Trip Report: Pearson Technology Summit 2007

I am back from Denver, Colorado. I was out there for the first ever Pearson Technology Summit. I work in Iowa City, Iowa in the “A & I” group. We basically write systems to manage high-stakes educational testing. Things like the end of school year state-wide test. We provide the actual tests and score the answer sheets. I currently work a product called Pearson Access on the Identity and Access Management team. (Fancy name for the group that manages peoples user accounts; their usernames and passwords.) This is a rather detailed account of the trip which occurred Tuesday, November 6, 2007 through Friday, November 9, 2007.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

[Travel day] To start with, I flew from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Tuesday, November 6, 2007 at 1:50pm and arrived at 2:54pm in Denver, Colorado. It was a nice flight, but the airplane was small. It was jet propelled, but I couldn’t stand up straight in the isle. (I’m only 6 foot tall, not a giant or anything.) This particular flight had the vast majority of the Iowa City Pearson attendees. The flight wasn’t rowdy or anything, but there was a good amount of joking and such. (Mostly related to beer. You can consider this a bit of foreshadowing.)

Upon arriving at the Denver airport and navigating to the transportation area, a group consisting of myself and three other colleagues took a taxi cab to our hotel, The Westin Tabor Center. The drive was about a half hour from the airport to the hotel. The local time was about 3:30pm. Since we were heading into downtown Denver, the traffic was light, but heading out of town, traffic was at a crawl. We made it to the hotel around 4:00pm and got checked in. [This was my first opportunity to try the Bundled Wrapping method. It worked well.] The product demonstrations were scheduled to start at 6:00pm. We had about 2 hours. So, when I was looking through the Westin web site before coming, I noticed that they had a link to a running map produced by Runner’s World. Since I had printed the map out and we had some time, I decided to try to walk the 3 mile course and see what I could see.

I was very glad that I did this. To start with, right outside of the hotel was 16th Street Mall. This is kind of like a jumbo, higher-end Ped Mall in Iowa City. I walked to the end of the 16th Street Mall which terminates at the Colorado State Capitol building. I walked around the capitol building and headed down Colfax Ave toward Speer Blvd. Nothing special about Colfax. It was a utilitarian street. But when I reached Speer Blvd I was very surprised. The map said “Cross Speer and go down ramp to creek.” When I first read this, I didn’t quite understand. But seeing it first hand, there was an actual creek running parallel to Speer Blvd. There was a paved bicycle/jogging path running parallel to the creek. The creek was flowing with amazingly crystal clear water. [Nothing like the normal sediment found in Iowa streams and rivers.] There were people riding home from work on their bicycles. It was a very nice walk. When I had returned to within a couple blocks of the hotel, I exited the path and started to return. Along the way, I walked past 16th Street Mall again. I noticed that there was an outdoor mall, Writer Square, and being that it was around 5:30pm Mountain (6:30pm Central), I was a bit hungry. [For those fellow Cedar Rapidians, this outdoor mall is similar to what is currently being proposed for a section of the Twin Pines golf coarse.] It wasn’t clear if there was going to be food/dinner at the product demonstration and reception this evening, so I went into the mall to see what I could find.

I found a restaurant named Crêpes ‘n Crêpes. [The photos are blurry and low-fi. They were taken from my Nokia 6620.]
Crepes ‘n Crepes - Writer Square - Denver, CO

Being a French food fan, I decided to try it. I sat at the bar right inside the front door. From this position, I could look at the iron crêpe griddles and watch the chefs make the dishes.

Crepe griddles

The chefs spoke French to each other, so they seemed rather authentic. To start with, I was served a “bottled” water.

“Bottled” water

To make the crêpes, the chef would ladle some batter on the griddle. They then used a wooden spreader and spread the batter very thin and cook it like a pancake. For the main course, I had a savory tomato and basil crêpe.

tomato and basil crepe

It was delicious. The crêpe was served with a walnut pesto (the green jar) and a roasted pepper (the red jar) sauce. I also had a glass of St. Martin merlot. For desert I had a Nutella crêpe. (And a cup of coffee. They made the coffee with the espresso machine: a pull of espresso and water.) IT WAS DELICIOUS! (I see why Giada De Laurentiis from the food network uses Nutella a lot.)

Nutella crepe

The servers were very nice. After dinner, I was talking to one and she said that this was the first night the restaurant was open for dinner. They had been open for lunch for a while, but this was the first night for dinner. I really lucked out. I would definitely return.

