I’m ridiculously lucky to be able to attend so many conferences around the world as part of my job. (Hey, we’re self-employed, so we get to decide what our job is.) My favorite one out of them all is SQLBits, and since I just got back from SQLbits Telford, I should tell the story so you’ll understand why I like it so much.
The SQLbits Planning Process
Steampunk costumes at SQLbits (including Andrew Fryer and Grant Fritchey)
Before anything is announced, the volunteers behind SQLbits start by secretly picking a unique UK venue every year – plus a unique theme to go along with it. SQLbits has been in universities, a golf resort, and gorgeous historic hotels. This year, they chose the Telford International Center, a conference venue near the birthplace of the industrial revolution. The theme: steampunk.
Then they contact a handful of speakers to offer them pre-conference sessions – day-long paid classes. Because SQLbits is a pretty big deal (over 1400 people registered this year), they don’t offer a public call for pre-con abstracts. They just contact some of the best pre-con speakers who are known to draw a lot of attendees. This way, they work out a good lineup of pre-cons, and international speakers are able to block out their schedule for the conference days.
After the venue, dates, theme, and pre-con lineup is set in stone, SQLbits announces the event to the public. At this point, they start accepting session abstracts from the public, plus the public can register to attend. Attendees are much more likely to fork out registration money and book their travel when they know the exact pre-con lineup.
Submitting Sessions to SQLbits
So far, the conference has consisted of 3 days:
- Training Day (Thursday) – paid pre-cons where attendees sit in class with one speaker all day. Costs around $500 USD.
- Deep Dive Day (Friday) – like a regular conference with multiple tracks of sessions. Costs around $300 USD.
- Community Day (Saturday) – like a SQLSaturday, another day of multiple tracks of sessions. Totally free.
The pre-cons have been invite-only so far because it works out better for the grand unveiling, but then everyone is invited to submit sessions for Friday and Saturday. Pre-con speakers are expected to submit multiple sessions too since they’ve been given the privilege of making money to teach.
After the submissions are finished, the public is invited to vote on which sessions they’d most like to attend. The organizers take these votes into account along with other factors, and then pick the final lineup.
Visiting Wales Before SQLbits
The past venues have been so beautiful that this year I decided to fly over several days early and take my time seeing the sights. On the Saturday before the event, I flew into Birmingham, about a 45-minute drive from Telford. I rented a car and used Telford as my base of operations, driving around to various castles, churches, and bridges up and down the River Severn.
Highlights, plus click on the hyperlinks for pictures:
Chepstow Castle - Built on the River Severn, this is England’s oldest post-Roman stone castle dating from the 1100s, home to the oldest castle doors in all of Europe. Watched a great (no, really) archery demonstration and saw my favorite sign in all my travels so far.
Temple Church, Bristol – built in the 1300s and bombed out by Germany during WWII, this is a reminder of Europe’s violent not-so-far-past. I also presented at the SQL Server Club in Bristol while I was in town.
Ironbridge, Telford – A cast iron bridge built in 1779 over the River Severn. I also made the vigorous hike up to The Rotunda, a viewing point where you can get a better sense for just how small Ironbridge really is compared to the surrounding hills.
The Dingle in Shrewsbury – stop laughing, it’s a garden. And I’m not normally a garden kinda guy, but this was beautiful.
By then, I’d (mostly) conquered my jet lag and was all ready to teach!
The Conference Itself
Simon Sabin opening up the keynote
SQLbits sets itself apart from the moment attendees walk in the door. Immediately after getting your bag, you could get your own coffee drink of choice from an army of automated espresso machines serving lattes, cappuccinos, mochas, you name it. Walk up the stairs to the vendor area, and you could get conventional coffee, tea, or juices, plus breakfast of bacon sarnies.
Then it’s on to the sessions – and oh, the sessions. The DBA, dev, and BI tracks were taught by a huge array of Microsoft Certified Masters and MVPs. In any given time slot, I had a tough time picking – especially when there were always friends of mine from all over the world gathered by the espresso machines.
If you miss a session, no problem – they’re all videotaped and available for free online later, sorted by speaker. Not just crappy screen captures, either – the recent conferences have all included full blown camera-people tracking the speaker around.
At lunchtime, attendees were presented with the best food I’ve ever had at a conference, full stop.
Then, back to more sessions.
Friday Night: The Theme Party
This year’s theme was steampunk, and attendees delivered in amazing detail. One of my favorites was James Rowland-Jones, one of the organizers:
Great steampunk costumes
I’m only hitting the tip of the iceberg here, though, because about half an hour after the party started, the SQLbits organizers threw back the curtains on the most incredible conference party I’ve ever seen. Geeks stared in shock and awe as the curtains parted:
The curtains dropped, and the geeks rushed in
Old-style carnival games (that’s the Prodata guys in the foreground in red leather costumes)
Multi-story indoor slide
An actual working carousel. That’s Andre Kamman waving as he goes past.
Games of Strength! Bob Duffy shows off his crossfit skills and hits the bell on his first try.
Penny Farthing lessons.
And That’s Why I Love SQLbits.
Sure it’s a conference – and a really good one. And they hold it in great locations. And they make it easy for international speakers, and they value attendee feedback as part of the selection process. Then they top it all off by throwing amazing events. There’s something for everyone – even if you can only come for the free community training day.
If you’re in the United Kingdom, you’re crazy not to go.
If you’re in a European location where you’ll have to fly no matter what conference you’re attending, I’d recommend SQLbits. You stay close to your own time zone, and you’ll get the maximum enjoyment with little jet lag. The event is simply spectacular, and I really don’t think you’re missing anything from any other conference. Sure, there are bigger conferences – but you can only attend one session at a time anyway, and I bet you’ll have a tough time choosing between the great sessions at Bits.
If you’re outside of Europe, and you can only attend one conference a year, the decision gets a lot tougher. SQLbits registration is much less expensive than other conferences, and it’s one hell of a deal, but you have to factor in the airfare.
The 2015 SQLbits Dates, Location, and Theme
I know, I’ve got you all hot and bothered, and now you want to register for the next one. Well, bad news – the dates haven’t quite been announced yet. The volunteers are already hard at work narrowing down the details.
I’ll be there, though. I’ve already blocked out their tentative dates on my calendar. The instant I can tell you more, I will.