Ghostwriting — the art of writing for someone else

One of the new projects I’ve taken on is ghostwriting ‘blog articles for one of my clients. While I have plenty of technical writing experience — where I take a topic or application that isn’t mine and try to write about it — ghostwriting is an entirely new experience for me. Not only is it something new for me to tackle, I’m finding the experience to be interesting, and even fun!

My client maintains a ‘blog as part of his website, and by his own admission, isn’t a prolific writer — which is where I (along with one or two others) come in. I’ve only done a couple of articles for my client so far, but I’m learning a few things as I go along.

  • Keep in mind that it isn’t your article. One thing I need to remember is that even though I’m the one doing the writing, I’m not the one doing the “writing.” Essentially, I’m taking someone else’s thoughts and putting them into an article. (Sounds a lot like technical writing, no?) While I’m putting these thoughts and ideas into words, they are not my thoughts. The intellectual property belongs to my client, not me. As such, I consider the article as being my client’s property.

    I recognize that this can be a potentially slippery slope; by that same token, it could be argued that technical writing could belong to the subject matter expert (SME), not the person writing the documentation. I won’t talk about that here; first, this goes beyond my expertise (maybe someone who knows more about intellectual property law than I do can address this better than I can), and second, this discussion goes beyond the scope of this article.

    As far as I’m concerned, the client has the final say about the article. It’s possible that my client might give me credit for writing it, but that’s up to him. I’m just taking his thoughts and putting them into words.

    Speaking of writing someone else’s thoughts…
  • Writing what someone else is thinking is hard to do! Most people understand how difficult it is to understand another person’s thoughts; after all, that’s what communication is all about. I’m sure most communication professionals are familiar with the Shannon-Weaver communication model. For the benefit of those who aren’t, here’s a quick synopsis: a sender sends a message to a receiver. However, noise breaks down the transmission (note: the noise may not be literally “noise”), so when the receiver receives the message, it is never 100% accurate (and it never will be; the noise is always there. It’s like a mathematical graph; the line approaches, but will never reach, 100%). The receiver sends feedback to the sender (during feedback, the sender and receiver roles are reversed — the feedback becomes the new message), who uses it to adjust the message, and the cycle begins again.

    That communication model becomes magnified when ghostwriting an article because what the receiver — in this case, the ghostwriter — is feeding back to the sender is much, much more precise. A ghostwriter is trying to write on behalf of the client, and the client wants to make sure that what is being written is (1) accurate, and (2) maintains a voice that the client likes. In all likelihood, the client and the ghostwriter will go through several iterations of edits and adjustments.

    This reminds me of another thought…
  • I fully expect that what I write will be changed. Never get too attached to anything that you’re ghostwriting. Any time that I ghostwrite a work, I fully expect it to be different by the time my client and I are finished with it. As adjustments are made between me and my client, what we end up producing may look completely different from what I originally wrote.
  • You’re writing for someone else — but still be yourself. Even though I’m writing someone else’s thoughts, I never think about whether or not my writing “sounds” like the person for whom I’m writing. Thinking about writing in another person’s voice stifles my work and is a huge distraction that destroys my productivity. I write whatever comes naturally to me, and only through the editing process do I start worrying about the article’s voice, when the client starts adjusting the article to his or her liking.

    This thought brings to mind a quote from one of my favorite movies.

“No thinking – that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!”

William Forrester (played by Sean Connery), Finding Forrester
  • I’m learning new things! I’ve written before that one of the best ways to learn something is to write about it. Any time that you write about a topic, you end up learning about that topic — sometimes to the point of becoming an SME! Ghostwriting is no different. As I’m writing for my client, I’m learning new things and gaining new perspectives that hadn’t previously occurred to me.
  • I’m gaining new writing experience. I think this might be one of the biggest benefits of ghostwriting. Not only am I gaining additional writing experience, I’m also learning how to do so from another person’s viewpoint. As I mention above, I’m learning new things. I’m also learning how to be a better communicator, as it sharpens my communication skills as I continually feed back with my client. And it also teaches me how to look at things from a different point of view, which is what ghostwriting forces me to do.

I’m discovering that ghostwriting is a rewarding experience. It’s a great way to gain writing experience, and it ultimately makes me a better writer, a better worker, and a better person.

My company logo on a shirt

I was poking around VistaPrint‘s website the other day (this is the site I use to make my business cards). Of course, with any business that sells promotional items, I was greeted with the proverbial “try your logo on this product” popup window.

