As my friends and regular ‘blog readers are likely aware, I am a frequent speaker at SQL Saturday. SQL Saturday has shaped my professional life in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I’ve traveled to many events, learned about data topics and professional development, gained public speaking experience, become more prolific with my writing (this very ‘blog you’re reading came about because of SQL Saturday!), and met lots of great people, many of whom have become my friends. #SQLFamily is a real thing!
SQL Saturday is put together by a lot of people, and it starts with an organizer. For this article, I asked some of my friends who have organized SQL Saturday events if they could share their experiences. This article is in an “interview” Q&A format. I came up with a list of fifteen questions, and they were gracious enough to answer! Their responses are below.
Let me introduce my friends who responded. Thank you all for taking part!
- Thomas Grohser: organizer for SQL Saturday NYC
- Ed Pollack: organizer for SQL Saturday Albany — additionally, he has written an article about what SQL Saturday is all about
- Steve Jones: probably considered one of the “fathers of SQL Saturday” and one of the editors of SQLServerCentral.com — he has also previously organized SQL Saturday Denver BI Edition
- Andy Levy: organizer for SQL Saturday Rochester — he also answered some questions in a podcast episode for SQL Data Partners
1. Everyone has a “first-time” experience with SQL Saturday. Where and when was your first?
Back then I was “just” a speaker, but in 2020 I am one of the co-organizers of this event. I am guessing all is coming full circle.
I don’t know if I ever been at a SQL Saturday before that as an attendee.
Ed Pollack: My first SQL Saturday was Rochester in 2011. I went to every session I could and had a blast meeting so many new people.
Steve Jones: I may be a bit of an outsider, but my first exposure was talking about the concept and then helping Andy Warren plan SQL Saturday #1 remotely. We talked through the things that he needed to do and then had a retrospective afterward.
Most speakers were local back then, and the first event I attended was SQL Saturday #8 in Orlando as a speaker. I was amazed so many people showed up to listen to us talk about SQL Server on a Saturday.
Andy Levy: My first SQL Saturday was as an attendee at the Rochester event in 2012. It was the second SQL Saturday Rochester had hosted and I had just been clued into the PASS community in the previous couple months. Walking into it, I had no idea what to expect. I just sort of absorbed everything I could in the sessions I attended, not realizing at the time that the real value was in meeting and talking to people.
2. How did you become a SQL Saturday organizer (if it isn’t already answered under Q1)? When did you realize that you wanted to be involved?
Thomas Grohser: I started out as a speaker, and over time began to help on the actual day of the events before and after my sessions(s). Then I got one of the NYC SQL Server user groups thrown into my lap and the second group kind of stopped doing things so I kind of got stuck with organizing one (and I also kind of liked the challenge).
Ed Pollack: As I traveled to more and more SQL Saturdays, the 3+ hour drive to each began to wear on me. I wanted a local event that offered tech training and none like this existed anywhere near Albany. My hope was that proximity to other cities would help draw in both speakers and a crowd.
Steve Jones: I first decided to organize a SQL Saturday as a concept. After talking with many organizers and the PASS staff, I was a bit disconcerted with the one-upsmanship that was taking place and the struggles of many events to raise thousands of dollars. Instead, Carlos Bossy and I decided to run a minimal event. We worked to keep our event under $650, with a cap of about 80 people. It was a success, and I’d like to do it again.
Andy Levy: I didn’t really plan on it. Starting with my second Rochester SQL Saturday (2013), I started getting more and more involved with volunteering. After a few years, I was asked if I wanted to take point on the event, I accepted, and here we are.
3. What is your job title or role, and does your position influence how SQL Saturday is organized? If so, how?
Thomas Grohser: Infrastructure Architect.
I consult mostly for large corporations on SQL Server infrastructure, security, availability, and deployment automation.
I am lucky that both my employer and my clients see the benefit of the SQL Server community and support my activity. But my day-to-day skills are not a lot of help in organizing a SQL Saturday.
Ed Pollack: I’m a senior DBA, but that has little bearing on organizing a SQL Saturday. Coordinating a SQL Saturday is about collecting expertise from all other the place and getting them on board with and attending your event.
