The types of sessions at an AWS conference and why they matter
July 19, 2022
AWS runs a lot of events each year. From the AWS Summits that start in the spring, to AWS re:Inforce in the summer, wrapping up the year with AWS re:Invent, all of these events have a ton of content that is focused on helping you learn more about building in the cloud.
These events fall into two general sizes. The smaller summits are aimed at all builders. Large events like AWS re:Inforce (security focused), Amazon re:MARS (space, robotics, and AI focused), and AWS re:Invent (aimed at all builders) are multi-day events that run at a much larger scale.
There is always something new to learn about the AWS Cloud. These events provide a steady drumbeat for AWS to launch new services and teach everyone the latest tools and techniques for building in the cloud.
The downside of all of this content? Sometimes there’s just too much of it and it’s hard to figure out what each session type offers and which ones best match what you’re looking for.
The good news? The session types don’t generally change from event to event. With that in mind, here’s a quick breakout of all of the primary session types that AWS offers at it’s events.
Keynotes are the marquee sessions at each AWS event. They are always delivered by AWS executives and typically fall into the format of;
- Business results update
- New or recent features & functionality
- Customer reference or case study
- More features & functionality
- More customers
Keynotes at smaller events like the AWS Summits are focused on local results. A summit in Germany will focus on European business results and initiatives, have German customer speak, etc.
The larger events like AWS re:Inforce and AWS re:Invent have a global approach and usually weave a strong thematic message throughout each keynote. These events also feature multiple keynotes with specific technical focus. AWS re:Invent often has keynotes focusing on Machine Learning, Partners, and more.
If you only get to take in one session at each event, the keynote are general the ones to watch.
A few years back, AWS realized that it’s scale meant they just couldn’t fit all of the top line items into the keynotes. At one point, the day one keynote stretched past two and half hours and everyone realized a different approach was needed.
Enter the leadership session.
These presentations are typically delivered by the general manager or “head of” a specific service area. Often joined by top level engineers who focus on the discipline in question, leadership sessions are like mini keynotes for a specific topic.
These sessions loosely follow a three act structure (but not the three act structure);
- Highlights of what the team built over the past year
- Cool new functionality or services coming in the short term
- A process or people challenge to think about
These sessions are immensely valuable if the topic is one that interests you. They provide a level of detail that’s just not possible in one of the main keynotes.
Here are two great examples of these leadership sessions;
- “Continuous security improvement: Strategies and tactics”, by Stephen Schmidt from AWS re:Invent 2021
- Glenn Gore’s “Leadership Session: AWS Architecture” from AWS re:Invent 2019
Breakout session are the bulk of most AWS events. Normally we just call these “talks”, but it’s important to know their actual name for the session builder tool for each event.
A breakout session is usually 60 minutes and features one or more speakers. These sessions (and others) are assigned a specific level;
- 100: introductory content meant for people completely new to the topic
- 200: aimed at intermediate audiences who have a good understanding of the topic and a bit of experience with the associated services
- 300: advanced sessions that explore more complex topics and often include code samples and demos
- 400: deep technical dives into very specific areas or issues
Session levels provide guidelines that help you plan the sessions you’ll attend and which ones you might want to flag for later review.
If you’re a mid level or senior engineer, don’t be intimidated by the 400 level sessions if you’re really interested in the topic. These sessions often feature very experienced speakers who do a great job explaining things in fantastic detail.
Conversely, don’t be shy about attending 200 level sessions. I’ve been building in the AWS Cloud since the start and still usually take in at least one 200 level session each event. Their less technical perspective often helps affirm or reset my perspective on the topic.
AWS has hosted thousands of breakout sessions over the years. Here are a few I keep going back to;
- “The fundamentals of AWS cloud security”, by Becky Weiss from AWS re:Inforce in 2018
- Brigid Johnson’s, “Become an IAM Policy Master in 60 Minutes or Less” from AWS re:Invent 2018
- The first ever session with AWS Lambda, “Getting Started with AWS Lambda”, by Tim Wagner
- “Introducing AWS DeepRacer”, by Mike Miller which covers the launch of a fun way to learn a very advanced machine learning technique
You’d be forgiven if you passed by the builders session listing and thought it was just a mistake and should read breakout session. But no, these sessions are a unique experience.
