Survey Says: the PASS Summit 2014 Session Ratings & Comments

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 2 Comments

After conference attendee feedback comes in, I like to blog about it to talk about what worked and what didn’t.

Here’s the abstract PASS selected this year:

Developers – Who Needs a DBA?
You store data in SQL Server, but you don’t have enough work to keep a full-time DBA busy. In just one hour, you’ll learn the basics of performance troubleshooting and index tuning. Brent Ozar, recovering developer, will teach you the basic care and feeding of a Microsoft SQL Server 2005, 2008, 2012, or 2014 instance and give you scripts to keep you out of trouble.

I keep trying new forms of training, and this year I tried telling a story. I wanted a hero and a supporting cast, so I bought cartoon characters from Shutterstock to use as Dan the Developer, his manager, and an “expert” DBA.

Meet Dan.

Meet Dan.

I bought lots of poses of them, and used them throughout the deck. They weren’t just clip art: they were an integral part of telling the story from the projector, and even from the stage. See, I’d also been reading a lot about how to use physical space onstage. I tried to do Dan’s lines from one part of the stage, then gave the manager and DBA points of view from another part of the stage, always with the appropriate character always on the same side of the slide and stage.

The story focused on training Dan how to use a few simple techniques and tools to make his database server as fast and reliable as he can – but only in his spare time of a few hours per week.

Survey says: the attendee ratings

  • Session Presentation – 4.95 – I was exactly one checkbox from one attendee away from a perfect score. Woohoo!
  • Speaker Rating – 5.0
  • Session Focus – 2.9 out of 3
  • Environment – 4.8 out of 5 (gauges the room setup, size, temp, etc)

Wow. I’m totally humbled – these are the best scores I’ve ever gotten, just a few checkboxes away from a perfect score sweep across the board.

I’m most proud of the Session Focus score.

Not because I did well, dear reader, but because you did. Here was the question:

Think fast - was the session focused, yes or no? Now answer.

Think fast – was the session focused, yes or no? Now answer.

First off, it’s just confusing – I was worried that people would see “Session Focus” and think, “Why yes, the session was focused,” and mark Yes. However, that’s actually a negative answer on this question.

Dan sees the 6 steps for the first time.

Dan sees the 6 steps for the first time.

Second, I walked a really delicate line in this session.

I know Dan really well because he represents a lot of the people I work with every day. My coworkers and I spend a lot of time building free tools for Dan to make his life easier, and this session included references to those tools.

This was a huuuuuge risk.

Over the past year or two, PASS has become very anti-blog, anti-branding. For example, here’s part of the 24 Hours of PASS contract:

“Your contact information, company logo and any applicable copyright notices may ONLY be included on the Presenter’s bio slide in your presentation. You may not refer to your company’s products or services or products and/or services provided by any companies with which you have a business relationship. By signing this document, you acknowledge and agree that the purpose of your 24 Hours of PASS session is to provide educational content and not to be used as a sales or marketing platform.”

Uh oh – depending on how you read this, you could consider sp_BlitzCache®, sp_BlitzIndex®, and sp_AskBrent® as part of our company’s products. After all, notice how I had to stick those registered trademarks on there. We don’t charge anything to use our stuff for yourself, but we have to protect our work or else folks will use it in ways we don’t like. (Typical example: we often get requests to bundle our code into someone else’s products so they can say “Powered by sp_Blitz®.”)

I always wonder if people “get” what Jeremiah, Kendra, Jes, Doug, and I try to do at Brent Ozar Unlimited. We give away more free videos, tools, blog posts, webcasts, newsletters, and entertainment than any other business in the SQL Server community, full stop. If I was an attendee, I’d want to learn about these tools from the very people who write ‘em – after all, I want Adam Machanic to teach me about sp_WhoIsActive, and I want Ola Hallengren to teach me about his backup scripts. Are those guys “selling” me anything? Well, maybe – Adam sells training, Ola has ads.

That’s why I’m so incredibly proud of the 2.9 score – you, dear reader, got it.

Comment highlights

“The story telling was excellent. The session presented clear steps to help the accidental DBA keep their SQL Servers performing well. Would recommend.” – Woohoo! Perfectly sums up what I was trying to do.

