Take Five With Tom Fenton

KubeCon 2021: What It's Like to Attend an In-Person Tech Event During the Pandemic

As KubeCon 2021 in Los Angeles was the first large-scale tech conference that I have attended since the pandemic started, I wanted to write a special "Take 5" piece on my experience. So instead of detailing five items of importance from the show (I will do that soon), I'm presenting more than five observations about masking up and venturing out among techies again in the time of COVID-19.

Three months before KubeCon + CloudNativeCon North America 2021 was to take place, the organizers reached out to me to judge my interest in attending the event live. As it was to be held in Los Angeles, which has some of the most restrictive rules in place, I was somewhat surprised that they were still allowed to hold the event in LA. I told them that I was comfortable attending it. A few more months passed, and as I had not heard from them I reached out and asked if it was still on. They said yes, they were still planning on holding it. Then a week later I got a message from a colleague saying that it was likely that it was going to be canceled. Then a few days later the folks at KubeCon confirmed it was a go, and they booked my hotel and flight to it. I don't mention the on-and-off-again nature of the event to find fault with the fine folks that set up KubeCon, just to show that live events today are in so much flux. They were expecting 4,000 in-person attendees and 16,000 virtual participants.

The week before I was to leave for the event, Southwest Airlines had canceled thousands of flights, and although I was flying Alaska Airlines, I was concerned about my flight. At my local airport I masked up and got on the flight without any issues. Everyone on the plane had their masks on except when they ate or drank. The flight was mercifully on-time and uneventful.

The ride from the airport via Uber was unexciting. Most of the people I noticed on the street were unmasked. After checking into the hotel, I headed over to the VIP Kick-Off Party for KubeCon. It was put on by Kasten and AWS. The event was at the top of the Grammy Museum. Usually, the kickoff parties are packed; this one had about a quarter of the usual attendees. Everyone was friendly and the venue was fantastic, but it was lacking the energy you get with a packed venue.

The following day, when I picked up my badge, I had to present my proof of vaccination and picked up a green wristband which indicated that I was willing to talk to anyone. Yellow and red wristbands were available for those who wanted to maintain a little more distance from others.

The keynotes on the first day of KubeCon were a mixture of live and virtual speakers. The virtual speakers were presented on large screens. Even though every other seat was blocked off, there were still a fair number of other empty seats in the auditorium, and everyone was masked up. Compared to other KubeCons, it didn't seem to spend as much time on the technology but instead spent time on content geared to a higher level in the IT chain, that is information geared towards the manager or C-Level executives.

I spent the rest of the day talking to vendors and walking the showcase floor. In past years it could be a challenge to get a chance to walk up and talk to someone at a booth, but this year that wasn't an issue at all. One vendor that I talked to stated that their virtual booth was hammered and they had a hard time keeping up with all the online chats they had going on. Some of the big players such as VMware, Dell and Intel were not present at the event, but they did have employees present sessions. Strange times.

That evening there was an after-hours party hosted by SUSE Rancher and Trilio. Whereas the the previous night's party was short on attendees, this one perhaps had too many -- or not enough bartenders -- as the line waits for drinks were unusually long. That said, the crowd was friendly, and I had some very good discussions around K8s.

The following day I was able to sit in on some of the sessions. In one session the presenter was live but remote, while in others the presenters were in person. Just as in the keynotes, every other seat was blocked off and the venue was nowhere near full capacity. It was nice not to be smooshed next to each other in the seats, but there was a lack of energy.

The closing party was held at the Xbox Plaza on Thursday night and was very well attended. It felt like everyone who was at the conference was at the event. The obligatory DJ played music and there was some great food and treats. The crowd was talkative, and it was an enjoyable way to spend the night.

So, after attending my first tech conference since the pandemic started, I can say that it was nice to see and talk with like-minded people again. Overall, it was a great event, and it was good being around the community again. Everyone followed the masking rules, and I think everyone felt safe. It will be interesting to see if other tech conferences decide to follow suit and start to hold live events again or stick with virtual events. That said, KubeCon is going to try and be a live event in Detroit and Valencia Spain in 2022. Many of the sessions at this event were recorded and can be seen here. You can see my article on KubeCon 2021 for my list of must-see sessions.

About the Author

Tom Fenton has a wealth of hands-on IT experience gained over the past 30 years in a variety of technologies, with the past 20 years focusing on virtualization and storage. He previously worked as a Technical Marketing Manager for ControlUp. He also previously worked at VMware in Staff and Senior level positions. He has also worked as a Senior Validation Engineer with The Taneja Group, where he headed the Validation Service Lab and was instrumental in starting up its vSphere Virtual Volumes practice. He's on X @vDoppler.


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