Donate to Doctors Without Borders, and I’ll Wear…

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


Donate to this Doctors Without Borders campaign before the PASS Summit and check out what humiliating things we’ll be doing to ourselves:

$5,000 Total Donations: Argenis Fernandez will wear this unicorn hoodie at PASS. Update: reached, woohoo!

$10,000 Total Donations: Adam Machanic, Grant Fritchey, Steve Jones, and I will wear these furry rainbow leggings. That’s right, the Scary DBA and the Scary Parallelism Guy and, uh, me, who’s not really scary at all. Kirsten Benzel will also run the 11-mile SQL Long Run in the unicorn hoodie.

$15,000 Total Donations: While wearing the leggings, Adam, Grant, Steve, and I will line dance to ZZ Top’s Legs.

$20,000 Total Donations: Grant and I will each present one of our PASS sessions wearing the leggings.

$25,000 Total DonationsEd WatsonGareth Swanepoel, Jason Strate, and Kirsten Benzel will get SQL Server tattoos.

Get over there and donate. Every little bit really does help. Make a fool out of us!

Why I Love the SQLBits Conference

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 6 Comments

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)

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

Chepstow Castle

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

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

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

The curtains dropped, and the geeks rushed in

Old-style carnival games (that's the Prodata guys in the foreground in red leather costumes)

Old-style carnival games (that’s the Prodata guys in the foreground in red leather costumes)

Multi-story indoor slide

Multi-story indoor slide

An actual working carousel. That's Andre Kamman waving as he goes past.

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.

Games of Strength! Bob Duffy shows off his crossfit skills and hits the bell on his first try.

Penny Farthing lessons.

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.

I Need Your Help Improving #SQLPASS

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 66 Comments

Read this if you’re a #SQLPASS attendee – you’re the one I’m trying to help.

Last week I wrote about how conference organizers pick sessions, and I closed by talking about how there’s no clear right or wrong way. However, some ways are wronger than others, and today let’s talk in general terms about what happens when things go wrong.

I can’t possibly discuss this subject with actual speaker names lest I hurt people. (Disclaimer: that’s a dark music video about drugs and violence, but the song is insanely danceable and catchy, and it’s been stuck in my head for weeks. You’re welcome.)

Enter Speaker 47.

PASS-Summit-Not-About-SpeakersPresenters, if you’re reading this, I want you to really understand that I am making this guy up. You’re so vain, you probably think this post is about you, but trust me, it’s not. However, if you see elements of yourself in Speaker 47 – and hey, I do – that just means your journey to improve your public speaking isn’t over yet, and mine certainly isn’t either.

Speaker 47 is the really friendly, magnetically charismatic person that you like right away. He has a great name that’s easy to pronounce, he doesn’t look intimidating, and he’s always got a wide smile for any stranger who comes bearing a question. He loves technology, and he loves sharing what he knows. He loves helping people, so he knows exactly what kind of title and abstract to write.

You love Speaker 47.

But his presentations and his delivery are horrible.

I don’t mean like kinda bad. Attendees complain that he mumbles through his delivery in a monotone. His demos have a 50% chance of working on a good day, and they don’t convey the material anyway. His material doesn’t match the title or the abstract, and the attendees have a hunch that he’s never actually done any of this stuff in production – he’s just playing with it on his laptop to learn, and they need real help for real world environments.

This isn’t his first time at the rodeo, either. He does this same routine over and over at local user groups and SQLSaturdays. The leaders and volunteers simply hand him his feedback forms. They don’t compile the numbers, and they’d feel too guilty to do it anyway. Sure, they all kinda know he’s bad, but he’s such a nice guy, and he’s working to get better, isn’t he?

And then Speaker 47 gets into the Summit.

Years ago, I wrote about why national speakers should get good feedback locally and regionally first, but that’s not how PASS works. The Summit selection committee has no idea how bad the speaker’s feedback is, so he gets in.

He bombs.

PASS compiles the data, sends out the rankings, and other speakers notice him at the bottom, but nobody wants to say anything – because he’s just so darned nice, and it would be unprofessional to say something. It’s his first year, so you gotta cut the guy a break, right?

So Speaker 47 gets in again.

Even though he bombs, the selection committee doesn’t lock him out of the Summit based on one bad session. After all, people grow and learn, right? Maybe he’ll do better next time.

In an ideal world, they’d look at his session feedback from local user groups and SQLSaturdays after his bad Summit session to see if he learned from his mistakes. In reality, they can’t, because local user groups and SQLSaturdays don’t compile feedback and send it up to the national level. Even if they wanted to, the infrastructure isn’t in place today, but I applaud Stuart Ainsworth’s move to make it happen.

Speaker 47 keeps getting a fresh batch of attendees because for the most part, people choose sessions by topic and title, not by presenter name. Even if you as an attendee wanted to make decisions based on data, you can’t, because PASS doesn’t publish speaker ratings. You’re helplessly stuck in bad sessions, and when you want to leave and get into a better one, the room’s already full – because other people left bad sessions too.

