In case you missed it, July 19-23rd we held the first ever Blend-O-Rama Event. Hosted by HRNUG, moderated by Kevin Griffin (MVP and HRNUG President), and presented by yours truly, the event was a week of Lunch and Learn webcasts all about Expression Blend and presented over Microsoft Live Meeting. This was the first event I’ve done of this type and scope, so I wanted to post my review of the event.
Lessons Learned: Live Meeting
This is my first time presenting over Live Meeting (LM), so I’ve definitely learned a few things. The experience itself is a little strange, and I feel disembodied not being able to see the attendees. As a speaker, I frequently take cues from the audience: I can usually tell whether or not I need to reiterate something, or I can see that they get it and we can move on. You’d be surprised how much you can get out of a few nodding heads! Over LM, it’s just me staring at my screen and talking at the microphone, and I really miss the feedback.
We did some testing over LM before the event and intentionally slowed the pace down, but on Day 1 it wasn’t enough. Day 2 was better and by Day 3 I’d say we had the pace just right. One side effect is that I can’t cover as much material as I might with a live audience. I also had to adjust the content I would usually share because Live Meeting has serious issues with things like gradients and animation.
The hardest thing for me to get comfortable with was Context Switching. I’m an Alt-Tab fanatic, my left hand is practically deformed from sitting in the Alt-Tab position. In this case, I couldn’t use it because I took some advice from a friend of mine and did not share my entire desktop over Live Meeting. This meant that I had to actively select the shared application every time I wanted to switch from one to another. BTW – if you are a seasoned LM presenter, I’d love to hear how you handle this problem: post them in the comments below.
This also takes time and in the videos you will see a lot of “gray space” while I’m fumbling through the Live Meeting controls. I found that narrating it helps: letting the attendees know what I’m doing not only helps them understand what they are seeing, it also helps fill the silence which made me feel like I wasn’t just sitting there all alone.
I’m really glad we did a test run using Live Meeting the week before with some unbiased attendees. We also got some help from David Makogon who gave us some great tips for dealing with Live Meeting and also stepped in a couple of times to moderate when Kevin had other responsibilities. The biggest lesson here is the Boy Scout Motto: Be Prepared.
Lessons Learned: The Event Itself
I also learned that this sort of commitment is tough. While the presentations were “only” an hour and a half per day, the event really consumed my entire week. I’ll admit to underestimating this when we set the event up, mostly because I had given the first 4 presentations many many times: only the last day contained new material. The pressure I felt to deliver a quality event, however, made me spend all my free time prepping for the next day.
And it really bothered me when something went wrong, as it did nearly every day. I try to joke about it, but nothing is more frustrating than something not working when other people are watching. It’s especially tough when it’s something you’ve done a thousand times and for the life of you can’t figure out what’s wrong. Lesson learned: Expect the Unexpected.
I haven’t done near as much in Silverlight as I have in WPF. Usually that isn’t an issue, and in Blend it rarely causes a problem, but a few of the issues had to do with my lack of familiarity with Silverlight. More specifically, I’m accustomed to doing things one way in WPF that I may have to do differently (or can’t do at all) in Silverlight. In this case the point I was trying to illustrate was that Blend is essentially the same in both platforms, and I do think we succeeded there.
I also learned that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. I’ve never been afraid to say “I don’t know” during a presentation: it’s honest and fair. But I haven’t had to say it so often as I did this week. Some of the questions really stumped me: in fact, I said several times it was “Stump the Presenter” week. While I wish I knew all the answers, I also appreciate the tough questions: it means the attendees were really paying attention and thinking about Blend. What presenter could ask for more?
Day 1 – An Introduction to Blend
I watched the playback and realized I needed to go even slower: there were too many times when the speaking got ahead of the presentation, or when I could have hovered over an item longer to let the Tooltip show through. I also learned that Gradients are a no-go. If you watch the video they just show up as huge blocks of color.
Day 2 – Data Binding
They say every presentation has a glitch, and this one was no exception. I ran into a problem near the end trying to bind a Grid’s DataContext to the SelectedItem of a ListBox. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this, hundreds at least. It is simple and straightforward… until today. It just didn’t work and I tried it several times in different ways. I finally cleared all the DataContexts and Bindings out of the details within the Grid and rebound the DataContext and finally everything worked. I’m still not sure what the cause was, but I’m starting to think there was something left over from when I tested the Solution earlier that day.
Day 3 – Styling and Templating
I really think on this day we finally nailed the speed and delivery. The only glitch that stands out in my mind was trying to get Smooth Scrolling to work in Silverlight. Turns out this is one of those areas that just isn’t the same as WPF. The downside for me is that I feel I spent too much time trying to get it to work.
BTW, the solution is to go to the ItemsPanel Style and add a FluidMoveBehavior to the VirtualizingStackPanel. Nifty trick!
Day 4 – Animations
So understanding that Gradients and things like that don’t work well over LM, I really wasn’t expecting much out of this session. That being said, it turned out very well. The Live Meeting video has some odd happenings between minutes 40 and 48, but the WMV file is just fine, so be sure to watch that.
Day 5 – Advanced Topics
By and far this was my favorite day. As I said in the presentation, this stuff is just plain fun! I think overall I was happiest with this presentation. I’m sure some of that has to do with my growing familiarity with Live Meeting, but naturally just as I’m getting comfortable with the format we finish! Based on the feedback, this one was as much a hit with the audience as it was with me, so you can expect to see me presenting this one out on the road.
Overall, this was a great event. I’ll admit, I was drained by the end of it, but the steady stream of thanks and nice messages from attendees tells me we did something worthwhile here. So much so, in fact, that I think I’d like to have one s
ession a month on different topics.
What are your thoughts? Your suggestions and comments will determine what shape this takes going forward, so comment below, email, or Twitter (tag #BlendORama) and let us know what you think.
Thanks again to everyone who took part, and watch out soon for the launch of www.blend-o-rama.com.