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The Ultimate Guide to Your First AWS re:Invent

Index

STOP: You’ve Done This Already Right?

If you haven’t already bought your ticket to the conference, do that now! AWS re:Invent sells out every year. Get your ticket now to make sure you don’t miss! Just as critical, the hotel blocks are almost gone (if they aren’t already). This year, AWS has a ton of options for lodging on the strip at great rates, but there is limited availability.

The good news here is that the show is in Las Vegas…a town that’s never short on places to stay. re:Invent takes place on five different properties this year, making it hard to figure out where to stay.

If you’re at one of the conference venues, you’ve already got a leg up. If you can’t get in at the MGM Grand, Aria, Venetian / Palazzo, the Mirage, or the Wynn / Encore, try to find a hotel between the Encore and MGM Grand.

Those are the outer boundaries of the overall campus.

You’re not going to be spending much time your room so if you can’t stay close to the show, just give yourself a little more time each morning to walk or grab a cab.

Bootcamps, Jams, Gameday, and the Hackathon

After locking down your ticket and room, there are still a few urgent things to tackle on the pre-show list. Next up, hands-on activities. Every year, AWS brings together a great lineup of bootcamps (full or half day deep dives), jams (ad hoc team challenges), gameday (full day simulations), and the hackathon (full day coding challenges).

Each option offers something for beginners right through to advanced users. The two questions you need to ask yourself are;

  1. What topic interests me?
  2. How do I best learn?

The topics are self-explanatory, but there are stark differences in the learning opportunities with each type of session. Bootcamps are instructor lead sessions where you work mainly as an individual student. There’s always support in the room to help with any questions, but the goal here is individual learning.

In a jam session, you’re with a new team for the day. You and your team need to work together to solve a series of individual challenges. Each successfully solved challenge wins your team points, the team with the most points at the end of the jam wins!

Gameday is a full-scale simulation of a real-world application. You work with a team to ensure that your application is running well in production. Sounds easy right?

Throughout the day, you’ll see system failures, traffic spikes, and all manner of challenges that you need to tackle. If you’ve never run an application in AWS, this simulation is the way to get experience handling all of the issues that will inevitably come up in the course of your application’s lifecycle.

The hackathon is the development version of gameday. The hackathon starts with several non-profits presenting their current business challenge. Teams then select a non-profit and work to solve their problem. Each of the four non-profits will have a few working PoC projects that help them understand how to solve their challenge.

It’s a win-win.

All of these events are extremely popular, and they fill up quickly. If you’re at all interested in taking part in one, make sure you login to the registration system and reserve your place or get on the waitlist. AWS has just added three new hackathons to the schedule. Details are below.

Robocar Rally

One of the first events of the week is the newly announced Robocar Rally. On Sunday night and Monday morning, you can see how deep learning, IoT, and racing come together for a very good hackathon.

The goal here is to work as a team to optimize and race an autonomous 1/16th scale car in a series of time trials. This is another — and probably the coolest — example of how combining various AWS services and features can quickly lead to some amazing real world results.

If you don’t want to participate directly, you can follow along via the blog series or on Twitch!

Alexa Hack Your Office

For the better part of Thursday, you can try your had at designing a voice UI tied to a number of Alex Smart Home and other IoT devices.

This hackathon explores the Alexa ecosystem and leverages the Alexa Skills Kit, Alexa Voice Service, and Alexa Smart Home to start. The overall theme is intriguing, “How would you voice control your using artificial intelligence?

Registration opens up on Oct 19th with the breakout session signups. This hackathon has a bit of a competitive edge as you and other attendees are competing for a fantastic prize pool!

Smart Cities Hackathon

The third new hackathon focuses on a bigger challenge. Beyond cars and your office, the Smart Cities Hackathon looks at the question, “How can technology help make better cities?”

Starting with the Alexa ecosystem, you’ll haven in hours to come up with an idea that tackles city infrastructure, impacts community health, improves sustainability, or promotes social good.

This ambitious hackathon promises to launch some exciting projects. Just remember that a project doesn’t have to be overwhelming large to have a massive impact on your community!

Registration opens up on Oct 19th with the breakout session signups. This hackathon has a bit of a competitive edge as you and other attendees are competing for a fantastic prize pool.

Illustration of fitness equipment

Run, Builder, Run

Last year, AWS introduced the first re:Invent 5K. The event sold out despite the early start! The 5K is now the 4K and is back again this year with proceeds going to Girls Who Code and the American Heart Association.

