Most of my week was spent at the Gartner IT Symposium/Xpo in Barcelona. This is a gigantic gathering of 6,500 Chief Information Officers and other IT executives along with 1,500 Gartner analysts and staff. I’d previously been to a couple of Gartner conferences that were focused on Programme and Portfolio Management, so I knew roughly what to expect. What I hadn’t anticipated was the sheer size and scale of this event.
But first, I had to get there.
Working for a global organisation, I’m very conscious of my carbon footprint, particularly due to stories of ‘extreme’ weather events hitting the news almost every week. Flying short-haul from London to Barcelona seemed like an easy but excessive thing to do, particularly when seat61.com informed me that I could make the trip by rail in a single day. Almost two decades ago, at another employer, I had tried to suggest that I take the train for a business trip to Zurich; I was laughed out of the room. I’m glad that times have changed. As soon as I knew I’d be going to the conference, I booked my train tickets through our corporate travel agent in order to secure a good fare. Sunday morning was an early start; I soon found myself on a near-deserted Berkhamsted station waiting for the train into London. The train rolled in on time, but to a completely different platform to the one scheduled. I found myself hitting my maximum heart rate as I picked up my suitcase and ran down and up the flights of stairs to get to the train before it departed.
The process to get on board the Eurostar was straightforward, and very familiar to anyone who has been through airport security. Bags had to be x-rayed and bodies scanned. Both the British and French immigration staff are located in the station, so you pass through both checks in quick succession.
I had an economy ticket for the Eurostar journey to Paris. The seats were comfortable but I found myself trying not to bash my feet into those of the person sitting opposite me.
Upon arrival at Gare du Nord I had to make my way through the Paris Metro to get to Gare de Lyon for the next major leg of the journey. A single Metro journey was cheap at less than £2, but obtaining a ticket was filled with frustration. The ticket touch screen terminals work fine, as long as you know exactly what buttons to press. Any doubt, or use of the ‘go back’ button, resulted in the screen freezing up for a minute or two. I was worried that the people behind me would start getting shirty but they seemed to know this is just how things are.
At Gare de Lyon I armed myself with a sandwich for the journey and navigated myself to the platform where my TGV train sat waiting. As this leg was going to be six and a half hours, I had booked a first class seat for a little more comfort. I smiled when I found myself in seat 61 and now know why the famous website has that name — it’s the best single seat in the carriage, with only a luggage space for company and easy access to both the toilet and buffet car.
The train travels like a rocket from Paris down to the south coast of France. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked out of the window to find the Alps on the horizon so soon after we had departed. Once we hit Valence, the journey slowed as the train made its way around the south coast and down into north-east Spain, stopping at places such as Nîmes, Montpellier and Girona before finally pulling into Barcelona.
On advice from my contacts at Gartner, I had booked a hotel adjacent to where the conference was to be held. This was some distance from the station so I had to grab a taxi there. By the time I reached the hotel and unpacked my things it was around 10pm and I was exhausted, but happy that I’d saved around 80% of the carbon emissions versus flying there.
The conference itself was incredible. Lots of my tech-focused friends don’t think very highly of Gartner due to the cost of accessing the services and questions around the objectivity of their research. However, they absolutely know how to run an event. Over the next four days there was an incredible number of keynotes, presentations, workshops, roundtables and networking opportunities. And catering — a seemingly non-stop conveyor of things to eat and drink appeared throughout each day. Early on Monday and Tuesday I had managed to get out for a 10km run so I felt free to indulge in all of the things.
As well as the Symposium there was a giant hall which hosted the IT Xpo, where Enterprise technology vendors lured IT executives into conversations through various free items, ranging from pens and notepads to gigantic bars of Tony’s Chocolonely. I could resist the pens but not the chocolate. Free things would be exchanged for a scan of the QR code on your lanyard so that the exhibitor could add you to their marketing database and send you email.
On Tuesday someone came knocking on the doors of the hotel rooms that were adjacent to the conference, dropping off a Gartner bag filled with leaflets from some of the vendors. Included in the box was half of a set of knockoff Apple AirPod headphones, the idea being that you would have to visit the vendor’s stand to pick up the other half. I suspect that many people didn’t go. What a waste. The ‘climate neutral transport’ badge on the back of the box felt deeply ironic.
Of the sessions themselves, as you would expect, Artificial Intelligence was everywhere. So much so that some of the presenters would drop jokey warnings into the start of their sessions to say that there would be minimal AI content for the next 30 minutes. The first keynote session of the week was AI-focused and offered some interesting insights, such as how “ethical decisions often disguise themselves as IT decisions” and that all companies should look to have their own principles for the use and adoption of AI.
There were many more sessions throughout the week than it is possible to attend. Many ran at the same time, forcing you to choose which one to go to. By the end of the week I had learned to opt for sessions on topics that I know the least about. My favourite was one called The Neurodiversity Advantage: Create a Win-Win for Neurodiverse Talent and Your Organisation presented by Rob O’Donohue who told me that:
- 15–20% of people are neurodivergent, i.e. have ADD, ADHD, autism, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, Tourette syndrome or others. Of those, only 3% are employed versus 68% of neurotypical people.