Once I was done with dinner, I returned to the hotel which was about a block away. The Pearson product demonstrations had started already at 6:00pm. I arrived in the demonstration hall around 6:30pm. Tables had been set up around the ballroom. Each table had a LCD monitor. Each presenter was stationed at a table with a laptop demonstrating their application on the monitor. For instance, there was a station for PEM Solutions, EDWARD, and ePen. There were approximately 12 or so demonstration stations.

In addition to the demonstrations, there were servers wandering the room with hors d’oeuvres and not one but two open bars. This was the first time that I encounter the fabled Fat Tire ale. I point this out because Fat Tire had become a mythical “beer of the conference”, proclaimed by some of the Iowa City crew.

It was very interesting looking at all of the different product demonstrations. You could see quite a bit of similarity between different applications, yet the applications looked very different. This was one of the goals of the conference, to illustrate the technology duplication and inspire people to integrate applications.

At 8:00pm, the reception began in an adjacent ballroom. The hall was set up with different food stations: cheese and assorted vegetables, salad “martini”s, custom pasta, turkey and beef, fajitas, and deserts. The two bars from the product demonstration were moved over too. The room was sprinkled with a couple little cocktail tables, and there were a lot of people crowded around them. It was a bit comical. I think that some larger tables would have been better, since 8:00pm Mountain was like 9:00pm Central for us from Iowa City, so it was already late and I think that people were hungry. The food was very good.

By the end of the reception, around 9:00pm, most of the attendees had left, except for two groups of mostly Iowa City attendees at either end of the hall. A smaller group from the reception hold-outs, me included, decided to venture out and see what we could find.

We started out of the hotel and walked down 16th Street Mall. We stopped a local citizen on the street and inquired about his opinion for a good local bar. He told us the way to go, down to the 14th and Market area. We found the Pour House. This was a very laid back establishment. We immediately noticed that there was no smoking in the bar; smoking is banned in bars in Colorado. Being a Tuesday night, there weren’t too many other people there so we were able to pull a couple tables together and talk. At about closing time, we all went back to the hotel.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

[Conference day] Today was the first official day of the conference. I got up early this morning. Earlier than I wanted. The alarm clock had not been turned back with the return to standard time. I wanted to get up at 5:30am, but it was actually 4:30am. Once I figured out that had an hour left to sleep, I was pretty much awake. But when 5:30 approached, I got up to check out the hotel gym. It was packed. So I skipped the gym. It was a nice gym. There were five treadmills, two stair masters, one stationary bike, one stationary recumbent bike, free-weights, and a couple Nautilus machines. Each treadmill, stair master, and bike had a TV screen attached that you could watch TV on and listen to with headphones. There was even a half-court basketball room. A little before 7:30am, I went down to the 3rd floor for the continental breakfast scheduled to start at 7:30am. The breakfast consisted of fruit platters, bagels, croissants, muffins, oat meal, cold cereals, assorted yogurt, coffee, decaf coffee, tea, juices, bottled water, and a collection of soft drinks.

We had time to mingle until the first presentation, from 8:00am-8:30am, Leading in Technology to Personalize Learning, presented by Steve Dowling in the hotel’s Tabor Auditorium. The auditorium was actually a for-real auditorium. It had a stage for the presenter, tiered seating, a projection screen for presenting the Power Point presentation, and audio with wireless microphones. Steve’s presentation presented the theme for the conference: integration. As technologists, we were challenged to think about how to integrate the different Pearson systems.

After Steve, David Hussman from DevJam, Inc., took the stage and presented Agile, Smagile: Common Sense Rules. David’s presentation was an introduction to Agile development principles. Being a former musician, he had a cool and laid-back presentation style. He talked about about how to pragmatically adopt Agile development principles. He wasn’t a strict Agile fundamentalist. David included information about different software development coaching engagements that he has been involved with. David was a very informative, entertaining, and engaging speaker. I would definitely attend another of his presentations.

After David’s talk, we had a break from 9:45am-10:00am.

From 10:00am-11:30am we had our first break-out session. There were four different presentations available during this session: Oracle’s Product Strategy presented by Christine Viera from Oracle, Technical Career Structure presented by John Sims from Pearson, Performance Validation presented by Siva Darivemula from HP, and Rich Media Content Living in a SCORM World presented by Dirk Bost from Pearson. These presentations were located in different hotel conference rooms on the 2nd and 3rd floor.