One of the items that came up was shirt designs. I decided to have some fun with it, and came up with the design that you see above.

I thought it came out pretty well! I decided to order two shirts, one for my wife and one for myself. I plan to wear it whenever I go to the gym and whenever I attend networking events, or events where I’m presenting, such as SQL Saturday.

If you like this shirt, you can order one, too; just click this link! I’m not getting any money for shirt sales. My payment is you walking around advertising my business!

Alas, I don’t yet have a large marketing budget where I can buy a hundred shirts and give them out for free. Hopefully I’ll get to that point, but I’m not quite there yet.

2020 Albany #SQLSaturday is virtual, and I’m on the schedule! July 25 #SQLSat961 #SQLSatAlbany @CASSUG_Albany

The schedule for my hometown SQL Saturday is out, and I’m on it! I will be doing one of my favorite presentations: my session on networking!

Albany SQL Saturday is going virtual this year. It will be held on July 25 via an online forum to be determined (connection information will be released as we get closer to the date).

To ensure that you receive information about this event, register on the website.

We’ll see you online in July!

The power of a single, simple presentation — oh, the places you can go!

This morning, my Facebook memories feed told me that I did a presentation at my local user group five years ago today (this isn’t the first time I’ve written about this). I did a presentation about how to speak the language of technology to those who don’t understand it.

Little did I know at the time that that simple little presentation would end up taking me places.

I had applied to speak at our local SQL Saturday using that presentation, and I wanted to use our user group meeting as a trial run. That evening, I learned a few things about myself.

  • I enjoyed public speaking and presenting.
  • I was good at it (or so I was told).
  • I have a passion for teaching. This was not news to me, but my experience reinforced that passion.

Not only was that presentation accepted for our local SQL Saturday, I have since given that presentation eleven times — including at PASS Summit, and most recently, at a SQL Saturday this past February, just before the COVID-19 crisis hit.

Since I did my presentation at my local user group five years ago, I’ve spoken at a total of twenty-three (and counting) SQL Saturdays, seven in-person user group meetings (including one that was not local), three online virtual user group presentations, a podcast, and PASS Summit. I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel and to make friends because of my experiences!

And those are just my speaking engagements. I’ve also had some other things that have happened, indirectly, because of that presentation.

  • I started a ‘blog about professional development topics (this very ‘blog that you’re reading right now).
  • I’ve gotten a better sense of my own professional skill sets and gained more confidence in them.
  • I’ve started my own business, something that I previously never thought I would ever do.
  • Even though I lost my job, I have much more confidence in my own abilities and career prospects.
  • My professional network has become much stronger.

I credit all of this to that one, simple presentation that I gave at a user group meeting five years ago today.

So consider joining a user group and doing a presentation. You never know where it could lead.

June CASSUG Monthly Meeting @CASSUG_Albany #SQLUserGroup #SQLFamily

Our June speaker is Hilary Cotter!

Topic: SQL Server Replication

Replication is a native SQL Server component used to distribute and aggregate data between SQL Servers and other heterogeneous data sources. In this presentation, Hilary Cotter, covers how to effectively chose and deploy optimal SQL Server replication solutions. He also covers performance tuning, optimization, monitoring and integrating replication into your DR solutions.

About Hilary:

Hilary Cotter is an industry veteran and has been a SQL Server MVP for 17 years. He specializes in replication, SQL HA technologies, full-text search, perform acne tuning and SQL Server Service Broker. He has worked for many fortune 500 companies implementing cutting edge replication solutions. He has written and co-authored several books, white papers and authored Microsoft exams. He has answers over 10,000 questions on the Microsoft SQL server forums, some of them correctly.

Our online meeting schedule is as follows:
6:00: General chat, discussion, and announcements
6:30: Presentation

We usually wrap up between 7:30 PM and 8:00 PM.

To join the meeting:
Go to our Meetup group event (https://www.meetup.com/Capital-Area-SQL-Server-User-Group/events/268274240/ — a Zoom meeting link is included in the event) to RSVP. We will send out a meeting password as we get closer to the date/time.

Communication lessons from air disasters

I’ve always had a morbid fascination for air disasters.  (Don’t ask me why; I have no idea.)  I’m fascinated by shows such as Air Disasters, Why Planes Crash,  and Mayday: Air Disasters.  Whenever I hear about a plane going down, I’ll start thinking about what happened, clues, what might have caused it, and so on.  There are times when I think I should have gotten a job with the NTSB.

