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TEDx Conference Organizers Can Teach the IT Vendor Show Promoters

NEWS ANALYSIS: All the promoters of sleep-inducing IT vendor conferences could learn from the format of the recent volunteer-organized TEDx conference in Cambridge, Mass.

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I went to the TEDx Cambridge (Mass.) event last week. Next week I am heading off for the rounds of fall shows including Oracle OpenWorld, Interop, the Gartner Symposium and Amazon's AWS re:Invent.

Clearly, I've got a lot of PowerPoint time in my future. Here's what I heard and what I learned and what events such as TEDx have to teach the vendor community.

First there is the TEDx model. That you could take an event as established as the TED conference and allow independent organizations to adhere to the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) ground rules but develop content geared to their community was one of those big ideas in conferences that simply don't come along very often.

As part of the TED mission of "ideas worth spreading," the x series is local in feel but carries the production and presentation qualities that made the TED conference into a premier event. Here's the format description every conference developer should memorize: "A suite of short, carefully prepared talks, demonstrations and performances on a wide range of subjects to foster learning, inspiration and wonder—and to provoke conversations that matter."

Notice that there is no mention of hourlong, PowerPoint-laden drone-ons cobbled together the night before and taking place solely to satisfy a sponsorship deal.

The TEDx Cambridge event, which started at 6 p.m., featured seven approximately 10- to 15-minute presentations on a wide range of topics, included auditorium and outside viewing, and ended with the Improv Boston comedy group riffing on all those serious topics and everyone heading out for drinks. There were thoughtful presentations, a few jokes and drinks; what could be better?

My favorites among the presenters included:

Bruce Schneier, security technologist, who is one of the premier voices in the security, privacy and individual rights debate. Despite the Internet's early promise that the distributed power of the Internet would provide a counterbalance to powerful centralized institutions, something changed along the way.

Right now, according to Schneier, the institutions are winning, and he foresees "an epic battle in cyberspace" between the central and distributed forces. And yes, the "epic battle in cyberspace" provided lots of jumping off points for Boston Improv.

Manolis Kellis, a computational biologist. First off, I had no idea what a computational biologist was. Kellis used his own DNA map as a guide, pointing out diseases he was prone to and how precise data analysis of his DNA could lead to precise medical targeting. In about 10 minutes, I learned something about DNA analysis, computational biology and just maybe the next big thing in genomics.

Zeynep Ton, business professor. Ton is a professor up the street from MIT at Harvard, where she studies job and employment trends. The trends point to a continuing deeper divide between dead-end employment with limited growth prospects and compensation that doesn't match living costs and professions that offer opportunities for some wealth. Her research of companies that buck that trend by providing higher wages and less automaton-like work rules and by investing in cross-training sounds simple but delivered great results for the companies and employees she studied.

So there it was. In about an hour and a half, seven (I only highlighted three) presentations covered a wide range of subjects from security to biology to social issues. There was even one on intergalactic issues.

The only requirement was a passion for the topic and a willingness to practice. Now, if the vendor conferences can match the passion and presentation skills of this volunteer group assembled in Cambridge, the fall conference season will be a success.

Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor-in-chief at eWEEK (previously PC WEEK) from 1996-2008, authored this article for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this article. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this article and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.