dtuWe just got back from our D-Tools University last week. DTU is our annual 3-day user conference and training event. This year’s event was very well attended despite the downturn in the economy. It seems that the value proposition for D-Tools software is especially relevant as everyone is attempting to improve their business and operational efficiencies. This year’s event turned out to be our best ever in my opinion, and in the opinion from many of our DTU alumni. I will outline some of the processes we went through to ensure that this year’s event met and hopefully exceeded our customers’ expectations.

In my many conversations with people at the event,  on the economy, the state of the market, and our industry as a whole, the recurring theme has been this: we have to improve our efficiency, and make do with less – at least for the foreseeable future.  I know that within our own company, we have been focusing on what we can do internally to improve and make the most of our resources so we can continue to operate on a day-to-day basis while staying focused on our larger organizational goals. Not easy to be sure, and it requires a strong mental attitude and discipline to stick with the program.

In my post Refine and Conquer I discussed our internal project for changing our lead qualification  and sales process. As we were putting together this year’s D-Tools University, we applied the same principles to this project. We started with an honest appraisal of our past DTU events (this was to be our forth annual user conference and training event). We looked at the Good, Bad, and Ugly of previous events and looked at ways to improve upon each.

One of the best things about DTU is the opportunity for our user community to come together for 3 days of hands-on training sessions, networking, and sharing best practices on better use of the software and how to better integrate it into daily practice. We have tried to maintain an intimate environment that allowed the free exchange of ideas (even amongst competitors) despite a growing event. Our first year we had about 35 attendees, the second year that jumped to almost 90, and last year exploded to about 140.

One of the biggest obstacles we have faced in previous years has been configuring every attendees machine to ensure that everyone could work from the same content. In year’s past we had attendees bring their own laptops and attempted to load D-Tools database and project files onto every attendee’s laptop. As you could imagine, this resulted in a heavy technical support issue for our team and ultimately a less than optimal experience for our users. While it was somewhat manageable for the first two years, we had determined that for last year’s event, with 140 people expected to attend, that we needed to change the process.

So last year we decided that we would create a virtual PC build and burn it onto DVDs that could be installed on every one’s laptop. That way the actual PC environment would be the same on every attendee machine and the only technical support issues would be around making sure the Virtual PC image was operating correctly. A great concept, and was actually working quite well, until we ran into an unforeseen issue – our virtual version of Visio expired the second day of the event. It was a bug that we couldn’t have foreseen and despite exhaustive testing prior to the event, basically prevented our Core attendees from working with the drawing side of our software. Not a fun experience to be sure.

We also learned that we had outgrown the pre-existing format of DTU.  The purely hands-on training approach works well for an audience of about 45 people per room, but our Core track grew to over 100. So in addition to the technical issues of the Virtual PC and the over crowded class size, last year’s DTU was a less than stellar experience for our attendees and for our team. We vowed to look at this and improve it for this year’s event.

So our DTU team got together and looked at our two biggest problem areas – overall size of the event and the technical challenges of ensuring that everyone could operate from the same system configuration and content. We went back to the basics first and foremost, dealing with the size of the event. We realized that our most successful event was our second year in Atlanta so we first off put a cap on the number of attendees that we would allow for the event. The second thing we looked at was the ratio of lecture/business content to hands-on sessions. In previous years the majority of the content was based on hands-on sessions only, with just a couple of non D-Tools specific sessions.

This year we decided to put in more of a process-oriented approach as to how the software works in the overall scheme of an integrator’s business. And in order to do that we wanted to cover some business-oriented sessions to introduce concepts that the software can then help business owners and operators carry out through their daily operations. One of the things we’ve learned from our customers is that software alone will not help them run their business. They need to put in place their own metrics and processes before they can have any software tool help them manage it. So we added an overall business track to this year’s event.

The next area we needed to tackle was the technical side. How were we going to avoid the pitfalls of not only last year’s event, but the general mayhem of trying to troubleshoot 75 different computers? Well we solved it by looking at other successful trainings – by providing everyone with a laptop that all had the same operating system, virtual environment, software, database, and project files. It was taking the concept we came up with last year but extending it out so that every single machine was the same. The same model, HD, RAM, and environment so that we could make everyone on the same playing field.

There were other refinements we made (for example keeping all of the sessions in a closer proximity, allowing more time for breaks, etc.) that made the event much improved over last year, but it was the process of looking at where we fell short and making the necessary refinements and changes that resulted in what was without question our most successful DTU – from the lack of any major technical glitches, to the presentation of the content from all of our speakers and instructors (Thank you Sam Cavitt and Ryan Brown of Media Environment Design, Kevin Mikelonis of Process DSG, Todd Adams of DI Partner, Jeanette Howe of Specialty Electronics Nationwide and Julie Jacobson of EH Publishing) to our sponsoring companies (ADI, CEDIA, Tributaries, and our Gold Sponsor Rhino), our attendees let us know that this was a valuable use of their time and money, and they learned some things that could be put to use immediately for their business.

That was the overall goal for DTU, and we achieved it mainly because we followed a process that made us face our shortcomings and work to improve them. Which is exactly what every company should be doing in this difficult economy. Thanks again to everyone who worked so hard to make DTU a successful event. You can read more about the event on CE Pro’s website.