Learning About Journalism

One of my current projects is PASSWatch. Right now it’s mostly aggregation which I think has value, but I hope to do more over time including news and maybe opinions. I get by on writing (and hope to get better at it), but I don’t know much about journalism. When I want to learn something new I want something focused and curated, so I’ve been reading The Elements of Journalism, Revised and Updated 3rd Edition: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. Its been interesting to see that some ideas like the wall between advertising and news doesn’t work out to be as practical as it sounds, and I’m taken with the idea of skeptical editing where someone goes through a piece line by line to validate it. The book reinforces for me how confusing the journalistic landscape. I’m not yet comfortable with the idea of being a journalist (which I think implies more training that I have or will probably get), but it does feel like this is learning that will help me in other ways.

I try to always figure out what is “done” for learning and that’s hard when you’re just getting started on a topic. Here’s what I have in mind so far:

  • I need to better understand how to decide what “news” really is
  • How (or if) to mix factual content with opinions
  • How to build a brand that is considered to be fair and trustworthy

Looking at those, they feel superficial. Early days and we shall see.

I have the rare luxury of not needing to figure out the commercial side of things which I think greatly simplifies what I need to learn. I’ll finish this book in a week or two, then go through the recommended reading from it to see if I can discover something else that seems like a good investment of time. I did a quick search for free stuff (below) but I’ll go through those once the reading is done. I think I’d enjoy taking a class online if I can find one that fits my needs.

If you have a recommendation for reading please comment, email, or send to me on Twitter at @sqlandy.

Notes on SQLSaturday Admin Tools

Introduction

One of the items I’ve had on my todo list for a while is to write up notes on the state of the admin tools for SQLSaturday as they pertain to marketing. For those who haven’t managed an event, SQLSaturday is really three different sites; the public facing one that most of you see, an event administrative site for event teams, and a higher level admin site for PASS HQ to use in provisioning events. Of those three the public site by far has had the most visible work. The event admin site has definitely had a few changes, but nothing big. I wrote most of it back in the day, Steve Jones and I trying to stub out tools we thought we needed and then seeing which ones really were needed, so in many ways the tools are about the say as they were when we handed the keys to PASS back in March 2010. Not glamorous, bare bones even, it was interesting to return to being a consumer of them for SQLSaturday Orlando and see the places where we just didn’t have a deep enough vision back then.

Building The Front Page

At a high level marketing for SQLSaturday is about what we say to visitors on the landing page, email messages to the mailing list, event flyers, and what we broadcast on Twitter. Let’s start with the front page. Here’s the editor:

 

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The editor isn’t bad. It tends to reformat based on some rules it has internally, but in practice I build the HTML offline and do some testing on it, then paste it here and do some final testing by sending to the ‘Test Group’. That’s definitely a tip worth remembering, don’t invest time in a web session that could time out when you take a call!

Related to that on the home page the twitter feed takes up a lot of space and that leaves precious little space ‘above the fold’. Maybe we can move it, or stack it, or change the layout so it more horizontal down further on the page. In practice we don’t see much traffic there but we had to generate traffic to make it feel alive. Maybe an option to turn on/off would be useful too

Uploading Files

There is also a menu for uploading files and we used that quite a bit. Sponsor logos, PDF’s, and even some calendar files, nice to have them in place where they don’t disappear. Not fancy, but very useful. The only time it was a challenge was when we had a file type the upload didn’t support..

Email

Here’s what the “send” screen looks like:

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The default template is blah and it’s one place where PASS could help in two ways. One is by having some design a nicer email template as the default, the other is by allowing the event team to upload their own template. For those that use the ‘auto messaging’ which is a default set of messages they would get a nicer look, and for those who custom write their messages they could save the time designing a template. The template needs to be responsive, something that looks good in Gmail, Outlook, and on phones. I ended up using tables for the formatting and that worked ok, if not cutting edge. Definitely mark up your template so it’s easy to see where to put the various elements (sponsors, seminars, etc). Not everyone will fit into a default template, but a choice of two or three might well cover most. We used one where the right column carried out calendar of events, links to flyers, etc, that we wanted to repeat, and on the bottom we had the sponsors at Gold/Silver level.

Another area that needs upgrades is the tokens that you can embed in the message.  It would be nice to have one for unsubscribe and one for attendance status (Attending, Not Registered Yet, ?).  One for Guidebook also.

Autotext is a great idea, have it construct the schedule or list of sessions on the fly, but the formatting is plain, and you can’t control it at design time. We didn’t use it, and just the one email with the nice looking schedule as easily an hour to build.

There is a good handful of supported mailing lists, but the titles aren’t always clear on the impact. I’d like to see a link to the Wiki for details, and I think it would help a lot if the estimated send count was shown, either in the list box or near by.

