Microsoft Ignite, The Tour, Tel Aviv

Microsoft Ignite the Tour

I had the immense good fortune to be invited to present at the Microsoft Ignite conference in Orlando last year. With over 25,000 attendees and more efficient use of the excellent Orange County Convention Centre facilities, I think last year's Ignite was the best yet. Unusually my presentation was not on SharePoint or Office 365 but on Cognitive Services and more specifically the Custom Vision Service. I also touched on the very interesting topic of the various dangers and pitfalls of Artificial Intelligence; a topic in itself.

Despite its huge size, not everybody can get into Ignite, even if they want to. This year, as in previous years, it was completely sold out. And not everybody around the world can afford the time or expense of travelling to the United States. So Microsoft have decided to create a road show where many of the key Ignite sessions are delivered, and in many cases updated, at large cities around the globe in "Ignite, The Tour". I volunteered to speak at a few of these events where I was able to fit these in around other commitments. I was delighted to be asked to speak in London (my 'home' event) and also Tel Aviv, Israel. I had never been to Israel before, or to the Middle East apart from changing aircraft which, as all serious travellers know, doesn't count.

Travelling to Israel was a very appealing prospect during a cold January in Britain, and it didn't disappoint. I arrived in the very modern city of Tel Aviv and met fellow MVPs Tom Morgan, Paul Keijzers and Michael Van Horenbeeck to share a taxi and later have dinner. Unfortunately my luggage didn't manage the very tight connection at Frankfurt, and the following day I delivered a couple of corporate presentations using the supplied slide decks while dressed rather more casually than normal. The topics were a Microsoft 365 development overview and a run through the latest developments in the Microsoft Graph. The audience in Tel Aviv was very engaged and there were lots of questions during and after all the sessions.

After giving my second session it was already time for the reception in the expo hall with beer and snacks. Then it was back to the hotels where I found to my relief that my luggage had finally caught up with me. Then it was on to a launch party for the new Microsoft Reactor in Tel Aviv. This was an amazing event with crazy cocktails, gourmet food, a brief talk by Scott Guthrie and the ultimate party bag of goodies which included a mixed reality headset.

Scott Guthrie

On the second day I gave my Cognitive Services and AI dangers talk in one of the theatres on the exhibition floor, which provoked lots of questions and discussions that lasted longer than the talk itself. I spent the rest of the day helping out on the "experts" stand in the hub in the middle of the expo hall.

Anybody who has been in any way involved in one of these roadshows knows that, while it takes days to set these exhibitions up, within 30 seconds of the official closing time you can expect an army of technicians wearing toolbelts to appear from nowhere, while a bleeping fork-lift truck removes the very podium you are standing on. It really is quite amazing how quickly these show floors get dismantled. I am sure that by early evening most of the equipment was already in vans and on its way to the next venue on the tour - in this case Johannesburg.

By some quirk of airline discount gamification, the travel company chose to fly me out a day late, so I had the whole of the next day to do as I pleased. I decided to try to get to Jerusalem but found the only tour available at this late stage was to Jerusalem and Bethlehem - even better. I therefore found myself at 7:30 in the morning setting off from the hotel in a minibus as usual, except this time instead of going to the conference centre we continued on the main road out towards the capital. The weather was glorious and summery, despite it being January. As we arrived in Jerusalem we were able to enjoy a panoramic view of the city, with the Dome of the Rock shimmering in the warm sunshine, before passing through the Mount of Olives.

Jerusalem panorama

We disembarked our bus near Temple Mount and entered the Old City. Over an area of just a couple of acres is a site sacred to all the main Abrahamic religions: if you are Jewish, Christian or Muslim; it all happened here. We first went to the Western Wall which is a sacred site for Jewish people because of its proximity to the site of Solomon's Temple and the Second Temple which was destroyed by the Romans. It is essentially part of an enormous retaining wall for the Temple Mount which was the site of the original temples and contains the Islamic shrine of the Dome of the Rock. Along with the rest of the men in our group, I was given a kippah and able to go up to the wall and mingle with the Bar Mitzvah parties and other Jews praying at the wall, which was quite a moving experience.

Western wall

We then went through the Jewish and then Christian quarters of the Old City with no obvious transition between these. It gives one hope to see people of these different religions and cultures living peacefully together. In the Christian Quarter we followed the winding route of the Via Dolorosa, punctuated by stops at some of the Stations of the Cross, eventually leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which contains the sites of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.

Market street in Jerusalem Old City

Such is the proximity of the Muslim Quarter that a minaret rises adjacent to the courtyard in front of the church. We moved on to the Muslim Quarter, again with no obvious border but a subtle change in the merchandise on offer from the various shops. We finally found our way to a cafe and ate a very reasonably priced lunch in the Muslim Quarter before boarding the bus again.

Minaret next to Church of Holy Sepulchre

On the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem I must have dozed off, because I woke up to find us driving alongside an enormous security wall, behind which was the Palestinian area known as the West Bank. After passing unhindered through a checkpoint, we reached a rendezvous point where we changed vehicles from our minibus to a couple of Palestinian taxis. The politics behind this is too much to go into, but it reminded me of the taxi tours of West Belfast, combined with the scenery of a hundred news reports from middle-east hot-spots over the years. The West Bank barrier zig-zags into the city of Bethlehem itself where it rises oppressively with watchtowers at various points.

Our taxis moved briskly through what at times seemed impossibly narrow streets as the people of Bethlehem went about their business. Eventually we came to Manger Square, which still had the remnants of a Christmas Tree, and the Church of the Nativity. The entrance is through a tiny doorway in the wall, although the interior is more impressive than this would suggest. Christ's birthplace is in a grotto beneath the altar of the church, along with a complex of caves containing various chapels for different Christian denominations.

Entrance to Church of the Nativity

Finally we were taken to a gift shop, which I think was mainly with the intention of bolstering the local economy, before the long journey back to Tel Aviv as the sun sank below the horizon. It is difficult to imagine how you could pack more history into a day, or indeed more technical learning and culture and friendship into three days. Next stop, Microsoft Ignite | The Tour, London!