Steve Jones: Advocate for Redgate Software. I talk to customers and potential customers about the software we build. In terms of a SQL Saturday, I have some flexibility since my company exhibits at some events. In my case, this event wasn’t related to my company, and I met with others and ran the event on my own time.
Andy Levy: My title is Database Administrator, but I don’t think what I do day to day at work significantly influences how the event is organized. I just want to bring quality content for data professionals to Rochester.
4. As those of us familiar with SQL Saturday know, schedules are usually organized along tracks (analytics, DB development, BI, professional development, etc.). How are those determined when you plan an event?
Thomas Grohser: I first made a list of what I was interested in (I know, selfish, but hey, I might get something out of it) and then looked at about a dozen other recent SQL Saturdays and what categories they selected. The final list was a combination of the both.
Ed Pollack: The tracks are loosely defined based on what attendees ask for and how sessions logically organize themselves.
Steve Jones: In our case, we had a limitation of 3 rooms. We decided to simplify things and we planned out two tracks before we picked speakers. Our goals were a beginner to intermediate growth track and then a more general track, all in the BI area as our event was a BI version of SQL Saturday. We did this partially to support University students and partially to provide a more structured approach to BI for some attendees that might be new to the field.
Andy Levy: The one constant in our track planning the past few years has been Professional Development. The others are more fluid, but we always aim for having a Professional Development available in every schedule block. (Ed. note: as someone who presents mainly professional development topics — woo-hoo!)
5. How do you select speakers? What do you take into account when deciding who will present?
Thomas Grohser: I selected mostly sessions, not speakers (every speaker got at least one session).
I did three rounds of grading.
Round one: I just looked at the title (no speaker name, no abstract) and graded it — / – / 0 / + / ++ which translates to NOOO / No / Maybe / Yes / YESSS
Round two: I just looked at the abstract (no speaker, no title) and did the same grading.
Elimination: I removed all sessions that had 3 or more from the list.
Round three: I took all sessions with 4 (+) and put them on the schedule.
From the remaining sessions, I took the highest graded session from each speaker that did not have at least one talk yet.
From the remaining sessions I filled all remaining slots with the sessions having the most (+) and fewest (-).
I keep filling with sessions from that order every time a speaker canceled.
Ed Pollack: We select what we believe to be the best sessions, but also need to juggle topics to ensure that there is a wide variety and that there are not five sessions on the same topic. This is a challenging decision-making process and we often are forced to turn away speakers and sessions because of the need to build a well-balanced schedule.
Steve Jones: We picked topics first and then choose speakers that we thought would do a good job. Our goal was to use mostly local speakers, and we did, usually choosing those we had seen present. We took a chance on a few speakers, gambling they would do a good job based on some internet research. Jonathan Stewart was one that we didn’t know anything about, but we’d heard good things and liked his topic. He did a fantastic job.
Andy Levy: Selecting sessions is more difficult than selecting speakers. We want to make sure we’re bringing fresh content to our attendees each year, with a good variety. If we can find several sessions with a common thread, a natural progression where each session builds upon the one before it, we’ll often look at those as a single “block” and schedule accordingly.
6. Pre-con sessions — same question as Q5: how are they determined? What is taken into account?
Thomas Grohser: I was not involved in that part.
Ed Pollack: This is a far more in-depth process as the stakes are much higher. Precon speakers cannot cancel and there is no wiggle-room on quality. We accept precon speakers that we know will show up, do an amazing precon, and draw in attendees to SQL Saturday. Similar to SQL Saturday, we often get multiple precons for the same topic and will be forced to choose one over the other as we cannot run multiple precons that appeal to the same audience.
Steve Jones: None. We decided not to deal with this as it increases complexity and budget.
7. Venues are a major part of planning. Among other things, location, size, costs, lodging, and availability are factors. How do you choose your venue, and what do you take into account?
Thomas Grohser: I was in New York. I have only one choice: the MTC (Microsoft Technology Center) in Time Square. Everything else is too expensive. We asked for the first available date after May 1st and got October 6th. 🙂
Ed Pollack: We chose a big venue. It costs money, which is a downside, but it provides unlimited space for sessions, sponsors, and event logistics. Lodging is nearby and it’s very easy to get to UAlbany.