I had elected to attend the Performance Validation presentation. The presenter, Siva Darivemula from HP provided some background about general performance validation. Much of presentation was dedicated to LoadRunner, the performance validation tool from HP. Overall, I wasn’t too impressed with this presentation. It seemed to mostly be a marketing presentation about LoadRunner. He did not have any hands-on demonstrations on how to use LoadRunner, or discuss what other types of performance validation tools were available. One of the attendees asked if the presenter could demonstrate how to use LoadRunner and the presenter said that he was not able to do that at this time.

I did hear good things about the Technical Career Structure presentation. From what I heard, in this presentation the new technical career structure for Pearson was introduced.

The next time slot, 11:30am-1:00pm was another break-out session. In this session, the four presentations were: Web Application and System Security presented by Shawn Frederickson from Pearson, Google Web Toolkit presented by Bruce Johnson from Google and Rob Nielsen from Pearson, Service Oriented Architecture presented by Dave Anderson from BEA, and Using Virtualization to Enhance Quality presented by Shawn Hunter from Pearson.

I had chosen to attend the Web Application and System Security presentation. It seemed like I should attend this one since my current primary job responsibility within Pearson is Identity and Access Management. (Stuff related to a username and password.) Shawn, the presenter, said that he was the “security guy” in addition to the “IT guy” within his group. He was also a teacher/professor at the local college. His presentation covered many of the typical web security issues, like cookie/session hijacking, cross-site scripting, and SQL injection. In addition to his prepared presentation, he employed the web application WebGoat to illustrate the different exploits interactively during the presentation. This was a very nice way to include actual, real-life examples of how these exploits are performed. I was pretty familiar with these techniques already, but they were a good introduction for anyone who didn’t have as much experience. After the presentation, the group started to talk about the challenges that we would face surrounding authentication and authorization if/when we integrate different Pearson applications together. I provided some examples of the different SSO projects that we have done within the Iowa City facility. As the discussion about authentication and authorization started to bog down in how authorization could be done in multiple applications, one suggestion was to break up the problem into smaller chunks, as suggested in the earlier agile presentation, and maybe tackle authentication first and then authorization. Everyone seemed to think that authentication would be the easier of the two. I really liked the presentation. I also heard that the Google Web Toolkit talk was also very good.

Lunch was from 1:00pm till 2:00pm. We had a lunch of salad, chicken, pasta, beef, fruit, iced tea, and dessert. It was a very delicious meal. At the end of lunch it was announced that for the evenings dinner we would all be divided into small groups and go to lunch together.

The third break-out session of the day was from 2:00pm-3:30pm. The presentations in this session were: Portal, SOA and BPM presented by Steve Polyak and Tom Rohner from Pearson and Joseph Zhou from BEA, Making Content “Agile” – Transforming the Print Development Processes presented by Rick Ferrie from Pearson, Integrating Gaming and the Teach & Learn Cycle presented by Robert Watson and Justin Nelson from Pearson, and SIF in General – Overview presented by Bill Duncan from Pearson.

I attended the Portal, SOA and BPM presentation. I work with Steve Polyak on the portal, so this was not new information. But I was there to help provide moral support. I found the SOA and BPM portion interesting as I know that these topics are planned for the future of the portal project, Pearson Access, within Pearson.

From 3:30pm-3:45pm we had a break. During this break, there was a spread of cookies and brownies, chocolate dipped strawberries, sodas and bottled water. During the break we discovered what dinner group we had been assigned to.

From 3:45pm-4:45, Michael Golden from Pearson presented A Customer Perspective in the auditorium for all attendees. Michael used to be the Deputy Secretary of Education in Pennsylvania. Michael’s presentation was very interactive. His visual presentation was mostly pictures without a lot of words. This caused you to focus on what he said instead of focusing on the words projected on the overhead screen. He had a couple different videos. One was related to how he perceived the changing technical environment in which we live. He told a story about how a friend who went to Alaska and instead of sending a post card or letter, he was able to take a video, post it to YouTube, and send Michael a reference to the video while still in Alaska. (If you want to see the video, type “bear moose driveway” into the YouTube search. This is a pretty graphic video though showing a bear killing and eating the heart of the moose. You will need a YouTube account because this is restricted to adults.) Another video he showed was how schools use technology within the classroom like a “clicker”. A clicker is like a TV remote control. Each student in the classroom has a clicker. The teacher can ask a multiple choice question during class and each student can register their answer. The video showed a teacher asking a question. The students registered their answers. In real time, a tally would show how many students knew the write and wrong answer. In the teachers first question, everyone got the question right except for one student. I don’t know if everyone saw this right away. The teacher asked a second question, and everyone got the question right except for one student. This time, people in the audience noticed and started to giggle. The teacher asked a third question, and there were rumblings in the audience to the effect of “Boy, let’s see if that kid gets this one wrong too.” Sure enough, everyone got it right but one student. The camera then panned over and you saw that the one “kid” getting it wrong each time was Michael who was fumbling with the clicker trying to use it. Overall, Michael’s presentation was very good. It was informative and disconcerting. Basically he was saying that there are many challenges facing the education system in America. There are many opportunities to do better. Hopefully, we (Pearson) can help.

