The Missing Piece of SQL Conferences

Recently Steve Jones (b|t) has been writing a series of posts around the Pass Summit and SQL Saturdays. The one posted on July 5th on Choosing Content for the Summit got me thinking about content, not just at the Summit, but also at other various SQL conferences and events.

I had a conversation around the subject of content at Summit (picking on the PASS Summit here as it’s the most visible, however this pertains to SQL Saturday’s, and many other events) with Joey D’Antoni (b|t) and we identified, what we believe to be, missed opportunities.

Who is seeking knowledge?

I’m going to pick on Database Administrators here, just because that has been a primary focus of mine for many years, however, these things are applicable to all roles.

The reason that most folks go to Summit is so that they can learn new things, and increase their skillset (paying that much money to go and hang out with other nerds is probably not something that lives in most people budget).

This is awesome! It’s great that you (or your employer) has the funds to be able to send you to Summit for you to get some continuing education.

Sadly I do not have the demographic numbers for Summit attendees, so I don’t know what the typical attendees level of knowledge is, but you are going to have a large and varied mix of experience.

So let’s break that down a little for a few attendees:

  • Scott – New / part-time / accidental DBA
  • Charlotte – Full time DBA < 3 years
  • Andrew – Full time DBA < 3-7 years
  • Sharon – Full time DBA > 7+ years
  • Pat – I used to work with SQL when it was still Sybase


Each one of these attendees will be coming for a different reason:

  • Scott – Help! I really don’t know what I’m doing. Where do I start?
  • Charlotte – I’ve got backups that work every day, and nothing is on fire, but I need to make things better that they are, and I’m not sure how to get there
  • Andrew – I’ve been really focussed hard on a couple of areas, and have those nailed down, but I need to branch out to really take my skills to the next level
  • Sharon – I got this. My sphere of knowledge is large, my depth of knowledge is strong, I’m looking for something hardcore to learn.Or I have this whole DBA thing sorted, I need to learn something entirely new, I’ve heard about PowerBI, and would like to learn how to work with it, how it’s used, what the concepts are, how it would be a good thing for me.
  • Pat – If you need me I’ll be in the room waiting for Bob Ward’s session to start tomorrow. Have to get there early so that I can be assured of a seat.

Those are big generalizations around what each is looking for (simply because everyone is at a different level, and has different levels of experiences, but they are a good starting point).



Pat is quite likely speaking at the conference, or is there to look at a specific piece of the SQL product. Within Pat’s given discipline there’s really not much new to learn other than new features, so those will be the go to sessions. That and 400-500 level deep dive content.

Pat will look for something more than the typical 75 minute session, just because the depth of the content will need to be such that it cannot be taught in that short a time frame (and even the three hour session is not long enough).


Sharon is happy to bounce between sessions. She has a broad level of knowledge, and uses a lot of the sessions as starting points to find areas of interest that she can research on her own later.

She also likes to attend sessions for areas that she knows nothing about. New technologies and pieces of the SQL stack are coming along all the time, and there might be something that catches her interest. Sharon’s biggest difficulty is in transitioning the skills she already has to something new. The starting points are not always common, and the knowledge that she already has can often times be a detractor in other areas.


Andrew is bouncing around various sessions, not quite sure what he should be learning. Never quite aware of what his level of knowledge is. In some areas it appears as though he knows a lot, and in others next to nothing. He’s most likely going to sit down and try to pick out sessions that are of a particular interest, even though they may not always be at an appropriate level for him.

When going through the session list Andrew notices the subejcts that he feels comfortable with already, and attends a few of those, just so that he can be sure that he understands things as he expects, just to try and put away the sense of imposter syndrome that he feels.


The entire session list looks like mass confusion to Charlotte. She doesn’t know what sessions would be good for her, what ones would be bad. She knows enough to know that she’s not sure what she should be attending, but doesn’t have anyone that she can bounce ideas off of. Charlotte desperately wants to make the most of her attendance but doesn’t know what to attend.


Overwhelming doesn’t even cover it for Scott. He feels completely lost, and just looks for all the beginner sessions, no matter what they cover. He’s hoping that there will just be some things that he can pick up along the way just to get him through the next few months.

Scott really could use a helping hand to guide him through the Summit. He has a fear of asking to advice or assistance with these things. He was just thrust into the role at work, and isn’t comfortable asking for help.


