BrainShare, the annual pilgrimage of the Novell faithful, gives developers, customers, and executives a chance to clear the air . . . and try out some new toys.
After taking over as CEO of Novell in 1997, Silicon Valley legend Eric Schmidt asked his staff to consider moving the company's main meeting of the year--known as BrainShare--from Salt Lake City to San Jose, Calif. where the most of the action in high technology happens and Schmidt himself lives.
Sure, he was told, maybe in 2010, when thewith the Salt Palace Convention Center runs out.
A year and a half later, Schmidt still lives in northern California and commutes to work at Novell, but he wants BrainShare to stay right where it is. He's figured out how important this one meeting has become for the company.
Through five choppy years that nearly sunk the Novell ship-of-state, BrainShare has anchored the Provo, Utah software firm. Every year, BrainShare is the place to be for Novell developers and customers. Even when management failures in the early 1990s cost the company millions of dollars, three CEOs, and 1,000 employees, the Novell faithful still knew to head to the Salt Palace in the third week of March for five intense days of education, networking, and a little bit of fun.
"Even when we were struggling through some tough stuff, it was our venue and it was our event," says Carine Clark, director of corporate events for Novell. "BrainShare has become kind of the focal point of the year for a lot of things."
Novell's Back With Schmidt at the helm, Novell is making money again and earning back market share lost over the past decade to its chief rival, Microsoft. This March, at the fifteenth installment of its mega-conference, Novell will bask in the glow of its financial resurgence, and delight in knowing that it owns some of the hottest networking technology on the market.
Already, 40 million computer users run their networks with Netware, Novell's flagship software that was the first product for client-server local area networking back in the early 1980s. Recently released Netware 5.0 has at least a one-year head start on the upcoming version of Microsoft Windows NT, its most fearsome competitor. And now Novell is leading the industry with technology that creates directories for the Internet, a product that no competitor has been able to touch yet.
So it may be no surprise that a company this long on technology would choose a technical conference as its main event of the year.
Geeks Emerge from the Darkness When BrainShare began in 1984, it was a chance for Netware developers to meet the engineers who developed the product, or as Clark says, for the geeks to emerge from the darkness of their cubicles and interact with the public. When resources became tighter, BrainShare became the umbrella meeting of the year for all four of Novell's customer groups as well--consultants, CNEs, major markets, and OEMs.
BrainShare now attracts about 5,000 people a year in its Salt Lake City incarnation and thousands more at nine other versions Novell puts on in France, Japan, Australia, Brazil, England, South Africa, Russia, and China. Clark calls it "the mother of all meetings." But BrainShare is not about glitz and glamour. It's driven by technical content, which is always new.
Each year the content of the conference is decided by a committee headed by Novell's chief technology officer, Glenn Ricart. The committee surveys product groups, asking what they would like to contribute to BrainShare's breakout sessions. More than 170 sessions will be offered at BrainShare '99 on separate tracks geared to developers, administrators, engineers, consultants, educators, and CIOs. An energetic attendee could hit as many as 25 sessions in the week. The highlight is the Thursday night geekfest called "Meet the Experts," where Novell engineers get up in front of whiteboards in a big ballroom and answer every question that's fired at them, a BrainShare tradition.
Add in keynote addresses by top Novell executives, including Schmidt's kickoff on Monday morning and an annual closing address by top technologist Drew Major, and the sum is an annual weather report on the company, with the chance for attendees to air their concerns and questions.
"It really gives us a chance to take our most loyal customer base and keep in touch with them," says Ben Lambert, manager of corporate events, who heads up BrainShare for Clark. "And they walk away from it more committed to Novell than ever."
Two Partners and a Database "Most people don't understand how comprehensive BrainShare is until they go to it for the first time," Clark says. "We really do take all the products and dissect them." The breakouts are the key tactic for BrainShare, because they allow customers to get to know its technologies along with the engineers and architects behind them.
But how do you manage 170 breakouts and 5,000 attendees? A dynamic attendee database system allows Clark's staff to let sessions grow or contract as each registration is received, rather than being stuck with sessions that are too full or too empty when they start. A small staff of eight to ten people assists Clark, working throughout the year to plan BrainShare, and several key partners aid in logistics, including Jack Rouse and Associates, which deals with stage production vendors on such issues as lighting and sound; and Maritz Travel, which handles housing and registration arrangements for all of the guests. More than 500 regular Novell employees staff and support the actual BrainShare event.