Steve Jones: We wanted to find a free space to keep the cost down. We reached out to contacts at local universities, and ended up partnering with Denver University, in the continuing education department. We started this over six months before our event, having a quarterly meeting over lunch (we provided one, they the other) and discussing how we could work together to better educate people. I know Andy Warren in Orlando does this with his local university, usually meeting with them 2-3 times a year as a social event to maintain a connection.
Andy Levy: We’ve always hosted SQL Saturday Rochester at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). How we landed there in the early years, I honestly don’t know (I wasn’t involved with planning the first two years). But they’ve been a terrific partner and sponsor for the event and without them, I think we’d have a very hard time running the event every year. Being a technology-focused institution of higher learning, and the particular building we’re hosted in being the home of Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, it’s a great setup for SQL Saturday. We use regular classrooms with good projectors, every modern A/V connection you can think of, and excellent internet connectivity.
With Rochester some very large businesses and research facilities in the area in addition to several colleges and universities, every major hotel chain is represented nearby.
8. Organizing a SQL Saturday undoubtedly takes up a lot of time! How do you balance that with all your other commitments — work, family, extracurriculars, etc.?
Thomas Grohser: You need to do it as a group. We started as four, and three of us made it to the finish line. Each one does the assigned tasks and then you coordinate once a week.
We split it this way:
- Sponsors / Attendees and PASS
- Speakers / Schedule / Signs / Rooms
- Precon / Food
We all did some “marketing”. This setup gave each one of us a reasonable amount of work (< ½ h per day) leading up to the event and full day of action the day before and the actual day.
Ed Pollack: I have recruited a group of amazing volunteers to help with sponsors, marketing, event logistics, and more! Without them, this would be impossible to plan while maintaining my sanity!
Steve Jones: The smaller the event, the less time and effort. Removing items like the pre-con, shirts, etc. reduced all this effort. We had 4-5 long lunch meetings for planning where we worked out the schedule, discussed details and then kept notes. Across a few weeks, we communicated at night to ensure we were organized, sent emails to speakers and volunteers, and kept working on the event slowly. It helped that we had a minimal event and we were organized people. With two of us running things, that lowers the overhead of effort and communication as well. This wasn’t too hard to fit in around family/hobby/etc. time, but it was an effort. Since then, we haven’t been able to do this again as our schedules have been too busy at different times. I think we would need to be sure that we could dedicate spare time every week for 3 months to run this again. Finding that time has been difficult.
Andy Levy: If I’m being completely honest, I balance them pretty poorly in the final weeks before the event. Obsessing over weather impacting travel plans and attendance, ensuring sponsor packages have arrived, the registration counts, getting resources reserved at the venue, etc. I’ve been known to sit off in a corner at a Cub Scout/Boy Scout meeting working through SQL Saturday administrative stuff.
9. SQL Saturday doesn’t happen without vendor or sponsor support. How do you go about getting that support? How do you keep them engaged?
Thomas Grohser: Honestly, all we did is used the PASS-provided website to send out a communication to previous sponsors and they contacted us. The main work was adjusting the sponsorship levels to the needs (some wanted a sponsored session, some not, some wanted to provide material, some not…).
Ed Pollack: Local sponsors are key. We maintain a set of local sponsors that know us and who have been supporting us for a long time. These are local companies that see SQL Saturday as a great way to advertise, market, and recruit. Without them, we would not be able to put on SQL Saturday!
Steve Jones: We avoided this with the PASS Global sponsorship. We received $500 from PASS/Microsoft and then accidentally got $150 because we didn’t close down the sponsorship pages when the event went live. As a result, we didn’t have to worry about vendors.
Finding vendor support is hard, and it can be a time sink for many larger vendors with 100 SQL Saturdays a year. PASS and other organizers can help you with larger vendors, but I always encourage people to work with local companies when they can. Talk to recruiting and consulting companies. Take some time to have lunch or short meetings with them. Reach out to colleges, especially those serving adults, and work with them for sponsorship. This is a personal part of the event and it takes time across time to keep them engaged. We did continue to meet with the college a few times before the event and once afterwards to talk about how things went. Ultimately, they have continued to support the larger Denver SQL Saturday each year.
