TL;DR – there is no right, or wrong way to attend the Summit. Decide on the things that are important to you, and what you want to get out of the days while you are there, and focus on those.
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.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of being at Emerald City Comicon. The last few years I’ve had the chance to volunteer in different there in various ways. This year I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to spend the weekend assisting Gigi Edgely , who was one of many celebrities to be in attendance.
At ECCC there is always a lot going on. Panels running in multiple rooms, celebrity signings, photo opportunities, vendor booths that stretch across multiple floors, gaming areas in other buildings, cosplay competitions, and so much more. This is not something that is easily managed. It really does take a huge amount of coordination and hard work to do. Behind the scenes there are dedicated teams of people working together to ensure that every one of the over 70,000 attendees has the best experience possible.
While in recovery mode on Monday I got to reflecting on how many people were doing so much to keep the wheels on, and it brought me back to the PASS Summit (I think as much as anything it’s because ECCC is located in the Seattle Convention Center, where many a PASS Summit has been held over the years).
The PASS Summit is a much smaller event than ECCC (per PASS there were 5000 attendees last year). Just because it’s smaller does not mean that there is much less hard work, or a lower level of dedication in the people that put it together and help to make it run smoothly.
There are a thousand and one things constantly going on behind the scenes of Summit. Some of those things are performed by employees of PASS, but many more are done by volunteers. Consider that going to Summit you get to see people speak. Those folks are not paid (except for precons), unless you consider free entry to the Summit as being paid. Alongside those folks, also around the Summit:
- The people who pick the sessions are not paid
- Those who review slide decks before presenting are not paid
- Folks walking around Summit guiding you where to go, and not wearing a green jacket, are not paid
- The board of directors are not paid
Volunteers are really the lifeblood of the organization as a whole, from the Virtual Chapters to the SQL Saturdays, and everything in between.
You should be sure to thank the volunteers that do so much to ensure that you have content to see, a Summit to attend, and a way to keep in touch while at home.
Also, consider volunteering yourself. Create yourself an account on the PASS website, go to myVolunteering and select the volunteers opportunities that you would be interested in.
Dear event organizers;
While this letter is directed at the SQL Server community the points I present here are valid in other situations.
The SQL Community
One of the things that makes SQL Server stand out so much from other products (not just RDBMS) is the level of support and caring that it receives from its user base, frequently known as the SQL Community. There are many levels to this: from folks that read a daily newsletter, to those that help run a professional association dedicated to the product.
Sitting between those two areas are those that like to give back to the community by writing blog posts, answering peoples questions, and presenting at one of the many events that are run throughout the world. These SQL related events are run at several levels: from small local user groups which may attract 20-30 people, to SQL Saturday events that pull in a few hundred, all the way up to the large conferences where attendees number in the thousands.
Everybody has to start somewhere. The people that speak at the large conferences have perfected their craft at the smaller events. The smaller arenas make for a tighter audience where material can be first presented, then improved over time. As important as the adjustments in the material are the changes in the presenters. They figure out the things that do, and do not, work for them. They learn how to read the crowd, handle questions, push through when problems arise with demos, and pace themselves to give a great and informative session which gives the attending audience great things to walk away with.
Breaking into this speaking arena is as difficult as it is daunting. This is why things like SQL Saturday and local user groups are so great. They allow a fairly safe opportunity for people to get their feet wet. Despite the relatively low visibility a presenter may get from an event like this it is still incredibly scary for them to step up in front of complete strangers that first time.
Anna (not a real person, name randomly generated) has worked with SQL Server for 10 years and knows the ins and outs of optimizing stored procedure performance. She makes the decision that she would like to share some of this knowledge with other people, and so spends a few hours making an outline of a presentation with all the things she wants to put in there. After figuring out the key items she puts together an abstract for her local SQL Saturday event and it gets accepted. After another 40 hours of work Anna has a presentation that she feels will wow the crowd. She shows up Saturday morning and walks into a room. There’s a projector in front of her, a screen behind her, and 50 people seated, waiting for her to start. Another 15 people file in, there are no chairs, so they are standing around, leaning against the walls. Anna looks around trying to find a friendly face, but there is nobody she knows there.
Anna manages to get her laptop connected and is projecting things at the right resolution on the screen behind her. That’s never an easy task, especially when people are watching. The clock ticks round and she starts her presentation. As she welcomes everyone to the room and gives a brief outline of what people should expect from her session she sees a couple of people get up and leave.
Anna now wonders what she did wrong. What happened that these people left? What did she just say?
A little rattled, Anna tries to remain on track and gets into her slide deck. She explains the concepts that are up on the screen and a man at the back of the room raises his hand and asks a question. Fortunately it’s a quick one and she’s able to answer briefly and jump into a demo. The first demo goes well, but the guy is raising his hand again and asking another question. This one is a little more complicated. Anna tries to explain but the guy isn’t getting the answer and is starting to get a little impatient with her. Other people are turning to look at him and giving looks, but nobody is saying a word. Isolated, Anna tries to handle it as best she can and return back to the presentation.
As Anna progresses through her slide deck she can hear the guy at the back mumbling to himself. Then he opens up and instead of asking a question blurts out loudly that she’s wrong and he knows it. Anna isn’t sure how to respond to this. She tries her best to push on but she is feeling intimidated by this loud individual who seems to want to do nothing more than prove how much smarter he is than her.
Then there is an issue with one of the demos. A query doesn’t behave how it should and Anna is confused as to why. She pushes on, hoping that nobody noticed what happened. Of course the one obnoxious guy is quick to point it out.
Exhausted from this Anna wraps up the remaining slides quickly, thanks the room, and shuts down her laptop. People slowly file out, dropping slips of paper containing feedback on a desk as they do so. A couple of people stop by to say thank you for the presentation and ask where they can get copies of the slides and demos. She points them to her website, they thank her and leave. Someone else stops to ask a question, but exhausted she can barely answer.