Greg Moore has some publications in which he talks about lessons learned from aircraft accidents; his book partially discusses these lessons.  He also has an excellent SQL Saturday presentation titled “Who’s Flying The Plane?” which talks about lessons learned from air disasters and how they can apply to IT.  Go check it out if you have a chance; Greg gives a great presentation!

For the purposes of this article, however, I want to concentrate on a particular topic: how communication — or, the lack of — either contributed to or was the root cause of a disaster.

Last night, I watched an episode of Air Disasters that talked about the plane crash that took the life of professional golfer Payne Stewart. The plane went down after the cabin depressurized (the cause of which was never determined), the crew became incapacitated, and the plane ran out of fuel. What made it interesting to me was that bad documentation might have been one of the contributing factors to the accident. After the cabin lost pressure, the crew likely consulted a checklist, as is standard procedure for nearly any cockpit activity or incident. The checklist was poorly written and unclear. What should have been the very first instruction was, “put on your oxygen mask.” It was not. By the time the crew got to that instruction, it was too late; they were overcome by hypoxia.

It reminded me of a tenet that I preach in my documentation presentation: if, in a step-by-step instruction, an instruction cannot be understood within a few seconds, it has failed.

I also remember another Air Disasters episode that focused on Avianca Flight 52.  In January of 1990, the plane, a Boeing 707 carrying 158 people, crashed on approach to Kennedy Airport in New York after running out of fuel, killing 73 people.  There were numerous communication issues during the flight.  Had any one of them been addressed, chances are the disaster never would have occurred.

How often have you been involved in some kind of activity where things were miscommunicated?  How well did those activities go?  I’m guessing that they didn’t go well.  How often have they happened when deadlines were approaching?  What was the mood of your organization?  I’ll guess that it was likely one of high stress and low morale.  And during that time, how smoothly did things go?  Probably not very.  I’ll bet that plenty of mistakes were made.

I’m painting this picture within a business environment.  Imagine what these conditions are like when people’s lives are at stake.

The number of disasters that have occurred from poor communication are countless; entire studies have been dedicated to the subject.  Indeed, numerous solutions and subcategories related to miscommunication have been devised.  The airline industry developed the process of crew resource management.  Extensive research has been done on the phenomenon known as groupthinkEven simple measures such as checklists have been studied and implemented.

The moral of the story: good communication, including documentation, is critical. The consequences of it can have adverse effects. At best, bad communication can disrupt your business. At worst, it can cost lives.

Rethinking my resume

I learned something new today. But first, here’s a little background behind it.

Let me start by saying that I resent that job searches these days are performed much more by machines than humans. During times when I’m employed, I get irritated by emails resulting from bots that do keyword searches on my resume and constantly spam me with job inquiries for which I have no interest. Likewise, I also make no secret that I hate spam recruiters.

That said, now that I’m not currently employed and I am job hunting, as much as I hate robotic resume scans (and believe me, I still do), it’s the nature of the beast. If I want to get my resume seen by the right people, I need to be able to play the game.

Whenever I’ve updated my resume, I’ve always written it thinking that a human will look at it. These days, I need to design it with the mindset that a machine will look at it.

I was struck with that realization today. One of my networking contacts connected me with a career counselor. We spoke for about fifteen minutes over the phone this afternoon. He encouraged me to send him my resume for a review. I sent it to him, feeling confident that it would be well-received. But when he replied back, he hit me with a dose of reality.

First, he told me that my resume was not ATS (applicant tracking system) compliant (a brand-new term for me). He gave me some tips for redesigning it. Additionally, I searched Google for ATS compliant Word templates, and found this site, which includes a link to free templates. As soon as I find one I like, I intend to use it to redo my resume.

Additionally, I’ve noticed that a lot of online applications ask me to upload my resume, and when I do, it parses it into their system. And more often than not, it does not parse it correctly, which frustrates me. It did not occur to me that redesigning my resume not only makes it better to parse, it also makes it easier for potential employers to find. This may have been sabotaging my job search, and I wasn’t even aware of it.

Second, he also informed me that I had overused the word “professional” — something else that had escaped my attention. It’s the equivalent of saying “um” when you’re doing a presentation — you’re not aware you’re doing it (and I probably do when I do my SQL Saturday presentations) until someone else points it out.