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By far the biggest gap is we don’t get stats on the email beyond the number sent. Bounces go off to some place, and we don’t get open rates, or at least click throughs. The links in the email don’t get coded so it’s hard to tell which ones work and which ones don’t (and that applies to the event site too).

A note here too about the “bulk loaded list”. We were able to get HQ to load all the distinct emails from previous events here in Orlando and they get added to the registration table as bulk loaded. That worked pretty good, far better than trying to send to them from outside the framework. We found a few bugs along the way, but it helped us reach people that missed the event last year. Well worth doing, but requires HQ to do it.

The only issue from bulk loaded that mattered was the unsubscribe. We had about 10 people complain that unsubscribe required them to login first. Totally valid complaint, and I think something that got missed when logins to the site were enabled. High on the list of things that need to be fixed.

Registration

We charge $10 for lunch. Some pay at registration, many wait, which is ok. When we send to the unpaid lunch list we got quite a few that were bringing their own (20 or 30). It would be nice to have that as a registration option to save coming back to it later.

There is also no support for trying to track things like “bring a friend”. Something along the lines of affiliate links would be very useful, and that might not be enough (but a start). Capturing the source at registration would help a lot in assessing where to put effort (such as our attempts at LinkedIn ads).

Another problem was that when people cancel, it’s a manual process (as in they remind you) to refund lunch money (based on your policy for doing so) and you can’t see the impact. In the final couple days prior to the event we watched our count do plus one minus one all day long as we had cancellations offsetting last minute registrations. I typically count on 30% no show, but is that 30% of total reg, or 30% of those that say they are attending? When you’re sweating space and/or food you really want to see those numbers.

Seminars

We also had to market seminars and we used EventBrite for the registration. The reg part works fine, but we pay more fees (EventBrite + PayPal) and because it was external, there was no mailing list for “registered for seminar”. Really it’s bigger than that. Managing it separately isn’t the worst thing, seminars really need their own “manager”. The question – on which I’m not clear on the answer – is whether it’s worth the time to do the integration. That’s worth a big discussion.

Flyers

I’m convinced a good flyer is an important marketing asset. Not just for printing, but for people to forward to colleagues. Designing a good one is hard. I suspect we’d be happy with a stock flyer if it was well done, and that is one area where HQ does great work on the Summit, we should leverage that for SQLSaturday (same thing for the email templates I mentioned earlier).

Twitter

There is only minimal support for Twitter, auto tweeting when the user opts in. We went way beyond that this year, generating sponsor love messages, lots of messages about speakers and topics, and the speakers/sponsors really liked them. We also tried to follow anyone who registered and provided a Twitter handle. I used HootSuite paid edition for the scheduling, and I hacked the messages using the XML feed on the site to get various combinations. It would be really nice to load a template “Thanks to ….. for sponsoring SQLSaturday Orlando” and have the system generate the tweets and sending them at the right time, or scheduling them via the API.

While I’m wishing I’d like to see support for Twitter cards added.

Photos

Another miss from the early days, there is no built-in plan/display for sharing photos related to the event. Flicker, whatever, we need a pattern, and we may need tools to help with it, including a slide show viewer for the site.

Charting/Forecast

I saved the biggest need and biggest win for last. You saw this in a bunch of marketing posts, this is what helps you figure out if you’re on track or not, if something is working or not. This needs to be built in and emailed daily (if enabled). Kendal Van Dyke did with with Excel and Powershell, but it should be native, along with the ability to see other lines (lunch reg, cancellation) and it would be nice to have it overlaid with how similar events have done (does our curve skew from the national trend? from the Tampa trend?)

 

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Summary

There are lots of wishes here, but let me boil it down to the few things that I think PASS can do quickly and easily to help the marketing person on the event team:

  • Build in support for the chart above
  • Create a nicer/responsive email template
  • Create an event flyer template that events can tweak themselves or have someone do at a nominal cost

Plenty of room for investment, and I think investments in marketing are worth doing. Later this week I’ll try to recap my marketing plan that we will use next year.

Thoughts on the Student to IT Pro Seminar

Miscellaneous notes as I think on this.

