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Tech blog

An AWS re:Invent survival guide

8-minute read

Nathan Emmens

Nathan Emmens

11 March 2020

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There is no doubt that attending a technology conference of such epic proportions as AWS re:Invent in Las Vegas is both exhilarating and impressive. Yet for first-time attendees, it's not without moments of overwhelm. Here are some tips from technologists at Simply Business on how to get the most from AWS re:Invent, based on their experiences at the conference over the last two years.

AWS re:Invent is hosted annually in Las Vegas and attracts cloud computing technologists from all over the globe. While the conference delivers incredible insights and value, the sheer size of the event is on a scale that the technology team at Simply Business had not experienced before. Anyone who has attended AWS re:Invent will be familiar with the challenge of choosing from thousands of sessions amongst 65,000 attendees, in a city that never sleeps. With some good preparation, first-time attendees can ensure they are ready to get the most from the conference.

Plan ahead

Tickets, accommodation and flights

Buy tickets before session seating is released

If several of your colleagues are attending, aim to block purchase tickets on a company credit card and distribute voucher codes for individuals to register. Check whether anyone already has any discount codes. Buy tickets before the session seating is released, otherwise you’ll miss out on many of the smaller and more interactive sessions.

Stay at one of the main hubs

Vegas is vast, so (budget permitting) staying at one of the main hubs for AWS re:Invent makes getting around easier.

A handful of hotels on the Vegas Strip serve as venues for the conference-related sessions. The Venetian is one of the main hotels and hosts the registration SWAG, the hands-on labs and the Expo hall. Based on previous experience, the Venetian is best placed but can be expensive. The Aria is in the main hub and is also served by the shuttle. The Park MGM is also good, with a short internal walking route to the Aria. Other hotels we used in 2019 were the Bellagio, the MGM Grand, Mirage, and Encore.

Points to note: shuttles run between these main hubs only, and breakfast and lunch are served there too, so it makes a difference to stay at one of these venues rather than being next door, which involves a 20-minute walk through two casinos.

If possible, arrange for your hotel to be prepaid for the duration so you won't be out of pocket and avoid having to expense it. This may require calling the hotel to arrange prepayment.

Book flights early

Try to book flights early as demand can be very high. Shop around for deals - with some layover flights you may save money and snap a premium economy ticket at a cheaper price than a direct economy fare. From London, indirect flights to Seattle, Montreal and Toronto are good options. You’ll have to go through immigration at your first landing point so allow enough time between flights.

Choosing sessions

Be selective

This is really important. Although many sessions are repeated, you'll be competing for places with 65,000 attendees. Work out what you want to get from the conference and then add related sessions to your list, ready to book when they get released.

Focus on workshops, builders sessions and chalk talks first, as these are not recorded. Fill in the gaps with other sessions.

When looking at which sessions to attend, it’s worth bearing the following in mind:

  • Regular talks are recorded and are available after the conference. Many sessions are repeated multiple times, in different venues.
  • Popular talks will also be shown in a non-bookable overflow session.
  • Location is critical. At most, you will most likely manage two or three locations in one day (one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and possibly a third in the evening). It's time-consuming to travel between locations and the session planner app will enforce an hour between sessions in different venues.
  • You will likely reach your cognitive capacity after four sessions in a given day.
  • Try to stick to a theme for a half or full day. Context switching between sessions on completely different topics can be exhausting.
  • Level 200 are essentially sales pitches. Potentially these can be useful if you want to learn about a product you’ve never heard of, but otherwise could be missed.
  • Level 300 / 400 - great content if it’s on a subject you want. Early walk-ups are possible.
  • Chalk Talks are not recorded and can be really good but are fairly specific. Best if you have specific questions about a narrow topic. They fill quickly. Early walk-ups are possible. Workshops are good, but fill quickly. Early walk-ups are possible but expect to be there an hour or more beforehand.
  • Builders sessions filled up immediately and were almost impossible for walk-ups.

If you’ve done the prep right, you should have a list of sessions of interest and have narrowed down your priorities.

Sign up to sessions as soon as they get released

You need to be waiting for the second the sessions you want get released, then try and join the sessions. Aim to focus on workshops and builders sessions first.

Join the waitlist for sessions that are fully subscribed

For sessions that are already full, join the waitlist. If people cancel, you'll be in with a chance if a space becomes available.

re:Inventing

Registration

Upload your photo

Upload your photo to your account ahead of registration to save time.

Register at the airport or on Sunday

Depending on when you arrive in Vegas, you can either register at the airport or at one of the venues when it opens at 09:00 on Sunday morning. The queue at the airport on Sunday morning was about 20 minutes long - not too bad, and at least gets it done.

The only venue that has the SWAG is the Venetian, so at some point you'll want to go there. The queue when it opened at 09:00 was long. But by late afternoon there was barely a queue for either SWAG or registration. It’s also worth noting that the SWAG was available nearly all week, although some sizes for hoodies ran out after a couple of days.

