The Student To IT Pro Seminar We’re Doing at SQLSaturday Orlando

Ever since SQLSaturday #1 our venue has been Seminole State College (Seminole Community College back then), provided graciously and perhaps more importantly, at no charge. Finding a venue is a big deal when it comes to planning an event and finding one that’s free, that’s harder! Putting a bunch of IT people on their campus is a win just by being there. Instructors from the school staff a table, answer questions, and more importantly, they ask questions. It’s a really good way to stay connected with the profession. What’s new? What’s changing? What are you focused on? It’s a pretty good focus group when you think about it.

Each year we invite students to attend including a free lunch, but attendance has always been low. Typically it would be a handful of students. Several years ago Jack Corbett and I visited the IT classes to invite students. Worth doing, but it didn’t change the numbers much. The students are trying to make it through class while paying the bills and/or managing a family and giving up a Saturday for something that may not even come close to what they hope to do is asking a lot. Even the content is a challenge, our “beginner” topics look pretty advanced to them.

This year I had the luxury of extra time/energy, so I went back to the college with a new idea. We’d set up a half day seminar just for the students. We’d cover networking, the value of community events, how to work with a staffing firm, common resume mistakes, and – being a SQL Server event – some coverage of databases at a very high level. We co-located it with SQLSaturday to simplify (we thought) the logistics and to try to give them the whole experience. We did a quick three slide deck and sent it to all the IT instructors asking them to encourage attendance and to consider making it an assignment for students. We added a room the schedule with capacity for 30 and set a goal of 20 attendees. We set up registration on EventBrite, thinking it would be useful to be able to see the attendees clearly and worrying about managing two lists instead of one. We did all of this before the fall semester started, so once in place we had to wait and see.

Once school started we saw some registrations and we quickly exceeded our capacity of 30 and started a waitlist. Success! Never content, I asked if we could get a bigger room and one was available, this one with a capacity of 60. More is better, except of course more costs more. Our lunch cost is about $9/person, so we were now talking about adding an unplanned $500 spend to the budget. We decided to proceed and then we hit 60. Now what? We debated switching to pizza to cut costs, but then we had to figure out how much pizza and have someone manage that, so we decided to just stick to the plan. The college found a room that would seat 100 so we set our limit at 120 to plan for some cancellations and went again. As of today we’re at about 75 registered with a  reminder email going out to them today.

Now to some lessons learned, so far.

Eventbrite turned out to be exactly the right call. Without it we’d be stuck with hoping they filled in “how did you hear about us” with “student” or hoping they used their college email address. Without it we’d have no way to cap/manage attendance separately from our regular attendees. That turned out to have an added benefit that we didn’t “spam” sponsor lists with leads with a very chance of immediate value. We’ll allow students to opt-in when they check-in for the seminar and if they do, that list will go to the sponsors who can decide whether or not to use it.

The seminar ended up being quite a distance from the main event, requiring a separate check-in table and staff. Good and bad. We’d have two lists anyway, but it does take them out of the flow and confusion and fun of the event.

On the money side, we decided to include them in the regular lunch. We’ll all troop over after the seminar is complete. Beyond that though, by NOT having them on the SQLSaturday list we’re not providing them with an event bag, raffle tickets, and whatever else. Again this takes them out of the event flow some, but manages our money (and that of the sponsors by managing who gets the collateral they send). We worried that this was too removed, so we’re going to spend $200 on raffle prizes for the students and do that raffle before we break for lunch. We’re inviting the students to attend the afternoon sessions, but it’s optional. We don’t mind spending, just a matter of making sure we spend wisely.

We’ve had some that dual-registered, so we had to go back and try to clean up the attendee list for SQLSaturday just to make sure we had a good count. That dropped us just below 500 for a while. I can see where it’s confusing for students, something to do better next year.

We’re having to design a quick eval for the seminar, one more task we didn’t plan on (if an obvious one).

Talking about it so far, we’re debating whether we’d be better off next year to hold it 1 or 2 weeks prior to SQLSaturday. That would streamline the message, we could then do pizza, and we – the organizers – would have more time to devote to it and more time afterward for questions. We’d then invite them to SQLSaturday, but there would be a huge fall off. Do we care about getting them to SQLSaturday, or helping them? The latter of course but can we do both? Should we? Is there a new brand needed there? One event not yet complete isn’t a template yet, but it could be!

