In just five short years, MacAdmins at Penn State grew from a Penn State-only event with five speakers and 120 attendees to one of the premier system administration conferences in the world in 2014, with nearly 400 attendees and 70 speakers. Along with attendees from the United States, IT people from seven countries attended the event.
Attendees for the event on July 8-11 were not just from higher education, as there were people at MacAdmins from K-12 education, government, and the corporate world. And while the name is “MacAdmins” the conference is not limited to those who work on Apple systems. “It’s the only place I get to see all of these people at the same time,” said Tom Bridge, partner with Technolutionary, an IT support company for small-to-medium sized businesses. “I go to a lot of conferences. I’ve been to Mac IT in San Francisco. I’ve been to Mac Tech in LA. I’ve been to a lot of the events out there in the community, but this is where I go to get the most people per short period of time.”
Bridge said that along with the variety of professionals, he believes that it is the sessions help set MacAdmins apart. “There are incredible sessions. There’s a lot of great breakouts,” he said. “We get the videos afterward as well on the MacAdmins site. So, the sessions that I missed, I can at least take some comfort in knowing I can catch up on them later.”
Those sessions give the IT pros at MacAdmins plenty to take away from the event. Pam Lefkowitz, owner of IT consulting firm Core Computing Technologies, said that she found MacAdmins to be a professional development experience that gave her things to implement right away. “I will be working the next couple weeks putting in place a lot of the things that I learned here this week. That doesn’t always happen in a conference,” Lefkowitz said. “But there was enough real meat for me at this event that I’ve got some absolute direction on what I need to do next to help my customers. So, there was super valuable stuff this year.”
Lefkowitz also gave attendees something to take away, as she herself offered a breakout session. Her presentation was an example of the variety of sessions at MacAdmins, as hers went beyond the typical highly technical presentation seen at IT conferences to look at something more social-related–aging and technology.
“It was about how to validate what you’re doing now, how to stay relevant, how to stay viable. Some of it was just a way for people to release and at least talk about what’s going on at their companies,” Lefkowitz said. “It was an interesting crowd, some were older, some were younger. It was great. People wanted to know as they were approaching thirty what to do as they approach forty. And there was a lot of really great support. It was a very good session.”
The variety of sessions was something that Gretchen Maxam of Hamilton College found valuable, given they went beyond just complex technology subjects. She mentioned Lefkowitz’s aging and technology session as an example. “Nothing was off-topic,” Maxam said. “It was nice to see some of those human factors discussed too with technology, because you can’t forget about that aspect of our work.”
MacAdmins also brought a lot of “wild cards” to the table that set it apart from other IT conferences, according to Ben Janowski, senior Mac support technician with Kohl’s Department Stores. Janowski mentioned the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center, where the event was held, as a drawing card. “I really appreciate the venue here. It is really convenient,” he said. “It’s obviously built for people with computers and you don’t feel ashamed for bringing your computers and your cords and stuff to all the meetings. And the food is top notch, they definitely do not skimp on the food. Everyone is approachable and friendly, which is also really great.”
Speaking of food, Suzanne Soule of Syracuse University mentioned she enjoyed the dinners that were held at the Mount NIttany Club at Beaver Stadium and at the State College Spikes baseball game. Soule said it was not just the good food, but also the good time everyone had that made the dinners enjoyable. “Having the dinners at fun venues was a great idea,” Soule said. “I have to say the organizers have taken really good care of us. I feel like they went out of their way to really make me feel comfortable.”
Given MacAdmins is an event that’s growing in both size and popularity, it may surprise some that the entire event is organized by a seven-person team. The MacAdmins Planning Team includes Justin Elliott, IT manager for the Mac and Linux teams with Penn State’s Classroom and Lab Computing (CLC); Brett Gross, senior systems engineer with Apple, Inc.; Rusty Myers, systems administrator with CLC; Dave Test, group leader for technology classrooms with CLC; Jay Hoff, systems administrator in Identity Services in Information Technology Services (ITS); Jonathan Holman, manager, Windows apps and license management, CLC; and Scott Gallagher, systems administrator with CLC.
“It’s definitely not any particular one of us that makes MacAdmins a great event,” Elliott said. “All of us on the steering committee take a lot of pride in it and we all hold it very close and dear to our hearts. We’re very small and concentrated. It’s a very focused team and I think we get a lot done with very few people.”
Hoff said that the size of the team requires both specialization and flexibility as far as individual roles. “There has been some areas where people tend to focus on specific things,” he said. “Jonathan has done a lot of the logistics. I’ve worked with Dave on doing some of the technical stuff behind the scenes with the rooms and so forth. And then beyond that we’ve all done different things with vendor communication, responding to emails, helping out with scheduling of the classrooms and so on.”
With all the growth, there has been a few growing pains for MacAdmins, Test said. But, he said, the growing pains fell under the category of “nice problems to have.”
“We had a little bit of a challenge because we’ve expanded so much between last year than this year that we’ve struggled a little bit to accommodate all the people in the rooms,” Test said. “A lot of the rooms have 150 seats in them and we end up having 170, 200 people in them. So, that’s been a little bit of a challenge, but in some ways that speaks to the quality of the content that people want to be in those rooms.”
As far as marketing the MacAdmins conference to systems administrators to get attendees, the planning team has actually had to limit the size of the conference so those in attendance do not feel overwhelmed. However, word-of-mouth may make keeping a lid on attendance a difficult task. Gallagher said that he has heard people tell him the event is the best they have attended. “The one international guy from France said this is the best conference that he’s attended,” he said. “He’s actually bringing a team of people with him from France next year.”
Holman added, “Even though the event is large, it’s a welcoming community. You hardly ever see anyone sitting by themselves, there’s always company. It’s a community of learning and a community of friendship.”
The community even helped the MacAdmins Team with planning. One of the event sponsors and founder of Twocanoes Software, Tim Perfitt, provided a beacon-enabled pass solution to make check-in at the registration table at MacAdmins a breeze. When registering online for the conference, participants received a email containing a link to download a pass onto their smartphones. The pass has a QR code on it that allows them to check-in at the event in a very convenient way. The beacons prompt the pass to appear on the phone’s lock screen when in proximity to the registration area.
“As soon as they walk into the Penn Stater, as they get near the check-in desk, they look down on their phone, and there’s the pass,” Perfitt said. “They simply hold the phone up to the iPad that MacAdmins people are using for check-in and then they get handed a badge. So, they don’t have to search around for their email, they don’t have to pull out the receipt. It makes check-in quite seamless.”
Now that MacAdmins 2014 is over, MacAdmins Planning Team members said they will take a brief break but it will be soon time to start planning for 2015. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun to see it all come to fruition,” Test said. “It will be nice for the next couple of weeks to not have to think about it for a little bit. We’ll probably take two or three weeks off but then we’ll get right back to it and start planning for an even better MacAdmins in 2015.”