Who is getting their knowledge needs met?

In this we’re just looking at the knowledge that can be gained at the Summit, and not purchasing recordings of sessions for later viewing. We’re also excluding all day precon sessions. Both of these options incur extra cost which is not in the basic Summit cost.


Overall Pat garners little from the sessions, however the networking opportunities seem to more than make up for this. Hallways conversations and evening chats teach Pat more than could be taught in 75 minutes anywhere. Some new internals knowledge in a half-day session is about the only new thing Pat learns.

Pat feels pretty ok with the conference, but not for the learning opportunities, there just isn’t enough high level content to make it be about must more then the connections.


There is some fairly good stuff for Sharon to pick up, but the in-depth content in the DBA realm that she really wants is hard to find. There are only so many of similar sessions that a person can attend, and there are several that are similar to last year.

In trying to pick up a new piece of the SQL stack Sharon has trouble figuring out where to start. The jumping on points for the various things seem to either be so basic that they are of no use, or there’s a seemingly prerequisite high level of knowledge that’s far and above the basics that there’s no way she has a clue.

Sharon enjoys the conference, and picking up a couple of new things, but is frustrated with her inability to be able to pick up something new.


There is a great deal for Andrew to see. So many sessions capture his interest, and he tries to settle down and focus. Andrew is really the attendee that is covered the best by the sessions being presented. So many are in that 200-300 level that there’s usually a session or two that Andrew can go sit in and learn something.

There’s a lot for Andrew to see, and he knows that he cannot see it all. He’ll walk away disappointed in missing out on some things, but satisfied that he has learned a lot.


What should I be going to? What knowledge do I need next? How can I recognize my gaps? These are all questions that Charlotte has to ask herself. There are a lot of sessions, but many of them feel out of her reach right now. She’s aware of the large knowledge gaps that she has, but really doesn’t know how to address them with the sessions on offer. It just isn’t clear the things that are going to have value.

Charlotte goes to a bunch of sessions, some of them she sat through, knowing the content well enough, others she sat confused at the concepts being taught. At the end of the Summit she walks away frustrated with her time there.


There are a couple of 100 level, beginner sessions that Scott is able to find. This is a great start, but they only touch, ever so briefly on the things that he needs to know. Rather than gives him a good grounding all they do is give some pointers. He comes out of those sessions not knowing a lot more than he did before, although he maybe has an idea of where to start now.

Most of the rest of Scott’s time is spent trying to find something else to learn. As a beginner it is very difficult to get the most out of things. Scott walks away knowing a little more, and having a pointer to some resources, but not having really learned a great deal.


Where is the gap?

While every one of the example attendees here is able to get something out of Summit they are never really able to maximize their session time.

What’s really missing here are curated tracks, specifically designed for people to spend a day sitting in a room, learning from a series of different people, all sessions designed to build on knowledge, but all be distinctly different from each other. Because all of the sessions are unique there is an easy entry and exit point for people. This is not a precon, folks can come and go as they would with regular sessions, but it provides guidance for people.

Let’s take Scott, a complete newbie, no idea what to do. There’s four sessions in a day. In a single day Scott could learn:

  • You’re a new DBA, what do you need to know?
    • Touch the higher level things to take fear out of the equation
  • Backup and restore basics
    • How to backup and restore your databases, move them to different file locations, implement agent jobs so that they are scheduled, find out when backups aren’t happening
  • What are indexes?
    • Indexes can help make things faster, they can slow things down, they get fragmented. Touch these points and what to do about them.
  • Configuring SQL Server
    • What configurations you should look at, what defaults are good, what defaults are bad.

Now Scott has his first day under his belt with a little firmer understanding of what’s going on. Follow this up the next day with higher level index information, or advanced backup/restore methodologies, or even log shipping.

If you did this for all the tracks then people could easily have a jumping on point for any part of the technology, and not require the higher level prerequisite knowledge that comes with some of these things. That would help Sharon who’s looking to pick up something new.

If you could do this for a new DBA, why couldn’t you do this for more experienced DBAs?