On top of all of that we’re not sure if we have enough room. With registration at 535 + 75 students, the afternoon could be very very packed. We just don’t have many options for rooms with larger capacity, so we may have to add a track.

So that’s where we’re at. We’ve designed something that appeals to them, will they show up? Will they find it valuable? I’ll guess that some won’t attend, but we’ll have more than our goal of 20 and we’ll learn a lot. Inviting them to SQLSaturday was easy, but not effective. Building something for them was effective, just not easy – took some experience and then the time/energy/money to tackle it. I’m guessing that most will find it interesting, but relatively few will wind up at oPASS meetings – these aren’t all database students after all. It’s nice to do something to give back, and I think the college sees it a huge win, something that they talk about, something that helps students, even something that helps justify continuing to support our events.

SQLSaturday Orlando Marketing Plan-Part 44

More notes:

  • Registration at 520. Not as big a bump this week as we expected, probably due to the message going out to the unregistered list Tuesday late afternoon, but equally possibly that we’re reached the ones that plan to go. I’m tempted to email again this week, but I think that’s too much. We’ll stick to the plan.
  • Kendal sweating having room for attendees, running some different calculations to decide if we should add a 10th track. We’re lucky that we have a room we can use and speakers on the wait list, so if want to do it, it’s a small amount of work to do so. The potential downside to adding a room is that we thin out the number of attendees per room. Good if we’re crowded, not good otherwise. I think we’ll add the track and go.
  • My goal was 350 attendees. I think we’ll hit that with our current reg count. Can we add more next week? I’m going to believe history and say we will, so my optimistic bet is 400 on site next Saturday.
  • I’ve also got to move things along on marketing our October meeting featuring Mark Souza. We debated, decided to go for something visual. Ordered two cardboard cutouts that we’ll “enhance” with his photo and a message about the event. We’ll have one at registration and one in the main foyer, and we’ll move them around during the day. Hoping for lots of chat and pics from it, and we might raffle off the cutouts at the end.
  • We have 52 registered total for our two seminars. Did we set a goal? I need to go back and look. I think we were thinking 20 each. Regardless, 52 is good, and we’ll see if we get a few more next week.
  • Related to that, reminder that we offered our speakers a 50% discount for the Friday seminar and a few of them took us up on it. I’d like to see that pattern grow. Wish we could do free, but a days training for $60 isn’t bad. I’m going to one, always something to learn!
  • We have 75 students registered (and not included in the 520 above because we’re not sure how many will attend in the afternoon). I’ll have a separate post on that.
  • So far only two of our sponsors committed to sending out a geo-targeted email about the event. Like to see that go up next year, need to build into sponsor plan and have those conversations early. Good for both sides.
  • We ended up selling 25 SQLSaturday Orlando polos (at our cost), I like that extra marketing outreach for next year!


Also, here’s the message that ONETUG sent out for us to their list. We saw a bump of about 20 so far (we can’t measure well), and I think we’ll do even better next year when we make an all our effort to have content designed to appeal to their members.



Why I Support PASS & Why I Criticize PASS

A friend recently asked me about my involvement with PASS, and that lead to the two questions in the title. Why do I support PASS? Why do I criticize PASS? And there is one more that goes with it, do I balance criticism with praise? Interesting stuff.

First, for those who don’t know me, a little background. I’ve been part of PASS since 2000. I’ve been to the Summit every year since 2002. With Steve Jones and Brian Knight as part of SQLServerCentral we did a lot in those early years to promote PASS, we partnered with PASS to print The SQL Server Standard (though you could argue that was business) and we provided the hosting for chapters for quite a few years too (free, not business). I was a member of oPASS here in Orlando when it launched, and I led the re-launch later on. With Brian & Steve we started SQLSaturday and gifted it to PASS once it was up and running and we had done 30+ events (and no, that wasn’t business). I’ve served on the Board and am serving this year on the NomCom. I designed the SQLRally concept which was eventually killed here in the US, but still gets used internationally. All of which is only useful as far as that I feel like I know something about PASS and have been willing to invest in it to make things better, with only the former really being a requirement to praise or complain.

