From #23 to #403 – 8 years of SQL Saturday

Many of us are more capable than some of us, but none of us is as capable as all of us.” Tom Wilson

SQL Saturday 403 marks 8 contiguous years of SQL Saturdays in Louisville – which I have had the pleasure of running. I have learnt many, many lessons during these 8 years – lessons on how to run an event on a budget and unpredictable funding, logistics around finding restaurants/caterers, what audience looks for,  what vendors look for, when is the right time and season for an event, who are the right speakers to pick, on and on. But the most important lesson among them all is one of team spirit. Good teams are self managing, where members enjoy what they do,thrive in each other’s company and do it for the love over anything else. I am fortunate to have been blessed with such a team to run our SQL Saturday.

A SQL Saturday team needs to have many skills – we need people who are good at marketing and selling the event to vendors and attendees, we need people who can order food/suggest restaurants/caterers etc, we need people who can do registration and structured work, and we need those invaluable hands who can do just about anything as needed. My team has been with me for 7 years – in the course of which we have lost and gained several people. I lost the person who did our marketing last year, which was one reason why our funding as well as attendance suffered. I was looking for someone with this talent to come on board – when I heard of John Morehouse moving to our town. I had heard of John’s passion for community and the great show they put up at Omaha sql Saturday and invited him onto our team immediately. Along with John we also had Chris Yates – who has been a twitter friend and community enthusiast for a while. Between John and Chris our marketing rocked the attendance and funding like nothing else before.  Some of the highlights of our event this year are as below –

1 We had 254 who registered – about 220 showed up. The registration is the highest to date.
2 Our funding was also highest to date and possibly the highest one has for events of our size.
3 Our signage as always was done very professionally by long time volunteer Deana Ritter. The flutter sign in  particular has become a cheerful landmark of our yearly events and one that is unfailingly appreciated by many people. Deana and her assistant volunteer Bill Murray get on the streets as early as 5 30 AM to put out signs near the highway for attendees coming in to the event.
4 Our sign ins and registration was ably handled by long time volunteer Karen Schuler. Karen is a cheerful presence for every attendee who walks in the door (directing those without speedpass to ‘table of shame’ :)). Speedpass was hugely successful this year with only around 25 people needing printouts at the venue.
5 Our lunch was catered by Mark’s Feed Store – it was hot bbq lunch and greatly appreciated by attendees. Volunteers James King and Bill Murray worked very hard to get arrangements in place to ensure smooth serving, no spillage or damage to carpet in the venue, as well as a cost effective arrangement to suit our budget.
6 All our swag was delivered to long time volunteer Dave Ingram, who carefully brought in every single package without a murmur (and there were many!!).
7 Our snacks, sodas, ice etc were ably taken care of by speaker cum volunteer Kenney Snell.
8 Our event cameraman was TJ Crivits – who has  captured the event in many memorable shots. Personally I see myself going through these when am old and still thinking of what fun it was doing all this. TJ also did a great job with getting the lunch leftovers carted away efficiently to a local soup kitchen.
9 Last but not the least is our volunteer cum speaker cum chapter lead Dave Fackler – whose many mailings helped immensely with publicity to the event. Dave also manned the table for PASS at the event.

During the 8 years of doing SQL Saturdays – we have had great events, good events and events which are kinda okay. We’ve had food deliveries that were missed, key volunteers who could not make it at the very last minute because of personal or work issues, venues that threatened to cancel on us because of weather (one day before, and yes that was our last and will be our last winter event, ever!) , vendors who backed out on sending funds..on and  on. This event was one that did not have any such issue , and was a complete, total success. I am proud and happy to close it out and look forward to event #9, and then soon, a whole decade of SQL Saturdays!!

