Impressions of a virtual #SQLSaturday — the debrief #SQLSat961 #SQLSatAlbany

Yesterday, we (our local user group) hosted SQL Saturday for the seventh time. As many of you know, I love SQL Saturday. It’s one of my favorite events to attend, and I credit SQL Saturday for boosting my career in a number of ways. I’ve also made many friends through my involvement with SQL Saturday. I apply to speak at any SQL Saturday event that I am able to attend. My hometown event, hosted by a user group of which I’m a member, is all the more special to me. While I look forward to attending any SQL Saturday, I especially look forward to the ones we host here in Albany, and I very much look forward to next year’s event.

That said, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to hold it virtually this year. While I’ve participated in a number of virtual events (including speaking for a virtual user group a few times), this was my first time speaking at a virtual SQL Saturday. I enjoyed the experience, but it also had a number of pros and cons.

Let’s start with the pros. There’s something to be said about attending a full day of presentations for an online conference from the comfort of your own home office (or your living room, or a bar, or even a beach with a good WiFi connection). Although it was a full day of presentations, I wasn’t necessarily chained to my office chair for the duration; I was free to get up and walk around as I pleased. We set up four different GoToMeeting channel URLs, each one representing a different “room.” Each speaker occupied his or her meeting room at their scheduled times and did their presentations, just as we would for a regular SQL Saturday. As an attendee, I could switch rooms at any time; mostly, it involved leaving a meeting I was in and switching to a different room URL. Like a regular SQL Saturday, there were many good presentations. I would have liked to have attended a lot more, but I promised that I would moderate at least one room, so I largely stuck around a couple of rooms in which I was an organizer or presenter.

Speaking of moderating rooms: I volunteered to moderate the lightning talks. If you’ve never attended a lightning talk, think of it as a “micro-presentation,” only ten minutes long. We had five speakers doing lightning talks for our session. I was assigned as meeting organizer, and I assigned each speaker as presenter when it was his turn to speak. The GoToMeeting controls took a little getting used to — there is a little bit of a learning curve — but once I got the hang of it, I felt comfortable moderating the room channel.

My own presentation also went very well! I’ll admit that I felt a little trepidation going into it. Those of you who attend my presentations know that I like to do interactive presentations. I try to get my audience involved as much as possible. It keeps them engaged, and I like to think that it makes for an interesting presentation. I wasn’t sure how that would work in an online setting, although GoToMeeting does include tools for people to ask questions in a virtual chat function. One aspect of my networking presentation is a part where I allow ten minutes for my audience to do some in-room networking. This is easy to do in a in-person presentation where we’re all physically occupying the same room, but more challenging in an online forum. I ended up asking for a couple of volunteers, unmuting them (allowing them to actually speak in the meeting room), and encouraged them to engage in a networking session while the rest of us listened in. It ended up working remarkably well! If I ever do this session again virtually, I’ll have to keep that in mind!

I also found it interesting that the virtual format meant physical geography was a non-issue. It’s not unusual for people to travel to SQL Saturday (the farthest in-person SQL Saturday events I’ve attended were Pittsburgh and Virginia Beach), but holding this event virtually meant that people could attend and present from almost anywhere. One of the volunteers for my presentation demo was from (I think it was) North Carolina. I’d be curious to know what the geographic attendance was for yesterday’s event.

I also have another thought that has nothing to do with virtual SQL Saturday. One of the presenters was Sarah Patrick, who is currently a college student (her father, David Patrick, is also himself a SQL Saturday presenter). Her presentation was a narrative about setting up a database to perform a specific task. This was the second time I’d seen her presentation; I saw her give the same presentation down in Virginia Beach last year. What I found interesting was Sarah herself — that such a young and bright person was involved in doing presentations for SQL Saturday. I would love to see more young people getting involved. Greg Moore had his entire family involved as volunteers for yesterday’s event. His oldest son is currently a college student majoring in computer science. He helped moderate one of the sessions, and I found myself wondering if he would be interested in being a SQL Saturday speaker. (Greg, if you’re reading this, hint, hint!)

As much as I enjoyed yesterday’s event, it had its cons as well. One of the things I love about SQL Saturday is seeing all the people whom I don’t see on a regular basis. #SQLFamily is a real thing. I missed being able to wander around the event and being able to randomly talk to a John Miner, a Deborah Melkin, or whomever I happen to come across. I dearly love my #SQLFamily friends, and not being able to randomly interact with them was no small thing.

Of course, I’ll also admit that I enjoy good food and drink. For the last few years, our post-event celebration has been held at a local bar. There’s something to be said about enjoying libations along with the camaraderie of your #SQLFamily friends. My wife and I settled for ordering out for Chinese food last night. And, of course, during the course of the event, I had to settle for getting or making my own coffee, snacks, and food.

Overall, I had fun yesterday, I learned a few things, and I would definitely attend another virtual SQL Saturday. That said, it is not the same as attending a SQL Saturday in-person; I vastly prefer physically attending an event. Virtual SQL Saturday was definitely a good experience, but it’s not the same as attending in-person. When the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, I very much look forward to attending SQL Saturday in-person again.

But for the time being, virtual SQL Saturday will have to do.