The 5K has now become the 4K! AWS is merging this even with their existing 4K 4Charity Fun Run. All of the details remain the same but by merging this event with the existing one, AWS is dedicate the run and it’s fundraising efforts to Sam Blackman (AWS Elemental CEO and co-founder and 4K 4Charity Fun Run co-founder) who passed away this year.

If running isn’t your thing — which I understand. I don’t run unless I’m being chased 🐻 or chasing 🏀 — there are plenty of other fitness activities. Having spent way too many weeks at conferences in Las Vegas, I can’t recommend these highly enough.

Getting a bit of that competitive feeling and some social interaction while getting your blood pumping is a smart way to keep your energy levels high during the week.

Here are the fitness opportunities during the week;

If you can’t make it to one of these events, do yourself a favour and make time to hit the gym during the week. re:Invent is a marathon. If you don’t keep your energy up, you’ll miss out!

Research A Lot, Schedule Little

That energy is going to come in handy trying to maximize the opportunities presented with over one thousand breakout sessions, tons of social get together, hands-on labs, and many other activities.

It’s tempting to lock down your schedule and pack it as full as possible. Resist that temptation.

The best strategy to is identifying your “can’t miss” opportunities. Make sure you get to these. For the rest, research what’s going on — this is where the mobile app shines — so that you can jump into various events if you’re around.

Let’s say that you have to be at the Tatonka wing eating challenge on Wednesday night. Knowing that the pub crawl is scheduled at the same time and in the same locations (the MGM Grand and the Venetian) means that you can bounce to the crawl once you’ve conquered the challenge.

Having one or two “can’t miss” events each day will provide a nice balance of schedules events and serendipitous encounters.

Get Social

You’re going to spending the week surrounded by 40,000 other builders. 40K people who might be struggling with the same challenges you are or maybe they’ve solved them. 40K individuals who are looking to make the most out of their re:Invent experience.

Hello in a fancy script

The only way that happens is if we all push ourselves a little bit outside of our comfort zones. When you’re in line waiting for coffee, strike up a conversation. Scheduled to write a certification exam? Say hi to the person in the waiting room with you.

Introduce yourself. Be curious. Use the mobile app to help connect in real life. Say hello.

If you’re nervous, here’s the ultimate formula for meeting people at AWS re:Invent;

Hello, my name is ____. What did you think about ____?

That’s it. It’s not rocket science. Just put yourself out there. You’ll get back 10x what you put into it.

Don’t be shy.

This conference has some of the best content out there. Even with that stellar content, the highlights of your week are going to come from sharing the experience with people you meet at the show.

Get out there and say hello!

Pick By Session, Not Track

Somehow, AWS has jammed over one thousand breakout sessions in the week. Delivered at three levels — introductory (200 level), advanced (300 level), or expert (400 level) — they are divided into tracks to help you find what interests you.

This year’s tracks are;

  • AdTech (ATC)
  • Alexa (ALX)
  • Analytics & Big Data (ABD)
  • Architecture (ARC)
  • Automotive & Manufacturing (AMF)
  • AWS Marketplace & Service Catalog (MSC)
  • Business Apps (BAP)
  • Compute (CMP)
  • Containers (CON)
  • Content Delivery (CTD)
  • Databases (DAT)
  • Deep Learning Summit (DLS)
  • Demo Theater (DEM)
  • Devops (DEV)
  • Energy & Utilities (EUT)
  • Enterprise (ENT)
  • Financial Services (FSV)
  • Gaming (GAM)
  • Healthcare (HLC)
  • IoT (IOT)
  • Life Sciences (LFS)
  • Machine Learning (MCL)
  • Media & Entertainment (MAE)
  • Mobile (MBL)
  • Networking (NET)
  • Public Sector (WPS)
  • Retail & CPG (RET)
  • Security, Compliance, & Identity (SID)
  • Serverless (SRV)
  • Storage (STG)
  • Telecommunications (TLC)
  • Windows (WIN)

Some of these tracks are very smaller (Retail & CPG) while others are massive (Serverless). Regardless, you can use the track system to quickly narrow down the extensive list of sessions to something a bit more manageable.

The track also determines where the talk will be. All sessions in a track will happen on the same property. While it’s tempting to attend a lot of talks in the same track, I strongly recommend that you don’t.