Links related to our event:
1 Why we speak and volunteer for SQL Saturdays – by Dave Fackler.
2 SQL Sat 403 – Recap by Chris Yates
and one of the best geeky examples of using Powershell to tweet event info –
3 SQL Saturday Speaker Marketing with Powershell – by John Morehouse

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Detours

detourWhen I was new to driving in the States, one of the signs that would make me end up with a panic attack was the ‘Detour’ sign. I grew up in a community that was largely pedestrian, and I developed my road sense mostly by walking. If I walk down a street – chances are pretty high that I will remember that street for some time. Many americans have the same kind of road sense with driving. I was not born here, I learnt to drive much later in life and did not have that. So, in the pre GPS days – whenever a sign appeared that said ‘Detour’ – I would have a panic attack. I did not know the alternate road and where it joined up with the one I was on. I did not know where it would take me and how I would find my way back to where I was supposed to go. But the detour signs did not stop appearing because I did not like them. I had to find a way to develop a better road sense – it would never be as evolved as the one I grew up with but I needed it for sure.

As far as career choices go – I had similar issue a couple of years ago. I had quit my stable DBA job which I had for 6 years and made a move to another position in a company that was being bought out. The writing was on the wall that many of us would be let go soon and I had to find something else quickly. In addition to that – I was in a serious car accident and suffering PTSD which was causing severe insomnia, amongst various other issues. I had no energy to get acclamatised to a completely new and stressful work environment. So I went with what my heart told me, picked up the phone and called a friend from the company I had left. He was not a SQL guy, he managed the windows team there – he had a spot open on his team, for someone who could do Systems Center operations manager, among other things. They had newly acquired SCOM and SCCM and were having a hard time finding experienced help. SCOM is a product closely married to SQL Server – I saw an opportunity to help, and I loved the people I was going to be working with. So I took the job, and worked it for a year and a half until I quit a week ago for another promising DBA position. There were many things I learnt during this career detour –
1 Most SQL folks I know suffer a sort of a paranoid attachment to their work – ‘I can only do SQL Server and nothing else’. Even the mention of Oracle or MySQL is intimidating and is met with ‘no no, not my area of interest and so on’. Some of the fear is valid – Oracle for example is not an easy product to learn and there is no point pretending you can just learn it as you go and get somewhere with it. But some of it is just resistance to change. There are many products married to SQL Server – like SCOM. Or SharePoint. There are many other database products that are relatively simple to learn – like MySQL. So it is important to look at our resistance to branching out into learning other stuff.

2 My good friend Brent Ozar often says that it takes upto 10,000 hours of dedicated learning to learn anything and get to expert level. I learnt from him not to have that expectation to begin with unless I had the luxury of that kind of time – it was important because setting goals too high and then failing was sort of a self sabotage too that was hindering my growth at many levels. I developed some skills with SCOM – by no means expert level but I learnt good scripting on vbscript and a basic level on Powershell. I also learnt a lot of things around monitoring – including the fact that generic monitoring tools can do certain things and we need deeper monitoring tools mostly for other things. Also to develop dashboards and metrics around mining a monitoring database – and how useful that can be to upper management if they are willing to exploit it.

3 I kept a constant eye though on my main area of expertise – SQL Server and database technologies. I kept up my learning with viewing courses on Pluralsight, PASS Summit recordings and attending sql Saturdays/user group meetings. I learnt after a certain period of time that becoming a SCOM expert was not something I really wanted to do and got back on track with SQL Server again.

By far the most valuable lesson I learnt though – was similar to the one I learnt on the road. Not to fear detours. They can and they will happen. To develop a ‘road sense’ of where I am, and where am going, and how my path will sync up to the one I was on. It has left me with renewed confidence in myself and my ability to handle life as it comes.

 

User Group Funding: Twitter Chat summary

I was part of a very interesting chat on twitter on how to find funding for user groups and SQL Saturdays. The conversation was initiated by Brent Ozar with an RT of Andy Warren’s blog post stating that running chapters is a lot of hard work. It was followed up with an active discussion on funding and how to find more funding to support chapters, particularly smaller ones. Those who participated include – Brent Ozar, Grant Fritchey, Kendal Van Dyke and Andy Warren. Matt Velic and me added our thoughts also. Following are some interesting observations.