Lambert says the feedback from the meeting is invigorating, and helps them improve the program. For example, when attendees expressed an interest in seeing some of Novell's partner companies exhibit at future BrainShares, the corporate sponsor program was expanded. Previously, partners such as Compaq and Netscape were given one evening in which to talk with Novell customers. This year, there will be three full days of exhibits in a partner pavilion.
Once a Rival, Now a Partner One of the partners participating in BrainShare '99 may be a surprise to long-standing Novell watchers: Microsoft. Five years ago, then-CEO Ray Noorda was still devising schemes to sink Microsoft, including spending nearly $1 billion on WordPerfect, a direct competitor to Microsoft's popular Word. The deal nearly brought Novell down, and WordPerfect had to be sold at a loss.
Now the days of competing on the desktop are over for Novell, and the company is trying to forge ahead in a Microsoft world. Microsoft is no longer a hated rival, at least not at BrainShare. And the same goes for more than 20 other partners, including IBM, Dell, and Intel.
"Any time that you can show that you're aligned with these strong partners, it makes everybody look better," Lambert says. In fact, looking potential challenges straight in the eye is one of the key strategies behind BrainShare and perhaps one of the reasons it thrived when it looked like Novell might not survive.
No Flinching As Novell struggled following the demise of Noorda's desktop strategy, customers came to BrainShare armed with questions about the company's future. Would Novell be around much longer? Could it compete? Would it support its products? The company tried not to flinch.
"I wasn't sure the customers would show up," Clark says. "I didn't know if the customer was going to wait and see. You've got to dig deep within yourself and figure out how to market with integrity while still being true to the franchise."
More recently, a group of employees left Novell and tried to take a key piece of technology with them, and the fight wound up in court in well-publicized litigation. That meant a few more lawyers were sitting in on the breakouts at BrainShare '98, but still no flinching. At that meeting, Novell used the beta version of Netware 5.0 seven months before its release date. It crashed, but no flinching. "To this day," Clark says, "I believe that the NW5 product is better because we used it--not demo'd it--used it at BrainShare.
"[BrainShare] has kind of been a platform for us to clear the air. A lot of our customers expect to hear from us in March," says Clark. "I never want the customers to feel like they walked into a battle zone."
Stealth Marketing If anyone is holding back at BrainShare, it is Novell's sales and marketing staff. Comfortable in the knowledge that thousands of people pay $1,500 each and take five days off to learn more about Novell, the company keeps the sales pitches to a minimum, Clark says. Novell will do deals at BrainShare and will follow up leads with more sophisticated marketing, thanks to a database of attendee preferences collected at the meeting, but the efforts will be behind-the-scenes. Lambert calls it "stealth marketing."
"We've tried to maintain the technical integrity of the conference," Clark says. "I don't want to alienate this crowd. These guys are smart. They're going to pick out the sales and marketing stuff anyhow. They're paying to come to a Novell conference. That's marketing right there."
This year, the sales and marketing force may be even more relaxed. The company's resurgence allows everyone to focus more on the products and the technology. As always, four-year alums are treated to a party at the Hard Rock Cafe. Wednesday night features a party at the Delta Center, the cavernous home of the Utah Jazz, put on by Mallory Factor, a company out of New York that manages Novell's evening functions. And most attendees arrive early or stay late so they can ski one of Utah's famous resorts. But the focus on the week is technology, making sure the customers know it and the company knows the customers' needs. After all, BrainShare is all about sharing.
"We want to make sure first of all that our customers know where Novell is moving forward," Clark says. "We've got to know what their problems are."
Beyond being a meeting place for techies, BrainShare is a showcase for Novell's top minds, who work hard to get new networking technology ready to display in March and then replicate it numerous times at international BrainShares and such major industry shows as Comdex.
Even before BrainShare begins, Novell uses its Internet sites to preview the show and allow attendees to register. Last year, 78 percent of the guests registered on the Web. At the meeting, attendees were also networked with Sun's Java One conference, which was going on at the same time.
This year, Novell will turn 40,000 square feet of the Salt Palace into a technology lab to show off its latest capabilities and invite its partners to join in. The company also assembles a network for the show and sets up around the Salt Palace 300 workstations it calls Network Connecting Points, from which attendees can check e-mail, jump onto the Internet, and post messages for other attendees.
And for the second year in a row, Novell will hand out wireless access cards, allowing guests to turn their laptops into Network Connecting Points from anywhere in the convention center. Even breakouts and keynote speeches will be viewable remotely via the network.
For the engineers who put this extensive BrainShare network together, the Salt Palace is their playground. "It's really their chance to blow the thing out and push the limits of it," says Ben Lambert, Novell's manager of corporate events.