Growing the Pool of SQL Speakers – Part 3

Continuing on from Part 2, I want to continue this time with two points I left open last time:

  • How to qualify who gets help in terms of funding to speak
  • Whether there is really a speaker shortage

I want to start with the second point. Is there a shortage of speakers? The honest answer is somewhere between “I don’t know” and “in some places”. For example, when we did a SQLSaturday in Tacoma about 2 years ago we struggled to find speakers, so there is (or at least was) a local shortage there. It could easily be that there are speakers we don’t know exist and that’s something our upcoming speaker bureau project hopes to address. My hunch is that in the rural/smaller urban areas we don’t have the speaker density we need. I’d like to see us at the point where we can stick a pin anywhere in the map (of the US, to start with) and find a dozen people within 200 miles that want to speak, and ideally it’s closer to 100 miles. I don’t think we’re there yet.

Providing funding for speakers is a big deal. We’ve either to go come up with some options to help out, or we have to build enough events within a reasonably driving distance that new speakers can afford to get some practice. Options?

  • Speaker just tries to travel on the cheap, perhaps asking for a mid day session so they can drive over, present, drive back. Not the greatest, but probably lowest cost.
  • We try to help lower costs by offering room share, ride from the airport, etc
  • We build a fund and some way to decide who gets to use it
  • We start to see speakers funded by vendors in our product space in return for demoing their product and/or staffing a table

I’m most interesting the latter two options. Let’s say we build a $20,000 speaker fund at PASS. We ask each chapter leader to recommend a local speaker for a sponsorship that would allow them to visit another group or SQLSaturday. We do the same for SQLSaturday event leaders. We compile that list, send out invitations offering to reimburse up to $250 in airfare or mileage to speak at an event at least 150 miles from their home. That won’t cover the entire cost of course, but it means they have a vested interest in managing the other variable expenses. In the best case we can identify and fund 80 speakers to get a second chance at presenting, speakers that their chapter/event leader have identified as credible.

It’s only a second chance, but it also means that we’d have a good chance at having each chapter or event get a mostly paid for out of town speaker. It’s a chance to feel the heat of presenting to total strangers, and the excitement of hitting the road as a ‘real’ speaker. I might have the details wrong, but my question to you is: would doing something like benefit the overall community?

The other point is about vendor funded speakers. We have a few now, mostly true employees of the vendors, but a few cases where it’s less formal. I think as long as there is disclosure, and the speakers are presenting a “real” session with a slide that indicates they were sponsored by Vendor X, there is no problem. In fact, I think it’s a real win. Vendors often struggle to get speakers to all the events, and covering a portion of travel costs might well be cheaper than keeping someone on staff.

I know I’m dreaming some, but I also see some of the growth and problems happening already. Think about what we (PASS + members) can do, think about what you can do. Are you scouting talent locally? Doing what you can to encourage/train them to take the next step? Maybe we need a prize for best talent scout!

Instructables Contest: Paracord

Instructables has a Paracord contest going that requires some portion of a project include paracord (often referred to as 550 cord for the breaking strength of 550 lbs. I don’t have a good idea yet, hoping one appears before the April 11 submission deadline. Thought I’d share, most of us in IT enjoy a challenge or two:-)

Even if you don’t do the contest check out Instructables, lots of interesting projects to build.

Building a Wiki

I’ve long admired the value that I get from Wikipedia and like the concept of crowd sourcing knowledge, just never seemed to get around to setting one up. Finally decided to do it as a way to accelerate the SQLSaturday documentation, and I’ve set it up at http://wiki.sqlsaturday.com.

I looked at a few options. I wanted something free, preferably open source, and definitely running on SQL. Definitely a plus if it was asp.net. Turns out ScrewTurn Wiki is all of those. I did a quick test drive online, decided to try it. The install is fairly simple, it needs a single database with a login/user, copy the web files to an IIS web site, set the connection string, and go.

The database design seems reasonable, though no stored procedures, it’s all inline and/or generated on the fly. Lots of small interesting features. Discussions, RSS feeds, reasonably rich permission scheme. The only downside I’ve seen so far is that content is stored in a wiki markup format, not sure there is a compelling reason not to leverage HTML more. It will let you past HTML in and it displays fine, but when you go back to the graphical editor you don’t get the pretty view, just HTML code.