On funding for small groups:

Me: ‘Funding for small groups has become inconsistent after UGSS and Idera pulled out of consistently sponsoring.’
Kendal: ‘Ideally that’s where SQLSaturday activities can help fund the group for the year.’
Matt: ‘SQL Sat would have to charge a fair amount to fund for a whole year’.
Brent: ‘Charge $25 for SQLSaturday,still the deal of the century’.
Andy:’Hard to justify cost/effort/reward for small groups if you’re a sponsor. Have to find ways to change that’.
Kendal: ‘Having a marketing plan, good look/feel, consistent messaging – all help bring in more sponsors.’
Grant:’ Fact is, small UGs suffer. I know. Trick is, minimize your needs, don’t emulate big groups.’

On topics and speakers:
The topic deviated to if or finding big-name speakers was important or as important as topics. I spoke to my experience that big names draw big crowds – at user groups or sql Saturdays. Others chimed in as below.

Brent:There’s less of a “celebrity” factor in the SQL community than folks think.For most attendees, local presenters *are* stars.
Andy: ‘Topic matters as much, or more.’
Grant : ‘ Another vote for more. Topic wins huge. I’m seeing that more & more.’
Grant: ”Fight like heck to get big name speakers, even if it’s just remote.’

On drawing bigger crowds of people :
We had some debates on quality versus quantity of people. Charging a fee might mean fewer people but draw those who are really interested.
Brent – ‘Vendors want quality too, not just quantity’.
Grant – ‘Speaking as a vendor, we want quality, but let’s face it, quantity has a quality of it’s own.’

Everyone agreed that Andy had done a great job with Orlando SQL Saturday and also with blogging consistently on these issues. We look forward to more posts and guidance from him (with other thoughts and ideas also). as we move forward into the next year.

 

 

Finding new goals…

The sudden and sad demise of the #sqlmcm program had me thinking on many levels..particularly on future goals and aspirations, and on how to market myself.

To give an introduction of some sort – in my younger years I was not particularly in favor of degrees or certifications. I was strongly of the belief that experience, interest to learn and creativity were the ‘real’ stuff that got you places. I dropped out of a high tech engineering program where I was 1 out of 300 people selected from among nearly 60,000 people who took it, and chose to pursue my life and career based on what I believed I had – interest in technology, creativity and hard work. Needless to say, it was not an easy journey. Particularly in a country like India where degrees and certifications were almost a cultural obsession. After a few years of working poorly paid jobs I went back to school for my masters. My masters degree and the process of doing it taught me many positive things. One, that having a hard goal – such as an exam or someone to rate me gave me better focus than learning on my own. Two, degrees helped you get through visas and other places where you do not have personal interaction with whoever is handling your stuff, and three, it helped you find community among others who had similar degrees. I never went crazy about degrees or certifications, but I did learn their place in the world, the hard way.

In the sql server world, there are many paths to progress. The most common one, by far, is by speaking/blogging/becoming a technical evangelist. There are many without MCM who have gone this way and been remarkably successful. But speaking and blogging unfortunately are not everybody’s goal nor does everyone have the time needed for it. To me – as someone who has a lot of food allergies, travelling intensively is really not a good goal to have. I have tried blogging but my time for it is rather limited and also not had success coming up with something creative to write about, I guess again that needs a lot of experimentation. That is part of the reason I picked the MCM as a possible goal. I was also interested in being differentiated from the average brain dump MCITP down the street by getting to be an MCM – and I did find this a worthy goal. Even saying you are pursuing an MCM at an interview got a lot of appreciative nods and interest. It also got employers to pay for good training programs such as those offered by #sqlskills, which they otherwise would not understand the value of.

Now with that certification gone we are back to the world where there is really not much by way of proof to tell an average employer how different you are from brain dump MCITPs. If you are like me into doing community work such as organizing sql Saturdays or running user groups you may want to use that to some extent but not everyone is highly impressed by community work to hire you, or even give you pointers to jobs (including people in the community itself). And to many of us it is not just about career growth or progress, it is also about acceptance among people you respect and acknowledge.

