if this is what television is about – how do I do more of this?
Here’s my interview with Kendra Smith at the Microsoft Learn booth.
The highlight for the Monday for me was the walk and talk with Senior Content Lead of MS Ignite, Michael Kophs.
I had some time before the interview to chat with him and provide a run down of the type of questions I’d ask. He was the nicest bloke I had met, he made the interview so natural and free flowing so we decided to walk along the hub and do the interview instead. Poor Ally, our cameraperson had be helped to walk along backwards but she did a sterling job. I think that interview for me was one of the highlights of Ignite because I was also genuinely interested in the content experiences he was talking about. Looking at myself later on, I saw that I didn’t stumble over words and asked questions with a big smile and a few laughs. The only thing was that he was so tall that I had to extend my arm to hold the microphone closer to his mouth.
The conversation with Michael actually switched something in my head about learning experiences. At Ignite, he and his team was responsible for flipping the concept of conference experiences to include content and immersive learning experiences. What I observed was that Microsoft had invested a lot of time (and money) into providing support and education to its technical developer community and they saw the value of blended learning and connected experiences to ensure that the community continually learn and evolve. It was evident that continual learning and professional and personal development linked with the experience of building a community was core to the story of Ignite – and it started to unfold and reveal a personal lesson for me from where I have come from in the traditional world of corporate learning and development to what is the new world of social and connected immersion experiences where learning happens in the work flow.
Monday ended on such a high positive note that I drifted back to the hotel room, ordered dining in service and promptly crashed in bed….only to sleep for a couple of hours.
Tuesday 5 November 2019
The next day, after having some sleep, I did feel better but unfortunately I didn’t have any interviews that day because it was focused mainly on developers. However, I rocked up nice and early and used the day to wander around the Hub and exhibit floor spending time in the Modern Workplace area and speaking to various people. I did some more interviews but this time just using my own equipment. I’ve now set myself up to have all the equipment I need to be able to do interviews and capture good audio and video footage.
This time around I had used my new Canon G7x Mark III camera which I love however, I hadn’t properly figured out the auto focus on it (I downloaded the firmware update to fix this) however, it wasn’t until the last day when I realised what I was doing wrong and promptly fixed it. (The camera is known for taking a few seconds to focus in on the subject but a latest firmware fix has reduced this time). Also, I realised that I hadn’t done my audio settings correctly when I connected an external microphone to the camera (no sound was being recorded!) as a result, rather than stuff around trying to figure out a fix, I simply used my iPhone 6 to capture the interviews. Not ideal but it did the job. I reserved my camera for B-roll footage and vlog style reports in less noisy places.
On this day, I used the opportunity to talk to various people around the exhibit floor and try and organise meetups with people I wanted to talk to. Ignite is so busy, so hectic, that it took time to organise these meetups because people were involved in doing their own thing – whether they were conducting their own sessions, or meeting people or even attending sessions themselves.
In the afternoon, Stefan and I also did a couple of segments and one of which was sharing our thoughts of being a community reporter.
Wednesday 6 November 2019
2:01 pm: crashing fast. Get thee to the quiet room ASAP. Jet lag with 2 hours sleep over last 4 days not good. However I have surprised myself admittedly. 🤪 pic.twitter.com/NCyD2zAR8L
— Helen Blunden #MSIgnite Community Reporter 🎤📸🤳 (@ActivateLearn) November 4, 2019
Day 3 of #MSignite commences and I’m wearing this fantastic tee-shirt with one of the best designs I’ve seen in a long time. (I like tapes – I’ve spent hours compiling playlists in my teens waiting for specific songs on radio to come on to hit record. Remember?) pic.twitter.com/ksowXr7bv1
— Helen Blunden #MSIgnite Community Reporter 🎤📸🤳 (@ActivateLearn) November 6, 2019
Here’s me talking about the live stage.
Day 3 #MSIgnite. Today I’ll be on the Live Stage. (Ooops no: last minute change, I’m not now but nevertheless that’s showbiz folks). My only question to producer was do the chairs rotate so when I ask the question to the interviewee I can swivel to them? He looked at me strangely pic.twitter.com/4VvzfAGOco
— Helen Blunden #MSIgnite Community Reporter 🎤📸🤳 (@ActivateLearn) November 6, 2019
By this stage, the lack of sleep, my constant hacking cough, and general unwell feeling, breathlessness and sheer exhaustion was getting the better of me. I had to quickly go into the community retreat and close myself off from the noise and lights and try to switch off in mental preparation for my next interview. To get myself ready, I was using the breathing app on my Fit bit to get my breathing steady and fight off the exhaustion. I also did some meditation which helped greatly but my health was deteriorating. Back in the green room, hacking up coughs and tired, I conceded defeat. I had to get back to my hotel room and rest or else I could make myself worse. Luckily, Tom a fellow reporter stepped in to do my next interview. Meanwhile, I grabbed a taxi and hot footed it back to the hotel room where I lay in bed with the room rotating around me.
