Microsoft Ignite Part 1: A Neurodiverse Perspective

I attended Microsoft Ignite last week in 3 different roles. Firstly, what triggered me to travel to the conference, was representing neurodiversity as an autistic individual. I was asked by Microsoft to lead some table discussions each day as part of the area setup by the Humans of IT community. The second role I played was a shift each day in the Office 365 Adoption booth, contributing my expertise as a Change Management Consultant to answer questions about using the metrics and dashboards for adoption in your tenant, and also general questions around adoption in general having conversations with anyone who approached the booth to help guide and drive usage in their organisation. The third capacity was as an attendee. Where I could, around the booth and discussion hosting, I attended sessions to increase my own knowledge or experience workshops and presentations across a number of topics.

This is the first of a 2 part series about my experiences at Microsoft Ignite in the neurodiversity capacity, with the next piece coming to be focusing on my experience as a Change Management Consultant with more detail on the learning, new features and how to assess and understand key detail for your organisation.

My thoughts shared below come not only from my own experience but also those from the group discussions I facilitated sharing what a number of people expressed as challenges or thoughts about how they navigated such a massive conference.

Anxiety of the unknown

My first day or even hour at the conference was one of the hardest, as may be for many.

Arriving at something for the first time ever with uncertainty. From the outset I was impressed with the level of planning and detail of setup. The signage was what I noticed first in my first couple of days in Orlando prior to it starting. I stayed at a resort 10 minutes’ drive away and found there were Microsoft shuttle buses to and from the conference eliminating the need to plan and organise my own transport.

When on my first bus 7:30am on the Sunday I felt a rush of anxiety. Firstly, I looked around and noticed I was the only female in a sea of middle age men all deep in conversation about techy stuff.

I noticed I was feeling nervous and a slight change in my breathing. A friend back home had recommended a technique of counting. She said “if you feel anxious count how many days until Christmas”. This came straight into my mind and truly did help me redirect my thoughts. I then actually questioned what I was anxious about and realised it wasn’t one particular thing. It was broad feelings of uncertainty. As a person who thrives on structure and organisation, not knowing what the day would be like was uncomfortable.

Will there be decent coffee?

Will people be approachable?

Can I blend in?… Maybe boldly wearing an autism t-shirt impacted this one. But as I was attending a pre-day workshop on Diversity and Inclusion it felt like a fun choice.

Scrolling through Twitter on the bus ride I saw posts from people all over the world arriving to Orlando and realised this was all creating hype, which is great press for the conference. However that hype was feeding anxiety.

I then questioned “why am I here?” and realised there was a strong dose of ‘imposter syndrome’ creeping in.

In these situations my tactic is to toughen up and push through. So I did. I moved through it and ‘did the thing’.

As soon as I got to the initial area to collect the swag I was pleasantly surprised. Firstly, it kind of rocks being female at a tech conference because the queues are short. Hello quick win!

Also, as I made my way through the stations to collect backpack, bottle, t-shirt, I came across the table with the pins or badges. The Microsoft initiative of badges to communicate whether or not you want to speak, or to promote use of pronouns had a major impact on me. Suddenly a wave of inclusion for people with needs that go usually unnoticed was big. To some it may seem silly, but to be able to express your needs in a small way like this showed forethought and to me meant this major organisation was trying. And that to me was huge.

Physical space and sensory impact

This is by far the most challenging area for people who fall into the category of neurodiversity — conditions like autistic, ADHD and dyslexia.

The noise, lighting, crowd are major impacts and can make or break the experience.

Yes a noisy crowded space can be hard for anyone, however the experience is on a much greater scale. I personally have most of the sounds in a room coming at me at the same level and it can be difficult to filter out what is the stimuli to focus on. This can be why an autistic person wears noise cancelling headphones, to reduce or control the sound coming into their brain. Or a person with ADHD might do the same to help eliminate distraction and enable greater focus.

The Hub at Microsoft Ignite is an amazing space. It’s an expo, presentation zone, breakout area and many other things all in one HUGE space.