There is a scene in one of my favorite movies ‘A Beautiful Mind’ – where Professor John Nash – played by Russell Crowe, gets accepted and acknowledged for his intelligence after a nobel nomination. The other professors walk over slowly to him and hand him pens as a token of their respect and his acceptance into their club. I have a pen with the ‘Microsoft certified master’ printed on it – a little gift from the #sqlskills class I attended some years ago. It was my goal and the goal of many others I know to be accepted like John Nash was into the elite #mcm community. It is a sad day to have that taken away from us. It is my sincere hope and wish that all of us will find bigger and better goals to pursue.

SQL Saturday Richmond – 2013

My friend Karen and me decided to drive out to Richmond and attend their SQL Saturday this past week. We have had several people from Richmond and the Washington DC area attend our events – we wanted to go there too. The other reasons were that the speaker line up was very attractive and there were several friends I had known via SQLCruise and PASS Community in general who were going to be attending. We left Louisville the morning of Friday the 8th and reached Richmond by around 6 pm in the evening. It was a pleasant, scenic drive through the mountains and weather was cooperative to the extent it could be for winter.

After a good night’s rest and dinner we arrived at the event location by 8.00 am the next day. There were several signs posted that made it very easy to locate the building in the campus of University of Richmond. Check in was very quick and easy with speed pass printouts – we were handed our swag bags with event schedule. There was coffee and bagels available for a breakfast.

My first class of the day was ‘Building a virtual lab’ by Matt Velic. I have been struggling with labs for many days and I found the session useful – although Matt had lots of material to cover and time did not seem to suffice. I was encouraged to know that he had made a book out of the process – it is on my list of things to download and work further with.

The next two classes I attended were ‘Windowing Functions in 2012’ by Kevin Boles and ‘Branding yourself for a dream job’ by Steve Jones. I have been wanting to attend Steve’s session for a very long time and go to do it finally. He gave some great tips on prudent use of social media and its importance in networking – also on using networking to find the next job. I greatly enjoyed it.

Lunch included many selections including two for vegetarians – and came as a neatly wrapped box of pasta salad, sandwich,fruit salad and cookies. For $5 it is about the best bargain I have seen so far and was very tastefully done. I ate lunch at the Women in Technology session on ‘Breaking the glass ceiling’ – moderated by Kevin Kline. The panel included Karen Lopez, Melissa Coates and Stacia Misner. I have attended many WIT sessions before but this one was definitely memorable and greatly useful for the many insights provided by the panelists – particularly Karen Lopez, on salary negotiation and behavior models of women in the male dominated techie world. Kevin also raised the question of numbers of women in technology across the world – and it was one I could provide some insight on.

I spent an extra hour on networking in the afternoon – something I have felt very necessary to do, especially at an event where I knew so many people. It was a valuable experience and made me understand the need to rethink the habitual pattern of running from class to class. I attended two sessions – one by Michael Corey of Ntirety on Virtualizing SQL Server, and the other by John Welch on Big Data. Both were packed with information and made for worthy use of my time.

The day ended with raffles and closing remarks. A mini slide show highlighted the volunteers and sponsors. Many prizes were raffled off including one for those who provided event feedback. We said goodbye to many friends including organizers,speakers and attendees and left for home, greatly satisfied.

As an organizer of many sql saturdays – am well aware of and always appreciative of the efforts that go into  making an event successful. I wish to communicate my hearty congratulations to the Richmond team for providing a memorable event for 2013 – hope you get some much needed rest until another event comes along!

SQL Cruise 2013

I had the opportunity to go on yet another SQL Cruise in 2013. This time our trip was to the Carribean Isles – St Maarten, US Virgin Islands and the Bahamas. In addition to some great opportunities for training and networking the cruise was a relaxing and enriching experience with great food and great opportunities for sightseeing in new land(s). Below is my summary of the experience – if you want to skip my rambling notes and get to what I got out of it please scroll at the way down to the last paragraph 🙂

Day 0- 25th January 2012: I landed at Miami late Friday evening. The cruise crowd met up with local sql server user group members and had a small get together by the pool at the hotel where we stayed.We were also given our sql cruise swag (big bag of goodies from various sponsors).It was a good opportunity to warm up to the cruise and get to know fellow cruisers.