⚠️ Unlike keynotes, leadership sessions, and breakouts, these sessions are not typically recorded.
A builders session is a small group experience where an AWS expert leads you through a build hands on.
These sessions start with a introduction to the problem space, an overview of the solution, and then a deeper dive into the step-by-step. It’s at that point when you start to build.
Learning in the open like this is a fantastic way to connect with people and ask questions directly in the moment. This type of experience can really take you skills to the next level.
As you might imagine, these session book up quickly at every event that runs them. If you’re interested in attending one, make sure to register as soon as you can.
A chalk talk is typically even a smaller group experience. These interactive sessions start with a short, fifteen minute lecture on a very specific topic. The next forty five minutes are spent in a group discussion with the session leader.
⚠️ Unlike keynotes, leadership sessions, and breakouts, these sessions are not typically recorded.
In even higher demand that the builders session, chalk talks are like a fantastic dinner party without the food. Ok, that might undersell it depending on your experiences at dinner parties and desire for food.
These group discussions really need to be experienced. The good news? While demand is high, their are talks aimed at all levels and often each topic is repeated multiple times during an event with different groups.
The same advice applies here as it does to the builders sessions. If you’re interested, make sure to sign up as soon as registration opens.
Workshops are often an additional fee on top the event admission (even at free events). These half or full day events are a complete class.
They may explore a specific technical challenge, partner solution space, certification curriculum, or set of AWS services.
Workshops will have multiple instructors on hand to help students through the various activists. They are usually a mix of hands-on activities and lectures. This mix format is a great way to learn. The expert presents the information and then you get to apply it immediately in order to reinforce what you’ve just learned.
Of note, if you’re aiming to write an AWS certification exam, a half or full day workshop can be just the thing to get you to the finish line. A lot of learners have had success studying and practicing for a few weeks leading up the workshop, get that last bit of polish at the workshop, and then write the exam in the next day or two.
🥇 AWS often has a special lounge on site at events—with snacks!—that you can only access if you have a current AWS certification
Each AWS has an expo hall where various APN partners have their booths to explain their solutions. In the expo hall, there is often a “Dev Lounge.”
This is a community focused area that often hosts Q&A session with various user groups and community leaders. At most events, the Dev Lounge also hosts talks from the AWS community.
These talks are usually 30 minutes long and feature AWS Heroes, AWS Community Builders, and AWS User Group leaders. Talks in the lounge go through a completely different process and usually feature various open source projects, novel solutions, and a variety of perspectives you might not see in other session types.
Often in the opposite corner of the Dev Lounge is the Expo Theatre. This is an area where APN partners who have sponsored the event may have the opportunity to present their solution.
Sales pitches are strongly discouraged but these talks will still feature that partners world view and often mention their specific solution.
When done well, these talks—which are typically 30 minutes—can provide a clearer look at particular commercial offering without the hard sell.
AWS On Air
The last session type is a hybrid one. In the expo hall, the AWS On Air team typically has a broadcast section. From here they interview various AWS and community experts and recap what’s happening at the event.
You can watch from the sidelines or remotely on the AWS Twitch channel at https://www.twitch.tv/aws.
The team does a great job of encouraging a lot of discussion in the stream chat and if you can’t attend the event, this channel in addition to the keynote livestreams (when available) are a great way to stay up to date and still participate.
AWS often experiments with new session types but these ones have stood the test of time. They each offer a different way to learn. And that’s what AWS events are all about; learning.
To make that learning easier, AWS often publishes the content from it’s events online for anyone to access. You can check the event content database on their site or on the AWS Events YouTube channel to find a ton of great sessions.
It doesn’t matter if you’re looking to dive deeply into a specific topic, get a general update on what’s happening in a technology category, or take your first steps on your cloud journey, there’s a session type that will match your learning style.