But why? Back in 1998 when I moved to my first IT job I started working with SQL 6.5. It wasn’t long after that I stumbled across PASS and loved the idea, it’s what every career book says to look for – the organization that has something to do with your profession. I think professions need organizations. They can spread ideas, grow ideas, help people connect.  PASS has done that and continues to do so. Not always as fast or as well as I’d like, but certainly good enough to be worth participating in. I look at other parts of IT, especially in the Microsoft space, and while there are clearly other “communities”, none that feels as inclusive and as organized, and none that seems to try to do nearly as much. The SQL community is  more than PASS of course, it’s hundreds of bloggers, SQLServerCentral and MSSQLTips, and a lot, lot more, but PASS, because of it’s mission to do good, can do things that aren’t done for profit and therefore might not get done at all. I think more can be done. A lot more. It can be done so that our profession is better, the people in do better and live better, and then, as a very nice side affect, the world is a bit better place. That’s why. On a personal and tactical level, I’m better for my involvement with PASS, and I think others can benefit too. Maybe I didn’t articulate that too well? The why feels obvious.

So why criticize PASS? That’s not so obvious. PASS is lead by volunteers and I know from experience it’s a fair amount of work. It’s volunteering on a different scale. It’s also an environment where decisions are made by a committee that sometimes acts like a hierarchy. It’s a business and a community, trying to balance profit and value, because without money no good gets done. The volunteers come from backgrounds that tend to frown on risks and failure, which often makes it hard to do medium size things without a guarantee of success. PASS has an important relationship with Microsoft that can be incredibly hard to manage because Microsoft tends to think of PASS as just another marketing outley , and we have a management company that is event focused and incented to do some things (at the Boards direction) more than others. You end up with a group of smart and dedicated people that have, since 1999, kept the organization going and growing – that’s no small thing.

For the past ten years I’ve known most if not all of the members of the Board. Good people, all ones you’d sit and have coffee or dinner with comfortably. Some more effective than others, due to life experience or life commitments or resources (or lack of). They bring various ideas and strengths to the role and that’s good, as diversity always is. Criticizing PASS means criticizing people, the elected ones and the ones that do is their full time job at HQ. Is it fair to criticize a volunteer? Or a volunteer organization? I guess I can’t understand how we cannot criticize, though criticize is a harsh word. Ideally it’s a question, or a concern, or an idea, but sometimes it is a true disagreement or outright criticism, so let’s stick with the harshest description as not to sugar coat it. If you care about the organization and the people it serves, sometimes you’re going to wish a decision was made or not made and I believe you have an obligation to say something. Of course, how and where and when matter, but even when done very well  criticism is…..not fun. Yet I believe it’s necessary for the organization to stay healthy that the leaders remain accountable to the members and if the members “don’t get it”, they make a solid attempt at closing the gap. Few of us – including me – take criticism well. It’s extra hard to take when you’re giving up family time to do the work to start with, then you have to give up more to explain/argue with a member that thinks you’re wrong. I get that. I’m just not very sympathetic. If you wish to lead, then lead. Take the bad with the good. Learn to listen more deeply, to care without being damaged, to realize that, just like our elected ones here in the US, that it’s incredibly easy to be captured by the system and lose sight of what the people you serve think.

Due to various life experiences I’m a little bit qualified to comment on things related to PASS. I’m not always right, but I usually have some pretty good reasons for why I think what I think. I share ideas and concerns privately, but candidly, I’ve had very limited success with that approach. I write publicly not to eviscerate, but to evoke discussion and thought, not just within the Board, but with you, someone else who cares and who may one day choose to lead. It’s also a fact that the Board tends to feel more pressure from publicly posted comments than they private email. I wish it was different. I wish that thoughtful emails could be exchanged, but that tends to work only when you’re in agreement. I just finished up an email thread with PASS that spanned four months and I’m surprised that it was resolved without having to make it public. My experience may not be the same as yours, because, as I’ve been told more than once, I’m perceived by the Board as being one of a handful of people that are never going to be happy/always see the dark side. Not pleasant to hear, perhaps a little bit true, and a reminder that speaking up is harder than not. Turn the criticism thing around. As a member, why should I take any crap at all for raising what I see is an issue or concern? Isn’t that interesting? I suspect it’s why few have much to say.

