I don’t think I have to tell anyone what a crazy year 2020 has been (and I won’t belabor the point). As such, many of us have had their fill of Zoom meetings and virtual conferences. I’ve heard a lot from people, myself included, about their dealings with pandemic fatigue and how burned out they are by virtual conferences.
And then, along came Minnesota SQL Saturday.
Before today, I’d spoken at or attended four virtual PASS events: SQL Saturdays in Albany, Memphis, and Montreal, and PASS Summit. In spite of the challenges faced with putting on virtual events — uncharted territory for all of us — the events went about as well as they could. There were glitches and lessons learned, but for the most part, they went about as well as virtual conferences — being put on for the first time — could go.
Minnesota, however, raised the bar. The event went through a great deal of thought and planning, and it showed. This is not a slight against other events, as we were all breaking new ground in putting together virtual events; rather, Minnesota demonstrated a better way to do it.
I’ll start with Friday night. At many of the in-person SQL Saturday events where I’ve spoken, organizers put together a speaker’s dinner on Friday night. In lieu of that, Minnesota organized a Zoom session allowing speakers to get to know the organizers and other speakers (Memphis did the same thing). In addition, however, Minnesota also organized a test run using GoToMeeting sessions (the virtual meeting application of choice by PASS) to make sure that speakers could test their sessions and get comfortable with presenting online. Although I’d previously presented via GoToMeeting before, I found that this went a long way with helping me to get comfortable with the technology, the session, and knowing what to expect.
Additionally, throughout the day for SQL Saturday, the Minnesota crew set up a separate chat application using Discord (an application that I understand is popular with gamers). Through this application, speakers and attendees had an avenue through which they could mingle and chat using different channels. They had channels set up for each meeting room, as well as a “lunch room” (where people could converse during lunch) and a speaker’s channel (roughly the equivalent of a speaker room). I don’t remember all the channels they had set up — I do remember channels called #jobs and #hallway — but I thought using this application was a great move.
One of the things that is sorely missing from virtual SQL Saturdays is the ability to randomly converse and chat. At in-person events, one of the best parts is to randomly bump into #SQLFamily and chat about a variety of subjects, or randomly start chatting about session topics in the hallway, or whatever. Networking is a huge part of SQL Saturday. By nature, that dynamic is nearly impossible to duplicate at a virtual event. Of course, no virtual event can ever duplicate the things you’d experience at an in-person event. But by employing a technology such as Discord, they managed to fill that gap quite nicely.
I also liked that room moderators introduced speakers and topics. They all included slides to start each session, which also included reminders to solicit the sponsors, their local user group, and various other standard announcements. The format was similar to PASS virtual groups, where the group moderator would start with the intro before the speaker went into his or her presentation.
Overall, Minnesota did a great job with their virtual SQL Saturday. Bravo! They demonstrated that a virtual event could still be exciting and fun, and not the same old virtual event that everyone else does. Granted, I’m looking forward to when we can start attending in-person events again. But by employing out-of-the-box ideas like these, virtual events don’t have to be the same old, same old log-into-a-virtual-room events that we’ve become accustomed to experiencing.