Firstly, all talks are recorded and posted to YouTube. …At least they have been in past years. There’s no way that you’re going to be able to attend all of the talks.

Take notes about ones that you’ve heard positive things about and try to attend talks in as many tracks as possible. AWS has a great overview of the content in this 20 minute video:

You never know when the big data problem you’re banging head against is a simple fix for those working with serverless designs. Variety is the spice of life…and the key to learning new things at re:Invent.

Booking Sessions

As re:Invent has gotten larger, it’s been harder and harder to get a seat in some breakout sessions. Last year, AWS introduced a reservation system. The system is back this year with a few tweaks. On

October 12th all sessions will be scheduled. On October 19th (at 2:00pm Pacific) you’ll be able to reserve a seat in your preferred sessions.

AWS held a webinar this week explaining some of the specifics of how this system is going to work. The mobile app is going to be critical to the AWS re:Invent experience.

Watch the webinar in full before the 19th!

12-Oct: The sessions times and places are now available in the catalog. You must be logged in to see them. Start building out your favourite sessions now! That’ll make it easier to get a seat on 19-Oct.

A few caveats (based on last year’s system, there may be changes);

  • You can’t book a seat in two sessions that run at the same time
  • The system now accounts for travel time (it’s about ~20m between venues)
  • You can only add yourself to a waitlist for one session in each time block
  • Spaces are added as the “in demand” sessions book up, but there’s no notification that this happens, so check back regularly

If you try to book sessions in different places too close, you’ll get this warning

Session conflict notification

The catalog is already live, and most sessions are listed. You can login and select “I’m interested in this” to create a list of favourites. Flagged your interest in a talk makes it a lot easier to register for a seat once the system opens up.

Flag as session you’re interested in

Star each of your top choices as “I’m interested in this” to make it easier to build out a schedule

On the 12th, you should go through your list and start to build out a couple of possible schedules. This process will help to identify your priorities for when the full registration opens up.

When registration opens on the 19th, go for your top choices first. Add yourself to the waitlists as appropriate and keep checking back to see if any room has opened up. Last year, AWS did a few rounds of adjustments to make sure that talks that generated higher interest had enough capacity.

I’m giving two talks again this year. If you’re a CISO tackling the challenges of a multi-national deployment (SID210) or if you’re building serverless applications (SRV308), you might be interested in them. If you fit either scenario, I’d certainly appreciate your support.

The reservation system is flawed. At this scale, it’s the only way that makes sense.

Before a session starts, there will be two lines outside (at least for most sessions). In addition to the “reserved seat” line, there is usually a “walk up” line for most talks. After the reserved seat line clears out, the event staff start letting people in from the “walk up” line. This way, every seat is taken.

AWS is reserving 20% of seating for walk-ups. This a great move!

Walking up is a long shot — and they might not do it this year — but if you want to see that talk delivered live, it could be your only opportunity.

On that note, if you only want to see the talk live so you can ask a question, I recommend a different tactic. Ping the speaker on social media or in the AWS re:Invent mobile app. Ask your question publicly (so everyone can benefit) or ask how best to connect for a follow-up.

This show focuses on education, and all of the speakers are keen to teach!

Deep Learning Summit

On Thursday afternoon at The Aria, the Deep Learning Summit will bring together industry thought leaders to deliver a series of 30-minute Lightning Talks.

The goal here is show the future of neural networks, the latest in deep learning research, and what’s next for this exciting area of research. I have a feeling that Gluon will be mentioned more than once.

These talks are part of the reserved seating system, so be sure to flag them as “I’m interested in this” in order to book a seat on 19-Oct.

Get Social (Media)

Social media is useful for more than just asking speakers questions. Make sure you’re active on Twitter throughout the show. There’s always a ton of great conversations, code sharing, and coordination for get-togethers during the show.

Follow these official AWS accounts as they are always active during the show;

Illustration of social media connections

The AWS evangelism team is insanely busy throughout the week, but somehow they always find time to tweet and stream live on Twitch. Make sure you’re following them on Twitter;

Almost all of the AWS Community Heroes will also be on site. We’re a social bunch and always happy to have a chat about building int eh AWS Cloud. You can follow us on Twitter via the official list;

Also, make sure you’ve saved a search for relevant hashtags. I find this combination of keywords returns the best results;

That’s to follow but it’s worth it. In addition to the ad hoc coffees, chats, and outings, you’ll also find some great tips about all of the new toys AWS announces throughout the week!