Andy Levy: Sponsorship is the perennial challenge for smaller SQL Saturdays. We rarely get sponsorship from local companies. We just have not managed to solve the puzzle of how to reach them. So, we’re more dependent upon national-level sponsors, often ones that we have pre-existing relationships with through other channels. When we hear suggestions from sponsors for things that they’d like to see, we give them strong consideration.
10. Let’s talk about volunteers, who are also a big part of SQL Saturday (and often don’t get the credit they deserve). Where do they come from, and what kinds of things do they do?
Thomas Grohser: I “volunteered” a few of my co-workers and they paid it forward by “volunteering” some of their family members (BTW a great way to teach your teenage kids what work is).
Again the PASS website’s opt-in as volunteer after a single call for help during the user group meeting before the event added more volunteers than we needed.
Ed Pollack: Volunteers come from all over! Some are members of our local user group, others are students at a local university. Others are attendees that check off the box to volunteer. Some are speakers, sponsors, or members of PASS. The diversity of the group is its greatest asset! They handle much of the on-the-ground work at SQL Saturday, from setting up food to staffing the registration table, and cleanup. Their contributions are huge and I do everything I possibly can to thank them for their invaluable help!
Steve Jones: These are usually friends or acquaintances from the UG or other sources. In our case, we have a strong community in Denver and 4-5 friends that signed up to come and were happy to handle tasks on the day of the event (signs, carrying supplies, etc.).
I think the key is reaching out to people, giving them something specific you’d like them to do, thanking them, and ensuring that you aren’t overburdening any one person.
Andy Levy: We put out a call for volunteers both to our registered attendees and our user group. For day-of assistance (registration, room monitors, generally helping speakers and attendees), our volunteer wrangler Kim works with folks who have offered to help and always finds a few more.
11. Of course, attendees usually expect to be fed! Most (if not all) SQL Saturdays I’ve attended charge a nominal fee for lunch. How are food and beverage arrangements usually handled at your event?
Thomas Grohser: Since we are locked in with the MTC in Time Square, we are also locked in with the choice of one of the three “approved” catering companies. This, and an SUV full of soda cans and snacks from Costco kept all people well-fed, and the leftovers went to a nearby shelter.
Ed Pollack: We order our own breakfast (donuts/bagels) and lunch (subs & snacks). Breakfast we pick up and manage ourselves whereas lunch is delivered to SQL Saturday. All of the supplies we need are purchased ahead of time in bulk and transported to the event by volunteers, such as cups, napkins, drinks, and so on. We also purchased large coffee urns for the user group to brew our own coffee. This is far cheaper and easier than making runs to coffee shops and paying hefty prices for that much coffee on the day of SQL Saturday. We always have a highly caffeinated volunteer that is happy to keep the coffee supply operational 🙂
Steve Jones: In our case, we decided to forego food. The venue was a block from the edge of campus with numerous restaurants, so we allowed 90 minutes for lunch and encouraged people to go in small groups. I tried this years ago at the PASS Summit, bundling people into groups of 4 and sending them to restaurants and it worked well. Here the cost and overhead of lunch was removed with this effort. We did purchase some breakfast food, snacks, and coffee for the morning and water for throughout the day.
I could actually encourage some smaller events to try this as well.
Andy Levy: Matt takes care of this piece of our event. He has a caterer he knows and they take care of lunch, the big coffee pots that fuel every event. He also makes sure that our speakers have food and drink in the ready room.
12. Each locale offers its unique culture or environment, and one of the things I love about SQL Saturday is that it often reflects that culture. What are some of the things that make your event unique?
Thomas Grohser: I do not believe the NYC SQL Saturday was special. (Ed. note: I beg to differ! 🙂 )
Ed Pollack: Our venue is 100% unique and special to us. UAlbany provides an amazing location in the summer, with lots of space and access to the fountain right outside of the conference area. We also have the best volunteer team out there and they make our event both special and a joy to run!
Steve Jones: In our case we were on a college campus and aimed for a BI focused crowd. We had a variety of attendees, many of whom didn’t come to the local user group meeting and I hadn’t met before. Overall, the small size made this a more intimate setting.