Now to praise. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t often praise PASS. Occasionally they delight me and I try to say so (the last 24HOP I participated in did so), but mostly it’s keeping the lights on and, candidly, I expect them to do that. That’s not entirely fair, and doesn’t mirror my own strategy when I manage, but for PASS it’s a way to challenge them – no hugs for status quo, show me more! I’ll also argue that PASS, now and historically, has done a really bad job of explaining what they have done and why it matters. A great example is the recent budget. It’s a lot of work and it matters, they release the budget, but where is the story? What was the win? What had to be sacrificed? Even when good to great work is done, we rarely hear about it, and we’re all too busy to try to figure it out. My own answer here feels like it needs work. Something to think on.

I thought the initial questions that led to the post were fair and interesting, and they came at a time when I’m debating whether to write something critical of PASS, perhaps the most critical I’ve written, and I struggle with it. Will writing something help? Am I right? And, selfishly, do I use up karma with people I respect to no good end? Reading all of that, I’m sorely tempted to delete it all. Does it matter? Should I criticize less and praise more? Who cares beyond the few of you that read this? I write that not to whine, but to illustrate that just like most people, on any given day I’d prefer jazz over conflict. So, with all that said, I look forward to your thoughts.

SQLSaturday Orlando Marketing Plan-Part 43

  • I’ve got most of the messages up through Sep 27th drafted. Still need to tweak a couple, but close to done.
  • Two messages going out tomorrow, one to the registered list and one to the – wait, yes – the unregistered list, then one on Wed for a call for volunteers
  • We’re at 502 after removing a couple dupes, and it may go down a few more as I remove some students that are dual registered
  • ONETUG message should go out any time, had technical challenges with Mailchimp and the email background color
  • I’ve queued tweets about all the sponsors and all the speaker/sessions through next Friday, plus a ‘good morning’ tweet for Saturday, a minu 15 minute and minus 5 minute reminder as each set of sessions start, and a reminder for the end of day raffle. We’ll fill in the rest with our TwitterDJ that will be at the PASS table.
  • The chart now includes our data from 2007 & 2008.
  • Strategy wise, I’m in favor of opening registration as early as possible, it allows those that can do so to commit to attending right then, then it’s just a drop-in to whatever messages go out
  • Clearly a lot of people register at the end, so what’s the latest you can start and do ok? I suspect you could do it 4 weeks out if you have a good list and have done the event before, but that’s a lot of stress/risk. Sponsors really like seeing that you can and are delivering on registration, stretching out the curve across 12 or 16 weeks gives everyone time. The better question is when should marketing start? I used to think 8 weeks out for the most part, but looking at this year I’m thinking I like 12-14 weeks a lot better. That’s purely a swag though. I’d like to see some work done across all events and factoring in email volume. Someone want to do that analysis?
  • Right now the wait list will activate at 600. We hate to turn anyone away, but at some point with rooms that hold 30-40 people we hit a real cap. The challenge is what the drop rate will be. Last year it was 20%, but that was after some people cancelled which changes the top number. I’m going with 30%, so if we hit 600 (and remember my ambitious goal was 500) that would put us at 420 on site (not counting 60 students that may or may not attend after lunch). What’s our real capacity?
  • Our nine rooms have a published capacity of 306
  • Worst case we sit 20% more in the back (6 people in a 30 person room), that takes us to 367
  • Let’s guess that we have 25 people working at sponsor tables, registration, etc, so we’ve accounted for 392
  • That leaves 28 people talking to sponsors, networking, or arriving late/leaving early
  • Need to talk to Kendal about tracking cancellations
  • I’ve still got messages to edit/send as well as getting all the email blasts from sponsors done, but the end is in sight.



    Thoughts On the NomCom Process

    We’ve just wrapped up the interviews and I wanted to jot down a few thoughts on what I’ve seen from using the process that we have today:

    • The time requirement for the NomCom members seems reasonable
    • We still have a lot of work on explaining the “why” of the tasks so that we get year over year consistency of execution. HQ has/will continue to pay a key role in that.
    • I think the process does a fair job of helping the NomCom assess candidates. I rate it fair because I wish for better (and we’ll look more), but it’s always analog.
    • I’d like to see the process revised to include a mock app review and a mock candidate interview. Particularly the latter, we found as we went that we’d hear someone ask a question and go “that’s a good question!”, and sometimes we’d hear a good question badly framed. One mock would smooth a lot of that out, especially with an interesting “candidate”.
    • The current application plus an hour interview is enough to assess them. Not sure longer/more would be worth doing.