Of course, I don’t really know what I’m doing. When I do documentation the challenge (for me) is always trying to organize it. The wiki doesn’t fix that, but it does encourage writing pages that are nugget sized, and then we can create a few landing pages to point to the rest. For example, when someone emails Blythe to set up a preliminary call about doing a SQLSaturday, she’ll want to send them a link to a page that has pointers to the stuff they need to read at that stage of the game.

I started by just typing in a couple dozen topics as pages, and will try to spend some time each week building those out. You can see the list by clicking on the all pages link on the wiki. Not a lot of focus on style for now, just get the information and wait for some patterns to emerge.

We want to do things to keep the TCO low, so I’m automatically inserting the event leader as a wiki user when we create the event. Creating the user and putting them in the appropriate group was easy, but the password is stored as a hash, and so far haven’t had time to dig through the code to find which hash they are using and call the same from CLR in SQL. That means, sadly, that while I’m setting up the user, they’ll have to request a password reset to gain access (which the wiki will do automatically).

Lots of wiki options, and I don’t know that this one is substantially better/worse than the rest, but seems to work well enough. You can download and have it running in about 30 minutes, so it’s a nice lunch project if you want to give it a try.

Notes from the Orlando Code Camp March 2010

I arrived about 7:15 and already quite a few people on hand. Registration was moved to inside this time, just inside the cafeteria, and seemed like a much better traffic flow. Few things I noted on arrival:

  • Attendees didn’t receive name badges (this really helps speakers & networking)
  • Breakfast set up looked good, no decaf though, and they were trying to break up large muffins to get a better portion size using tongs!
  • Plenty of volunteers on hand, and easy to identify in red polos

Sat down to wait on things to start, ended up chatting with Jack Pines from oPASS about reporting and warehousing. About 7:50 am they started announcing the keynote for 8 am. Long walk down to the auditorium (event is held on a college campus) and they were announcing the start would be delayed until about 8:10 to give everyone time to get there. Keynotes are a challenge – worth doing to level set and to recognize sponsors, but I hate waiting on them to start, feels like time would be better spent in a session in most cases.

Found my room and set up early, started typing up these notes, in part to get them done, in part to have it up for a demo for the presentation. Noted that the doors didn’t have a session schedule, a nice to have that often helps attendees get to the right place a little easier. This first session was on networking and I had about 8 attendees, had some good questions, and thinking I’m ready to revise the presentation now after getting a good idea of the average experience level and questions.

Met up with Kendal Van Dyke after the session, he had quite a bit bigger crowd than me, probably 20-25, and then headed to the cafeteria to talk over early ideas for SQLSaturday Orlando coming up this fall. From there I made the rounds chatting with quite a few people and looking at how things were done. Have to say again that I really liked having the volunteers in distinctive shirts, made it easy to see them and that they were all putting in a lot of effort. They had music in the cafeteria which made it seem more fun, almost but not quite a party atmosphere. They also had “prize certificates” for software they were giving away, a great solution and I’m going to borrow that idea, saves a lot of headache to just give them the paper with the license key.

Lunch as Jason’s Deli which is a great choice, and they ordered a staggering 550 lunches! Attendees had lunch tickets and all seemed to go smoothly.

One thing I noticed was relatively few sponsors on site, and I think that was a function of how the sponsor plan was set up. It’s always a challenge to structure that in a way that works for everyone, but I think there is a lot of value in getting as many sponsors to the event as possible, so lowering the entry price to get a table is worth looking at.

After lunch I caught the last of the sql refactoring session by Plamen Ratchev, and then did my session on SQL Statistics, always fun because I get to answer a few questions about tuning as well. Probably 25 attendees, and only a couple DBA’s, great to reach the developer audience.

I caught up with event leader Esteban Garcia near the end of the day and the final attendance count was 480, just about twice what we average at SQLSaturday in Orlando, and a really killer turnout. Congratulations to Esteban and the volunteer team, I had a great day with them and they did an impressive job!

Some pics of the event (see the goto!):

IMG00211-20100327-1529 IMG00205-20100327-0733 IMG00207-20100327-0805 IMG00208-20100327-1048 IMG00209-20100327-1237 IMG00210-20100327-1237

Book Review: Titan The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

I read Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. ($13 @ Amazon) as one of the books recommended to me earlier in the year when I asked for suggestions. It was a long read, but filled in a lot of blanks about events around the turn of the century, and a lot about Standard Oil.

Rockefeller was an amazing entrepreneur, jumping into the oil business early and making a lot of smart moves. He spent a lot of effort finding ways to make the business more efficient, from oil extraction to refining to transportation. He moved into kerosene and to sell more of it (to create the market) gave way kerosene lamps. He also saw the value of people, trying to hire the best, and keeping most managers in place when he acquired companies.