Some of the people in the group discussions said they walked into The Hub on day 1 and walked straight back out. It’s very intense. Its loud. Its busy.

At one point I had to start a session in 5 minutes and had to walk the length of this space to get to my designated area. Trying to power walk to my destination felt like a crazy computer game. In fact at the time I felt like I was in “Ralph Breaks the Internet” with a sea of voices through microphones from vendors trying to get your attention, presentations in open theatre areas as you walk by, flashing lights and large screens, people from different countries in a wide corridor with no clear direction creating this game of dodge to navigate through the crowd (why don’t we all just stick to the left!). This space held very valuable information, spaces to learn and have great discussions with experts and vendors, you just had to get beyond the sensory challenges and find a way to get involved. I personally spent most of the conference in the Hub (all my work happened to be in this space) and chose to exit for food and a 20 min Netflix or Spotify rehab in a quiet corner of the building to recover and power up to jump back in when I had a moment each day. I didn’t really enter the vendor zone at all. It was too much and to be honest not key as a Change Manager. Of more value to my role were the sessions and discussions.
Speaking in the booth I found it was hard to drown out the chaos and noise and focus on the single conversations with the person that had approached. It took an enormous amount of energy.

Outside of The Hub was busy with the hallways a sea of attendees making their way between sessions. I quickly became a big fan of the ‘purple shirts’. The conference was heavily staffed by people in bright shirts holding signs or there for you to get information. Super helpful.

The presentation sessions outside The Hub I attended were as expected. Very well thought out, great technical setup and all progressing without a hitch. These zones were setup for learning and the sensory challenges were minimal.

And at the end of the day, I knew that there were quiet zones, and even an area with cute puppies to help unwind and de-stress if required. I found a community quiet zone (below) to review my slides and having that space to break away to was just what I needed.

Absorbing information

What I found fascinating in our group discussions was the variation in learning across people. I personally asked a lot of questions to one dyslexic participant (thanks by the way!) to further understand his challenges to reading, learning applications and how he absorbs information. We spoke a lot about how he prefers to listen to pod casts or have discussions, whereas I rely on visual detail and with working memory challenges I find streams of audio content difficult to process. During this discussion we had another participant comment that she designs software and suddenly realised the complexity in ensuring what she builds suits the two of us alone. Thus is the challenges of inclusivity in design and learning for people across many different conditions and challenges.

Like many people, I used the session scheduler to select topics of interest. I also like many people triple booked myself to then make a call at the time which session to attend.

The first session I attended was standing room only in a theatre in The Hub. This was uncomfortable, hard to listen, difficult to see and not a great experience. It was a lesson learned in not getting there 5 mins early, but the need to get there 10–15 mins early to get a seat and be able to see. This extra time was going to disrupt my busy schedule.

The second day I had sessions back to back followed by my booth duty, the diversity discussions, and finishing with presenting in the afternoon.

I arrived at the first session with good time and found it very valuable. When I walked out with ideas and concepts swirling in my brain I realised I had 10 minutes before a different topic. At this moment what I needed was a quiet spot and a cup of tea to write down thoughts and ideas to process what I had just heard. I wasn’t in the right mode to jump topics and absorb more information. And this was a major challenges of Ignite. The vast amount of information to take in and the rapid pace of it all. I have to say, realising most sessions are recorded and available later was such a relief. My biggest learning across the week was to make the most of what was in person, on site and not available later. I now have a list of topics to watch in my own time, when I am in the optimal headspace and setting rather than putting so much pressure on myself in the short exhausting phase and rush of the conference.

Presenting in The Hub

Having the opportunity to present at Ignite was a fantastic experience. And to co-present made it easy. I have co-presented with my husband at a few conferences and we work well together, with complimentary expertise. It’s also great to have your partner at the edge of the stage with you in a moment of nerves. Who better to do that final glance before you take on this challenge.

Here is an AvePoint write up of our session for anyone interested:

There were some challenges with presenting in The Hub — combine all the detail I provided above about sensory challenges with then being in that environment on a stage focusing on your specific content.

