Monday 5 November 2018

The Survivors' Guide to AWS re:Invent

(Adapted from an answer to a question on Quora.)

Let me say ahead of time: AWS re:Invent is the best conference I've ever attended, bar none. The density and quality of technical content, the fun and the networking come together into one amazing package.'s not easy. It's definitely work. Here's how to come out of the other end informed - and still largely intact!

The first re:Invent in 2012 was a cozy affair. There were a few thousand of us, all the sessions happened at the Sands Expo Center and the Conference Center, both at the Venetian, and it was intensive, but only 2½ days long. (I think there was an Executive Summit the day before.)

Now, it’s crazy.

Although still anchored at the Venetian, the sessions happen across at least seven hotel/casinos, from the MGM Grand at the southern end of the main Strip, to the Encore at the northern. That’s not including the re:Play party. (Which is strictly security controlled, by the way—so if you’re in Vegas at the time, and don’t have re:Invent ID, please don’t try to talk your way in!)

Last year, 2017, there were around 43,000 attendees. This year, there will be more.

The conference starts with Registration and Midnight Madness, and a few other bits, on Sunday. It finishes at midday on the following Friday. It will be brutally full-on between those times.

You. Will. Suffer.

There’s no getting around it. Your feet will suffer. Your health will suffer. You will be exhausted. You will miss lunch because you’re rushing between hotels to get to your next session. You will probably drink too much in the evenings (if you’re so inclined), and suffer for that, too.

By the end of the conference you will be aching, burned-out, your brain will feel like it’s about to explode from all the things you’ve been cramming into it, and all you’ll want to do is collapse onto a sofa and pass out. You probably will.

So how do you survive re:Invent (and get the best out of it)?

A. Before you go

  • Get a new pair of trainers (running shoes) several weeks beforehand, and wear them in thoroughly before you travel. Fit orthopaedic insoles that support your arches, and cushion your feet. Don’t take old, worn shoes. Don’t take brand new shoes. Don’t take hard leather shoes.
  • If you’re new to Vegas, learn the Strip, and how to navigate it, with particular reference to the session venues. Don’t expect to achieve your full walking speed—it’s crowded, particularly from the Venetian to the Linq, and from about Caesar’s Palace south on either side of the road. You will need this knowledge for session booking (see next). Remember that the Monorail is an option, but trains might not be as regular as you’d like. Allow a minimum 30 minutes from the Venetian to the Bellagio, or any venue south of that point.
  • It’s too late for this year, but in future be ready the moment session bookings open. You should already have bookmarked all the sessions you want to attend, with fallbacks in case you can’t get your first choice. Pay close attention to venues. There’s no point in finishing one session at the Venetian, to find that your next one is at the MGM Grand, and in ten minutes’ time! That research you did after reading my last point will pay dividends for session planning! Consider the options for concentrating on one venue per day, so that you minimise travel.
  • Get a decent, lightweight backpack. Get it adjusted to fit you before you leave, and get used to wearing it with a bit of weight in it. An ultra-lightweight rain jacket that packs into a tiny bundle is worth bringing. Vegas doesn’t rain often…but when it does, it’s spectacular!
  • Clothes: T-shirts or short-sleeve shirts. Shorts, or lightweight trousers. You might overheat in jeans. Vegas at the end of November is still pretty warm. Don’t bring a fleece. Bear in mind, you’ll probably get one when you register anyway. Even if you don’t, the drugstores sell them, in the unlikely event you need one.
  • Make sure you’ve enough business cards. Get more printed ahead of time. Take them.
  • Bring a charge block and cable for your phone and/or tablet. You’ll probably need to recharge before the end of the day.
  • Warn your employer you may not be in on the Monday after, even if you work in the same time zone as Vegas—and particularly if you don’t.

B. Once you’re there

  • Register as early as possible. There’s always a conference freebie—normally a hoodie—plus maybe a nice surprise to go with it, and other bits and pieces…but only whilst stocks last. And you do want one in your size, right?
  • Wear your backpack at all times at the conference—except at re:Play—but don’t carry your laptop unless it’s seriously lightweight. Mine’s 800 grammes; I’ll bring it. Anything over about 1.3kg…forget it. Anything that’s going to need a top-up charge before you get back to your room…forget it even more! That backpack’s for carrying the stuff I’m about to talk about, plus all the freebies you’ll pick up at the Expo.
  • Walgreens, a drugstore, is just south of the Venetian; between the Venetian and Harrah’s. Visit it early, so you can find it later. Might be a good idea to get a pack of blister plasters. You’ll have no problem achieving—and probably doubling—your 10,000 steps per day.
  • Whilst you’re at Walgreen’s, stock up on energy drinks, munchies and snack bars. They’re your life-saver if you can’t stop for lunch, or you’re flagging. I’d also suggest bringing (or buying) broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplements. Something like Berocca, or the own-brand equivalent.
  • Bring or buy antacids and simethicone (“Wind-eze”). Imodium might be an idea, too, just in case. You’ll be eating a load of stuff you don’t normally eat, and maybe drinking more alcohol than normal too. These things take their toll. Indigestion (and hopefully only that) is inevitable—but you need to be on top of your game. Gut troubles are a real drag.
  • Bottled water. Lip salve. Moisturiser—ideally something really effective like E45 cream. Carry them all. The desert air’s even more arid than the air conditioning. Don’t keep your lips moisturised regularly, and they’ll be cracked like Death Valley come end of the week. Keep hydrated at every chance, for the same reason. Locals carry a bottle of water with them everywhere. They know what they’re up to. You should too.
  • Try to get to the Expo at the Venetian. Massive networking, career and sales potentials meet with FREEBIES! So many freebies.
  • There will be fast wi-fi in most sessions, apart from the keynotes where it’s patchy. There will be phone charging areas, but use your charge block instead; that way, you keep control of your phone!
  • Make copious notes during the sessions. Memory is fickle. If you’re making paper notes, use your phone camera to take photos of them (and any business cards you take) every chance you. That way it’s not a disaster if you lose your stuff. If you’re taking electronic notes, use something like Evernote or Microsoft Office Notes, or some other note-taking app that backs up in real time to the cloud.
  • Pace yourself. It’s tempting to burn the midnight oil every night. But I promise you you’ll struggle to have anything left for the re:Play party, much less the Friday morning sessions that follow it. It’s not a crime to retire to your hotel room and chill in front of the TV! Or soak in the tub. Or use that time to prepare for the next day. Let’s face it, your employer (or you) paid for you to learn, not to party—and you should try to get back home in a functional state when it’s all over!
  • Remember: the sessions you missed will be on YouTube soon after. You can catch up. It’s not being in the session, but it’s better than nothing.
  • HAVE FUN! Despite all I’ve said, re:Invent is huge fun, and immensely mentally stimulating. It’s a fantastic place to network. You’ll learn loads.

C. The aftermath

  • RELAX! You’ll need recovery time. That Monday-off I mentioned earlier? Don’t be afraid to use it.
  • Revisit those notes. Remember all you went there to learn. Be prepared to regurgitate it to anyone who asks, at a moment’s notice. You just became a guru, if you weren’t before, in their eyes.

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