Day 1 – The first day was marked by a breakfast get-together at the hotel we stayed in. It was a good meal and an opportunity to get to know new cruiser Mickey Stuewe and also catch up with Kevin Kline, Bruce Sacrisante and several others. Kevin was also kind to sponsor our ride to the dock in a taxi. The check in was crowded and the ship was much larger than the one I had been in Alaska. We were finally in by noon and met up again for lunch. That was followed by room check in. I took the evening off to nap and settle in – and missed the ‘search the ship’ contest which is a lot of fun. But I simply could not find energy to do it after a long day.

Day 2 – The first day at sea was marked by breakfast followed by Kevin Kline’s class on communication ‘Influence vs Authority’.  Kevin has always been one of my favorite teachers in the community particularly in areas of professional growth and this class was no exception. I learnt a lot about using different styles of communication with different people (so different from the default same cut for all that most techies are used to).I was also impressed by Kevin’s suggestion to keep a printout of various styles so that one may refer to them constantly and make it a habit. That is something I have adopted and has helped in atleast two situations so far.After a great lunch the afternoon session was Allen White’s ‘Powershell 101’. I have attended this session a couple of times before but always find it uniformly interesting and inspiring to get to learn Powershell. This session was followed by  ‘How to be an Enterprise DBA – Part I’ by Sean Mccown. Sean discussed automation strategies, communication strategies and various situations faced by DBAs who handle several servers in large shops. I found it very interesting and useful. The evening was marked by networking hour on the deck followed by formal dinner. The dinner discussion at the table I was centered around mid life challenges with finding jobs, and being a generalist versus a specialist. It provided many insights.

Day 3 – This day was again at sea and marked by a continuation of Sean Mccown’s session on being an Enterprise DBA. It was accompanied by an invigorating discussion on many challenges faced in handling DBA work in enterprise shops. After lunch the class continued with Ryan Adams teaching Active Directory terminologies and usage as applicable to SQL Server. I learnt more on many terms that I did not know in great detail about. The evening was again marked by networking – also called ‘Office Hour’. I was impressed and happy with the fact that cruisers had some time to themselves in the evening to network on their own or explore the huge ship at leisure.

 Day 4 – We docked at St Maarten today. I took a guided tour to a Butterfly Farm followed by a short exploration of the beach and some shopping. The Butterfly farm was the backyard of a canadian scientist – a sunny garden full of flowers, with only a thin mosquito net for protection and hundreds of butterflies gracing the space. It was a truly spectacular and interesting visit. The multi cultural nature of the tiny island (partly owned by the French and partly by the Dutch), and the lifestyle of the local people (very little fresh water or agriculture, tourism main industry) was interesting to observe. After a long day we met up for networking again and then retired early.

Day 5: We docked at St John’s, an island part of the US Virgin Islands today. It was a gorgeously beautiful summer day. I was torn between joining the group on their trip to a private beach or going on the tour I planned — the eco hike of the island, and finally ended up doing the latter. The hike was a short 3 mile walk through the rocky island landscape, with many gorgeous views of the beaches. We also spent two hours at Honeymoon beach, a small beach with smooth white sand and the bluest beautiful waters ever. I regretfully made my way back to the boat around 2 pm. St John’s is definitely among the most beautiful scenic places I have seen in my lifetime. We met up again for networking and dinner in the evening, most conversation centered around our sightseeing experiences that day.

Day 6: This was a day at sea. Our class started with Neil Hambly teaching Memory Management. I liked Neil’s style of teaching and learnt many tips from the presentation. It was followed by Kevin Kline’s session on SQL Server Internals. Although I have attended the session before it was a great refresher on things one needs to know. This was followed by Ryan Adams teaching Policy Based Management. In the evening we met up for a semi formal dinner at the same restaurant. My memories of the dinner center around the gluten free, sugar free peach cobbler ordered by Mickey Stuewe and shared by some of us. It was truly a memorable guilt free dessert experience 🙂

Day 7: Our last day of the cruise began with Allen White teaching ‘Powershell for Performance’. I was very impressed by scripts he used to do performance monitoring and display graphs as reports. The ship docked at the Bahamas for the afternoon. I spent the afternoon on a swimming experience with dolphins at the resort we were close to. It was truly unforgettable but left little time for anything else. The weather at the Bahamas was also chilly due to a storm front coming in. Our last evening was marked by a great get together after dinner with plenty of jokes and good humor. I took leave of the party with many warm feelings, friendships made and gratitude for a great week of learning and networking.

