An AWS re:Invent 2020 handbook: What you need to know

Re:Invent is more accessible than ever now that it's virtual, but recreating opportunities for networking could prove difficult. Check out these tips to get ready for the show.

Re:Invent 2020 will certainly feel different than in years past -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

In 2019, over 60,000 attendees traveled to Las Vegas for the conference. But like most large, in-person events planned for 2020, re:Invent will be held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also be free, and it will stretch from Nov. 30 to Dec. 18. Editor's note: After publication, AWS extended the dates for re:Invent, adding additional breakout sessions from Jan. 12 to Jan. 14, 2021.

Let's look at how the event is shaping up in the days leading up to re:Invent 2020. Find out what's different this year, what the agenda looks like and how you can get the most out of this three-week experience.

How is re:Invent 2020 different this year?

Like other 2020 tech conferences, AWS adjusted re:Invent to our remote reality. Similar to Google Cloud Next earlier this year, AWS stretched the typically weeklong conference schedule over a few weeks. Re:Invent will also broadcast in three separate time zones -- Americas (PST), Asia-Pacific (SGT) and Europe (GMT).

And without the hefty price tag of attending in-person -- the conference pass alone cost $1,799 in 2019 -- the show is certainly more accessible than ever. Freelancers, students and IT pros whose companies couldn't previously afford to send their staff will now have the same access as everyone else.

However, networking has always been an important part of re:Invent, and it will be difficult to replicate that experience in this virtual format. Many attendees might miss that in-person connection they found at social gatherings, tech talks, or even while waiting in line for a session room to open or along the breakfast buffet.

This is something meetup groups and other events have been dealing with for months now. In the Boston Amazon Web Services Meetup Group, they start every meeting by breaking off into Zoom breakout rooms, where five to seven people can catch up and have that casual mingling you'd have at an in-person event, said Brian Tarbox, an AWS Community Hero and co-lead of the group.

"Last year, [the AWS Community Heroes] had a party where people could come up and ask us all kinds of technical questions," Tarbox said. "I'm hoping [AWS] will do something like that."

AWS could facilitate something like that through the re:Invent app, Tarbox suggested. And AWS could even develop ways to facilitate this sort of connection as the event goes along.

Re:Invent 2020 will have virtual lounges focused on developers, startups, efforts to promote inclusion and more. In these breakout areas, attendees can watch 15-minute technical presentations and connect with AWS experts. But these are limited interactions, more like an Ask the Expert booth than a collaborative environment. It remains to be seen how successful Amazon will be at re-creating the in-person experience through these initiatives.

You can register for re:Invent 2020 here, if you have not already. Registration will remain open for the duration of the conference. You don't need to download any special program or Zoom info. You just need one of these supported browsers -- Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Internet Explorer or Safari.

What does the re:Invent 2020 agenda look like?

The agenda for each week of re:Invent 2020 follows a similar pattern, with keynotes Tuesdays and Thursdays (PST), and sessions, breakouts and other broadcasts filling the rest of the schedule. (This section is based on PST start times, so check the re:Invent agenda and adjust your calendar accordingly for other parts of the world.)

Each week will kick off with a "Late Night with AWS" session on Monday night, followed by a keynote the next morning. AWS CEO Andy Jassy will give the first keynote on Tuesday, Dec. 1, and judging by his last few conference talks, he'll highlight some high-level cloud trends, introduce new services and preview the rest of the show. In particular, Tarbox expects more announcements pertaining to AWS serverless and container technologies.

The AWS Partner keynote follows later in that first week on Thursday, and features Doug Yeum, head of AWS' worldwide channels and alliances; Sandy Carter, vice president of global public sector partners and programs; and Dave McCann, vice president of AWS migration, marketplace and control services.

The second week will feature topical keynotes on machine learning and infrastructure. Of particular interest here is the emphasis on machine learning on Tuesday, Dec. 8, where AWS has put an emphasis on expanding the capabilities of Amazon SageMaker and other AI tools in recent years. Expect AWS to also highlight initiatives that generate more interest in AI development, such as its DeepRacer League, an autonomous driving racing league based in AWS machine learning.

Amazon CTO Werner Vogels will take the stage in the third week, on Tuesday, Dec. 15. Vogels tends to get more into the nitty gritty technical details of AWS, as well as how AWS is responding to overall technology trends.

AWS gives you Friday off, so you can try to catch up on your actual work. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday will consist of around four hours of content each day. 

How to find the right sessions

One advantage to a virtual conference is popular sessions will never run out space. With more than 50 different tracks and several available languages, attendees should be able to find topics and sessions that fit their interests and experience. Tracks are based on technology, role, industry and more. We've outlined them below.  

AWS technologies: Compute, databases, containers, machine learning, etc.  

Industry: Financial services, games, energy, retail, media, manufacturing and more.  

Role:  Architecture, DevOps or Builder's Library, which focuses more on theory and addressing technical challenges.

Organization type: Enterprise, public sector, partner or startup.

There's also an emphasis on training and certification. Re:Invent is a great time to kick start your AWS certification journey. AWS is hosting "Jams" and "GameDays" for hands-on learning to test your AWS knowledge in real-world type environments.

It's easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of options and information and difficult to stay on top of where you're supposed to be at any given time, even virtually. One way to simplify your schedule is with the Cloud Pegboard app to organize a schedule of re:Invent sessions. Pick the sessions you don't want to miss. Follow the directions to export them to your calendar. The app currently supports Google Calendar, with more calendar types on the way.

AWS says the session catalog should be available in mid-November. And, if you missed a session you wanted to check out, they'll be available in the re:Invent 2020 portal until the end of January 2021. At that point, the 2020 sessions will also be uploaded to AWS' YouTube channel, so you can find them there if you want to review them again or show a co-worker.

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