I’ve been reading through feedback from the students. Reading the raw feedback is interesting and informative. I’ll try to recap some of the things I’ve seen so far:

  • Some found it to be interesting and helpful to understand the career journey (in this case mine)
  • Some were overwhelmed by our “beginner” session on databases and SQL
  • Some were introduced to new titles/areas (didn’t have a sense of what the options were)
  • All seemed thrilled to hear from a staffing company about how to find work
  • SQLSaturday was interesting, hopeful, and sometimes overwhelming to those that stayed
  • Lesser mentions about the networking part, nothing negative, just not as big a deal for them

Reading the feedback I’m reminded that writing is an important IT skill and I bet few realize how much depends on our ability to convey ideas in writing.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, here’s what I think I’ll recommend if we do it again:

  • 30 minutes on networking. Not a waste of time to talk about LinkedIn, separating (or not) work/life, and how to attend events/meet people
  • I like the hour introduction to a major silo, but we’re going to have to show them enough to interest without losing them. I think it’s important that they see it’s about tools and problems and solutions. That said, maybe an hour is too much. Changing to 30 minutes might encourage brevity/avoid deep dives.
  • I’d like to put more people up front to tell their stories. 2-4 people. Next time I’d like to get a BI person up front, maybe a data developer, etc, and give them 20 minutes to say “this is what I do, this is how I got there, this is how you might pursue this specialty”.  Diversity would be good in that.
  • Continue or expand the session with the staffing firm about the practical problems of getting an IT job
  • More resources – 10 blogs to read, career sites, etc. Stuff they can do afterwards. Free tools also – we tend to forget about the cost
  • Makes me think we need 30 minutes on virtualization and building a test lab
  • 3 hours feels about right, could go slightly longer if needed
  • Add something about writing
  • Important to have time for Q&A with each speaker, and some open floor time (would a panel be better?)
  • I’d like to have everyone who spoke available to students for 30 minutes afterward

What my comments don’t convey is how much of a beginner they are. That’s not bad, it just is. We’ve got to show them the path, with more emphasis on the next step than the tenth step, but still help them see that decisions made now affect what the tenth step will be.

Something else to ponder is diversity. We don’t have much control over who attends, but I wonder if photos of the speakers that show some diversity might not bring a few more? Hard to measure. Even if it doesn’t bring more, I wonder if having a woman or minority as part of the team might tilt someone into staying that is uneasy (even if not for reasons related to gender/race).

There’s no formula yet. It’s going to take iterations and iterations may not be easy. It’s different from an “event” because here it’s about one set of carefully crafted content and not much about logistics. That’s not to say content isn’t important at SQLSaturday – clearly it is – but as with any seminar if the content isn’t right they just don’t attend.

Let’s Create More After Hours Events at the Summit

We’ve got a good handful of events listed for After Hours so far, but couldn’t we have more? A couple thousand attend, a few hundred will be at these events, so there are plenty more opportunities. There’s nothing wrong with exploring Seattle, dinner with new friends, or whatever else, but it’s nice to have some options if none of those seem right for the evening. I love that Pat Wright continues the Photo Walk, a reminder that mornings are also a time to share interests and ideas. Why not organize something? It doesn’t have to target hundreds or even tens, just something that you want to do and hope that others will to do to. I’ve debated a Veterans meet up of some type. Maybe a few people want to meet for coffee and chess? What do you want to do?

Some suggestions (I don’t make the rules!) for making it happen:

  • Use EventBrite to manage it, everyone is used to it and its free
  • Send a note to PASS to get it added to the After Hours page
  • Blog and/or Tweet about it once in a while, and consider personal invites to people you know will be at the Summit
  • In general I’d say don’t schedule opposite “official” PASS events, but if it’s a handful of people don’t sweat it

 

 

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Fixing SCOM After a Hardware Upgrade

Quick note in case I need again some day. The team recently moved all the user databases for a monitoring instance to new hardware and it basically went well. Immediately afterward there were a number of error messages in the log about a missing user defined error message. Minus 5 points for not moving MSDB. We had the “old” MSDB of course, but we found this fix which took care of the problem by just adding back the error messages. Problem fixed, sorta. Turns out it was then failing differently and the new error wasn’t in the SQL log. Once I heard “service broker” it was an easy fix:

alter database ABC SET ENABLE_BROKER WITH ROLLBACK IMMEDIATE;
alter database ABC SET TRUSTWORTHY ON;

There are a handful of lessons there, the least of which is about SCOM.

Monday Night Networking Dinner at PASS Summit 2014

For the fifth year Steve Jones and I are organizing the Monday Night Networking Dinner at the PASS Summit. It will be from 6-9 pm on Monday evening. I’m waiting on the “final” confirmation of the location but expect it be within walking distance of the Convention Center. It’s a free event, you pay for your own food and beverage, and it’s not complicated – register, show up, we’ll greet you and help you find a seat. No speeches, no sponsors, just hang out and talk, whatever is in your comfort zone. Bring a friend or a spouse too! It’s designed to be a low pressure and fun event. Attendance is usually in the 200-250 range, plenty of people to talk to! Hope to see you there.

Also check out the other After Hours events, lots of fun ways to interact with other attendees before and after a day of learning.

Renewed as MVP for 2015

Took a break to check email and saw the confirmation that I was renewed for another year. Pleasant news for a Wednesday morning. Strange to realize this is my 7th time, where did the time go? I’ve certainly changed a lot in those years!

