An outdoor Google I/O was worth trying. We hope it tries it again — but learns a few things from 2016.
Google broke from tradition and held Google I/O 2016 at the Shoreline Amphitheater (conveniently located next door to Google’s Mountain View campus buildings) instead of a more mundane but well-proven event center like the Moscone Center. By now you’ve certainly heard about the show — and a lot of complaints — online from both people who attended, as well as many who didn’t. Words like festival, faire (the maker kind, presumably) and even Burning Man have been used to describe it, but those are a little off the mark.
Google I/O was still very much a developer conference, filled with people who are more used to the controlled environment most developer get-togethers are held in. And that was one of the many problems with Google I/O 2016 — people weren’t ready to spend three 10-hour days in the same place they would go see The Cure on Thursday evening.
Let’s set the stage here in case you just aren’t getting it (and you wouldn’t be alone if you’re not). Shoreline has a big central stage with 6,500 seats and room on the lawn for a total of 22,500. (Fun fact — the main stage is in the shape of the Grateful Dead’s Steal your face logo.) There are several outbuildings on the property, and these were used for food and registration offices and the like. Two of the nearest large parking lots were covered with dozens of temporary shelters and tents for exhibits and presentations. It had the atmosphere of a festival (Phil kept saying Disneyland), but a very crowded one where people were expected to stay in a location for up to an hour (or two hours, in the case of the keynote waiting area) to learn and network with each other. It was very much like Google I/O 2015, only the pods and sandboxes were on the asphalt under the sun instead of a carpeted and climate-controlled Moscone West.
And yes, there were plenty of complaints, both valid and not-so-valid.
For starters, the weather just wasn’t very friendly. The day of the keynote turned out to be the hottest day (so far) of 2016, with temperatures hitting (and i all likelihood occasionally exceeding) the 90-degree mark at points. Some — even area locals — had difficulty with the heat and the sun. For everyone who didn’t think a day of 90-degree temperatures with low humidity were the worst weather imaginable, the final day started cold and breezy as days in Central California often do. I’ll be honest — I was miserable in the cold and sought out the sunny spots whenever possible. Just like some folks were miserable from the previous day’s heat and sought the shade. It turns out that even Google can’t control the weather.
It turns out that even Google can’t control the weather.
The weather had a lot of people questioning Google’s decision to hold the event outdoors, and rightfully so. Let’s be honest — software developers aren’t known as a race of iron-man outdoor athletes. No offense intended, but nobody pictures Bear Grylls when they hear the words coder or developer (or journalist for that matter) — and for good reason. Our Seattle-based Andrew Martonik made a very valid point one evening when he said that even people who loved the outdoors usually only loved it a few hours at a time and on the weekend. They just weren’t feeling a long day trying to work outside. Even the keynote and other presentations on the main stage weren’t immune — about 30 minutes into the day the lawn and a good many of the stadium seats were awash with bright California sunshine. Google was liberal when it came to supplying the sunscreen — and the welcome package included sunglasses and a nifty bit of headgear to cover up with — but it just wasn’t enough. Hot sun is hot.
This was compounded by long lines and limited seating at sessions. Seeing 200 or more people queued for an event that only would hold half that number was commonplace, leaving (potential) attendees standing on the blacktop in the sun. Yes, having developer sessions where even standing-room-only wasn’t enough to meet demand is normally a good thing, but not when the reason is that the seating and occupancy of a pressurized geodesic dome shelter is just too small. Again — we saw the same limited space for some sessions at Google I/O 2015, but without the sun and the heat. And with more chairs.
Finally, the whole thing was a bit confusing. There were few indications of exactly where you were in relation to the map provided in the Google I/O 2016 app, and certainly none you could see from a distance. Lines for sessions meandered through the lot, following the path of least resistance (and conveniently winding past drink stands and shady spots) with no way of telling which line went to which building without following them to their head.
This made things especially difficult for the handful of attendees in a wheelchair, because the lines went over curbs and other unpassable spots that weren’t apparent until you reached them. I purposefully held off on writing this post until I had time to digest that last bit, because it was particularly frustrating on more than one occasion.
To their credit, the event staff would quickly do whatever was needed to help those who needed help find their way into the building, but I know from experience that the last thing many folks with ambulatory issues want to do is ask for that help. I’m vocal and refuse to let my disability hamper my work or pleasure whenever possible, but having people who spent good money watch you cut to the front of the line is never pleasant. The event was almost certainly ADA-compliant, but that didn’t take into account where the free-form lines would naturally form nor the path they would follow.
Overall the whole event was enjoyable from my perspective, and the amount of planning that went into it all was clearly evident. This was a big change, and the first time was bound to have hiccups. And hiccups there were. But I don’t want these to prevent Google from doing it all over again after learning a few things from 2016’s event.
A carnival atmosphere is friendly even when conditions aren’t exactly ideal.
The carnival atmosphere was friendly even if it wasn’t the most super-functional. Time spent in the shade with a cold drink and a handful of people with similar yet varied interests made for great conversation and networking. We got to talk to both friends and business acquaintances, catching up with what we all were doing while others nearby played giant-sized Jenga or checked out an Android-Auto equipped Maserati in front of an inflated Project Loon balloon. People we didn’t know personally but were familiar with our work here stopped by to say hello or pose for a selfie with us and we made a few new friends. I’m sure this is the kind of experience Google had in mind for all of us in attendance and it was thoroughly enjoyable — people forgot how hot or cold they were for a while and just hung out. You can’t have quite that same experience wandering through Moscone. Being outdoors changed the whole dynamic of the event for the better, and the sunburn and sore feet (or bum for folks in a chair) was worth it. Seeing Google’s path for the future at the same place I saw the Dead in ’87 was pretty damn awesome.
Not getting to attend a presentation after you paid $900 for tickets to attend, however, was a different story.
We’re ready for an even better time next year.
This is where Google needs to do a post-op and learn how to make the next outdoor event better. While nobody can predict the weather months in advance while planning an event, other problems certainly have solutions and would improve things and alleviate some pain points. On the trip out, the airline desk had roped mazes where a long line of people could queue in an orderly fashion in an approved area. We’ve all seen those, and I hope to see them at Google’s next outdoor I/O. Opening the third lot for event stages instead of shuttle bus parking would have allowed for bigger or more areas to put presenters in front of developer eyeballs. Taller (and more) signs would helped people find their way instead of walking around with their noses in their phones navigating a map so they could spend more time being with people or giving a passing smile. Add a fourth day and repeat all the popular sessions so everyone could attend would work, too. There is a lot to be learned from the first time, and every subsequent event can be better than the last.
Please don’t abandon this idea, Google.
Finally, we have to give a shout out to all the Googlers and event staff. From the shuttle drivers to the registration crew and food service as well as presenters, everyone was friendly and there to help in any way they could. They spent the same amount of time in the heat and cold and sun on tired feet that the attendees did, and even when tempers flared (few and far between, but yeah it happened) they were professional and helpful in every way. Their energy was a thing you could feel, while positive vibes and wide smiles were the order of the day. The staff should be commended on their hard work, and I’m sure everyone appreciated it.