RootsTech 2013 – The Nitpicker’s Critique, Part 1

This blog post has a bit of a delay in it, but RootsTech 2013 recently ended. It was the third year of the genealogy and technology conference and I have attended each year.

I had fun at RootsTech. I get to see my genea-friends that I only see once or twice a year, and I try to spend some time with many of them. I usually meet a few new people that I might know online or not and improve on our friendships.

I had considered not buying a ticket and just hanging out in the exhibitor hall. I could have done that and had almost the exact same experience. I went to few sessions and wasn’t impressed with many. Here are my critiques, in no particular order.

1. Developer Day. I am both a developer and a genealogist, so I get the feeling that my experience is a little different than the average attendee. Last year, some people (on Twitter and on blogs that I read) said there wasn’t enough interaction between the two groups, the users and developers. So how did RootsTech “improve” on that? They condensed all the developer sessions down to one day so they wouldn’t be around as long to interact. As someone who sticks around for the whole conference and tends to go to developer sessions more than user sessions, this was disappointing. I had less to choose from during the week, and more that overlapped each other. Did others interact more? Did any of the official bloggers talk to developers other than the challenge winners?

2. Advanced User Sessions. Another complaint from last year was the lack of advanced user sessions. Not everyone needs to be taught basic computer skills, but they’re not quite up there with the developers, nor do they want to develop. I am also interested in these more advanced sessions sometimes, as the others are too simplistic for me. This year, the schedule explicitly listed sessions as either everyone, beginner, or intermediate. There was a distinct omission of advanced sessions. RootsTech seems to have changed direction to cater to beginners, and that’s a huge disappointment to me.

3. The Developer’s Challenge. I was wildly disappointed last year to enter the challenge after programming for a couple months to be judged against multiple people that had not only programmed longer than the challenge took place, but at least four of the entries were already in the schedule to be spoken about. This year, I only knew about one submission/finalist in advance, and she had been working on her entry for a year. I’m thrilled for her, and for most other winners both years, but it was a lot harder to take last year. Now that I know the rules as they are interpreted instead of how they are intended, things may be different in the future.

Additionally, the Challenge is almost invisible to the conference. Even now, in April, the winners are not listed on the web site; just the finalists. And there’s no way to get to the Challenge except by clicking through to Developer Day. Why would I assume that it’s on that page? And you can’t tell what the entries are. What makes these submissions innovative? With no description, it’s impossible to tell for some of them. One appears to search FindaGrave. How is that innovative if FaG already has a search function?

4. The Exhibitor Hall. I don’t know if it was just me, but I felt lost in that room when I wasn’t using the map. The conference guide was too difficult, but the one in the app was labeled instead of numbered with a separate listing. Even after finding a booth, sometimes I couldn’t find it again without looking it up. They really can’t improve on that except to have only maps with labels instead of numbers that have to be cross-referenced to a long list.

Also, they closed before the last sessions got out, so even if you learned about something in that session, you couldn’t visit the vendor anymore. I heard that those 2000 kids on the last day exited one lecture hall and headed for the exhibitor hall, only to find the doors closed.

5. The App. This was an improvement. Bump was gone and a list of attendees and friends were added, though I don’t know if anyone found any use out of it, other than seeing who else was going. And there was a very long list of blanks at the beginning. The Unconferencing sessions were not added into the schedule. We did get a notice at least one day that the schedule was online, taking us to a web page to see it. After I downloaded the app, when it told me to re-download, it took me to the web browser instead of the app store where I could get it. There was a constant stream of updates, which was good, but sometimes they seemed excessive. It worked out better than last year, but can’t they get it set up how they want before making it available instead of changing it so much so soon?

6. Unconferencing. I made it to one session this year. I was at the FGS societies meeting, where I did hear about one thing that I wanted to look into for my own society, so it was useful. Any other sessions that sounded interesting were at conflicting times with other things.

7. Scheduling. There were a few places in my schedule where I had marked four or five sessions at once, and some where I had none. Upon reading the syllabus notes, I easily dismissed some as too simple for me. After all, it wasn’t until I registered and got the conference guide in my bag that I saw there were no advanced user sessions.

The real eye-opener was in the after-conference survey, when they asked for comments about each session. The first one they asked for had 15 sessions happening at once. If I was interested in attending those, there is no way I could do so, and there are no recordings. Other time slots had only five sessions in the survey. The schedule didn’t look that lopsided to me in the book.

8. The Keynotes. The first day was a fantastic keynote. All three speakers were good. I wasn’t impressed by the second day’s speakers. The third day was half good. Sorry, but I see no reason why two keynote speakers just gave commercials for web sites that I already know about. Do they think some people still don’t know them? They might be right, seeing as how this conference is now geared towards beginners. I preferred it when RootsTech was for technology users and developers, and not wannabe users.

9. Wi-fi. Their ability to provide tech at this conference is not improving. I tried to connect to the wi-fi briefly a couple of times and I could not get on. I heard others had the same problem, which is the same as previous years. The Salt Palace can hold an awful lot of people, but they aren’t equipped for that number of connections to their system. Others complained about the total lack of wi-fi in the exhibitor hall, same as in previous years. I finally avoided my dependency on the wi-fi this year by having a 4G phone, which I used for the app, occasional tweeting, and other random bits of online access. It seems that they will never improve on this since they keep relying on the Salt Palace to provide it.

10. Evening Events. The evening events were announced very late, and were not so impressive. The only official event I attended was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performance. I avoided the social at The Leonardo; it was sponsored but not free. As Jenna, aka @SeekingSurnames, put it, “discount sponsorship”. I avoided going to the Family History Library with 1700 of my closest genea-friends and opted for Thomas MacEntee’s birthday bash instead.

11. No Closing Event. Again. I still prefer an ending, like we had the first year.

12. So Many People. I knew people who were supposed to be there, but it’s hard to find someone among 7000 people. And missing most of the third day was probably good for me, knowing there were another 2000 kids showing up. I saw some of them, but thankfully must have missed the bulk. And next year, we’re moving to a larger part of the conference center.

13. No T-Shirts. I thought that, since I paid for my registration, I’d at least get another shirt out of the deal. But they were selling them this year and I didn’t even know where. I found out after that it was at registration and not in the exhibitor hall. I did get a MyHeritage shirt, but only because I know the people. I also could have gotten a ReelGenie shirt, but never went back to sign up and get one. I was expecting one from RootsTech after the precedent of the first two years.

14. Official Bloggers. For anyone keeping score, I was once again not asked to be an official blogger. In response to the reasons that I was rejected last year, I have another blog post coming about those who were asked. It was too much for this article.

As I said at the beginning, I had fun. Not because of the conference itself, but because it brought some of the right people together. The more that RootsTech strays from its tech roots, the less I’m going to like about it.

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