Twitch

Amazon acquired Twitch in 2014 and since then the game streaming site has continued to expand and grow. It is the place to watch esports.

Almost too quietly, the AWS team has been building a following on the network as they stream live coding and other content from various AWS events around the world.

Twitch is a great way to connect with the AWS team and to see the latest technologies in use as they build and share their latest projects.

Check out their channel at aws.amazon.com/twitch.

There’s a ton of great content there already and I’m sure there will be more added throughout AWS re:Invent.

Keynotes

One of the foundations of AWS re:Invent is the new service launches. Every year, the two keynotes (one from Andy Jassy, the other from Werner Vogels ) feature some great customer use cases, new features, and fantastic new services.

Make sure you attend the keynotes, so you’re in the know. It can be tricky to get into the main halls to watch the keynote live. I suggest aiming for an overflow room. You’ll watch via the live stream but will still be able to share the experience with other builders.

Try to pick an overflow room that’s close to the room where your first talk of the day is scheduled. That’ll cut down on your travel time.

As the keynotes progress, make sure to watch the AWS blog for more information about each of the major new features and new service announcements.

Leading up to the show, I always picture Jeff Barr huddled away somewhere the AWS campus burning through a stack of keyboards as he writes a ridiculous amount of posts that he publishes throughout the show.

Remember that the new services launched will probably get a dedicated breakout session. Those talks aren’t listed in the catalog ahead of time which means they work on a first come, first served seating system. Find out the time (published during or right after the keynotes) and see if they fit your schedule.

These new service sessions are also very likely to get a repeat time slot on Friday morning. Keep an eye out for those announcements in the mobile app.

Stay tuned to the “Just Added” section of the session catalog and the mobile app. Don’t miss out!

Certify

One way to validate your knowledge of services announced in keynotes past is by getting certified. I’m a big fan of the AWS certification program. It’s a great way to validate your AWS knowledge and — let’s be super nerdy honest — they’re fun to write.

Illustration of a checklist

Last year AWS introduced three specialty exams in beta during AWS re:Invent. The Advanced Networking, Big Data, and Security exams were the first AWS certifications that focused on in-depth knowledge in targeted areas.

The Security exam was withdrawn for now. It needed to be a little more consistent, but the Advanced Networking and Big Data exams are out of beta and ready for prime time.

Full warning, these specialty exams are tough. If you don’t already have one of the professional level certifications, think twice before writing a specialty exam.

For those of you just getting started building in the AWS Cloud, there’s a brand new certification: AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner. This entry level certification is very high level and a great starting point along the AWS certification path.

AWS has a full testing center on-site during the show. Make sure you take advantage of it. Walking away from a fantastic week with an additional credential to your name is a nice cherry on top of the week.

Certifications are also a great resume builder. AWS has a provided a “ justification letter ” for attending the show (just in case). Coming home with a new certification makes following up with the boss post-conference a lot easier.

Sneakers

More than just your brain is going to get a workout during AWS re:Invent. You can expect to walk about 10 Km each day . If you happen to have sessions in each venue on a particular day, expect that to double. These properties are massive. The best advice I can give you here is to make sure you have a nice set of sneakers…also known as trainers. Forget the fashion statement, stick to the practical.

Illustration of a sneaker

Get ready to walk…a lot!

You’re going to be walking along the casino and conference center floors. As luxurious as Las Vegas is, the floors are built to last. That’s a polite way to say that you’re going to be walking a lot of concrete floors. Your feet, knees, and back are going to get sore.

A nice comfortable pair of kicks will go a long way to offset that. Make sure you have a good pair that are gently worn in. Match those with a week’s worth of good quality socks, and you’ll be laughing as others struggle to keep pace.

Snacks

Along the same vein, you’re going to need to make sure that you’re eating well throughout the week. That can be really hard to pull off in Las Vegas.

Don’t get me wrong; there are some fantastic restaurants in the city. In fact, make sure that you get out to at least one fancy dinner. Enjoy the Las Vegas experience.

Pack a healthy snack everyday

More importantly, make sure that you start the day with a good breakfast and pack some snacks in your bag for later on in the day. Lines at café’s and shops make it hard just to grab a quick bite during the day.

When you get to Las Vegas, head to a Walgreens or the Fashion Show mall and buy a week’s worth of water, granola, and trail mix. Every morning, make sure you’ve got a couple of snacks in your bag.