  • Finding your skills gap
    • A professional development session that helps guide people in identifying where they can take their learning next depending on what they want to do. One of these for each track.
  • How statistics affect plan choices
    • Lots of stuff about heurisitics, advanced parameter sniffing information, why maybe use multi-column statistics, how about stats on readable replicas of databases
  • High Availability and what it truly means
    • Covers SLA at different areas, how you can and cannot acheive HA using technologies such as AGs, FCIs, VMotion, replication, log shipping. Maybe demos these HA technologies in action
  • SQL workloads and perfmon
    • How to figure out a new workload for SQL Server for testing, how to capture execution data from SQL and combine it with perfmon information to get a solid view of how things were performing, and what was, and was not going well.

All of a sudden Charlotte has a jumping on point. She can get the fundamentals of something new, and then have other sessions at Summit build on this starter information.

Note: these are all just examples off the top of my head, and have not been thoroughly thought out and vetted

Curated tracks will probably have some drawbacks. For example to ensure that these jumping on tracks cover the right things there might be a need to reach out to certain community members who have shown a relevant expertise to teach them. It has potential to reduce the pool for other speakers (although to be fair you see a great many of the same speakers year after year, so I’m not sure that it would make that much of a difference).

Is it perfect? No, but I think that this idea of curated tracks would provide a much better learning experience for many attendees.

15 thoughts on “The Missing Piece of SQL Conferences”

  1. I sort of do this with Cardiff SQL Relay – tracks are Showcase, Learn, Grow, Adapt. The last three is our working slogan and it gives me a nice way to split content. I put a mix of beginner sessions in Learn, intermediate and advanced sessions in Grow, and then a blend of less mainstream topics in Adapt. I’m still working on it, but last year I was able to get a nice stream of R related talks go from absolute beginner up to intermediate throughout the day.


    1. Love this. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’d want to see at any conference. Being able to go from total beginner in something to that intermediate level is nigh on perfect.


  2. That “Curated Track” idea worked for us when we built out the schedule for SQL Saturday #372 in Exeter, UK (2015).

    This was a significantly smaller event than the main PASS Summit, obviously, but we got lucky and had a few sessions submitted (without any apparent collusion) that we felt would build up into a sort of query / index tuning mini-track with three or four back-to-back sessions starting with exeuction plans, working through statistics and indexing, and then query tuning. It seemed like a good idea at the time of planning, and I think it proved popular on the day.


  3. I did a recording of a talk on expertise and learning for it pros in the PASS Professional Development Virtual Chapter back in May;

    Conclusions on preferred learning methods for beginners vs. experts are presented around 46:00 (the full video is 54:00 minutes long). My research into the learning for experts (and my experience as a speaker) seems to indicate, that experts also prefer sessions with a “stories from the trenches” flavor, rather than a “how to do X in technology Y.”

    Just my 25 cents on this topic.


    1. I think that starter tracks are critical, but I don’t believe that curated learning opportunities should be just restricted to those just starting out.


  4. So the question becomes how do you tailor the speaker selection process around this? Do you post your ideal tracks before hand so people can modify their abstracts and talks to fit? Do you have an editing phase with speakers?

    I wouldn’t mind tailoring my talks for a curated track, as long as I’d get to reuse it. For me talks are like on premises hosting. A lot of capex goes into opening night. Eventually it gets to the point where the talk requires minimal prep to deliver. If your asking me to put 8-16 hours of revisions and rehearsals into a talk into a talk every time I deliver it, I’m going to have a hell of a time justifying submitting and speaking.

    One solution could be SQL Common core If Pass had a syllabus for tracks and talks laid out, I could just write a presentation against a particular syllabus. Then I could put in a bunch of time up front and deliver it a few times over a bunch of years, with revisions every time they change the Syllabus for new versions


    1. I don’t see any reason that a talk couldn’t be reused. I’m not talking about strictly curating the sessions, more ensuring that there is a continued learning path that is clearly defined and can be seen through a day of learning.

      There’s really zero difference between a beginner indexing session and a beginner indexing session that’s delivered as part of the curated stack for a day.


  5. I have attended 11 Summits so I have gone from the near newbie, at least with learning – not much available before PASS started, to pretty expert in some parts of SQL. The Summit has grown so much in attendance during that time that the really good speakers are always so well attended. This was always a problem for my scheduling, topics or speakers. The schedule changed at the last minute more in the old days so I always tried to have a first and maybe two backup sessions planned. As I have always paid for everything myself attending sessions was important with after hours networking not really an option. I was a mentor for First-Timers for a few years and always preached that approach and to have a good pair of walking shoes to possibly get from one end of the convention center to the other quickly between sessions.