For those who aren’t MVP’s and would like to be (and there is nothing wrong with that at all), here are some notes on how to do it:

  • There are multiple paths to it, from answering forum posts to writing books to being a speaker to serving on the PASS Board. Pick one (or more) that work for you.
  • There is no public formula so you have to guess at how much is enough. Do what you can like, do what you can sustain, do what you can afford.
  • My view is that being an MVP is about influence and contributions to the community. Building a network is a very good way to start, as is having a blog so you can interact with your network.
  • Build a portfolio over 18-24 months, then find someone to review and submit you for consideration

On that last bullet I’ll be glad (as will most MVP’s) to spend a few minutes with you discussing what you’ve done/are doing and make suggestions. I’d like nothing better to see you become an MVP.

Notes On SQLSaturday Orlando #318

Notes from a speaker/volunteer perspective:

  • It was a lot of fun to talk to the students at our Student to IT Pro Seminar. Interesting to hear their questions, easy to forget what it’s like to be a true beginner. 70 people in the seminar. Win!
  • I had about 20 in my 9 am presentation. Went reasonably well and I identified some things to tweak before the Summit.
  • The chef coats we received as speaker gifts were just excellent!
  • We sold 25 SQLSaturday Orlando polos this year at our cost of $25. Not bad at all.
  • We had 8 serving tables to expedite lunch (which worked), but I could see attendees struggling to see past the lines at the front tables. Minor tweak for next year.
  • Lunch went very well and we had food left over that went to a local shelter
  • We had 5 or 6 schedule changes in the last two weeks, makes it challenging to commit to the door schedules – but change is going to happen.
  • The super sized schedules in the elevators were well received, perhaps in part due to the elevators being really slow.
  • We found a volunteer to do photos and I’m hoping those turn out well. We just didn’t have enough volunteers to do it the way we wanted.
  • 54 speakers is a massive schedule. Not sure I even got to say hello to all of them. We couldn’t do it without you.
  • Shawn purchased a water balloon slingshot that worked well for tshirts. Kendal was sending tshirts all the way to the back table in the gathering area
  • We had minor glitches that we noticed, but I don’t think anything that the attendees noticed (all 450+ of them)

We manage the event as a committee here in Orlando, with leadership alternating between oPASS and MagicPASS. I think this year was our best year so far and a really good team. Everyone had a pretty good idea of what they wanted to get done and stayed focused, and Kendal did a nice job of figuring out which ideas to take and which to leave on the list. Our weekly Tuesday calls really helped maintain communication. We also focused on numbers a lot; registration, speakers, sponsors, seminar registrations too. It was also nice to reinvigorate our relationship with ONETUG (.Net group here in Orlando) and we look forward to doing a lot to help with with the Code Camp in early 2015. We’re all writing up notes on what we could do better/different next year and in the next week or so we’ll have our first planning call for SQLSaturday Orlando 2015, then we’ll mostly be on break until March.

We had a lot of great volunteers, but I had a note to mention one – Rodney Landrum. Rodney is quiet and behind the scenes, but he gets things done. By the time I arrived Saturday morning he was covered in sweat from moving tables and handling problems, then came the student seminar at 9 am to teach students about what relational databases are, and then he went back over at 1130 to host the raffle for them, and that’s just the parts I saw. All of which took up so much time he didn’t get to do the thing he wanted to do – be the roving reporter. We’ll get that next year Rodney! I didn’t get to spend hardly any time with volunteers and I missed that, I like hearing the stories and having time to say thank you to them, something for me to do better at next year.

This year was the most I’ve been involved since I handed over the keys to Orlando years ago. It was good to be back. Interesting to see lessons learned, and some lost and re-learned (coffee plan). The local franchise feels strong. We’re lucky to have a lot of people in Orlando with talent and energy. It was good to have the time and energy to put into trying to push the edges back some, and sometimes a challenge to remember that while ideas area good, they can be stressful when the team sees something else that might get added to the stack.

I meant to take more photos, only ended up with a couple. Here is Jedi Knight Mark Souza defending the attendees against the Empire, which was attacking with a t-shirt slingshot. He put up a valiant fight but was finally knocked to the ground by Sith Lord Rodney Landrum. Obi-Wan was bent and a little crumpled, but was able to attend the closing raffle by leaning against the wall, light sql saber still at the ready!

 

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This is mid-raffle. It’s a lot of people! Green shirts are volunteers. The walkway behind the crowd is where we put the serving tables at lunch (and check-in before that), with the building that has our classrooms on the far side.

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That’s for it this year, now we have to finish up our joint meeting of OPASS/MagicPASS in October featuring Mark Souza, then it’s off to the Summit and then I think it will be time for the end of year break. Time flies.