Thursday 7 November 2019
I couldn’t move out of bed but my team were nice enough to bring up some medication to the room. After the aspirins, cough syrup and rest, I was starting to feel a bit more normal but still lethargic. I watched the livestream from bed and continued to tweet out and share information as much as I could but really, I was a bit sad and sorry for myself because I so wanted to be with the team.
Last day of #MSIgnite & peeved THIS is my view. Cold & cough worsened so in bed to rest & recover before I head back home to Oz. Sorry to be missing out on my interviews & catchups with people & being with my reporter family. ☹️watching livestream instead. At least we have that pic.twitter.com/Uzmplb4OL2
— Helen Blunden #MSIgnite Community Reporter 🎤📸🤳 (@ActivateLearn) November 7, 2019
Friday 8 November 2019
On Friday, I still wasn’t well enough to head back out to the expo again. Feeling lightheaded, tired and still not having enough sleep (I was averaging 2 hours of interrupted light dozing a night), I was wrecked. I decided to get dressed and go outside into the humidity to breathe in the air hoping that it would clear my nasal and lung passages. Being outside in the warmth and moist air actually helped me and I managed to do another report about what I learned.
On this day, the event wasn’t live streamed so I could only communicate via the WhatsApp group and the team were packing up or doing their own thing. I was sad that I hadn’t participated as much as I wanted to having only done a few interviews live on screen – with about another 6 or so using my own equipment however, I reasoned that I hoped that I had shared enough about the event in the days and months leading up to the event and also offered how I could help more in the future. I know that this opportunity will never arise again but that’s okay – I did play a small part and now would gladly help others to do the same and be offered this opportunity for themselves.
What Did I Learn Out of this Whole Experience?
Primarily, I learned that working in a team is the way I work best. I love it. It’s the only way I want to work – I want to know that I have a small part to play but together we make the team successful. I was never one to be the one in the spotlight, I actually don’t want it even though I know there are times when I’m in it but it’s not my natural state. I think it’s because I just jump in and get things done and usually this means I’m in front of a camera – trust me, it’s not my main thing. (I love the process of stuff which usually means I’m the first doing things, putting up my sleeves and just doing stuff). Believe it or not, I’m an introvert.
I also recall thinking when I was interviewing people that I’m in awe of people. People are amazing. They do such wonderful things and many times, these are unvoiced, unacknowledged and not counted. I recall chatting with a Student Amabassador Chloe Gellar and briefing her for an interview for the next day and she actually brought tears to my eyes as she relayed her passion and reason why she wanted to study prosthetics because of her father’s illness. Speaking with the people made me realise that I love giving a voice to others. I want it to be about them – not about me – of making them shine in the spotlight.
Another thing I learned was how much I loved the background, the behind the scenes; the people doing the work to make the event a success – the unsung heroes.
Working with the production crew, who are experts in their own right, highly professional people in the field of television and media made me realise who grossly inadequate my skills were. I was the hack here – the person who flew in to ask some simple questions in front of the camera but the real people were the ones who actually made sure the show was a success. They referred to us as “the talent” and that their role was to “make the talent look good”. There was a lot of respect for these people and for this, I am most grateful for working with this exceptional group of people who never complained, and always made sure that the “show must go on!”
I particularly loved chatting with my producer Ed who was experienced in the field of news media and he gave me some pointers on how I could improve my interview and camera presence. I sought out feedback as much as I could so that I could improve my skills.
Here’s a short video about the amazing work the production crew does.
Yesterday I shared some thoughts on the fantastic work that the production crews are doing at #MSIgnite Big shout out and thanks to the crew from @Mighty_Media_ you’re the best! Keep up the great work. https://t.co/xQ1shCSclj #media #tvproduction @MS_Ignite
— Helen Blunden #MSIgnite Community Reporter 🎤📸🤳 (@ActivateLearn) November 6, 2019
Thirdly, the admiration I have for the co-ordination team with Anna and Ally who put immense planning into this to make it happen. I can’t tell you how open, bubbly, enthusiastic they were for us. They always had a positive word to say about us – everything was considered and approachable. We could offer ideas and suggestions and they took it all onboard. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer and most supportive team. They were simply the best. You need to see the vast amounts of hours they put in to make this successful.