Attending sessions

Arrive 10 minutes before sessions start

This is a fairly simple one. If you’re on the list for a session, you must be there at least 10 minutes in advance. The organisers are very strict about this and you’ll be asked to join the walk-up queue if you’re late.

Arrive much earlier for walk-ups

Depending on the session, if you’re hoping to land a walk-up place, you might want to arrive up to an hour early. For most sessions, there are approximately 20 places kept free, so it’s worth queueing if it’s a session you really want to attend.

Have a backup plan

If you don’t get into the session you want, all venues have an overflow area which shows a feed of up to six of the popular sessions happening currently. This is often a good bet if you haven’t managed to get into anything.

Hands-on labs

If you’re stuck for sessions, the hands-on labs were really cool. Depending on the time of day, be prepared for a bit of a queue but you get given a credit and can pick from most of the AWS qwiklab sessions. First thing in the morning is a good time to visit.

Plan the next day

Each evening, take some time to plan the next day. Have you been too ambitious? Is there a product release you want to know more about?

Simply Business events

General advice

Social and networking

Set up a WhatsApp group with your colleagues

It’s about the only way possible to keep track of everyone!

Arrange to dine with your group

Although no evening meal is provided, we’d strongly recommend eating as a group. We weren’t that good at it but it would have been really valuable. It helps to decompress the day and find out what others are planning for the next day. It's likely to be the only time you'll see your colleagues. Meeting up for sessions during the day is almost impossible! Agree a time after the sessions and a venue near to where you’re staying, then do your best to stick to it. It also helps if someone attending has a company credit card as this keeps expenses down for individuals.

Join social receptions

There are several AWS-sponsored drinks receptions for UK people where you can talk to account managers and other customers and, of course, get free drinks. You’ll probably get emails about these after you register.

Monday night madness, re:Play and social events

The Expo hall opens on Monday afternoon till Thursday, and has food and drinks. It’s crazy busy (early mornings are quieter) but gives you first glimpse of the vendor stalls and all the free socks you need! Worth attending if only for a short time.

re:Play is the main party on Thursday night. It’s incredible and great fun. It’s essentially a mini festival with the strangest mix of attendees you’ll ever see! Definitely worth attending.

There are various social events all week but we found Wednesday to be the main vendor night. We had the choice of a Sumo grand slam (Sumo Logic), a secret pub crawl (Datadog) or popup party (MongoDB).

Practicalities

Use ATMs outside of the hotels

Getting cash out at casino hotels is expensive. Use ATMs elsewhere if you can. A Revolut card or similar is useful for avoiding exchange rate fees and to avoid having your bank block your debit card. Shops in the hotels are also super expensive - pick up snacks, medicines and water from Walgreens or CVS instead.

Food free food!

Free breakfast is served early at all of the main venues from Tuesday to Friday, 06:30 - 08:30. There's a wide selection and you can either grab food to go or sit down.

Free lunch is as above, from Monday to Thursday, 11:00 - 13:00. The packed lunches were great so we recommend grabbing at least this. Some venues ran out of packed lunches at various points during the day, so don’t leave it too late. The lunch halls are massive and well-organised and there's generally no need to queue for long. There are also snacks and hot drinks served late afternoon - good for energy if you’re attending later sessions!

Stay hydrated

The air in Las Vegas is very dry and you may find you end up with cracked lips or nosebleeds! Lip balm and saline nasal spray helps! Drink plenty of water and take comfortable shoes. You’ll be walking a lot!

Getting around Vegas

Allow extra time to get around

Be prepared to have an incredible step count for the week! Vegas is all walkable but prepare to overestimate the time needed to get around. If you walk, you’ll likely need to walk all the way to the front of where you’re staying to the back of the destination venue to get to the conference centre after navigating the Strip. Vegas casinos are huge. If you’re traveling between places for the day, the shuttle buses are really effective as they go from the back of the conference centres rather than the front of the hotels.

Allow extra time during peak hours. It took some of us over an hour and a half to get to the Venetian on Monday morning. If you use Uber or Lyft they will normally have a dedicated pick up point (which isn’t always obvious) and put the destination as the conference center not the casino!

Friday is a half day, and shuttle buses stop running around 13:00.

Some hotels on the same side of the Strip have shortcuts between them, so you can avoid having to go all the way out and back again. There is a free shuttle monorail (“the tram”) between the Bellagio, Aria and Park MGM, and a non-free monorail between a number of the hotels on the other side of the Strip, though we didn’t find that particularly useful.

There are hundreds of staff dotted around each hotel and on the Strip to guide you if you get lost. Ask them for shortcuts; they're a good resource.

Post re:Invent

So you’re back and had an amazing time? The team at Simply Business uses level ups and blog posts to share knowledge within our tech team as well as to consolidate our learning. You can read more about what we learned at last year's conference in AWS re:Invent - Technology Talks.

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