After Michael’s presentation, we were dismissed until our assigned meeting time to go to dinner. I had from 5:00pm till 6:15pm. I went up to my hotel room and changed into my running clothes. There was only one other person in the gym when I entered around 5:10pm. I ran on the treadmill for 30 minutes. Given the additional 5 minutes cool down I was able to get in 3.5 miles in 35 minutes. After running, I got ready for dinner.

Our dinner group met on the ground floor at 6:15. We took a taxi to Mizuna. There were nine of us in our dinner party. We started dinner with cocktails. Next, we got a bottle of wine.

Mizuna wine

Next, my macaroni and cheese appetizer arrived.

Mizuna macaroni and cheese

This was not your normal macaroni and cheese though. Our server stated that it was a signature dish. It was made with lobster. And it was delicious! Next was the salad course.

Mizuna salad

The main coarse was next.

Mizuna salmon

I had salmon. The salmon was so well cooked. It had a crisp outside, and a warm pink inside. Very good. Finally, it was time for desert.

Mizuna egg nog creme brulee

Yeah, the plate is empty. I forgot to take a picture until it was all gone. It was egg nog crème brûlée. It was served with a miniature spiced cake muffin. Yep, it was good. :-)

After good conversation with the different Pearson dinner guests who were from California, Minnesota, Virginia, New Jersey, and Iowa City we took a taxi back to the hotel. I went up to my room to get my book, American Gods, and went to the hotel bar to get a Manhattan cocktail. It was around 9:15pm. I had just about finished my drink when I met an Iowa City colleague in the hotel bar. He was going out to meet up with some other conference participants at a local establishment and asked if I was interested in going. I said sure, went up to my room to drop off my book, and then he and I headed out to find where the rest of the crew was.

We found them at Croc’s on Market Street in the Lower Downtown Denver Historical district. There weren’t too many people in the bar on this Wednesday night. But, it was karaoke night! In addition to the Iowa City crew, we had picked up some Pearson participants from some other offices. Everyone had an opportunity to participate in the singing; I got to sing “Billie Jean“, the Michael Jackson hit. (I didn’t pick it. But I have found that in that type of situation, it is better to just go along with the crowd rather than fight it.) While talking to the server, I found out that just the day before, which was election day, Denver voted to make police enforcement of simple marijuana possession their lowest priority. And yet, for the past three years, smoking in bars has been forbidden. Interesting…

Well, like last night, we closed down the bar around 1:45am and returned to the hotel.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

[Conference day] Today was the second official day of the conference. The day started again with a continental breakfast from 7:30am-8:00am. The breakfast was similar to yesterdays. After breakfast, we all went into the auditorium to hear Doug Kubach from Pearson present How Technology Makes it Possible to Achieve Pearson School’s Goal of One Face to the Customer from 8:00am-8:30am.

From 8:30am-9:30am everyone was presented Design Matters: Building Great User Interfaces by John Geleynse from Apple in the large auditorium. John was a very passionate speaker. He had a very animated presentation manner with the typical “Apple” look: jeans, sweater, cool. He tried to inspire people to create good interfaces to our applications. This would help people like our applications better and make them easier to use.

Our final break-out session was from 9:30am-11:00am. The presentations available were: Technical Career Structure presented by John Sims from Pearson, Apple Internet Technology Overview presented by John Geleynse from Apple, Interoperability: Creating a SIF-Based Database and Prototyping it with Ruby on Rails presented by Richard Hughes from Pearson, and Microsoft Silverlight Project presented by John Wiese from Microsoft. I had chosen the Apple Internet Technology Overview. This talk was present by John Geleynse again. He had just presented the large group presentation. In this presentation, John continued from his previous talk and gave examples of different ways that people are using Apple technology to create engaging applications.

