Behind the Scenes of the Microsoft 365 Virtual Marathon: Microsoft Woodstock

This isn’t an exposé, but I think you do deserve to hear some of the behind the scenes from the first edition of the Microsoft 365 Virtual Marathon and I will tell you right now won’t be the last. We had a blast and the feedback we’ve gotten from everyone involved has been fantastic. I’ve been working on building community in Orange County California ever since I got a job in the heart of Irvine California working for Perficient. It just made sense to help re-kick start the user group and based on failed past attempts at putting on an event at the heart of OC, it was time to try again. With the support of Ryan Schouten a very strong, reliable, trustworthy and really you can fill in all of the other parts of the scout law. I knew I could make it happen. Not long after Ryan and I toured the MTC picking out rooms for the event, we had Galen Keene, and Jeff Willinger were on board. We had a committee, a date, a venue and before long these were in stone with the support from Microsoft Irvine MTC. Then COVID19 hit.

Everything changed overnight. I had three events cancelled in a row. I was grounded. It was an event in Philly where I credit Russ Basiura with fighting like a lion to make the event happen, and the speakers and sponsors getting on board to back him up after he wrestled a giant to make it happen. He and I had some long calls to make that first visible M365 Virtual Modern Workplace Teams Event to make ripples. Going from 100 local attendees to 1300 online registered attendees. Recordings are available.

An incredible front lines keynote by Michael Gannotti, this experience gave me confidence and which reminded me that we were making a difference and could do a lot to lift the spirits of the community. Max’s “Rounding” Teams solution was a perfect way of demonstrating that Microsoft and Healthcare were made for each other. It was the comment from Mike Fitz that I paraphrase, “Events are cancelling left and right, not enough events are going virtual.” He went on to explain what doing a virtual event means for the community. That was enough. I had lived through the MVP summit going virtual and saw some of the gaps I knew how to solve from that event, but having heard the feedback first hand again I knew how important the community is to each of us individually. Bill Baer’s Virtual SharePint tweet, it brought a few of us together. A virtual SharePint, community moments of inspiration. Joining not the first edition, but seeing so many familiar faces with people laughing, sharing stories and experiences. It was more than meaningful. In addition, it was a second hand story of friend that had passed from COVID19 that made it strike home even more that this community needed something to bring us together even more.

The Philly event had a formula of building a solution based on Teams Live Events. I may have shared some stories about the MVP summit to plant some seeds, or Russ may have simply decided to run with it. Either way he had lined up some experts to take the speakers through tech checks and had awesome support to pull off a fantastic event. At work we then ran a series of webinars run on Teams Live events, and I was that much more comfortable with the tech, despite my frustration with the reports, the lack of good attendance numbers or detail.

It was with all of this in mind that after seeing a cancellation for the M365 Saturday event based on someone in our committee suggesting we kill it, that I shot out a quick response that NO, we should not cancel, but should convert it to a virtual event based on Teams live events. Ryan replaced the meeting and despite a couple of the committee dropping due to workload (both of them came back as speakers and absolutely supported us), and Galen and Jeff joined me as I shared my vision of taking this big. Even on day one I was suggesting we do some math. What does 15 sessions wide with 24 hours deep look like? Oh another event is already doing 35 hours? Let’s go 36 and end with SharePint. Someone suggested olympics as a theme due to the cancelled Olympics. The ideas kept firing. I reached out to Bill Baer then Jon Levesque both were immediately on board and our event was off the ground. We then started talking about Jeff Teper as a Keynote and with all our keynotes knowing we’d want to have Laurie Pottmeyer or Karuana we quickly decided we’d have keynotes at the beginning and end of every day, why not one every 4 hours. After a few tweets and Dan Holme was reaching out suggesting we chat with Jackie and talk to SPC. What a great match that was. SPC would handle sponsorships and vendor management and we could continue to focus on the speakers and platform. Microsoft Teams. We had a very clear vision for what we wanted to deliver. Working with Lyman, Shirley and Jackie has been smooth. They’ve done such a fantastic job with ensuring value for sponsors.