- Only one in 10 companies have a neurodiversity programme.
- Companies can offer a menu of interview options ahead of time, accommodating people that may struggle with one or more elements of a standard interview. For example, questions could be shared before or a candidate may prefer a one-on-one interview versus a panel.
- Staff could create a ‘personal user manual’ which outlines their communication preferences, learning styles, work habits etc.
- We have to be careful with analogies as they can be confusing for someone with autism. (In our team we use analogies all day long, so this really got me thinking.)
- Companies could offer proactive diagnostic support as an employee benefit, helping current employees but also making the organisation more attractive prospective employees.
I also attended a Women in Technology Roundtable on the topic of Building and Leveraging Powerful Allyship which was incredibly inspiring. Our hosts kicked off the conversation and we didn’t stop talking until we were out of time. A participant relayed a story from a video call where her child had jumped on her lap. Her colleague remarked something along the lines of “It’s so lucky for you that you can do that these days as it’s now acceptable to have children on calls.” She responded “It’s lucky for you that I’m able to do this and to keep contributing.” Touché.
Three of the sessions that I attended were led by Helen Poitevin, suggesting that my interests are aligned with hers. One of her presentations tackled the concept of a Digital Twin of the Employee which I am still not sure I truly understand.
Another session on Digital Ethics made me conscious of Article 22 of the General Data Protection Regulation that:
The data subject shall have the right not to be subject to a decision based solely on automated processing, including profiling, which produces legal effects concerning him or her or similarly significantly affects him or her.
It also got me thinking about the juxtaposition of modern slavery statements and the use of tools from companies like OpenAI.
I found the keynotes more fun and interesting than directly useful. Hearing from Peter Hinssen that the Pope has an AI adviser made me think about how we are organised within our own company. Seeing Martina Navratilova live on stage was wonderful. I was familiar with her incredible life story from recently watching Gods of Tennis on BBC iPlayer, but I didn’t know that she had recently been diagnosed with, and subsequently beaten, cancer in two parts of her body. The interviewer tried to bring the conversation towards some ‘key takeaways’, but in truth just to be that close to someone so inspirational was more than enough for me.
On one of the evenings we had a dinner organised by Gartner where we could meet and network with some of our peers from the same industry. I also found a couple of vegan restaurants close by who served delicious food, including this bizarre-looking charcoal, pumpkin cream and shiitake mushroom pizza:
Attendance at the conference seemed to thin out as the week progressed. It completely wrapped up by 4pm on Thursday, at which point the buzz of the hive of IT executives was replaced by trucks and barriers as the venue was disassembled. As I was going back by train, I had to stay for an extra night.
Friday’s journey home was a useful exercise in seeing how well someone can work from a train, the conclusion being ‘adequately, but not optimally’. The guard told me off for joining a Teams call from my seat, so I spent most of the journey sitting in a little ‘phone lobby’ between the door to the carriage and the toilet. The train’s Wi-Fi was surprisingly resilient, if very low bandwidth; I found that Teams degrades quite well, allowing voice traffic whilst reducing the number and quality of video streams.
I finally got back home around 10pm on Friday night, exhausted but marvelling in the fact that I could travel by land from Barcelona in such a short amount of time.
Overall, the conference was an amazing experience. It was lovely to finally meet up with some previously ‘virtual’ contacts in real life, as well as to make some new, valuable connections with others that are tackling similar problems as IT leaders.
Aside from the Symposium/Xpo, this was a week in which I:
- Had the weekly project meeting with the team looking at the lease for a new office.
- Joined a conversation with the Marketing team to talk about how to present a story on the tools being delivered by our cross-functional agile team.
- Met with the vendor whose AI product we are considering for use within the organisation.
- Joined our bi-weekly management meeting.
- Decided to jump into Obsidian as my note taking app. I’ve been using Dynalist for a few years but am increasingly concerned that the data isn’t encrypted on the company’s servers. Obsidian allows you to set up an encrypted vault that can then be synced between devices. There’s a bit of a learning curve and I’m keen to not just replicate how I’ve been working in one app without taking advantage of the advanced features in the new app. I have my eye on The Sweet Setup’s To Obsidian and Beyond course, but the $197 price tag is making me wait until I can put some time aside to dive in.
- Took advantage of a free seven-day subscription to Paramount+ in order to watch the Milli Vanilli movie. As an 11-year old boy, I loved their singles when they came out. The story is tragic, but it was great to see Fabrice Morvan performing and singing live at the end of the movie.
- Had an impromptu family lunch with my parents who came over to Berkhamsted for a visit. It was so lovely to see them again.
- Ran the line at my eldest son’s football match, the first time in half a year or so since I had last picked up the flag.
- Won an eBay auction for an additional Ubiquiti Amplifi router. I’m planning on getting a wired connection between two rooms in my house and installing it there for better coverage. I can’t remember the last time I bid on an eBay auction for anything. It’s still exciting to watch the last few minutes tick down and to end up as the winner.
Next week: Back to the office, and Album Club time again.