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Head of Boston VMware User Group aims high

Boston VMware User Group leader Steve Athanas wants his group in the top three for conference attendance in a year's time.

When talking about VMware, you'll often hear the words hypervisor and vSphere. But once you get familiar with the technology, another word that bubbles to the top is community.

While the company holds two VMworld gatherings for the faithful every year, there a number of smaller conferences held by local VMware User Groups (VMUGs) around the globe. While they are much smaller affairs than the mega-conference that is VMworld, which hosts upwards of 20,000 people, they also don't have an army of PR folks to help set them up.

Most of the leaders of these VMUG chapters have full-time jobs, so they have to develop an engaging conference on their own time. One of the challenges is to find speakers and sessions that balance the needs of VMUG members with the desires of VMware and vendors.

Steve Athanas is the director of systems engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and has been head of the Boston VMUG since 2012. At the June conference, as a supplement following the vendor exhibits and technical presentations, Athanas launched VMUG After Hours. It was an added draw that turned out to be a big hit with the attendees. It featured a rousing presentation from Jeramiah Dooley along with free beer and home lab giveaways after all the day's sessions had finished.

SearchVMware spoke with Athanas to see what goes on behind the scenes when planning a VMUG event.

What is your typical day like as a VMUG leader, particularly when you are setting up for the next conference?

Steve Athanas: For me, I wake up, take care of my two young children, go to work, do my job, come home, take care of my two young children, put them to bed, put my wife to bed, and then spend some time on the VMUG.

I was [recently] on the phone with a potential sponsor who is looking to get creative. I encourage that kind of stuff. It's one thing to have a booth -- it's another to be involved and support the work we're trying to do.

I love all our sponsors, but I think attendees and sponsors get more out of it when they can work alongside us and do something like with the After Hours event. So there's some of this sponsor relationship building that's part of it.

I have another email on my screen right now right for the VMUG headquarters about some scheduling stuff and moving some agenda items around. There's all that sort of planning stuff. The thing I spend most of the time on is trying to figure out how to deliver a value to the attendees that's different from what they've seen before.

Last time we did VMUG After Hours. That was the first time we did that anywhere in the world. [The Boston VMUG] pioneered that, so I'm very proud of Boston taking the lead in a lot of these areas.

That was something I had proposed and there was some confusion around it. I was nervous about it. We gambled some money on that. We were giving away a lot of labs, so there was some excitement about that. We've never asked people to stick around after 5 [o'clock] and a whole lot of people did. It was crazy. It was awesome.

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how we craft an event that is going to deliver content and experiences to people that they will immediately be able to translate into job or career improvement.

How do you come up with something different at a conference without ignoring popular topics?

Athanas: VMware is such a huge supporter of VMUG, obviously. There are topics that they … want to talk about. There are topics that will almost always line up with what users want to hear about. Right now, people are excited about Horizon 6. They're excited about vSphere 5.5 and some of the 5.8 stuff that's coming out in vSphere Replication and vSphere Data Protection. They're excited about vSphere 6. NSX is huge. VSAN is huge. People want to hear about EVO and that hyper-converged line: What is it all about, how does it change how I do my job? So it's nice that they line up.

But at our last four or five user conferences we had one for performance best practices for vSphere, and it is always the highest attended session. That's for a couple reasons. You don't get the same people at every user conference; there's some seasonality to that. Also, year over year, the product changes and best practices change, so you can go to the same session in 2013 and 2014 and 2015 and get different content.

How did you first get started with VMware products?

Athanas: My first experience with VMware was in a Microsoft Exchange training class. One of the other attendees there was talking about [running] an application on a virtual server. I had heard about virtual systems before with VMware Workstation and Microsoft Virtual PC, but I was like, "What are you talking about? No one runs servers on that crap. Are you an idiot?"

He said, "No, check this out." He vMotioned a virtual machine from one host to another host while he was streaming some content -- and it didn't skip a beat. I said, "Oh my goodness -- this is magic."

I went back to my office and used VMware to build a lab environment. At that time in my group, nobody trusted this stuff in production, but it wasn't long before we said this could really be cool for us in production. This must have been 2007. We started running ESX in production, some of our low-hanging fruit operations, then in about a year we had decommissioned a whole bunch of old systems and were running the workloads on VMware. Then it just kind of went from there.

Now we're about 98% virtualized. Most organizations are on the same arc like that now.

How did you get involved with VMUG?

Athanas: I was at VMworld in 2011 and went up to the VMUG booth like everyone else because I wanted my free T-shirt, but I was legitimately interested. I asked them what was going on in the Boston area and they said they were going to start kicking things off there again.

I just happened to talk to Victor Bohnert, who was the executive director of VMUG, and he asked me if I wanted to be involved. I said, I think I'd like to be more involved, but I'm not sure what you really want. They had another person leading the group, but that person decided to take a step back from VMUG to take a job with a vendor or partner. VMUG prefers leaders not be a partner but [in] a customer relationship [instead]. I took over that spot and have been doing that in the sole spot for a little while now.

People say, how does that work? Is that like a volunteer thing? Technically, yes. The way I look at it: I have my job that pays my bills, which is the one I have from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Then there's the job I do that's fun, which is VMUG. I enjoy doing that. It's an experience, something fun for me to do that takes me well outside my normal operations.

When I spoke to you at the Boston VMUG conference in June, you were saying it was one of the highest attended conferences.

Athanas: It is possible last October [2013] was bigger, but I don't think last October crested 600, and we got there in June.

My goal is to be the biggest VMUG. The most popular VMUG in the world is in Indianapolis, then I think Atlanta. My goal is to put Boston into the top three in a year's span. I think we can do it. We have enough tech in this area. We've got enough healthcare. We've got enough higher education. We've got enough enterprises. There's enough happening up here. We have the demographics to support it. It's about spreading the word.

What is it about Atlanta and Indianapolis that make their VMUGs a big draw?

Athanas: I think it's based on consistency. The Indy VMUG has been going for a while. They've got a head of steam. People know it's coming up. People look forward to it for months in advance. They've got a great leadership team out there. Atlanta is the same. They've been going for a long time.

What drove attendance at the last Boston VMUG conference?

Athanas: I think part of it is people are expecting it now. You know how it is. The first time someone gets an email, "Oh VMUG, what the heck is that?" Delete.

Then people show up and see there is real value in this. This is free training. A free conference. Why not be here? That's basically what it is. Then people start talking to their colleagues about it. We had some incentives to get people to invite their colleagues. But it's an exciting time. People seemed to really enjoy the event and I enjoy putting it on.

I have a budget I can spend on giveaways or getting clam rolls or something for people. We can do all kinds of weird things. My philosophy is we can use it to improve people's career or lives, that's what we want to do. Books are a big part of that. We've got access to VMware Press books and can give those to people, which is a big win.

Giving away home labs is obviously huge. Not-for-resale licenses are good. Free virtual online training -- it's all good stuff. My hope is on the other side of that, people are using it to develop their own skills and take their own career to the next level.

How was VMworld for you this year?

Athanas: I love going out there. I get a lot out of it. I always enjoy the keynotes. It's nice to see what's coming out. For me, the biggest thing is being part of community and catching up with people I talk to on Twitter or talk to online or email back and forth with. Chatting with them in person while sitting down and just being steeped in that culture is pretty awesome.

This was last published in September 2014

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