“Brent refused to mention himself in the third person even though he has every right to.” - I wanted to make doggone sure I didn’t do too much self-promotion, so when attendees asked questions, I tried very hard not to mention my own blog posts. I felt like I’d already done enough of that just by linking to our tools. At one point, I actually said out loud, “Oh, man, I’ve got the perfect blog post about that, but I really don’t want to promote myself here. Lemme think about other folks in the community who’ve written similar stuff…ah, how about…”

The "expert" DBA character tries to scare Dan off

The “expert” DBA character tries to scare Dan off

“Want proof? The room was littered with DBAs even though they do this stuff on a daily basis. Brent tried to take out the DBA trash but they refused to leave. That’s the mark of a great speaker.” – I’m trying to write crystal-clear session titles so that people know just from the title whether or not they should attend. This one – Developers: Who Needs a DBA? – seemed really clear, but maybe 1/4-1/3 of the audience was still DBAs. I don’t blame them because I pick sessions by speaker too. We had a similar challenge at SQL Intersection when we ran a post-con called “Developer’s Guide to Tuning Somebody Else’s SQL Server,” and the vast majority of attendees were DBAs who needed to tune their own servers. When we asked why they attended, most said they would just attend anything we presented. We laughed pretty hard about that one, so now I’m back to the drawing board for topics. If I’ve got a lot of DBAs who want to see me present no matter what, then I suppose I’d better do more DBA-focused material to keep training ‘em.

“Excellent planning leaving plenty of time at the end to go through questions which allows the whole room to learn from the questions and presenters answer. This is great as otherwise there are a bunch of people who have questions and a short time” – I had the last slot of the day. Going into the session, I kept agonizing about whether or not I should include 15 minutes worth of demos. Right at go-time, I decided the slides worked well enough on their own without demos, and I would rather let people go 15 minutes early at the end of the day. As it happened, we got a full 15-20 minutes of Q&A, so the timing worked perfectly. The only reason I’m mentioning this is that I know other presenters got dinged for finishing 15 minutes early and doing 15 minutes of Q&A – it’s just the luck of the draw.

“I missed this session, but have seen it before and am a fan of Brent.  I’m sure I’ll enjoy watching after the conference.” – and another – “I’m sure Brent was awesome as usual” – Ooo, no no no, don’t do that. Don’t rate sessions you didn’t attend in person. I could have completely bombed the delivery, and this upvote would suck for people who nailed their delivery and want to get into the Top 10.

Environment comments:

“Room could have been bigger” – the capacity was 352, and 120 people showed up, so the room was actually pretty oversized. The week before Summit, I actually asked for a smaller room because I knew my turnout would be relatively low. I originally had a bigger ballroom, and Erin Stellato had the 352-person room, but she had a great execution plans session. I knew she needed the bigger ballroom for her turnout – after all, my session was aimed at developers, and this is a SQL Server conference. PASS made the switcheroo, and I think everybody won there.

“Creaky stage” – I saw this in most of the rooms. I noticed it as a speaker, and I wondered if attendees would. I had a tough decision to make – should I stay in one place and avoid the creaks, or move around and do the storytelling technique that I’d practiced? I’m still not sure.

“It could have used more lasers, fog machines and holograms. Next year I fully expect a WWE intro.” – Dang it, now I need a wrestling name.

I also did a lightning talk this year, and I’ll blog about that separately. The ratings weren’t done on a per-speaker basis (understandable given the tough logistics) but there were still some clear lessons I need to share about how to do a successful lightning talk.

If you enjoyed this post, here’s some of my past reflections on how I did, and how I’ve worked to get better:

My Favorite WordPress Tools: 2014 Edition

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | Leave a comment

I keep my How to Start a Blog post updated, but here’s some of the more advanced tools I’ve been using lately. These aren’t really install-and-go – they require a weekend of work to set up and configure in total, but the payoff is worth it.

MailChimp email subscriptions – free for up to 2,000 subscribers, and really reasonable above that. MailChimp makes it easy for people to keep up with you by watching your RSS feed for updates, then sending those updates as nicely formatted emails to your mailing list. Plus, when you want to promote something else like an upcoming event or a product, it’s really easy. People subscribe by filling out the form on the right side of my blog, which is built with…

GravityForms (Affiliate Link) – this $39 form plugin makes complex forms easy. It has an extensive set of add-ons so you can integrate all kinds of services. For example, on my contact page, there’s a checkbox to subscribe to my blog posts via email. That fires off a subscription call to MailChimp. A much more complex example is our company event registration form, which integrates with GoToWebinar, MailChimp, CRM, email, and more. Users love this because they can put in their contact info once, and pick and choose what they want. Combine GravityForms with Zapier, and you can glue anything together.


Subscribe to Double-Opt-In Comments – when your readers leave a comment, some of them want to get notified whenever a new comment (like your response) is added. This free plugin adds a “Subscribe to Comments” checkbox for folks who comment, plus it sends them an email to confirm their subscription. This way somebody can’t drive by and subscribe strangers just by leaving fake comments. It’s just good net behavior. (Checking for it, not doing drive-bys.)

Buffer post announcements to social media – Buffer is a free broadcast tool that can post announcements to your Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn, etc. Sign up there, configure your accounts, and then install the WP to Buffer plugin in your blog.