He played hardball. He made deals with the train lines to get discounted rates and rebates based on volume (entirely fair), but also beat them into paying him a rebate on oil they moved for other refineries. He more or less invented the word monopoly, and caused a lot of government regulation to happen at the turn of the century (though in hindsight the market was too big even then for him to truly gain a monopoly).

He also put a lot of effort into charity work and giving away the money he earned, especially later in life. He lived a relatively simple life, never moving into high society, though certainly using his money to live well.

On balance I came away with the impression of a smart man that was willing to bet on his own judgment, a great business guy, questionable ethics at work but great ethics at home. Not someone you’d choose as a competitor if you had the choice, but not someone I’d want to work with either.

It’s worth reading, and will make you think about how capitalism works, good and bad.

PASS Update #27

I’m just back from the March 2010 Board meeting and it went better than usual (for any meeting). Most of arrived Sunday afternoon/evening and after a bit of social time I spent about four hours with Hannes, Craig, and Blythe working on SQLSaturday transition stuff (lots of details next week, but we’ve made good progress!) and then chatting with Rushabh for a while too. Worked right through dinner and by the end I could barely talk, had been fighting a minor cold and all the talking just made it worse.

Expected to get up Monday really sick, but the cold medicine had helped, and we started the meeting on time. We talked through some adjustments to the agenda and then started working. Normally I try to share a lot of the details of the meeting, but this time I’m going to wait for the minutes to come out because we’ve agreed to greatly increase the level of detail. Don’t expect perfection on the first try, but our goal is to show you a really good summary of what we discuss, with bullets of the pros and cons that we saw.

We’ve also agreed to discuss as little as possible in executive session. There are some things not appropriate to disclose; salaries (privacy concerns), things that we discuss under NDA with Microsoft, some details of our Summit strategy that might give a competitor an advantage, etc. I think the Board fully understands that we need to be as transparent as possible and I think we made huge strides in that direction. We still have to execute, but the intent is now there as never before.

This changes things in interesting ways. One is that when we get into brain storming mode we tend to talk all at once, or at least more than one at a time, making it really hard for Blythe from HQ to keep good notes that in turn will generate good minutes. What we plan to do next time is do a quick flip chart summary at the end of each topic, that gives us all a chance to make sure we reflect all the major points and is also a checkpoint to make sure that we haven’t violated any privacy/NDA type concerns. It should also make it a lot easier to get the minutes out faster for review by the members.

It was the most effective PASS meeting I’ve attended. We stuck to our revised agenda and actually finished up a few minutes early. I don’t know that we’ve mastered meetings, but we’re gradually moving to an approach where we hammer out some concepts and send them off for work rather than trying to nail down the finished product. A full meeting is still a bit chaotic when we’re kicking around ideas, but it’s workable. We’ll have another in person meeting in either June or August and if we can repeat it then, we’ll have a formula we can document and maintain.

Critiquing Free Events

Yesterday I wrote about expectations at free events, basically saying they don’t differ a lot from paid events. The next part of that is to talk about how to deliver and accept criticism in a positive way.

At most events there is an evaluation form given to attendees and while it’s hard to write a great one, usually the questions you ask matter less than the comments you get. Most people that are reasonably satisfied answer the questions and move on. The ones that had a great or really bad experience, they write the comments. Of course event evals aren’t the only form of feedback. You get email, sidewalk chats, and occasionally posts on blogs and Twitter.

Most of the time the comments confirm things you already know – ran out of coffee, missing signs, things usually related to logistics. Some are positive, some aren’t. Every once in a while you’ll get a comment that shows you something you missed, or shows it to you in a way you had not seen before. Some of the comments you have to take with a grain of salt. For example, last year in Orlando I had an attendee complain that we had too much content and it would be better to have it spread over two days. That totally makes sense from an attendee perspective, but doesn’t cover the realities of doubling the logistic effort. Many times it goes back to expectations, fair or not.

Most of the comments are positive. Some aren’t. Can’t ask for feedback with understanding that, right? Yet, it’s human nature to be less than appreciative when someone complains, especially when you’ve volunteered 40 hours or so of your time to make an event happen.

How do we as event attendees deliver criticism in a way that’s useful? How we train event leaders to take criticism well when someone says the baby is ugly? How much should we allow for free events? What should be said publicly and what is best done in private? All good questions, now for my thoughts on the answers.