In the 5 minutes prior to our presentation I was feeling really positive. I actually felt it was a good space to speak publicly because of the noise. You voice isn’t the single thing breaking the silence in a room. It floats away in a sea of stimuli. This feeling reduced my nerves and I think I did well. The key challenge was as I started to speak a vendor was pitching their product across from the side while I was presenting. It was like they were aimed at my head! That created a key challenge. How do I try to block out that stimuli and remember my key points and form sentences at these people staring at me. It was like a game of skill. The challenge was compounded by an unexpected stage setup with our slides to the side and not really visible by presenters. We expected a visible presenter preview screen like some of the other stages which wasn’t present. Thankfully it was a 20 min session. I just stepped over to the device to check the next slide to prompt myself. In the photo below I look like I’m hiding behind the cabinet. More so checking my points while we alternate to then step out and discuss my content each time.

The experience of presenting at Ignite was great. As an autistic person I would take presenting any time over a social gathering. I loved how well planned out and easy to prepare with the Microsoft organisers. I know our content would be pre-loaded and ready. Having technical setup support on hand to get us ready. It was seamless. Anyone who presented in the Theatres my hat off to you. It’s a challenging environment and chaos, but for attendees in The Hub I do think it was a great feature and use of space.

Sense of Community

As I mentioned earlier I was pleased from the outset at the sense of inclusion at the conference. This flowed all through my week.

I paused mid-week and realised Ignite without the Humans of IT and Community area would have been a completely different experience. It would have then been focused on the technical content and vendor experience and potentially lacked the warmth and inclusiveness.

Leading the neurodiversity discussions each day was the highlight of my week. Second to that was the pre-day workshop on diversity and inclusion, in particular discussion around ‘intersectionality’. This video is a great intro on the concept of intersectionality for anyone interested:

I met so many people through these discussions who came to the table and shared their personal experiences, asked questions and listened to each other’s stories.

I learnt from these people and feel privileged to play a key role in the experience.

People talked about how the workplace impacts their focus and their mental health. They spoke about difficult experiences and how it has shaped their career choices. Some spoke of current issues and how they are stuck. Others about parenting children on the spectrum, with ADHD or other issues.

It was truly rewarding and I thank everyone who took part. I also give massive praise to Microsoft for including this human element to the conference. Amazing.

As an autistic person my biggest challenge at the conference was the social side. I wanted to reach out and connect with a few people, particularly some I have developed connections with on social media. How do you do that when you are not an extroverted party animal?

Every night there are social things happening but I didn’t plan to attend them. Firstly, I had my kids in childcare and had to rush to do dinner and bedtime each day and be there for them. Secondly, noisy social settings are hard for me to focus, be open and involved. After a couple of nights in with the kids I did get a babysitter and ventured to the Yammer party. It was a great event and I did chat to some great people. Ignite is so busy each day it was hard to carve out time to connect with people and without the social evening time I found it was impossible to get that time. It would be great if there was opportunity for people to be social in a calmer setting. It did feel it was either party or nothing. What would another option be? I guess there won’t be a chess club or reading group. But something in between might help the less outgoing people have options to be social and connect and get out of their hotel room.

Key takeaways

  • This conference is HUGE.
  • Plan out what you want to focus on. Make a list of sessions and then create a playlist for back home to watch then to reduce the pressure on yourself during the conference week.
  • Attend things that are not recorded — the ‘unconferences’ and table talks were the biggest value for me. These experiences focused on a topic and then group discussion and activities really drove learning and stretching the brain.
  • There is a lot of ‘noise’. Remember what you are there for and try to find what is key for your role and workplace. Sure, dive into some interesting topics, but keep at the forefront what you are taking back to your role and what will you do with this info or experience.
  • Think about what you can’t get when it’s over. I found the people, the connections and discussions were priceless. The 5 mins while in a queue, or after a session, or bumping into someone. I was also the dork who hung around after a session to tell the person I thought they were a great role model for younger girls.

Microsoft Ignite was an amazing experience. I hope there were people who had similar challenges that like me were able to overcome or carve out time to recover and drive back in. It’s one week of your life and required much sleep and down time afterwards, but was worth the journey.

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