As an MVP you get a M365 Tenant with 5 users. Believe it or not, the event we decided to pull of was born on an MVP tenant of Ryan Schouten. Yes, the SharePointKnight tenant. There’s irony in that, but it wasn’t by design and that story is not for today. Leveraging key Tech platform sessionize for speakers and eventbrite for attendees, and plans to integrate all of jazz with SPSevents for marketing and community outreach. SPSEvents has grown as a platform to support events and has built in capabilities to support both Sessionize and Eventbrite. Perfect!

We’d use Azure sites to build out with JSON feeds from sessionize to pull in speaker info, session info, and schedule. We had a bigger vision for how we wanted the UX to work with awesome filtering and sorting capabilities, and unbeknownst to us on the other side of the world Yoshi had already cracked the code using PowerBI with that same JSON feed from sessionize. Brilliant work!

Beautiful PowerBI Report of sessions

Not only is the work a beautiful way of displaying the sessions it does a fantastic job at helping the user to wrap their head around the incredible sessions that the speakers put together.

Ultimately we had over 743 sessions submitted and over 400 sessions delivered. A behind the scenes secret I’m happy to share… we didn’t turn away a single speaker who submitted, showed up to tech checks, and showed up to present.

Three hundred thirty eight speakers were selected to speak. During the attempts to recruit speakers from around the world, I started thinking about the Latin American community. How could we best support them? What about the Japanese. I clearly remember my first session overseas at a TechEd in Japan with my first translator. I knew first hand what it would mean to the attendees to be able to support foreign language. It was at this moment that I knew we needed to find a way to support foreign language tracks. It was in a conversation with Ai, an MVP from Japan that I was able to convince her that it was better that we come together as a community rather than having them run a separate event in Japanese. I do feel that our event was better by having them. The most smooth running track was the Japanese track. Three of the top 4 tweets and most tweeted were Japanese! Incredible showing by some of the most intelligent people in the community. I was very humbled when I saw the stats from tygraph when we finished the event. We had over 2000 tweets during the event with sentiment that broke the tygraph record.

We reached out to the French of course! I’ve been involved in events in Montreal, Paris, Morocco, Tunis, Algeria and despite my challenge with travel I was fully aware of the incredible community in Tahiti and New Caledonia. Serge and Patrick did an awesome job. French spans from Lebanon to New Caledonia with French speakers in most time zones in between. After we reached out to the Spanish speaking/Latin American and Hispanic communities, we reached out to the Japanese, Korean and why not share more love with Europe. Was so great to see the MVPs and speakers from places I had visited in Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Spain, and so many more… and embrace what we were trying to do. We wanted this to be big tent. I credit Ricardo Munoz Monge, may he rest in peace, for helping us unite the English speaking and Spanish speaking communities around a dozen events in Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile. Haaron, Juan, Manuel, Vladimir and Andres Rojas did a fantastic job on the Spanish speaking tracks. Olivia Ha was a great contact for helping us get Korean community connected. They are a very tight group. They were very interested in having chat not just among presenters and speakers, but a very key feature for attendees which resulted in some interesting session experiences as they were asking for a lot of participation backstage. I have been to Korea a couple of times, but this was the first time connecting with the Korean community. Other parts of Asia including Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia all had speakers and attendees. Over 35 Myanmar attendees was a surprise. The largest amount of attendees was actually in India. I credit Dipti for helping us organize and represent Asia Pacific providing some of the best recruiters. We had universities in India inviting their students to attend. We event built a certificate of attendance to support some special requests from some attendees in India.

Both Brazil and Portugal are close to my heart. Reaching out to my friends from Brazil Teched from back in 2012 and Rodrigo Pinto who I’ve met in Lisbon Portugal a couple of times and hung out in Seattle/Redmond at least a couple of times during MVP Summit, not to mention SPC parties. I was excited to see an attendee from Angola who joined.

