Don Schuerman of Pega: Keys to a Cinematic Virtual Conference

don schuerman pega interview

Like everybody else I’m attending a bunch of virtual events that were originally supposed to be physical conferences.  And, like everybody else, I’ve attended a number of really bad virtual events… because the organizers didn’t change the structure of their event to take advantage of what could be one in a virtual event world.

One company that did rebuild their physical event into a successful virtual conference was Pegasystems, a leading customer engagement and process automation platform.  Having attended a number of physical PegaWorld events over the years, the changes to “virtualize” the conference were noticeable and made it feel very much like it was built from the ground up for experiencing the conference differently than if you were sitting in a 10,000 seat auditorium at MGM in Vegas.  And it worked.

My CRM Playaz co-host Paul Greenberg and I had a chance to sit down (virtually) with Don Schuerman, Pega’s Chief Technology Officer and Master of Ceremony for PegaWorld, to hear from him how they were able to successfully go from physical to virtual.  And also hear how some of the lessons learned from the experience are transferrable into broader digital transformation efforts companies of all sizes are beginning to undertake due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Below is an edited transcript to a portion of our conversation.  Click on the embedded Soundcloud player to hear the full conversation.

Interview with Don Schuerman of Pega

Small Business Trends: PegaWorld was already scheduled to move from Vegas where it had been held for years, to Boston for the first time this year.  Then Covid-19 hit.  So Pega already had a big undertaking with the move to Boston, but then you had to deal with going from Vegas to Boston to virtual.  How did you do it?

Don Schuerman: We had a team who, as you say, were pretty active on what was a pretty heavy lift of taking a conference that was running at one location in Vegas to a conference that was going to be distributed across the city of Boston. The infrastructure of Boston is very different from Vegas in terms of just being able to support something like this, and that team just really pivoted immediately to thinking about how do we do this as a virtual event.

One of the first decisions that we made was to basically strip the event back down to the beginning because when… It’s great to watch a CEO, a product leader give a 30, 45-minute keynote at a big event when you’ve got 120 foot screen and lights and DJ music and fog machine going. I mean, you stay really engaged. But the fact of the matter is, watching that 45-minute keynote streaming from an empty conference room somewhere over Zoom or a web tool, just isn’t engaging. It just doesn’t work.

So as we rebuilt the event, we kept three things in mind. First, it’s got to be compact. So the actual live portion of PegaWorld this year is two and a half hours. That’s keynotes, that’s breakouts, Q&A sessions, et cetera. We really compressed it down, because I think in this virtual world when people are sitting at their desktops and they’ve got lots of distractions from the kids that need help with their math homework, to emails that are coming in from work, you’ve got to carve out and you’ve got to be impactful in a short period of time. So we wanted to make it compact.

The second thing we wanted to do is it had to stay interactive. It can’t just be a bunch of videos and people talking at you online. So we went back and looked at, okay, how do we get Alan into a live Q&A? So Alan Trefler, our founder and CEO, how, right after he does his condensed keynote, do we put him into a live Q&A session where he’s going to take live questions from people who are watching? How do we take one of the most popular sessions that we’ve had at PegaWorld, which is a vision and roadmap session where our product leaders talk about where the product is going, and turn that into a tech talk live where we sit down with Kerim Akgonul, our SVP of Products, and again, allow people to put live questions in front of him so he’s having a real time conversation? How do we do things like demos?

Any great technology conference, there’s always that expo, we call ours the Innovation Hub, where you can walk around and you can see demos, you can talk to product engineers. So we started looking at tools like Twitch, which is used by a lot of gamers for doing interactive live game playing, and we said, “Okay, how do we do Twitch style demos, where a developer can be building something but we can have people asking for things, wanting to see things asking questions so it stays interactive?” So that was the second piece, like how do we keep it interactive?

And then the third piece is how do we make sure it lives on after the event? How do we make sure that this content that we create, that the continuing set of engagement then becomes available for people? Because if we’re going to make it compact, there’s going to actually be more content available than people can actually fit into that time. So how do we give them a way to then come back and continuously engage with our products, with our client stories, with some of the thought leadership insights that we’re putting out there that lasts far beyond the actual live event that we did?

Going Virtual Means Going From Theatrical to Cinematic

Don Schuerman: One of the other things that we really took to heart is when you go virtual, you’re also shifting from theatrical, how do I run these as theater, to cinematic, how do I make this look and feel like little movies, right? So how do we shoot keynotes in such a way that we have multiple camera angles, that we play with the fact that we’re on video? So we want to make this feel completely different from anything else. Most importantly, we want the content to be really awesome. We want to teach people, again, about how do you build a business architecture truly around the customer journey and extend that into your channels, extend that around your legacy systems, but really operate from the center around your customer journey, because I think that’s where success is.

I think there’s a real tension in digital transformation now that if you do it right, you can thread the needle on, which is, there are immediate things you need to do as an organization. You need to keep your employees safe and healthy. You need to adjust to the fact that everybody is working from home. You need to respond to a flood of new customer requests, many of which are for services you didn’t offer before, or if you did, you offered in a relatively low volume, right?

So there is an immediate response need that organizations have. But I also think this time period has opened people’s eyes to the fact that digital transformation is real. I was talking with the CIO of one of our large customers at a media company and he was saying, “For years I’ve been trying to teach my organization to operate in an agile way, to think agile, to fail fast, and overnight, the company just became agile because it had no choice, because we were all distributed, because we had immediate problems that we had to solve.” So how do we take those learnings and turn it into truly pervasive transformation, building out the digital platforms and the best practices that are not only going to respond to the immediate needs, the things we need to fix right now, but set organizations up to deliver better customer experiences, to be stronger organizations as we move into 2021 and even beyond?

Small Business Trends: It sounds like as you went and transformed the conference, those same lessons you learned in transforming the conference to a virtual event, will apply after COVID.

Don Schuerman: Completely. One of the things that we do with a lot of our clients is run design thinking sessions, right? And prior to COVID, they were great, but they were hard to schedule. You need to get everybody in a room. You need to block out time. You need to fly people to a place to make it happen. Well, now we use tools like MURAL. We do it virtually. Instead of like a week, we do it in a day or two. We get the same great results. Our clients have the exact same aha moments. With the Bavarian government, we went from a design thinking session to a live application that’s automating all of their small business lending requests that they had to do in response to COVID and the economic shifts. We got that live in five days from a completely distributed team because there was no other choice.

And so I think when we go back, we’re going to take a lot of that going forward like, “Hey, I can do a design thinking session virtually. Hey, I can do a design thinking session really well in a couple of days. I don’t need to get everybody in a room for a week to make that happen.” And I think that’s going to make our business stronger, and it’s going to make our clients’ business much more agile and much more effective.

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