GITEX 2019: Desert Teachings About the THWACK Community

It’s hot in Dubai. I mean for-real hot, and I’m a native Texan. It’s blistering, cloudless, equatorial sun Northern Hemispher-ians can’t imagine, plus the four-nines humidity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Mid-day it’s as shocking as a windy February night in Chicago. It hits you in the face and chest when you walk outside. The unintended effect of which isunlike at US and EMEA conferences where attendees have multiple distractions to considerat GITEX, 100,000 humans were happy to be together for a week. The A/C was glorious. Perhaps the communal relief of the indoors was a foundation for great conversationsand several surprisesat my first conference in the Middle East.

Friends who’ve spent time in the Gulf essentially said, “PFFT. Dubai is the Las Vegas of the region.” And in some ways, that’s true. It’s a convention city, a showplace, and has similar attractions, just turned up to 11. But, while it’s also westerner-friendly, it doesn’t dump everyone into the same cacophonous strip of mostly Nerfed vice and titillation as a gimmick. Instead, it finds a way to accommodate multiple cultures in close proximity. Although, you might wave off the pulled pork tacos at the Tex-Mex place at Le Meridian, especially if you’re from Austin.

It’s likely Dubai is requirements-based rather than organically developed, i.e., it’s intentional and planned like (good) IT. That may be what lead to the second of my surprisesIT professionals attending GITEX were more like US IT pros than some other regions I’ve visited. Typically, the dress and conversation at non-US events is more formal and led by managers instead of geeks. But at GITEX, attendees are the actual engineers who manage data centers, deploy and troubleshoot apps, and who are trying to get a handle on evolving cloud monitoring. But they’re also warm and gracious, patiently restating complex questions to this American, and taking the time to ensure English comms didn’t obscure nuance and technical detail. That’s not easy with acronym- and buzzword-overloaded technology, and it reiterated how eager they were to make real changes to operations, not just play with gear.

It was also different in that while most US SolarWinds customers work with us directly, international customers often work through our partners. GITEX was my first show with two of our regional distributors in the booth with us, Clever Distribution and Spire Solutions. I’ve been fortunate to speak at partner events, but this was my first chance to watch lines of attendees visit and say hi to the people they trust to help select tools for their businesses. Apparently smiles, handshakes, and selfies aren’t only for the THWACKRegistered community at Cisco or Microsoft conferencesour partners have their own active social cosmos. It also let me sip more lattes and answer more “impossible” questions, the answers to which are usually, “oh, that’s been in there since version 12.x, can I show you how to get started?” and “when’s the last time you updated? Did you see the new upgrade tool? (Hint-hint, What We’re Working On, Upgrade Planning, ahem).

But I think what’s stayed with me most, were the number of displays featuring not the just new tech, but new tech in production improving human experience. In one case, tech was even touching hearts. There was med-IoT on ambulances in the Dubai EMS fleet, recent investments in citizen data security and privacy, lots of Smart City tech, and a big focus on useful 5G without solely focusing on vapor deployment. In fact, the largest and most tradeshow-beautiful hall was dedicated to private-public partnership projects, with row after row of not only cool toys, but well-designed projects. The ratio of useful technology to shiny and new was refreshing.

But one stand packed in among all the IT tech, stood out in an unexpected waya Hajj virtual reality simulator. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah sponsored a stand for Karachi-based Labbaik VR, who’ve spent years developing a PC-based training system for pilgrims planning to perform their first Hajj or Umrah. But recently, they combined their cloud-scale 360 world data with VR headsets. The result is an immersive 3D experience.

It was the sort of technology a bunch of engineers like us would build for fun, but because of the domain, it’s transcending entertainment to truly touch people who use it. Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam, and Muslims who are physically and financially able have a duty make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. But in reality, not all can make it for many reasons, including cost, health, and political boundaries. Speaking with developers from the Labbaik VR team, I heard what it was like as users transitioned from the PC to the 3D headset version. What had been a helpful and engaging simulation became an emotional experience, especially for those who’d likely never get a chance to make the pilgrimage and fulfill their duty. Joy, wonder, and even tears weren’t uncommon.

Perhaps it’s being in technology a long time, or maybe getting my start in customer service and transportation systems, but as technology and human activity become more and more closely intertwined, what we do as IT pros increasingly matters. Sometimes it seems like we’re consumed by never-ending troubleshooting to trim a few milliseconds off a web transition, stuff yet another 100 VMs into our existing clusters, figure out how we’re going to get a handle on containers with no orchestration budget, and on and on. But apps delivering social services, data analysis identifying and correcting long-held biases, and distributed tech touching or even saving lives is becoming more and more common.

Yes, we still must do All the Enterprise Things, but it’s never been a more fulfilling time to pay your mortgage with what we do at our keyboards. For those in Dubai, thanks for coming by the stand. It was, as always, a pleasure to speak in person and not just on THWACK. But more than that, thanks for the stories you shared about your IT adventures throughout the Middle East and Africa. The more I travel around the world for SolarWinds the more I’m in awe of the breadth of work you all do. If tech is the universal language, THWACK members are particularly fluent.