Andy Levy: The looming spectre of a blizzard. 🙂
13. I, personally, work in an Oracle environment (yes, it’s true), and most of my coworkers think SQL Saturday doesn’t apply to them (believe me, I’ve tried). As an organizer, what would you say to people (especially data professionals) who don’t think SQL Saturday is for them?
Thomas Grohser: From a community perspective:
It’s an event for the SQL Server community. The content should help newbies get started and old timers to deepen their knowledge. All the good SQL Saturdays also have professional development tracks and sessions just touching concepts and ideas. So even an Oracle DBA should be able to have a great day. If they don’t want to, it’s not my job to force them.
From an organizer perspective:
Instead of bringing your reluctant Oracle DBA, bring your manager, CIO, CTO. The sponsors will love to talk to them.
Ed Pollack: While SQL Saturday is billed as a SQL Server/Microsoft event, most sessions are not technology-specific. Many topics such as analytics, data science, database design, professional development, and hardware architecture are platform agnostic and can apply to anyone. Since SQL Saturday is free, it’s an easy sell to anyone on the fence about attending: Free breakfast, lunch, training, and prizes…what more can you ask for?
Steve Jones: The world is expanding and there are always generic sessions on data topics. I would encourage people to look at the schedule and decide for themselves. I’d actually like to see more non-SQL specific topics presented and spread throughout the day.
Andy Levy: I encourage anyone who works in any tech-adjacent role, data or otherwise, to attend a SQL Saturday. The professional development sessions aren’t technology-specific at all. The networking opportunities are great. If you drop in on a random session, you just might learn something new. Better yet, it may spark an idea or some interest, something you never even knew existed previously.
14. Like any large-scale event, SQL Saturday almost never goes off without a hitch. Are there any memorable mishaps that occurred, and how were they handled?
Thomas Grohser: Unfortunately there is a size limit on emails so I have to shorten the list:
Projector not working → No problem we have a spare room for exactly that case → Nobody can find the key → All attendees gathered around a 24” monitor till someone found the key
The venue was supposed to let us in at 7:30 am, The first session was scheduled for 8:30 am, they opened the doors at 8:45
Ed Pollack: We had lunch show up a half hour late one year. The delivery person got lost and didn’t call for help. After rushing to find us, they forgot the vegetarian food! We had a few dozen angry attendees that were looking for veggie food and didn’t have it (yet). We sent a few volunteers to the restaurant to pick up the remaining food and return with it as quickly as they could. The end result was some attendees that were unhappy, but we did our best to talk to them and let them know the problem would be solved shortly. Some good customer service goes a long way towards softening the blow of mistakes or mishaps at what is always a busy day.
Steve Jones: Nothing for us.
Andy Levy: In my experience, the best way to handle mishaps is to not talk about them to a wide audience unless you have to. Remain flexible and be prepared to improvise; if you can adjust to accommodate a mishap, people don’t have to know there was one in the first place.
Be accountable for what happens, admit your faults where applicable, don’t throw people under the bus, and do your best to make amends when necessary.
15. Finally, any other thoughts, ideas, issues, or comments that you think should be mentioned that I didn’t think to ask?
Thomas Grohser: The toughest part is at the very beginning: You need to find a date, a venue and get the date approved from PASS. This is not easy, with all the rules around when and where another SQL Saturday can be at the same time.
Ed Pollack: Attend SQL Saturday. Consider speaking and volunteering. It’s a great way to learn new things, problem-solve, meet new people, advance your career, and have fun!
Steve Jones: I think the idea of large events is nice, but they come with a large amount of overhead and effort. They take a toll on organizers and can be hard to maintain over time. I’d much prefer to get smaller events, and have more of them. I think a 100-150 person event is more sustainable and likely to be much easier and cheaper to run. I hope that more communities will think about focusing on easier/smaller events, fewer tracks, and try to do 2 a year rather than one large one. Focus each in a data related area, keep things simple, and remember most people are looking for some learning and inspiration, not necessarily a big party.
I thoroughly enjoyed putting this article together! Thanks, Thomas, Ed, Steve, and Andy for taking part!
For those of you reading this, I encourage you to check out their ‘blog or article links (at the top of this article).