Fourthly, the other community reporters. We all came from different types of work and from different countries, a mix of extroverts and introverts but all with the idea of making the show a success. There was lots of laughter in the green room and we all supported each other. If we couldn’t make a segment, someone else immediately filled in. I wish I would have had more air time together with the other reporters because all our work was fun and we jumped into it with enthusiasm and vigour.
So Where Does This Leave Me Now?
Sadly all good things come to an end. While I was particularly sad that illness had stopped me from doing everything I had planned, when I look back on it, I did actually do all but 3 of the interviews I had set out (and now will organise through other ways like using MS Teams). I didn’t get the swag like everyone else (one teeshirt, one pair of socks and 3 stickers) but I did get contacts and some intense and deep conversations that have basically set me up thinking differently now.
In actual fact, I came away much more sure and confident of my skills and what I have to offer people. It was a massive ‘a ha’ moment for me.
In the past I doubted myself too much but this experience has shown me that I am far more capable than I believe myself. To be selected and to do something completely different to what I have done in the past shows to me that I really have nothing to worry about. Too often the imposter syndrome just takes over your life but this experience has made me realise that dammit, I’ve worked bloody hard to get where I am today and to clock up the various experiences I have. I have put myself out there, been bold enough to give things a go – and to be the first to do so with my peers, I’ve had tears, massive self doubt and big panic attacks when it comes to putting yourself in a public and vulnerable position to be judged – but guess what? It’s made me stronger. I survived.
What has changed?
Well, I’m starting to think now that I’d like to explore the idea of becoming a MVP – Microsoft Valued Professional. Even though Ignite, introduced me to people at booths who were there to demonstrate a product, I began to think that the MVPs may have more in-depth and expertise areas of discussion that I was craving. I’m the type of person who likes to discuss, debate, experiment and apply what I’ve learned, then take time to write or video these to others. Ignite was the mere introducer of concepts but now there’s a more in depth need to explore further in particular, linking my own strengths in Learning and Development to Adoption and Change.
I came away from Ignite thinking that now is the time for me to show and share my strength in social/peer/community learning experiences around driving new behaviours of work and integrating learning experiences into work. Seeing the blend of learning experiences at the conference where the focus was actually on the participant driving their own learning – and by Microsoft making many of the certifications and experiences FREE – made me realise that now’s the time for me to step up in this game – and not worry about keeping up with others in my field of Learning and Development.
Too long, I have gone on doing my own thing and experimented in my own way without formulating strategies or frameworks for myself. I’m the type of person who likes to go with the flow and see what comes. However, it’s put me in a position as coming across as someone who can’t make up her mind – of following her nose – sometimes it takes me places, sometimes it takes me to dead ends. Ultimately, it may make me look unprofessional and dare I say it, child like because of my curiosity and exploration as fun and personal learning is my own personal motivator – not profit, money or professional reputation to be a ‘thought leader’ in learning and development.
My biggest lesson was that through Ignite, our company also published a book on Microsoft Teams around the same time.
The experience of writing a book with my colleagues, using Microsoft Teams to collaborate and build the book was also a great experience for me. I started to see how working together can mean that certain outcomes can be achieved. In this case, WE WROTE A BOOK! When I see that in a published format, it will hit home for me that I was part of this excellent team to do this.
Coming back to Australia on the plane, I did get some sleep. So much sleep that I hadn’t had for the last week I was in Orlando and it made me reflect, where to from here for me?
What does this experience mean for me and I decided that I’m not done yet. I’m only just starting. I’m becoming Helen 3.0 now.
The writing of the book made me realise that my time for sharing what I learned about social/peer/community learning experiences and incorporating learning experiences into our every day work is now coming to the fore. I cannot relegate that to others anymore and I need to put this ‘imposter’ syndrome behind me and actually start realising that what I offer is actually of value.
I started thinking that 2020 will be the time when I will write my own book. It seems to be the next obvious step. However, I had to go through all these other experiences to understand what it is that I want to do and how I want to help in the world.
It will be a book about using your workplace as a learning experience so that you can design your best work life and be for people who are eager to learn. People like me. I want it to be fun, practical and easy to read and do the activities. I want it to integrate with what we are seeing in our workplaces today and with our networks around us. Most of all, I want to help people to love learning because it means that a new life will begin for them.
It’s time I come unto my own now. This experience has shown me that I have so much to offer.
So I came away from Ignite inspired – inspired enough to actually create a piece of work that will be around for a while, that I could put my own name on it and for once, to claim as my own.
It’s only taken a whole ton of different work and learning experiences and lots of wonderful connections with people to get to this point.
Thank you to all the organisers of Microsoft Ignite for giving me this unforgettable opportunity – and thank you to my manager Paul Woods for his constant support.
Right. Let’s get this show on the road.