While I’m thinking about another TAC Tale, I’m quite busy working on slides for Cisco Live.  I figured this makes for another interesting “inside Cisco” post, since most people who have been to the show don’t know much about how it comes together.  A couple years back I asked a customer if I could schedule a meeting with him after Cisco Live, since I was working on slides.  “I thought the Cisco Live people made the slides and you just showed up and presented them!” he said.  Wow, I wish that was the case.  With hundreds of sessions I’m not sure how the CL team could accomplish that, but it would sure be nice for me.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

If you haven’t been, Cisco Live is a large trade show for network engineers which happens four times globally: in Europe, Australia, the US, and Mexico.  The US event is the largest, but Europe is rather large as well.  Australia and Mexico are smaller but still draw a good crowd.  The Europe and US shows move around.  The last two years Europe was in Barcelona, as it will be next year, but it was in Berlin two years before that.  The US show is in San Diego this year, was in Orlando last year, and was in Las Vegas for two years before that.  Australia is always in Melbourne, and Mexico is always in Cancun.  I went to Cisco Live US twice when I worked for a partner, and I’ve been to every event at least once since I’ve worked at Cisco as a TME.

The show has an number of attractions.  There is a large show floor with booths from Cisco and partners.  There are executive and celebrity keynotes.  The deepest content is delivered in sessions–labs, techtorials, and breakout sessions which can have between 20 and several hundred attendees.  The sessions are divided into different tracks:  collaboration, security, certification, routing and switching, etc., so attendees can focus on one or more areas.

Most CL sessions are delivered by technical marketing engineers like myself, who work in a business unit, day in and day out, with their given product.  As far as I know anyone in Cisco can submit a session, so some are delivered by people in sales, IT, CX (TAC or AS), and other organizations.  Some are even delivered by partners and customers.

Six months before a given event, a “call for papers” goes out.  I’m always amused that they pulled this term from academia, as the “papers” are mostly powerpoints and not exactly academic.  If you want to do a session, you need to figure out what you want to present and then write up an abstract, which contains not only the description, but also explains why the session is relevant to attendees, what they can hope to get out of it, and what the prerequisites are.  Each track has a group of technical experts who manage it, called “Session Group Managers”, or SGMs.  They come from anywhere in the business, but have the technical expertise to review the abstracts and sessions to ensure they are relevant and well-delivered.  For about a year, the SGM for the track I usually presented actually reported to me.  They have a tough job, because they receive a large number of applications for sessions, far more than the slots they have.  They look at the topic, quality of the abstract, quality of the speaker, available slots, and other factors in figuring out which sessions get the green light.

Once you have an approved session, you can start making slides.  Other than a standard template, there is not much guidance on how to build a deck for Cisco Live.  My old SGM liked to review each new presentation live, although some SGMs don’t.  Most of us end up making our slides quite close to the event, partly because we are busy, but also because we want to have the latest and most current info in our decks.  It’s actually hard to write up a session abstract six months before the event.  Things change rapidly in our industry, and often your original plan for a session gets derailed by changes in the product or organization.  More than once I’ve had a TME on my team presenting on a topic he is no longer working on!  One of my TMEs was presenting on Nexus switches several months after our team switched to Catalyst only.

At Cisco Live you may run into the “speaker ready room.”  It’s a space for speakers to work on slides, supplied by coffee and food, but there is also a small army of graphic design experts in there who will review the speakers’ slides one last time before they are presented. They won’t comment on your design choices, but simply review them to ensure they are consistent with the template formatting.  We’re required to submit our final deck 24 hours before our session, which gives the CL staff time to post the slides for the attendees.

Standing up in front  of a room full of engineers is never easy, especially when they are grading you.  If you rate in the top 10% of speakers, you win a “Distinguished Speaker” award.  If you score below 4.2 you need to take remedial speaker training.  If your score is low more than a couple times, the SGMs might ask you not to come back.  Customers pay a lot of money to come to CL and we don’t want them disappointed.  For a presenter, being scored, and the high stakes associated with the number you receive, makes a CL presentation even more stressful.  One thing I’ve had to accept is that some people just won’t like me.  I’ve won distinguished speaker before, but I’ve had some sessions with less-than-stellar comments too.

The stress aside, CL is one of the most rewarding things we do.  Most of the audience is friendly and wants to learn.It’s a fun event, and we make great contacts with others who are passionate about their field.  For my readers who are not Cisco TMEs (most I suspect), I hope you have a chance to experience Cisco Live at least once in your career.  Now you know the amount of work that goes into it.