You don’t want to miss out because you’re scavenging for food.

🎉 re:Play Party 🎉

I’ll be sincere: I’m not a big fan of parties. But every year, I have a lot of fun at the re:Play party during AWS re:Invent.

Unlike other conference parties, this one is tailor made for builders. There’s tons of food and snacks, game stations, fun activities, and beverages.

Every year the team manages to bring in an incredible musical act. Who’s playing the show is one of the best-kept secrets. You’ll see some speculation on social media leading up to the show, but we won’t know who’s playing the show until Werner announces it at the end of his keynote.

Make sure you attend the party. You can purchase a ticket for a guest via the registration system.

Even if only for five minutes just to check it out. I know you’re going to find something you enjoy and end up staying for the whole thing. It’s truly a unique conference experience.

LEGO Batman

LEGO!

Monday through Thursday there are hands-on LEGO activities in The Quad at The Aria. I don’t think I really need to elaborate any more here.

That’s f — king awesome.

But, if you were curious there are two main components to the activities.

Firstly, the community is attempting to build one of the biggest LEGO Great Ball Contraption module builds even done in las Vegas. The goal is to create 50 working modules and connect them together, passing LEGO balls between them in a loop.

Useful? No. Awesome?

Yes.

The second part of the activities is a Pinewood Derby Race. Build your own racer and test it on a 15 ft” pinewood derby track. It’s a time trial and the fast time of each morning and afternoon will win a prize. The fastest overall time of the conference wins the grand prize!

For both of the activities there will be LEGO Model Builders on hand to help so there’s no need to be shy.

Restaurants

I’ve mentioned food a few times already; it’s important to remember that there are 40,000 people who will be looking for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the same time. That’s why it’s so important to have snacks in your bag throughout the day. But at some point, you will have to eat. The good news is that it’s hard to miss when it comes to Las Vegas restaurants. The bad news? Everyone wants to eat around the same time.

Here’s where a little planning will help. Make sure you give yourself time to eat. It’s going to take at least 1/2 an hour if not an hour to get a table most times.

As frustrating as that wait can be, it’s also an excellent opportunity to meet with friends and make new ones. Don’t be shy, extend an invite and make sure your table is full!

Remember, places near the keynotes and after significant events are going to be especially packed. Consider walking an extra 15m to get a little further away from the crowds.

Also, something to consider is the opening night reception in the expo hall. There’s always some great appetizers and drinks. It’s also an excellent opportunity to get some free swag from the sponsors!

Take In A(nother) Show

Make no mistake, the week will be jam packed. But things start to wind down on Friday afternoon. If you’re flying out Saturday or even staying the weekend, consider taking in a show somewhere on the strip.

Illustration of a couple watching a 3D movie

Las Vegas hosts some of the best acts on the planet.

If this will be your first time in Las Vegas, you should know that planning is the key to success here. If a show has been in residence for a long time, you’ve got a better chance at getting tickets last minute.

For the hottest shows in town, book now.

If you haven’t already see a Cirque du Soleil show, consider seeing “O” or “Love”. If contemporary circus isn’t your thing, you should be able to find something with a little bit of legwork.

Don’t want to plan that far in advance? Remember that the hotel concierge can help guide you in the right direction and get you tickets to your preferred choice.

Post Show Follow-up

As packed as the week is, there’s still more to learn the week afterward. There’s simply no way that you’re going to take all of the new features, services, and techniques in within a week.

Here’s your @todo list for the week of the 3rd of December;

  • Review the posts on the AWS blog
  • Sign-up for any previews of interest for the newly announced services (remember your AWS account number)
  • Make sure you update to latest version of your preferred AWS SDK
  • Stay active on Twitter and see what others are up to
  • Build at least one thing using a new service or feature and write about it online
  • Teach some of your friends at least three things you learned during the show

See You In Las Vegas!

This post has a ton of content and it’s a lot to take in. Don’t worry. No matter what you do, you’re going to have an amazing time at AWS re:Invent.

If you follow some of these tips, you can make things run a little bit smoother, getting a little more time to spend with new friends, and maybe learn a few more tips & tricks for building in the AWS Cloud.

What have your experiences been at AWS re:Invent? Do you have any amazing tricks or tips for getting the most out of the show? Please share below in the responses or on Twitter where I’m @marknca.