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

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.



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 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!!

Thank You To an Awesome Sponsor

There are 3 kinds of people who keep our user groups and sql saturdays going. They are loyal speakers, sponsors and volunteers. We took extra care to reward our speakers this time – particularly those who have been returning to us every year for the past five years. For sponsors – it is difficult to offer any ‘rewards’. Sponsors are the reason behind our free lunches, our swag, our giveaways…This post is a humble thank you to one of the best sponsors there is. Idera Software has kindly sponsored our user group lunches for 4 years now, and all our 5 sql saturdays as Gold Sponsors. Without them it would be really really hard to keep both the user group meetings as well as sql saturdays going. We are proof and testimony to their commitment to community and we greatly appreciate it. This picture is our volunteer team expressing our thanks.On behalf of all volunteers and attendees of Louisville SQL Saturday – THANK YOU IDERA, YOU ROCK!

SQL Saturday 2012 – Lessons learnt

We had our fifth SQL Saturday at Louisville this year. It was an awesome day of free training and networking, with a record attendance of over 200 people and 35 sessions on 7 tracks. Our venue was at the School of Business at University of Louisville. Some of the lessons learnt and experiences we had as  organizers are as below.

1 Pre Cons/Day before:
I have written a separate post covering pre cons themselves. Generally having pre cons at the same location gave us a huge breather in terms of organizing – usually we only get the location the day before – and stay there until late night setting up. This allowed us to put up signs, fill bags and get tables and swag organized a whole day earlier. Many volunteers could enjoy the speaker dinner and show up far less stressed the next day because of this. While it is tough to get the same premises again without interruptions on a working day, the advantages are tempting and we will try to make this happen in similar ways next time.

2 Signs: We made a significant investment in getting good signage this time, and it paid off really well.Many people appreciated the signs, and not too many complained of being lost.

3 Speaker Dinner: We wanted to pick up the tab on speaker dinner this time since we had not done so in the past. The Bristol Bar and Grille provided good food with local flavor at a reasonable price and well within our budget .Most speakers and attendees enjoyed the dinner.

4 SpeedPass:
This was our first experience using speedpass. We were a little skeptical to be honest – since a lot of our attendees show up with barely any info/paperwork on them even for paid conferences. The location did not have any fast printers, and it didn’t seem practical to have inkjet printers on us. Printers are pretty heavy to lug around and set up, and we had enough to do without that as overhead. So we made printouts of name tags and raffle tickets, to be safe. Approximately 20-30% of attendees showed up with no printouts, much lower than what we thought. So while the printouts were useful – speedpass largely worked for us and we will use it again.

5 Vendor Area:
Setting up vendor area went very smoothly and all vendors were appreciative of the experience.This is also a landmark event for us in terms of finding local vendor support – we had four local vendors, two of whom was gold sponsors.All of them seemed extremely happy with the experience.

6 Lunch – Our usual vendor Jason’s Deli did a great job this time also with delivering quality food on time at very affordable prices. The only hassle with lunch was that no food was allowed in classrooms and people had difficulties finding areas to sit and eat. This is one of our action items to work on for next year.

7 Speakers and Sessions – Our speakers were a mix of those who were loyal to us and proven good speakers, and new speakers who had submitted interesting sessions. We have recieved great feedback on most, and some small complaints on others. As is the norm this will be considered for selection next year. It is heartening to note that the list of ‘loyalists’ or proven good speakers grows every year, we regard this as an extremely healthy trend.

8 Session timings – We timed sessions to last one hour each with 15 minutes for questions. It seemed to satisfy most speakers – a couple of attendee feedback comments indicated that some were ‘rambling to fill time’ 🙂 We are not sure if this is serious enough for any kind of action – but we will let speakers know of the duration well ahead of time.

9 Professional Growth – We had a dedicated track to professional growth this time that included an awesome panel of speakers for Women in Technology and many other useful sessions. Unfortunately these sessions had very thin attendance – I have seen Professional growth suffer low attendance even in PASS summit so this is nothing unusual but i personally believe many speakers on this track deserved better. Perhaps having the WIT session at lunch and scheduling some of the other sessions around the technical sessions instead of a dedicated track might help in this regard. This is something to experiment with for next year.

All in all the event was a huge success. With 35 tracks and 230 people signing in, 4 local vendors and 4 national vendors, it was bigger than any we had ever hosted. We were proud and happy to have provided quality free learning yet again, and look forward to next year already.

SQL Saturday 122 – Addressing attendee feedback

Most organizers including me usually write one post covering the entire event. This year I decided to break it up into multiple posts simply because the lessons are many and the audience for each post is different – a post on budgeting would probably interest organizers a lot more than an attendee. This post is for attendees, addressing some of their feedback.