    There was one part that surprised me, and that was how hard it was for me – who knows better! – to remember that I’m not hiring candidates, I’m screening them (you the voter get to do the hiring). What’s the difference? Screening means we pass on qualified candidates, even if in some cases we heard an answer we disagreed with it on direction or style or substance. The difference is subtle, but it’s there. The process we have mitigates that problem nicely by scoring candidates across different categories, not just a thumbs up/down. I’ll add that if we have a weak point its that we don’t have a lot of good data points on who will work out to be a good Board member. We should work on that, not just for vetting, but for growing future candidates.

    Thinking about the rest of it, I am concerned about the drop in total candidates this year. Why so much lower? One theory I’ve heard is that with one current/three former Board members on the NomCom potential candidates were intimidated. I hope that isn’t the case. Not enough marketing? If you have thoughts on any part of that I’d love to hear from you offline/confidentially.

    The NomCom isn’t quite done. We still have to recommend the slate, and then revisit the entire process to see if more changes are needed.

    I’ll close by thanking the candidates for this year for stepping up and taking the challenge. Win or lose, your participation means a lot to the organization and its members.

    SQLSaturday Orlando Marketing Plan-Part 42

    • Reg count at 479. Looking very good for hitting 500!
    • First sponsor sent out a geo-targeted message for us, another one working on it, more to go. We wrote a ‘suggested’ message to decrease the friction. First vendor even sent back open rates on the email!
    • Karla/Shawn dropped in at ONETUG meeting last night to hand out flyers and coordinate ONETUG sharing the PASS table
    • Just scheduled sponsor mention tweets for next two weeks plus day of event (need to do same for speakers/sessions next week)
    • Signed up for trial of Hootsuite Pro to do the scheduling, works reasonably well
    • Our half day student seminar seems to be resonating. Our initial target was 30, we hit that and asked for a bigger room. Today we hit that cap of 60, so we’re moving to a room that seats 100! We’ll see how many how, but still, this is a much bigger response than we’ve seen with our previous efforts to engage them.
    • We’ve tentatively decided to include them in the main event lunch, but not to register them or give them event raffle tickets. That keeps the sponsor list fairly targeted. Students will be welcome to attend sessions or visit sponsors after 1 pm.
    • One of the things we talked about this past week was a photo/video plan, need to make sure that covers the student seminar (is now in a different building)
    • We need a couple raffle prizes for students (most will leave at lunch), an eval, what else?
    • Wrote the ‘you haven’t paid for lunch yet’ message that goes out next week, still a lot more messages to write
    • Starting to get news on raffle prizes, will try to add that to messages too
    • Networking landed us a local gold sponsor, working on a second one. Pays to maintain relationships!

    My goal since Part 2 has been 500 registered and 350 attending, it’s exciting to be close! But if our projection holds, we should still add another 100 before the event. The real question is what our drop rate will be? I’m expecting it to be higher than last year due to the longer sign up cycle, but that’s only a guess. We’ve set the waitlist threshold at 600, can we do it? We shall see.



    SQLSaturday Orlando Marketing Plan-Part 41

    Ah, an interesting week for registrations. We’ve jumped to 426 registered, making my goal of 500 doable. The jump is in part due to timing, in part due to only having mailed to the “already registered” list only last week (a goof on my part). This week we’ll have two messages going on, one to the registered list to work on bring a friend, the other to the not yet attending list to continue to plug the event. Besides that, here’s a few more things going on:

    • Emailed a reminder to the Florida chapter leaders asking for one more plug at their September meetings
    • Drafted an email that ONETUG has agreed to blast to their list (to go out after their Sep meeting). This is huge, it will be a ‘one topic’ email just about SQLSaturday.
    • Finished scheduling the last of my canned auto-tweets through this Friday, then we’ll change the mix (interestingly, I see relatively few registrants opting to post their attendance to Twitter)
    • I’m trying to finish the rest of the email messages this week, I don’t want to risk life/work hitting me just when I need to be on my game the most in the last couple weeks
    • Discussing if we can have someone staff Twitter all day at the event and what we can do with it if we can
    • Also discussing our photo strategy, I’d really like to have those for next year
    • Asked Kendal to also chart the number of emails sent out to reg/non-reg lists by week
    • Next week I’ll send the email to the host venue (college) advisory council as part of the final push
    • I still need the 2007 & 2008 registration numbers
    • I need to think more about what I can do at the event to help us market better next year. Focus group, surveys, contact gathering, photos, what else?