There are a few things I learnt from the cruise. First of them perhaps is that it has given me an opportunity to make friends easily – I am one of those people who is often perceived as a strong introvert, although am really not that much of a shy or reserved person. My personality type is more of an ‘ambivert’ or ‘centrovert’ as they call it – I take time to warm up to people though and am not an ‘instant mixer’. To add to that is all the complexities of having spent half a lifetime in another culture and the strong stereotype around asian women. I would probably not have much to contribute in a conversation that centers strongly around american food, or alcohol or music but I do like jokes of any kind and enjoy conversations where people give room for differences and have time to listen. SQL Cruise allows for that, and has helped me make many good friends among the people I have cruised with so far. I have been enriched by their stories and their experiences and hopefully they learnt some from mine too. I am also always someone up for checking out new lands and exploring new places – it is just the trip for someone interested in all that .I was able to add 3 new places to my list and that makes me greatly thrilled. Lastly is the invaluable experience of technical learning and being around people who have been successful and good at what they do, for extended periods of time. There are many conferences/sql saturdays and various events but none that give you the opportunity to do all of this in one week. 

I would highly encourage any person interested in growing their career in SQL Server to try SQL Cruise. You will want to come back for more, I promise. I want to thank the sponsors – SQL Sentry, Idera, Red Gate and Confio for making this possible for the SQL Community – in addition to Tim and Amy Ford, for their great organizing skills and also for the fun and enriching company of their entire family.

SQL Saturday 154 – St Louis

I attended SQL Saturday 154 at St Louis last weekend. I was particularly keen to attend this event since it was organized by my friends at St Louis (Sanil Mhatre,Julie Bloominquest, Kathie Kellenberger, and others) who have been regular attendees at all of our events at Louisville. It was also their first sql saturday. I arrived late on friday and checked in at Crowne Plaza, the hotel assigned to the event. It was very comfortable,reasonably priced and close to the event location – which helped me not rent a car. The next day morning I finished breakfast at the hotel and walked to the event. It was a short and pleasant walk. I had left my speedpass printout at home but the team was quick to print me a copy, and I was set with my badge and swag bag in a few minutes. I was also able to get a good cup of coffee and settled in for my first session of the day – Dan Guzman’s ‘Maximising SQL Server Insert Performance’ – I learnt a few things particularly on benchmarking and measuring performance. The next session I attended was Arie Jones’s ‘Pwned..Security,SQL Server and you’. AJ is one of those people who can keep you listening for hours with the content and stories – and he was totally in his element today. I greatly enjoyed the presentation and learnt many new things about hacking techniques and security mechanisms to prevent them. After this session I had to head back to the hotel to check out, and returned in time for lunch. There were no lines and was able to get my sandwich easily – it was recommended to sit in classrooms, eat and listen in on vendor presentations. This was a great idea but for those of us who could not attend the post event, this was also the only time to socialize. I spent this hour socializing with many people I knew, and also with vendors. The only post lunch session I was able to attend before rushing to the airport was Kevin Boles’s ‘ Common TSQL mistakes’ –  another brilliant presentation packed with tips for every day use. I thoroughly enjoyed the session and left the event very satisfied with a good day’s learning.
As an organizer of 5 sql saturdays I happen to know the many pains and huge effort to pull off an event – and the effort put in by the team was obvious. Finding a space to host such an event for free is a huge challenge, but again bigger spaces are the only way events can grow – so perhaps a bigger space would help next time. Also, as Kendal Van Dyke pointed out in the SQL Saturday news letter – the most common feedback events get are around signage in and around the building. We learnt to make investments in signage and reuse them every year – something I have never regretted doing as an organizer – this could be considered.  A boxed lunch with all sides in one box would be better – in return for $10. Other than these small issues I felt the event was very well organized and look forward to attending the next one!!

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