My takeaways from the Alfresco Summit keynotes

This year we tried something new at Alfresco Summit. Rather than have all of our keynotes delivered by Alfrescans we invited some external speakers to both Barcelona and Boston.

Day 1: Big ideas, big opportunities–Doug Dennerline, Jimmy Wales, Andrew McAfee, & John Newton

In both cities we opened the conference with our new CEO, Doug Dennerline. This was Doug’s first annual conference since joining Alfresco, so it was a great opportunity for him to introduce himself to the community and talk about the tremendous opportunity he sees in front of us.

Then, in Barcelona we had Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikimedia Foundation. Jimmy spoke of the phenomenal growth of Wikipedia, particularly in emerging countries and in various languages. He talked about an initiative called Wikipedia Zero, which seeks to provide free access to Wikipedia over cell phone networks. He showed a never-before seen video of school children in South Africa who wrote an open letter to carriers to explain how much Wikipedia helps them with their studies and how much free access would mean to their community. That video totally got to me–I’m such a softy.

One of the things that stuck with me from Jimmy’s talk is that we should be asking what our community needs to get done and then help them make that happen rather than constantly asking what our community can do for us. It’s tough to do because our community is so diverse but this might be a useful guiding principle in the coming year.

In Boston the first day keynote was Andrew McAfee. Andrew is Principle Research Scientist for Digital Business at the Sloan School of Management. You may know him as the guy who coined the term “Enterprise 2.0″. His talk was about the unbelievable growth of content in our lives and businesses–“Content is growing faster than our ability to find words to describe it,” he said.

He talked about the importance of following the data rather than always deferring to the HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person in the Organization). He spoke of various studies that showed how areas once ruled by pundits (politics, wine, real estate) are now more accurately forecast using big data techniques.

There were all kinds of amazing stats Andy shared with us that morning. The one most shocking to me was that 500 million searches every day are completely new to Google (here is an article where that is referenced). Apparently 15% of Google searches have been new to Google for each of the last 15 years. Wrap your head around that!

We monitor all kinds of stats related to the Alfresco community. Each quarter we pick a few and see if we can make improvements in those numbers. Andy’s talk was a reminder to me that we need to pay attention to what the community is trying to tell us through data.

That evening John Newton, Alfresco co-founder and CTO, provided a Back to the Future themed keynote focusing on the future of work. John pointed out how unimaginable the work environment of today was ten years ago and asked for all of us to try to predict what work might be like ten years from now. If you have ideas, he’d love you to tweet them with the hashtag “#Work2023″. John’s slides are here. We’ll post the video soon.

Day 2: The Inevitability of Change. Simon Wardley and Dries Buytaert

Day two brought a new set of speakers. In Barcelona we kicked off with Simon Wardley, researcher at the CSC Leading Edge Forum. His talk covered a lot of ground. It was about the best way to think strategically about your organization (find the “why”, not just the “what”) and the inevitability of change and the incredible phases of discovery and innovation that follow major shifts in technology.

He compared cloud, which is simply the shift in computing from product to commodity, to the mass commoditization of electricity. He expects a period of unfathomable new products and services that will be achievable thanks to the cloud much in the same way radio, television, and other major innovations appeared after electricity was commoditized.

I agree with Simon that cloud is not an if but when. Even organizations that say there is no way they will ever put certain data in the cloud will ultimately shift to that style of computing. It will take time–probably less time than any of us think–but it will happen. Until then, Alfresco thinks that 20% of your content will stay on-premise, 20% will move to the cloud, and 60% will be in or moving between both.

Simon’s talk got me thinking about how our community will change over time. On-premise is still a huge part of our business and will be for some time, but SaaS is definitely the direction we’re headed. That will certainly change the make-up, goals, and tactics of the Alfresco community. It’s important for people to know, though, that our values around openness and transparency are fundamental to who we are. We may evolve our products and services, but you should continue to hold us to those values.

In Boston we kicked off day two with a keynote from Drupal creator and Acquia founder, Dries Buytaert. Dries talked about the evolution of content management. He took us from those humble beginnings in his Antwerp dorm room to today where Drupal runs 5% of all web sites and one-size-fits-all approaches are being abandoned in favor of best-of-breed, often incorporating open source software like Drupal and Alfresco.

I loved the “Do Well, Do Good” slide in Dries’ talk because it speaks to a reason why I like working in commercial open source. We can do well as a company–grow the business, earn profits for our stakeholders–but we can also do good for our fellow humans. Software like Drupal and Alfresco are helping all kinds of people fulfill their missions despite their lack of budget. We spend a lot of time worrying about the people who have huge budgets who aren’t paying us and we forget about the tremendous good we do for those who can’t.

Directly relevant? Maybe not always. Inspiring? I hope so!

It’s tough picking keynote speakers. Regarding the exact same speaker I had some people who asked, “Was that talk really relevant to what we do?” and others who exclaimed, “Wow, that was spot-on!”. It’s sort of like art–the perceived relevancy is totally in the beholder. I found elements from all four talks that were relevant to me–the themes played right into my community keynote on day 3–I wish I could say that was totally planned.

The goal wasn’t to have industry visionaries talk to us about our own products or even our own market. The goal was to have someone inspiring give a talk that opened your mind to new possibilities. That’s the best frame of mind you could be in when you go to a conference like Alfresco Summit, I think.

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