Here’s some of what I look for as an attendee:

  • Have they set expectations in advance of the event? Communicated clearly?
  • Are things organized when I arrive? Is check-in reasonably smooth, signs posted, coffee (or whatever breakfast) on hand in sufficient quantities?
  • Do they communicate late breaking changes well, things like room changes or speaker cancellations?
  • Do they stick to their published schedule?
  • Did lunch happen on time and was it the food promised? Did they run out? Did those that got out of their session late end up getting short changed? Was the lunch line managed in a way to move people through quickly so that they can enjoy the break?
  • Did ‘special’ events happen as promised? Raffles, contests, special lunch speakers, etc.

As you can see I’m looking for a smooth flow. Said differently, even though it’s free I want the to respect me and my time. Customer service matters, event at a free event.

In general I’d ask everyone who attends to try to give a balanced evaluation. Let us know you had a great time, but…there were a few things that could go better next time. Look at it in the context of helping to improve the event. Remember it’s a real person reading those at the end of the event after a hard day. They will find it a lot easier to take the negatives if they also see that people saw the good things too.

Want to blog or Twitter about it? Same thing. Try to give a balanced view, and try to end the post on a positive not, make sure that someone reading it sees that it wasn’t all negatives, and that the proportions are fair. If it’s something really harsh, why not go direct to the leader and discuss first? Understand that to someone who just worked really hard public criticism can be especially hard to take – so is your goal to punish them, or help them do better next time?

As an event leader, look at the ratings in aggregate and combine that with your own impressions from talking with attendees. Read the comments and try to see it from their perspective. Did you serve the customer well? Did you not set expectations fairly? Hopefully you see my point, that even though it’s free, you have to work just as hard at customer service.

Am I perfect at this? Absolutely not. I don’t always deliver criticism effectively, and I don’t always take criticism well. I try to do better on both. It’s hard, but it’s important.

Free Events – It’s All About Expectations

Isn’t free enough? If you go to a free event do you have a right to complain? Or, if you lead a free event, should you have the expectation that attendees will appreciate all the hard work and ignore minor problems? A thorny topic for today!

The short answer is that even free events have to be well run, and more importantly, they have to meet the expectations of the attendee. You might say that it’s not fair, but it’s entirely human to want things to go well if you decide to invest your time. So rather than discuss if we should critique, I think it’s more important to talk about how to do it and how to react to it.

I try to coach event leaders to remember that it’s all about expectations. Tell them in advance what to expect from the moment they arrive. Tell them where to park (and if there is a charge), what to expect at check-in (do they need ID or a ticket?), whether food will be provided for breakfast (and what it is), the schedule, lunch plans, and more. Tell them what to do if a session cancels, remind them that’s entirely volunteer run, and don’t forget to mention speakers and sponsors that have made larger contributions.

When an attendee signs up, they automatically adopt some expectations based on what you tell them and how you present it. Put together a polished web site and they’ll expect the same at the event. Give them no information and they’ll ask questions, or just make assumptions. And maybe get frustrated in the process.

Then you try to meet the expectations you (and they) have set. Most people are fairly tolerant of small things, less tolerant of things that smack of poor planning or lack of interest. Running out of coffee at 8:15 am is horrible, running out at 10:30 am is survivable. Waiting in line for 5 minutes is fine, waiting for half an hour…very frustrating. Unable to figure out where rooms are at due to lack of or confusing signs, sessions that have been cancelled but no schedule posted, running out of lunch…free or not, people will get frustrated.

It’s all about expectations. As in any conversation, it’s easy to assume that they know what you know, or that you know what they expect. It’s almost impossible to message too much, and remember that if you tell them more than one thing in an email they’ll read and get one of those things. Repetition is good. Focused messages are good.

Want to know how you’re doing? Email a random attendee or two to set up a short call, ask them what they expect when they arrive, from speakers, lunch, etc. You might be surprised at the answers.

Windows Themes (We need a PASS Theme!)

I imagine most of us change our wallpaper on the desktop from time to time. Frivolous but fun, a simple way to personalize what is otherwise a not very exciting tool most of the time. Windows 7 does a nice job of taking that further with some really good themes – you can get a bunch of free ones at http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/downloads/personalize?T1=themes.

That got me thinking, why don’t we have one for PASS? For Summit presenters? For SQLSaturday presenters?

I’m graphically challenged so it’s not something I can do. Someone want to take a shot at it?