Jeff Willinger played an important role. Not only did he allow us to use his home as the core for the operation, but in addition he made sure we were fed and offered us showers and beds even if we only used them for an hour or two. His session was first up for the day right after the keynote and another right about midnight. He kept the pulse on social and helped us be aware of sentiment. I was super excited when he told us we trended for about an hour an a half. #M365VM hashtag served us well. The Japanese team really adopted it. 7 of the top 10 tweeters were Japanese.

tyGraph supplied us with a very cool tool for measuring our reach, impressions and sentiment

As could be implied by my previous statement, due to challenges with Microsoft Teams Guest access requirements, if you did not show up to the tech check, and you did not join us in Teams, you likely had trouble getting in. You not only need permissions to the Speaker Team as a member, but you actually needed to login once or accept the invite so your teams client would give you the option to select the SharePointKnight tenant when ready to speak. We missed a handful of speakers who we were reaching out to on Facebook messenger and email asking them to join us. A couple speakers were stopped by cyclone level rains, and another was smart enough to record so even the cyclone wouldn’t stop them.

Our design on the schedule was setup to be dynamic. With all users using the web interface with join links, we could simply update the join links and hope that cache would flush and users would be sent to the right place. We were using short links thinking that would be super simple to update the short links. Unfortunately doesn’t let you update the link, so that bit of brilliance let us down. We won’t be using next time. It still didn’t keep us from updating the links inside of sessionize where our JSON feed was updating the schedule. As I said we could pull links and even full sessions if we needed to. Let’s back up to the beginning of the event and give you some insights and behind the scenes.


Jeff Teper, yes, the godfather, was our keynote. Father SharePoint Christmas. We didn’t want anything interfering with his delivery. The day before the event we decided we wanted to use the 30 minute prior to his session to help prepare users for this new way to consume an event. The focus was on the single session schedule page and our plan was to update the page 30 minute prior to the event with a series of join links with a bold and easy to use button. Sometimes that button was hard to get to, and since it was at the bottom of the description we ran into situations where it would take extreme scrolling skills to get to the button which sometimes showed up as a faint link.

Jeff delivered a fantastic session pre-recorded, but special for our event. Despite some issues with audio, yes you have to check that tiny little box to include system audio (why is that not default?). Other audio with the AltSpaceVR demo might have caused a slight hiccup during the starting line presentation as well as some funny camera work, but despite that, the video was playing smoothly and on time. That’s when disaster struck in the last 10 minutes of the session the feed cut out for a few seconds, and then poof it was gone. We were already deep into production setup for the next set of 17 simultaneous sessions, when we discovered that Teams Live events had a boo boo that was a service issue that affected a number of tenants not only ours. There’s no restarting an ended event on Teams Live events. So we did what we could. We immediately setup the link to point to our copy of the keynote on Youtube and shifted our focus to the breakouts. It was also replayed at the end of day 1 as Asia kicked off, and again for the beginning of Europe. Lots of airplay and since then it has gotten 2500 views through the event page linking directly to the video. (All videos from the event will be up on our M365 Virtual Marathon channel on Youtube shortly. We estimate over 350 hours of rich content from the event will be available on the channel within the next week. Subscribe for notifications.)

The other keynotes went off without a hitch. We took some liberties to do intros, and played looping vendor videos before and after each keynote. Really it was quite smooth. Jon Levesque’s session on the community being more than about Tech is absolutely spot on! I’m so glad we were able to include that message in a strong way.

Of the 17 sessions, 12 started just flawlessly for the most part… save 5. There were about five that simply would not start either timing out or giving us errors. One even started but would pop back into pre-live mode a couple of different times with no explanation at the time. After some troubleshooting we decided to move those 5 sessions to Teams Meetings and again using our sessionize link update tricks we were back in action communicating with those speakers and getting them into new rooms. Gokan is a warrior. His popular Mastering Teams session had over 200 attendees running in a Teams Meeting. Why so many of those attendees joined and turned on audio I may never know, but dogs, kids, and random conversations turned that meeting into a cry for why is this NOT “Teams Live events.” We were happy to say that was the only time we had to move our scheduled live events to teams meetings during the event.