After the break-out sessions, we had a break from 11:00am-11:15am. From 11:15am-12:15pm, the presentation Interoperability Proof of Concept for Pearson School was presented by Chris Sherman and team from Pearson. In this presentation, a proof of concept was presented whereby the Pearson application PowerSchool was broken apart into two components integrated with an ESB. (The “bear” theme continued here too, as Chris included a slide showing him posing with his bear that he hunted.) ESB technology was presented as it is a potential tool to help integrate the different Pearson applications.

Lunch was served from 12:15pm-1:15pm. Lunch today included salad, fruit, tuna salad, breads and rolls, cold cuts, soup, and dessert.

From 1:15pm-3:00pm we were split up into our previous night’s dinner groups to perform an Interoperability Brainstorm. Each group was challenged to come up with a use case to achieve interoperability of Pearson applications. We also had to identify some ways to continue the communication among the technology groups within Pearson. Our group’s use case was a teacher who logged in to the Pearson Access portal, from the Iowa City group, and used a portlet to launch a test from one of the Minneapolis testing applications. This is novel because currently the Iowa City and Minneapolis applications are not integrated. We then had a short break from 3:00pm-3:30pm.

The final presentation, from 3:30pm-5:00pm, was actually presented by us participants. Each small group presented their use case for everyone else. The group was able to ask questions and comment. After the use case presentations, each group presented their ideas for how to continue the dialog.

We again had a break from 5:00pm to 6:30pm. I took the opportunity to do another 35 minute run for 3.5 miles.

A little before 6:30pm, all of the participants walked a couple blocks down to Samba Room for dinner. The whole restaurant was rented out just for us. To start with, there was an open bar and a mojito bar. Servers were walking around with Cuban hors d’oeuvres. We then went upstairs for the fixed menu dinner. I sat next to Michael Golden and had a very good dinner conversation with him. For dinner I had a Caesar salad, scallops, and crème brûlée. The food was very good and being Cuban, the scallops were in a spicy sauce. Interestingly, the scallops (seafood), were served on a bed of mashed potatoes (pretty normal) and BEEF (it was like pot roast). It was very good but I could only eat about half of it. I was only able to eat half of the desert too. After dinner, we went back downstairs for a drink at the bar.

At 10:30pm our time at the restaurant was over. A large group of the Iowa City and other facility participants headed back down to 14th and Market. We came upon a bar, Maloney’s, and decided to go in. The bar was very festive! There was loud music playing and video screens showing sports and movie clips from time to time. There appeared to be a large amount of security at the bar. People with earpieces were placed in stationary locations and others were continually walking throughout the bar. As this was the last night of the conference, we again stayed until the bar closed, around 1:45pm. They had a really neat way to close the bar. The video screens showed the clip of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Ferris at the end of the movie credits looks out to the audience and says, “It’s over. Go home. Get out of here.” Later we found out that this was the opening night of the bar. (I hit the opening night of the crêpe restaurant and this bar.)

After the bar, some people, including me, went to a pizza place a couple blocks over. I got back to the hotel around 3:15am.

Friday, November 9, 2007

[Travel day] I got up around 8:00am. My flight wasn’t until 1:45pm, but check-out was at 11:00am. After getting ready around 9:30am, I decided to walk around lower downtown Denver and see a bit of the city during the day. After that, I returned to the hotel and checked out around 10:45am. I met up with two other Iowa City participants who were on the same flight and we took a taxi back to the airport. At the Denver airport, we had time for lunch at the Pour la France restaurant in Concourse B.

Our flight took off a little after 1:45pm. We arrived back in Cedar Rapids at 4:34pm. Nancy picked me up at the airport.

Overall, this was a very good first Pearson Technology Summit, in my opinion. There were some issues with some of the break-out session speakers. But there was a lot of good information presented. We got to meet colleagues within Pearson. The hotel was very nice. Denver was a good location. (And the Denver bars were good too.)

I would like to thank everyone responsible for putting on this summit and thank Pearson for allowing me to go to this conference.

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One Response to “Trip Report: Pearson Technology Summit 2007”

  1. spolyak says:

    got back to the hotel at 3:15am!? yikes! i think it is funny that we both took pictures of the food…

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