A lot of attendees have never been to a sql saturday. A lot of attendees have, but do not know much on basics of how these events operate. At every one of the five events we have hosted – I have explained to wide eyed attendees (including one microsoft employee this time) that this is a completely free event, and nobody makes a dime out of doing it – the organizers as well as speakers, all do it for free, just for the pleasure of learning and community. To add to that a few more facts –

1 There is a lot of feedback on having more vendors and more swag. Starting with vendors – we are thrilled to have as many vendors as we can possibly have and we try very hard to sell our event to as many as possible. But how many vendors we actually get is a combo of budgeting decisions vendors make and the luck factor. This year has been a landmark year for us in terms of finding local vendor support – VSoft Consulting and SIS, both local consulting companies, came in as a Gold Sponsors. New Horizons, another local training company came in as a silver sponsor. Lakeshore Consulting sponsored breakfast, and Republic bank gave us swag bags, as well as 10 attendees for our pre cons. We hope to get more of their support going forward too. As for national vendors, we still had four of them – Quest, Idera, Confio and PASS. But they have a huge choice of events, some events much bigger than ours – we understand that and we have to live with the choices they make.

2 On to SWAG and give aways- many vendors have cut down on swag material due to budgeting decisions. SWAG is cool for an attendee but in reality it is extremely hard to handle – someone has to store it before distribution and someone has to keep the leftovers after, that takes up room in their homes and garages, space that they would rather keep their personal stuff in. Truthfully having less swag has given us more time and energy to organize other parts of the event better. Give aways again, are a vendor call. We do not control any of the decisions they make – if they have an IPad or not, and if they have 3 gift cards instead of one.

3 To clarify both points again – all SQL saturdays are not funded the same. Some of them get 10x more funding than we do (and no, not 10 times more people or more sessions!!). It is a vendor decision to offer more funding to some events and less to others – so if you are at an event with several ipads or television give aways or karaoke parties, do remember that we didn’t get as much funding as they did to make those things happen.The main goal of a sql saturday is in two words ‘free learning’. Any feedback you can give us to make that better can and will be greatly appreciated – but free giveaways and swag are not likely to get on the improvement list easily.

4 Space for lunch – We realize that not having enough tables and eating areas around was a significant issue for several attendees. The location is given to us for free (we cannot afford most paid locations with such facilities). Their request was not to allow food in classrooms – which we had to accomodate in return for 7 awesome classrooms and some vendor display space. This limited networking opportunites and also took away valuable time from having well attended lunch sessions such as WIT or Toastmasters.This is definitely on top of our list of things to improve for next year.

5 Post event party – This is again one thing that comes up for discussion every year and has not happened yet, for several reasons.On top of them is the fact that our small and committed team of volunteers are tired to the bone towards the end of the day. Heading to a party is frankly the last thing on our minds, and it is difficult to have a party without atleast one person there making sure things are going ok. We considered having a job fair kind of a party this time – but the recruiting companies we worked with had already signed up as vendors and done their networking at the event itself.  Lastly, most bars are packed in and around Louisville on friday and saturday nights, and we cannot book any of them for you without dropping a significant sum of $ which we would gladly use for other purposes. All said ,this is also on our improvement list for next year and the goal is to make it happen.

6 ‘Missing’ or bad lunch payments – A couple of attendees claimed they had paid and were showing up as not. There are 3 ways to track a lunch payment – one is if they have a lunch coupon, two is if they have the paypal receipt for the payment, and three is if they show up on our list as paid. If none of the three are available it is really very hard to attach payment to the person or prove he paid (in all probability he just thought he did and didn’t). We did have spare lunches but it was against rules of the school to accept cash payments on site, and also would have been unfair to paid attendees. So all we can say in this regard is to keep your tickets and payment proof handy.

The remarks on various speaker sessions have been taken seriously and passed on to the speakers. We hope you have considered giving them same/similar feedback on the paper forms that were available in each session. Speaker feedback is taken very seriously by speakers and organizers but with reasonable limits attached – so if you went to a design session and complain that you didn’t’ get something to ‘act upon’ immediately (unless you are half way through designing something that is unlikely) – it is really not the speaker’s fault. We have also noted the requests for more developer sessions and will try to accomodate this as well.

Last but not the least – SQL Saturdays happen on a global level, in all countries and all communities. The last place where you expect a racist remark is on feedback for an event, but this time I got one. This person accused ‘one community’ of ‘dominating the event’ and that ‘knowledge is not enough but communication skills are important as well’. Being an organizer has nothing glamorous to it – it is not a position of ‘authority’ or ‘domination’ in any way. You are lucky as an organizer if you get committed volunteers to share your load, like I do. It is a task that makes huge demands on your personal time, makes you handle a lot of $ that is not really yours but you are accountable for it just the same – you get nothing out of it other than a few compliments here and there and you do it just the same because you love the community and the team work. I am a US citizen and living in this country for 17 years now. My team is as american as apple pie. If anything  we did upset this person all I can say is more constructive feedback would be appreciated, and references to communities/domination etc is just plain hurtful.

Judging from the overwhelming number of personal compliments many of us got, and the fact that almost 95 percent of our attendees who responded to the survey want to come back next year and the remaining 5 percent are just a ‘dont know’ – we have done most things right. Now is the time to kick back and relax a while..until next year..thank you everyone!!

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