We jumped on with Microsoft support and they dug in. We heard within 30 minutes from Dan Holme and Karuana that what we were experiencing was not a tenant limit or a bandwidth issue, but a performance related issue affecting multiple tenants and within that hour all our functionality and more was restored.

Microsoft increased the tenant limits beyond 15 during COVID to 50 concurrent Live events, and we wanted to increase our maximum support as a result. I’m happy to report our record was 22 officially maybe more. We did not have any further issues with trying to take speakers LIVE and the fluke event was just that a fluke.

How does one produce 400+ sessions? With an army of trained volunteer producers. For the most part we leaned on our relationship with the foreign language track owners to staff their own tracks and we would provide tech checks and training. For English we reached out and recruited speakers and community folks. We had 50 volunteers from around the world. These producer volunteers would go on to produce 287 sessions leaving the organizers aka executive producing team to support 136 sessions and check on the other sessions to ensure they get covered.

Producer Volunteers covered nearly 70% of all sessions, but there was plenty of work to be done. Hope you’ll sign up next time!

We believe in testing. What we didn’t get the opportunity to test was what happens when you have dozens of sessions going on simultaneously and a producer drops and speaker drops before the next producer and speaker show up. I’ll tell you what happens. The live event stops and it won’t restart. This is a nightmare. We were running our sessions about 7-8 hours deep per track. This means we wanted the live event to run for 8 consecutive hours even if we only had 3 hours with an hour break and then another 3 hours plus buffer. Remember we have keynotes every 4 hours so during the second keynote the live meetings started to drop as speakers were dropping to watch the keynote and as producers felt it was ok to take a break, and much didn’t have the next shift anyway. When a live event ends there is currently no way to revive it. Hence we needed to have a virtual account or one of us exec producers sitting on every room at all times to keep them alive. Not only would we have to check on them we’d need to keep them open. After that great insight we had very little problem and could start to focus on the real logistical issues.

Day 1 never really ended. By around midnight I suggested that Ryan should go down and that if Galen could last we should try to stay 2 wide on the executive producer side. I say executive producer because our role of having every session covered by at least one producer didn’t work out. We had 50 producers. That sounds incredible right? If each of those producers covered at least 4 sessions that would get us nearly half way. Not even close. Instead Ryan, Galen and I would defy gravity and take on typically 4-8 sessions each to fill in the gaps. Most speakers I worked with would think “Joel” jumped in made sure I could share and then bounced. Yep, that’s about it. At peak I was producing or holding onto twelve simultaneous sessions and only had time to make sure that speakers were not having issues. Use the chat if you have issues was about all I had time to convey as I would jump from room to room listening for speakers voices and watching for slides rarely coming off mute. Despite this limited chaos we were effective in our efforts and ultimately between the three of us we were able to cover 20+ wide sessions. A given Windows 10 client can join 4 simultaneous sessions. With my three clients I was able to bounce from room to room during peak performance within seconds to verify audio. It allowed me then to focus on the problem areas where speakers may be having a variety of issues from a no show (very limited), guest login issues (more common such as joining accidentally as attendee such as mobile or browser), audio issues (common), or speakers waiting to be introduced (odd but happened a few times). Expectation setting was mostly covered in both speaker training and producer training, but I don’t think the speakers were aware we really only had enough actual 1:1 producer to producer ratio to cover about 2/3rds of the sessions. The rest were our scrappy crew of executive producers who were primarily focused on solving problems: sessions with no producer and quickly focused on problem sessions. For the most part the troubleshooting was happening 20-10 minutes prior to the session starting, but I’m sorry to say there were a handful of situations we weren’t able to correct quickly enough to share the special producer PowerPoint to send the message attendees should pick one of the other 20 or so sessions happening at the time. Galen, did a fantastic job training and signing up the producers on an intense schedule. Producers needed to commit to at least one 3 hour block in order to make the cut. We really did have some of the most incredible producers ever. I’m looking now and we had 129 sessions that were not assigned a specific producer at the widest this was 11 sessions just in English track to be covered by our scrappy team of producers.