The next presenter comes wandering in the room getting ready to setup for her session. She asks how it went. Anna just looks at her and shakes her head dejectedly.
Anna walks out of the room vowing to never present again. It was a horrible experience that she never wants to repeat. She leaves behind 40 slips of paper that rate her session as a 5 out of 5. She misses the comments that state that this was one of the best sessions that they’ve seen and how her explanation of parameter sniffing finally made them get it and that they can’t wait to take all that they’ve learned back to the office and explain it to the devs and DBAs so that they can get it too.
The community just lost a great speaker who can reach people on topics and that has a wealth of experience behind her.
To SQLSaturday and User Group Event Organizers
Anna is just a single example of what new speakers run into constantly. I’ve seen this happen first hand to new presenters. It’s not pretty and it’s not right. Public speaking is a deep held fear for most people, so standing up in front of an audience is a very scary proposition.
I would like to make a suggestion that, in my opinion, should be implemented at all events. When someone is new (or newer) to speaking given them a “buddy.” Pair them up with a more experienced speaker who has done the circuit, is comfortable in front of a room, and knows how to handle a crowd or a question. Give that new speaker a friendly face in the room.
Does it make a difference? Ask Anna what it would have been like if she had been able to look out and see someone give her a smile and a nod, just letting her know that she was doing a good job.
How much easier would it have been if Anna had someone to help her get setup on the projector?
What about someone to stand up when and ask if the intense questions could be taken offline so that a more in depth discussion could take place to provide the answers that were being asked for?
How would Anna have felt if someone had asked the gentleman berating her to please stop and raise any big issues after the presentation? Or backed up what Anna had been saying?
If someone had been there would Anna have been as exhausted when things were done? Would she have quickly skipped over peoples questions? Or would she have been engaged, and thrilled that people wanted to hang out and ask about the things she presented? Would she have walked out of the room deciding to never present again, or would she have eagerly grabbed the feedback papers and gone through them trying to gauge peoples feelings?
The chances are that Anna would have walked out feeling tired, but great about what she did. She would have been talking away with her “buddy” about what worked, what didn’t, and asking if they had any idea what happened with that demo that went wrong. They would walk away, tweak the session some, add some things, remove some things, fix that demo and move on to submit and present at another event.
On top of that Anna would have made at least one friend that day. The “buddy” never really goes away. It’s someone that they keep in contact with, talk to every once in a while, and bounce new ideas off of. The community grows by one new fully engaged member.
To New Speakers
If you are a first time or reasonably new speaker and are feeling nervous about giving that presentation, speak to the event organizers. Ask them ahead of time if there is someone who might be able to come sit in your session to provide some support.
Should you get no assistance or response from the organizers then try to find someone yourself. For a local user group look to find folks who go regularly and drop them a line, see if you can get together beforehand. For a SQL Saturday ask people in the speaker room; scary though they may seem they are really decent people who would be more than happy to help.
Don’t ever feel like you have to go out there alone. There are always options to get someone on your side.
- Organizers: don’t let new speakers go out and present without giving them individual support
- Presenters: if the organizer doesn’t help you, find someone who can be in the room when you present to give you some support
Last week was the 2012 Summit. I thought I might just provide some interesting data points rather than give you a bunch of talk about the awesome presentations I saw, people I met, and things I did.
|Sessions I left early||1|
|Time spent in keynote 1:||100|
|Time wasted attending keynote 2:||45|
|Flashmobs danced in:||1|
|Sponsored events attended outside of Summit:||4|
|# nights at Bush Gardens||1|
|# days pants were worn||1|
|Best session award:||Adam Machanic|
|Funniest stalker award:||Mike Fal|
The 2012 PASS Summit is coming up in November and the board have decided that they want everyone to be free to enjoy the conference without having to worry about harassment. As such they have posted an anti-harassment policy that applies to all attendees at all Summit (and PASS sponsored social) events. You can find the policy over at http://www.sqlpass.org/summit/2012/AntiHarassment.aspx
There have been serious problems at other tech conferences which has led to people (in particular women) to not attend. Valerie Aurora wrote about harassment as the reason why she would not be attending DEFCON over at http://adainitiative.org/2012/08/defcon-why-conference-harassment-matters/ and she is exactly right to call this out.
I admire that PASS have taken it on their own initiative to put together a policy, and I agree with it in almost every regard. My one issue comes in the final sentence of the Participant Behavior section (emphasis mine):
Similarly, sexual, racist, derogatory, threatening, or other inappropriate language and imagery are not appropriate for any conference venue, including sessions.
This is such an open ended point. What is inappropriate language and who gets to set that standard? Are we going to be held to the “7 dirty words”?
I didn’t grow up in the US and I have a different standard around what words are ok to say here (gets me in trouble at times). It goes farther than swearing though. What if a christian, in all good faith, starts talking of God to an atheist, or an atheist tells a christian that their beliefs are wrong. Either way this could be easily considered inappropriate by the other party. That then will go before the Anti-Harassment Review Committee who will decide on whether or not the policy has been violated. Given that there is no published guidance around this it could easily lead to someone getting kicked out, after all
I personally would like to see the policy amended around this point with either stronger guidance as to what does and does not constitute inappropriate language or that part struck out.
It’s the end of January and the price of attendance to the PASS Summit 2012 is about to go up.
Today you can register for $1,095 (that’s 50% off the full price). Tomorrow that price goes up. Get in now and save some bucks. The price only goes up by $100, but with you having the option of pre-purchasing the Summit DVD set for $125 when you register. That means by registering today you can get all the sessions delivered to you for only $25. Now THAT is a bargain.