    At this point the strategy is simple – keep pushing!

    Here is the current chart:




    Here’s something I haven’t talked about much yet. Over the past five years we’ve seen an incremental decline in the number of registrations, from a high of 384 in 2009 to 344 last year. Not a huge variance. Enough to worry? No, yet at the same time I’d always rather see it static or growing. It’s hard to attribute the changes year over year to any particular cause, but my guess based on what we see this year is not enough marketing messages sent in the last two years. By “not enough” we might be talking a difference of two or three, but it takes time for the message to get through the ‘clutter’ of work and life in the inbox. Kendal created a big win by starting the process of visualizing what little we know about our marketing efforts and it’s easy to see this was a big miss when we built SQLSaturday (a combination of not enough time and not enough vision). Having charts like this built-in would make it easier (and more likely) that whoever owns marketing is competing to match and beat the previous years number.



    SSC Editorial-Titles Matter – Part 2

    I wrote Titles Matter – Part 2 based on lessons learned the hard way not long ago. Titles matter because they help the rest of the team understand where you fit in. Titles are the ultimate elevator pitch – this is what I do. I was pleased to see one comment where someone changed their view about titles based on what I wrote. Not often that happens (or that you know about it at least) and that made my day.

    SQLSaturday Orlando Marketing Plan-Part 40

    Last week we were at 332, this morning at about the same time we’re at 356. Not bad for a week that included Labor Day. Chart makes it look a little worse than it is, it shows the actual against the goal for the next report period.




    Here’s the last 4 weeks of trend data. If you look at the delta between week 3 and week 0, we’ve always added at least a hundred and twenty. I’ll still – still! – confident that we’ll hit our goal of 500 registrations. The next email will go out tomorrow.



    SQLSaturday Orlando Marketing Plan-Part 39

    Registration is 332 as of 8 am on August 26. We added a whopping 40 registrations last week – a very good week! Our standard Tuesday email will go out about 10 am this morning with topics on MVP’s in attendance and lunch. On Friday we’ll have our first “special” email go out to those who have registered, giving them first crack at a seat at our Oct 15 meeting featuring Mark Souza. Looking ahead, next Monday is a US holiday so we’ll push our weekly email to Wednesday morning. First day of the week anything that looks ‘noisy’ gets ignored or deleted all too often.

    The oPASS meeting is this week and that will be a chance for Kendal to plug the event, good to hear it from someone different.

    Going into September, oPASS & MagicPASS won’t have their normal meeting due to SQLSaturday, so they’ll send out at least one email to their lists. That will be a nice change from the quasi-official email we send out from SQLSaturday. Different tone, different font, different sender – any one of those might drive them to open the email. I’ll be sending a reminder to the Fla group leaders next week asking for a mention at their September meetings, and ONETUG meets again on September 11th, we’ll have at least one person there to talk about the event and hand out flyers.

    I’m still  – still – trying to figure out a good way to use what  I have to drive attendance or referrals. Here’s my list:

    • Tshirts. Sized items and we like to order early, so not the easiest thing to work with
    • SQLSaturday Orlando mini towels. We’re ordering a bunch and not sized, so maybe
    • Lunch/Dinner with an MVP (takes coordination of schedule/interest, not easy)
    • Ticket to a seminar (has a hard cost)

    I think what I want to do is send another “special” email next Friday that targets those registered to ask for referrals. There’s no support on the site, so I think we’ll use a survey (your name, their name, your email, their email) and try to incent it somehow. Still thinking.

    I paused the LinkedIn campaign this morning.  The ad targeted by job title generated 5000 impressions and 11 clicks for a total of $14.63 spent. Overall we’ve spent $65.46 across the the two campaigns. I think we’ll turn it back on  the week of the event and see if a ‘just in time’ message delivery helps.