I wanna build something awesome where:
- Speakers submit session abstracts publicly online
- Vendors can be speakers, too (anybody can submit a talk on anything – your own open source project, paid project, Microsoft can apply, hardware vendors, etc)
- Readers can leave comments on the abstracts to help the author clarify and improve them
- Everybody votes for the abstracts they’d like to see most
- Once a month, voting closes, and the top X speakers/abstracts for next month are picked (maybe 5, maybe 10, let’s play this by ear)
- Sessions are held online in an easy-to-watch platform, on a predictable day/time (like the first Tuesday of every month, or something like that)
- Recordings are posted on YouTube, plus distributed in downloadable podcast form (audio-only, and video)
- Speakers can build up an online presence with great SEO so their work isn’t lost (and replace content they’re no longer proud of over time)
- Speakers can’t present in back-to-back events (to encourage variety)
- Over time, we organize content so that readers can navigate through a learning path with seniority levels
Everything gets done transparently in public: the abstracts, the presenters, the comments, the voting, and the conference itself.
And I bet I can do this whole thing for free, without charging attendees or speakers. Although I’m not betting too much – I’m a huge believer in the Lean Methodology, which means you risk as little as possible when you’re building something up from scratch.
One other tweak: I’ll be the live co-host.
I know first-hand that when you’re presenting online, it’s terrifying. You worry that nobody understands what you’re talking about, or that you’re going too fast, or that you’re unable to handle questions.
For these webcasts, I’ll be right there alongside the presenter, also broadcasting my video, live. I’ll watch the audience Q&A and pose the questions to them verbally. I’ll ask my own questions. If something goes wrong in the demo, I’ll be there to talk to the audience while the presenter works on it. (Trust me, I’m very unflappable – it takes a lot to flap me.)
And if the presenter’s whole session and demos just flat out bomb outright, we’ll throw away the slides and just have a fun, casual interview. This is a community, and we’re here to support each other.
So that’s the pitch I’ve been giving myself for months, but whenever I’m starting something, I try to think about why it won’t work – and why it will.
Why it won’t work
“There’s already a bunch of free platforms.” YouTube, Khan Academy, and just plain old blogs mean that anybody can publish free training. This is different because it’s got a mix of competition and crowd curation.
“PASS and its 24HoP and Virtual Chapters could do this.” In theory, yes, but in practice, no, because the online platform PASS chose (DotNetNuke) has served the community horribly for years. PASS has doubled down on this brittle platform, and it keeps getting worse. Try to find a video archive of past PASS sessions online. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Hell, even just talk to any PASS blog reader about the illegible font size and color on the PASS blogs – we’ve been complaining about that for years, and that’s not even fixable. Don’t even get me started on accessing our community via mobile devices.
“People with big audiences will always win the votes.” It’s possible that a few of us with popular blogs could submit abstracts every month, and end up winning the voting every time. I have more faith in the audience than that, though. Besides, if there’s enough demand, there’s no reason we couldn’t just expand it to monthly, or lengthen the conference to more hours, or more simultaneous tracks.
“Open doesn’t work for conferences.” I know from talking to conference organizers that they want to curate a start-to-finish experience, a balanced mix of material that can appeal to a wide variety of attendees. They want a mix of level 100 to level 400, a mix of engine to BI to development, and they want a balance of new and experienced presenters. I agree that that’s a good idea, but I think that’s a long term goal for the event recordings to serve, not a short term goal for each individual event to serve. The recordings, pieced together over the span of years, will form a basis of instructional videos.
“Not enough people will submit to speak.” Everything starts small, and maybe only half a dozen of us will submit the first time. I’m fine with that. We’ll grow it over time.
“Build it, and they won’t come.” Yes, they will. We get hundreds of registrations for our Office Hours Q&A webcast every week, and that’s even down from its peak when we used to do topical webcasts. I know that if we promote it to our email list, and if there’s topics, folks will show up – especially if they have a voice in picking the topics.
“Speakers will get heartbroken due to bad feedback.” That’s definitely possible – just as it is with regular conferences. However, I think this faster feedback cycle – and public discussions with their potential attendees – will help them improve their abstracts more quickly than just the regular “sorry your abstract didn’t cut it” feedback from regular conferences. Plus, attendees will get more vested in helping speakers build a great abstract – and furthermore, a great session.
Why it will work
The SQL Server speaker community is incredible. I know so many speakers who desperately want to give more of their own time, help teach other people. They want help building a great abstract and getting their material out to the world to help as many people as possible.j
The SQL Server reader community is incredible. It utterly blows my mind that the company email list has over 85,000 people, and just keeps growing. You people love learning about data, and you’re willing to put in your own time to volunteer to help speakers up their game.
The global SQL Server community is online. They can’t get to in-person meetings at their local user group or regional SQLSaturday often enough, or there isn’t a meeting near them. (I know, because I get emails from people all over the world.) We can bring the training to them.
How it will work
I’m putting the Group By conference site together as we speak, and I’ll have more to share in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you’d like to help, tell me where I’ve messed up in this post. Tell me what I could do better about the product, where it’s going to go wrong, or what I should have added.