Adobe MAX 2011 – a first timer’s perspective

Adobe MAX is Adobe’s annual conference, which for 2011 was held in Los Angeles, USA. Every year 5000 conference attendees gather to share Adobe’s latest big reveals, attend sessions by industry leaders, and join in with community and ‘unconference’ events.

This was my first MAX, and was something which I have been looking forward to for a long time. Having never been to a conference outside of the UK I was unsure what to expect from a lot of things. Since there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of first time information currently out there I thought I’d cover some of the basics…

The location

There seem to be some who are less than thrilled at MAX returning to LA for yet another year in 2012, but from a first time perspective I thought the setting was great. The conference centre is slightly outside of downtown LA, around half an hour’s drive from LAX, and is where the main sessions take place. Over the road from there is the Nokia Theatre, where the keynotes are held, which in turn is located on a square with assorted bars, restaurants, and other entertainments. Most of the recommended hotels are located within a few blocks of the conference centre, with the hotel I stayed in, the JW Marriott, located right next to the Nokia Theatre.

The conference centre is your usual deal – main hall, other big rooms, other small rooms – all pretty functional, but does the trick. As expected wifi totally died (5000 geeks will do that…), so it was handy for me to be able to head back to the hotel quickly whenever I needed to do some work. Outside of some badly organised crushes in the upstairs hallways everything seemed to run pretty smoothly for me.

The pre-conference

Labs are held before the main conference, and I believe these are always outside the cost of the main ticket. In addition special Summits are held on the day before the conference kicks off for the Community, Agencies, and Education. As I was attending MAX in two guises (one on agency business for Lightmaker, and one as an Adobe Community Professional) I optimistically thought I could try to do both the Agency Summit and Community Summit, but I really don’t recommend this. Luckily I was attending with one of our company Directors, so he was able to cover the agency side during the day, and then I headed to join him in the evening. It was a shame that I couldn’t do both, and I feel like I let a few people down by not attending during the day/evening, but it was a very tricky situation to balance.

The Community Summit was a great opportunity for me to meet some more fellow ACPs, and to attend some great pre-conference sessions. As I’m looking to get more into speaking I found the two sessions on this topic of particular interest. Thanks to everyone that contributed to the summit, as I found it really useful.

The keynotes

Having watched MAX keynotes online before, I was particularly excited about attending these in person. Word had got around that it was going to be best to sit right in the middle of the theatre, which sparked some debate about whether there would be a 3D element to the intro. As it was, the intro sequence was incredibly realistic digital video merged with a live violin/dance sequence, played over three enormous screens (11.5m/38ft high, 400 foot wide, with 300 million pixels per secord). At two points I honestly thought the background was real from my vantage point near the sound desk. It was amazing to see in person, and whilst the videos below don’t nearly capture the awesomeness, I’d encourage anyone to check them out.

The Adobe video from the day shows the live event:http://tv.adobe.com/watch/max-2011-keynotes/creativity-unleashed/

I’d also recommend watching the video material from Elastic Creative/Kenwood Group alone to appreciate it better: http://vimeo.com/30110168 (note this version does not have the dancers on stage)

The day 1 keynote introduced the concept of the Creative Cloud, which I feel will be of great benefit to designers’ workflows. I use Dropbox a lot, and I can see the sharing element of CC being a big deal for those working across multiple devices. The acquisition of Typekit prompted a lot of cheers, and the reveal of the new Touch Apps certainly got a lot of people thinking about how they can be more productive when not at their main workstation. As with many people, I think Proto was a very interesting concept. Whilst it’s unlikely to replace tools like Axure, the rapid prototyping and collaborative element look extremely promising. I’m also getting more into Kuler, so I was interested to see this working on a tablet. One of the big reactions from the crowd came to Photoshop Touch’s 3D layer effect, whereby the image could be tipped onto its side in order to see the layers. There was some incredibly cool stuff shown and you can catch up with all of the information on Adobe TV: http://tv.adobe.com/show/adobe-touch-apps

Day two was meant to be more on the development side, and whilst I should have found this more exciting I actually found it to be a bit disappointing. Personally, the keynote focused too much on promoting other companies, and less about Adobe, which is what I was hoping for. It was a bit too marketing, and not enough techie for me, although that’s just my opinion. The acquisition of Nitobi/PhoneGap didn’t have the same buzz as yesterday considering the news had already broken, and the run through of PhoneGap was old news to most people. A lot of the audience were hoping for a big device giveaway on a par with the previous year, and I think this probably contributed to some of the disappointment, but sadly it was not to be. Myself and 4999 others would have to head home Galaxy Tab-less…

The sessions

If there’s one lesson that I feel should be shared – you will not (most probably, unless you’re superhuman) attend all of the sessions you book up for, especially on the day after the Bash (more on that later).

I managed to attend a decent amount, all things considered (work, jetlag, hangovers…), and the sessions that I did attend were incredibly useful. For me, one of the best things about MAX is hearing Adobe employees and other leading lights in the community speak in person about things they are passionate about. It helps me learn much better than watching videos or reading articles, and is something I love about conferences. I attended sessions spanning the new Touch Apps, Flash Builder and Flash Player, AIR, large-team workflows, Facebook apps, and also swapped out some of my existing standard sessions for Unconference sessions.

I believe all of the sessions (not labs/preconference) are available here:http://max.adobe.com/online/

The Unconference and Community area

The Community Pavilion (a hall within the main conference centre) was host to much of the swag giveaway, the main sponsor booths (with devices to play with), the Adobe booth, an award showcase area, plenty of activities (photo-related, table tennis, table football, basketball games), the Community Lounge and other chillout areas, and a really clever but messed up art installation sponsored by Intel! To whoever created it – it was cool, I just don’t like crazy dead-looking faces…

The top line is that the Community Pavilion has something for everyone, and is usually the place the most people go to when they’re not in sessions. There or a bar, anyway. It’s also where the MAX lunch was served every day. This consisted of a salad, hot option (e.g. noodle box), desert, crisps, drink. No trays were provided, so lunch was usually accompanied by the sound of assorted items falling to the ground as they were being carried to the tables.