Producers and Volunteers

Some notable highly recommended very skilled producers who covered multiple shifts and many of these were speakers as well. Incredible dedication and spirit:

Russ Bassiura, Jana Babackova, Dipti Chhatrapati, Tomasz Poszytek, Chirag Patel, Maarten Visser, Michael Mukalian, John Moore, Lalit Mohan, Nicolaus Georgault, David Riberot

Producer Sample Schedule

The purple reflects sessions the 3 of us exec producers would jump in to get things started then jump to verify the other producers had things under control. Galen would yell out. Joel take room 10-14! Ryan you get room 6-8 and 10. I got 1 and 3. Monitoring chat from the various rooms was critical. Feature request. Give me sentiment analysis on the chats coming from rooms and color them for me. I was watching the chat activity streams from rooms I was not in, and trying to determine who needed help. Having 3 machines in front of me connected across 12 rooms monitoring chat for screams for help felt like you were in a hospital intensive care unit.

In the afternoon I enjoyed sitting on the Japanese and Korean sessions. The Japanese had an incredibly packed session, and the Koreans loved their chat. They were running over 16 in as Organizer so they could have all the features. It’s no surprise we ended up having to fix session rooms that closed on more than 3 occasions. We had to keep reminding organizers not to his that big red END button. So tempting. As I said, we were trying to hold these rooms open for 8 hours so any end was not only a disaster for the next session, but in some cases the next 5 sessions that would need new links as a result.

The Virtual Marathon ended up being more of a marathon than I would have imagined. I knew it was long, but when talking about how we would transition to our counterparts in Asia and Europe we ultimately decided with our war room approach and in trying to cover a half dozen sessions, we decided we should keep two of us going at any given hour. I asked Ryan to go down around midnight. We told him we’d wake him up if we needed him. I put in a 25 hour shift essentially starting at 6am and going strong till 7am the next morning when Ryan got up and taking a 2 hour nap before getting up and joining up for day 2 keynote. Galen stayed up till about 10am with only a 30 min cat nap on the couch, but later took a rest. Very impressive. So throughout the night we had at least 2 of us covering and checking across all sessions and holding onto all sessions through the block. You’d think that APAC or EMEA would be easier, but in reality our widest 22 concurrent was in Europe peak hours when we had 14 English plus German, 2 Spanish, Portuguese, and 2 French even 2 Japanese and Korean.

How did the community respond to AltSpaceVR as a community gathering place? We ultimately had 106 unique people enter the space over 400 times in total meaning most users visited on average 4 times.

Attendees site statistics during covering the dates for the event

Looking at our Eventbrite registration we ultimately had over 12,750 attendees from 115 different countries spread into 3 eight hour periods. This is how we determined how we’d follow the sun. 4 x 8 hour blocks providing equal periods starting with keynotes with mid keynotes and end keynotes.

I hope this event was as enjoyable for you as it was for me. There’s more I could go into what I want to see in improvements, but I’m working on a deck for Microsoft on that topic. We learned a lot! I’m also making myself available virtually with my executive producer team. We are making ourselves available for Running Teams Live Events: Microsoft 365 Virtual Marathon Case Study. Love to share our experiences and help train your team or User Group so you can run your next event virtually.


Let me end with my favorite end user feedback from the event…

5 Comments on “Behind the Scenes of the Microsoft 365 Virtual Marathon: Microsoft Woodstock

  1. Wow, this makes me really appreciate what goes into putting on such an event. Thank you!

  2. Thanks so much for sharing the behind-the-scenes story – for two reasons:
    1. It helps shine the spotlight on all the people who pitched in to pull this off! – Kudos to all.
    2. It is knowledge gained through experience and paid forward to advance the state of the art for live remote conferences. I look forward to this tide rising all boats!

    • Thanks so much Larry. I had a blast. I do want to make sure all the people who deserve the credit get the credit and I also absolutely want people to have access to this platform. We had blast putting on this show and hoped all had a great time!


  3. Pingback: Cloud Talk Episode 17 – M365 Virtual Marathon Conference as a case of ultimate SaaS usage – Cloud Talk

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