    All-in-all the idea of staying in one place and being able to learn in a curated stack would appeal to me. You would need a Bob Ward room(stack) as I have seen most of his 3 hour sessions. The one hour to 75 minutes sessions I found the best way to learn, that’s just me though.

    I also enjoyed the keynotes and other small venue sessions that PASS has introduced over the years.

    I’m not going this year, being from Canada the exchange rate is ruining it. I have also discovered another way to learn, SQLCruise. I went in January and learned in a small classroom setting in a relaxed atmosphere, made many new friends and information sources and didn’t have to get up really early and trudge to and from the Summit to my hotel. Also being pampered on a ship is great though my wife and I enjoy cruising anyway.

    Chris Wood @chrisavwood


  6. Nic,

    I both agree and disagree with you. I need to get my own piece on this out, as I’ve had some thoughts here and a draft, but it doesn’t quite make sense to me yet.

    I think that aiming to provide a track on a topic isn’t easy. I think that as you move closer to training, focused classes, then there are better ways to teach someone on a topic, especially for your audience of beginner to intermediate learners. There are also JIT type things, such as getting up to speed on SSIS/Biml/SSRS/Perf tuning, that are better handled in focused classes. A disparate group of sessions from different people make this harder to build.

    The narrower the track, such as R, or SSIS, the easier it is to get a set of sessions that might go together. However, since we aren’t well focused on what 100/200/300 is, and the quality of the speaker means a lot here, this is hard. I’ve seen some sessions on backups that sounded good on paper, but weren’t good in person. I saw Sean McCown to a basic backup session that was excellent.

    I do think that there are opportunities in some areas for a program committee to actually “program” sessions. I’d like to see some thought go into what are good sessions, not just what are the best ones submitted. I’d like to see a committee approach an Allan Hirt, or a Grant Fritchey, or someone else and ask for specific content that might round out a track, or fill a gap. Or even offer a progression in topics, but again, when you look at a specific profile type, as you’ve done, you create a model, which be definition lacks the detail and clarity that might actually appeal to anyone in particular. I could pick apart your thoughts, but that’s not helpful. The idea has some merit, but it’s hard.

    However, as a proponent of agile, scrum, and being effective, what I’d like to see is experiments along this line at events. I’d like to see a bit more effort put into seeing if there is a way to properly program a track, and perhaps not just take sessions from speakers, but actually call for some sessions or approach people to build them. They would be allowed to re-use them elsewhere, but they wouldn’t also necessarily be the random approach we have now, trying to gather the best of what’s submitted.


  7. Unless I missed something, you did a fantastic job of making sure Pat was never refereed to as him or her. Kudos.

    I don’t see many “Pats” at the OKC SQL Sat, but we do see everyone else. I think it’s great to have an understanding of your audience. We try to average out our sessions as much as possible, but some times it is a bit difficult.

    Something like the summit could benefit from this well. SQL Saturdays, I think, would be a bit harder. The summit has a sponsor room basically. SQL Saturdays line hallways and rely on traffic.Putting that 101 session in room A all day may not work. For balance, we put the 101 session in different rooms but at different times as well. We also try not to align subjects at the same time, regardless of skill.

    This may not reflect what you’re truly pointing at, but this was my basic take away. My first conference was a blur of sessions, massive rooms, and overall being overwhelmed trying to figure out what to do when. I’d love to see a bit more structure or streamlining built in.


    1. Bill, my intention was to not give Pat a gender. There are many folks out there who are female and do as great a job as the males, and many who do not have a binary gender identity. I intended Pat to fit into whatever demographic the reader identified with.

      SQL Saturdays are a little harder to do this sort of thing with, mainly because there is a lack of space, and not as many sessions can be scheduled. But anything that can be done within those is always a huge positive for the attendees.


      1. I understood your reasoning for “Pat”. I was commenting that you did a fantastic job. We don’t see many hyper experienced people at SQL Saturday without them being a speaker. our 500 level sessions would have low attendance.

        I’m still working on a good balance at SQL Saturday. It is certainly a different beast.


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