Meanwhile, amazing speakers don’t get in.

They submit, but because the selection committee doesn’t know what great sessions they’ve put on at the local and regional level, they get rejected over again and again. They get burned out because they see Speaker 47 get great sessions – sometimes even paid pre-cons! – and they just give up.

Unless you spend a lot of time watching presentations online and at local user groups, you’ll never get the chance to see these incredible speakers. I’m going to name a name here because it’s such a standout example – I sat in Paul White’s pre-conference last year, and it ranks among the very best sessions I’ve ever seen. This year? Rejected. Part of that is probably his own fault – he only submitted a pre-conference session, and I bet there’s rules about pre-con presenters also having to present regular sessions too. But all of this is locked in the secrecy of the PASS selection process that isn’t explained to volunteer speakers.

And it’s your loss.

This process wastes your time and money as an attendee.


You spent over five million dollars to attend Summit. You deserve not just good, but great sessions, one after the other. You should walk out of there saying, “Holy cow, every session was amazing! This wasn’t like three SQLSaturdays back-to-back – this was like a world-wide, the-very-best-of-the-SQL-community Greatest Hits event!”

But you don’t.

It’s not Speaker 47′s fault. There will always be many Speaker 47s, and we should be encouraging people to speak, not discouraging them. I know some speakers will read this as a warning, and I can’t do anything about that.

It’s not my fault either, although I know a few bloggers who are more than happy to paint me as a whiny celebrity who’s only interested in myself. As I write this, I know full well I’m going to piss off people by demanding a higher level of quality for our five million dollars. For too long, PASS has been about the speakers when it should really be about the attendees.

It’s not the selection committee’s fault. They’re made up exclusively of volunteers who pour their hearts into picking the best sessions they can given the limited amount of resources they have available. We have to get them more resources, and with the sheer amount of profit involved, PASS can afford to do it.

It’s your fault. It’s time for you to stand up for the sessions you want, and to demand quality.

I need you to do three things.

Ask for attendee feedback be considered in the PASS selection process. It’s your registration money – why should you be forced to repeatedly get burned by sitting through Speaker 47′s sessions?

Ask that attendee feedback be made public. You need help making session decisions. It doesn’t have to be the raw numbers – for example, in the agenda, maybe put gold stars next to speakers that got great feedback last year. I’m not saying this to get the gold star either – if this idea goes through, I will personally request that I never get a gold star just so there’s never even an appearance that I’m being greedy here. This is about you, not about me.

Lastly, share this blog post. I’m not in this for the hits – I just want to get this message out to people whose opinions matter most: attendees.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Dr. Seuss*

* – Not a real doctor

Partners? What Partners?

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 7 Comments

A few related news posts made me chuckle (in a good way) this week:

Microsoft unveils storage arrays with ties into Azure – Their StorSimple 8100 and 8600 can migrate your infrequently-accessed data up to the cloud, sorta giving you infinite capacity for archival. I doubt EMC and NetApp are quaking in their boots, but it still puts hardware partners on notice that Microsoft is willing to brand all kinds of hardware – not just tablets and phones – and use its cloud capacity as a feature.

Microsoft possibly working on Azure-in-a-box – it’s not clear yet whether these will be partner-branded hardware like the PDW Analytics Platform System, or  whether they’ll carry MS branding like the StorSimple storage arrays, Surfaces, and Windows Phones. After all, they’ve already shared their open server designs for their own data centers, and they’re in the hardware business. It would make sense to start selling these, with the ability to LiveMigrate your VMs right up into Azure, or move your SQL databases up there. One support number to call for everything, like Genius Bar for the enterprise.

Microsoft acquires DR software tool InMage, will integrate w/Azure – so you can do backups of your on-premise servers and use Azure Site Recovery as your disaster recovery site. Traditional DR providers like HP and SunGard are suddenly on notice.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella changes the company mission – sure, sure, these kinds of memos don’t mean much on the surface. He lets go of Ballmer’s mission of “devices and services” and rephrases it as “At our core, Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world.”

Amazon announces Zocalo, a Box/Dropbox/Google Drive competitor – shared file storage in the cloud. These types of services usually launch atop Amazon’s dirt-cheap S3 storage. Amazon watched Dropbox slowly become successful, and then stepped in to provide their own service – competing with one of their own clients. (Although these days, isn’t everybody an Amazon client one way or another?)

If you build your business on someone else’s infrastructure,
and they notice you making a lot of money,
and they have enough in-house expertise to copy you,
and their own margins are under pressure,

I’m not immune, either. I’m a consultant on Microsoft products, and Microsoft has their own consultants too. I know I have to compete, and I’m coming from behind. I’m going in with less resources and less salespeople, so I have to be wily – but I’m making that decision knowing my competitors.

Dropbox, Box, HP, SunGard – these companies are getting surprised by a much larger partner. I’m excited to see how these battles shape up.

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