Jetpack plugin with related posts – Jetpack is a plugin written by the folks behind WordPress itself, and it adds a lot of cool features. The one I’d specifically recommend is the Related Posts feature that gives you a little list of related posts under your current one. It’s mostly driven by the tags and categories you pick for posts, so if you haven’t been keeping up with those – and I wasn’t – you may have to spend a few hours pruning your taxonomies on your older posts and setting up featured images for each post. The result is worth it – it surfaces past work that you’re proud of.

WPengine hosting (affiliate link) – we use these guys for, too. They offer a $29/mo personal plan for up to 25k visitors a month, and they have totally reasonable overage fees if you burst higher. (I was bursting higher for several months and didn’t even realize it – I just switched up to the Pro plan for You get all the power of full-blown WordPress, complete with picking your own plugins and themes, but they manage all the boring stuff (caching, backups, high availability.)

How to Have a Great Time at Conferences Like #SQLPASS

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | Leave a comment

One of the things I love about conferences is that I’m suddenly surrounded by hundreds or thousands of people who do exactly the same thing I do for a living. We work in kind of a loner field – data professionals often have to work alone in an organization, with nobody else to understand what we do.

It’s incredibly therapeutic to suddenly be able to talk to someone else who gets it. We can vent together about how tough our work is (and how rewarding it is when we get it right.) Before you know it, you’ve made lifelong friends and you’re sharing stories over food and drinks.

And more food and drinks.

And more drinks, and then everything turns into a blur.

Being good (well, at drinking water anyway)

Being good (well, at drinking water anyway)

And sometimes, we wake up a little disappointed with some of the decisions we made, how much we spent, and our ability to comprehend complex technical sessions at 9AM. I’ve been there – I’ve got vivid memories of delivering a session only a couple of hours after I’d downed my last drink. It gets even tougher for those of us dealing with jet lag, time changes, and who don’t drink very often.

Food and alcohol are great. I’m a big fan of both. I’m not here to be condescending to other folks who can party like rock stars, either – I’m all for that as well, even in professional environments like a technical conference. You’re coming here to have a great time, and you should do just that.

Just define what a great time means to you.

For me lately, a great time means meeting up with a lot of my friends, having good conversations, making my attendees happy, and creating more memories that will make me smile through the next year. For me to pull that off, I need to pace myself, sticking to water most of the time. (Thursday, after my last session finishes, look out. I may just start drinking during the Q&A.)

The buddy system is alive and well at community conferences. Declare that you’re not going to drink tonight, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the number of people who eagerly chime in. Many of us are looking for an excuse to be good, and by drawing that line in the sand out loud, we all help each other fulfill our goals of having a great time.

Why I’ll Miss SQLBits XIV (Updated: I’m Going!)

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 8 Comments

UPDATE 30 Oct – Good news! The SQLbits organizers reversed course on this decision and let presenters opt out of the pre-con recordings. I’ve submitted sessions (including pre-cons) and I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll get accepted. Hope to see everybody in London! Here’s the original post:

I’ve glowed about how much I love SQLbits, but I’m going to have to miss the 2015 version. Session submission is going on right now, and the speaker contract includes a tricky line:

“If I am selected to present a Training day, then I understand that SQLBits may record the session. Distribution of the session, if undertaken, will only be to attendees of that Trainign Day, under a DRM license and for a fee. Speakers will receive a percentage of that fee, in addition to their normal fee for delivering the precon.”

Ooo, ouch. That’s a no-go for me.

SQLBitsLogoIn the past, I’ve given my SQLbits pre-con attendees free access to an online version of my pre-con as a nice-to-have perk. I’m all for it because I think it helps people keep the learning going after the conference, and it doesn’t cost our company much.

However, I’m not okay with someone else doing it, and the reasons might surprise you.

Live pre-cons have bugs. Sometimes a demo will fail, an attendee will ramble on with a question, the microphone will malfunction, the recording tools won’t copy the right portion of the screen, etc. I’m anal retentive about quality, so I record these in a controlled setting.

DRM is harder than it looks. Just ask the recording industry – they’ve been struggling with copy protection for decades. In our training site, we’ve put work into keeping the training usable for the audience while making it tougher for pirates to redistribute our stuff. I bet the SQLbits guys will put in similar efforts, but…I need to see it in action.

Training pays my rent. I love teaching, but I don’t just do it for the love. I need to make sure that I’m compensated fairly for my work. The contract has no mention of costs, and I have no bargaining leverage. It could be put on sale for $1, and I could get 1% of it.

So I won’t be a part of the next SQLbits, but I know it’s still going to be wildly successful. It’s always a ton of fun to attend (if it was here in the US, I’d still attend!), and I wish them the best of luck with this new phase of their journey.


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