As mentioned, whilst I’d booked up for all of my sessions in the ‘main’ conference, I swapped some out to attend Unconference sessions instead. The Unconference is held within the main hall, in little curtained off rooms. This serves to make the atmosphere a lot more relaxed than main sessions, albeit somewhat noisy when they’re going on next to the basketball! My favourite session of the conference was Tim Cunningham’s Fishbowl Session on developer best practices. Unfortunately I had to leave early as I needed to head to the Awards, but I really hope that this format is used again next year.

I was unsure of what to make of the mysterious ‘Sponsor Welcome Reception’ featuring on my scheduling app. Fearing a stuffy room with strictly one glass of beverage in a plastic cup, and people trying to sell devices to me, I headed over to the Community Pavilion alone, and half thinking I’d just go and get some sushi instead.

In actual fact I found this to be great fun, and I would recommend it. The Pavilion had been transformed with tables of some really great food amongst the usual exhibits, with bars dotted around the room. They were however serving beverages in plastic cups, but the fact that these were not limited went a long way to me not minding! I thoroughly enjoyed the ribs and the chilli. Food was had, drinks were had, temporary tattoos of the Android and Flex logos were gained. What did put a bit of a downer on the night was the lights being turned off on the dot of 8, and everyone basically told to get out. Not cool, but efficient I guess.

Meet the Teams

The Meet the Teams event was straight upstairs after the de-lumination of the Sponsor event, and most people headed to this seemingly because of the promise of more free alcohol.

For me, this could have been handled a lot better. Everyone piled into the somewhat narrow corridors upstairs in the venue, and into a ‘design’ or ‘develop’ room. Different product teams appeared to be around the edges of each room, but it was hard to identify who was where amongst all of the people, and the general chatter made it quite noisy in reasonably small rooms. I didn’t stay long, and thought that this could have been dealt with better in a more structured Q&A session.

The MAX awards

Being at MAX on Lightmaker-duty, I was incredibly honoured and excited to be a finalist in the 2011 MAX Awards with our work for The Open Championship. We had created a ‘Score Centre +’ app for desktop using Creative Suite and Flash technologies, which included multiple live video streams, radio, statistics, hole flyovers, game integration, social media and news aggregation, and lots more. The Flash platform also allowed us to reuse code from the Score Centre + in order to create our Android version of the app, which used AIR for Android. You can see a video of our entry here: http://max.adobe.com/experience/maxawards/

Sadly when our time came we didn’t win, but Rainn Wilson’s hilarious hosting (and the free beer brought to our seats) went a long way towards cheering us up. Hopefully we’ll be back next year!

MAX Awards - Lightmaker

Sneaks

Held in the Nokia Theatre after the Awards, the Sneaks were a chance to get a peak at some of the stuff that the engineering teams are currently working on. I wasn’t expecting much, but this, for me, was what the day 2 Keynote should have been. The things shown were pretty amazing, and the banter between Rainn and the geeks was brilliant. The Sneaks were recorded and put online for the first time ever, so you can see them for yourself: http://tv.adobe.com/show/max-2011-sneak-peeks/

MAX Bash

Wednesday night had already got off to a good start with the Awards and Sneaks, and it was followed by the Bash. This is basically just a big party, and was held this year in an open air car park over the road from the convention centre. Not knowing what to expect, I was pretty blown away. The setting was gorgeous – lots of crazy lighting and decorations, with my favourite being the tree above the dessert table. The car park was lined by food trucks of assorted cuisines, with more food on tables all throughout the site, and plenty of bars. There was an elevated podium where dancers performed with fire, a UV light tunnel, and an entertainment area with sofas, microwaves and popcorn, table-top games, and Kinect projected onto the wall. It was all pretty fairytale, and lent a slightly surreal atmosphere to the night.

One of the highlights for me was that Weezer played a set towards the end of the Bash. I’ve been a long-term Weezer fan, and though I’m not so keen on their stuff in the last couple of years, I have very happy memories of sitting in a field at the Reading Festival many years ago, which was when I last saw them. I was slightly apprehensive when they first came out as it seemed like they may have been under the impression that they were playing to Adobe, and I hoped it wouldn’t end up as a classic corporate gig. Luckily no such thing happened – Rivers was climbing all over the stage, appearing at the back of the crowd and walking through, and the finale was a big group drum solo. It was a great set, and I’m glad that a band I like so much were playing.

MAX Bash tree

MAX and me

So, that was my MAX. I feel very lucky that I got to go this year, and I had an amazing time. I have no idea what next year will bring, and whether I’ll be able to go again, but I really hope I’ll be able to. If anyone reading this is still unsure, I would recommend that you go if you’re able to. If you’re an employer, it’s definitely worth it both on an educational and a business level, and you shouldn’t just see it as yet another developer conference. MAX definitely has a lot to give to anyone interested in keeping up with technological advances in any capacity.

I’ll leave you with the following final recommendations:

  • If you’re looking for people to drink with, head to the lobby bar at the JW Marriott.
  • Take an extra bag for swag! Seriously. I needed an entire suitcase.
  • Have an early night on Tuesday.
  • The Starbucks outside the Nokia Theatre is usually packed in the mornings.
  • Related to the above – The JW Marriott coffee shop does good bagels and jasmine tea.
  • Take a lot of business cards.
  • Book some time off to recover when you get back!

MAX and Me group shot

More photos are available on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/greywillfade/sets/72157627840672578/