Little pieces of advice like this will help my job search — and hopefully, I just improved yours, too. I’ve practically made a career out of adapting to my environment, and I realized today that that includes my job search. No, I still don’t like that my resume is searched by machine. But that’s the nature of the game these days, and if I want to succeed, I have to play it, whether I like it or not.

Modern technology requires modern documentation

While I was perusing Indeed.com, I came across a job listing that included these two paragraphs. (The bold type is my own add for emphasis.)

Responsible for technical writing/editing for all types of documentation produced within a modern software development environment.

Strong knowledge of word processing software, strong writing and analytical skills to document software capabilities

As soon as I saw it, this Dilbert cartoon immediately popped into my head.

Tina the Tech Writer is absolutely correct. Technical writing is not word processing. The two terms are not interchangeable. But there are too many ignorant people out there who think they are. Too many people still think technical writing is either just glorified administrative assistant work, or is something that can get thrown together in just ten minutes. It’s my number one professional pet peeve. And it’s a major reason why I preach the gospel that I do at SQL Saturday.

Technical writing and communication is more than just writing documents and manuals. It’s about presenting data and information. It’s about online help. It’s about design and UX/UI. It’s about life cycles (I’ll say it again: there is such a thing as a document development life cycle). It’s about knowing your audience, readability, understanding document structure, developing the right kind of document for the situation, and so on, and so on, and so on. I could keep going (but I won’t).

How often do you look up a paper document for instructions anymore? These days, it’s mostly PDFs, web pages, and online help. Granted, books and hardcopy still have their place, but these days, a lot (if not most) people turn to other resources for their information. Technical writing is about supplying that information, using whatever means necessary.

It is not word processing.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, no, I did not apply to the job.

What goes into organizing a #SQLSaturday? From the words of #SQLFamily

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!

1. Everyone has a “first-time” experience with SQL Saturday.  Where and when was your first?

Thomas Grohser: I am originally from Austria in Europe and I did a lot of other PASS formats (mostly SQL Rally and Summit) before my first SQL Saturday in 2013 in New Haven, CT.

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. note: Thomas told me that this grading system was how I ended up with three sessions at SQL Saturday #912! 🙂 )

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).

Thanks again!

It ain’t sexy, but it’s critical

Evacuated Highway 401 Color.jpg
(Photo credit: By Kenny Louie, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10535248)

Think, for a moment, about things that are never talked about — I don’t mean taboo topics, but rather, things that are boring, “ain’t sexy,” and so on — yet are absolutely critical if we want to maintain or move ahead our current standing. Off the top of my head, infrastructure and chores come to mind. Road construction, transportation infrastructure, and public utilities aren’t exactly exciting topics that are discussed over drinks, but maintaining them is absolutely critical if we want to keep our society moving. Likewise, nobody talks about housework, taking out the trash, fixing leaks, replacing appliances, and so forth, but it’s necessary if you want to maintain your home.

Documentation falls under this category. Let’s face it: the large majority of developers, analysts, and other business and technical professionals don’t enjoy writing documentation. Raise your hand if you’re passionate about documentation. (You, yes you, the technical writer in the back row, put your hand down. I’ll get to you in a moment.) But the fact is, documentation is absolutely critical if you want to keep your business afloat.

I was thinking about this not long ago, when I was describing aspects of my job to someone. I’m currently working on an important documentation project (a standard operating procedure document — SOP, for short), and I’ll admit that it isn’t the most exciting project. It isn’t unusual for me to zone out in the afternoon while I’m working on this thing. I was asked, is it an issue with your department or your company? I said no. It’s the nature of the beast. It would be like this regardless of where it was, whether it was with my current team, my current employer, or somewhere else.

No, working on the document is not exciting work. But it’s an important document that needs to be written. It’s a job that (almost) nobody wants. But it’s also a skill that I’m good at doing (or at least I like to think that I am). And it keeps me employed.

I’ve written before that documentation is one of the most disrespected technical tasks. But it’s a critical task if you want your business to stay afloat. You need to be able to pass information along to your colleagues, your employees, and your clients. Documentation is probably the best way to do it. So documentation needs to be clear, understandable, well-written, and presentable.

This is why I preach what I do at SQL Saturday. You ignore documentation at your own risk. No, documentation ain’t sexy. But it’s absolutely critical if you want to keep your business going.