I have this weird job where I get to pick which conferences I go to, so, I, uh, go to a lot of them. Here’s how a few of them stack up.
Amazon Web Services re:Invent
- Audience: About 30,000 AWS users.
- Database session quantity: not a lot. (I didn’t go for the database sessions here – it’s more of a wide-ranging conference covering Lambda, EC2, S3, etc.)
- Presenters: AWS employees, with an occasional customer testimonial.
- Session material: Simply not worth the time. Every time Richie and I sat through a supposed “deep dive” or 300-400 level session, we ended by saying to each other, “We could have presented that.” Often, the deep dive material was an exact copy of an earlier intro-level session. Heavy on the marketing, light on the technical details.
- Organization & logistics: it’s hard to handle 30,000 simultaneous attendees who all want to get into the same sessions. 2016 was their first year to allow booking your seat in advance for a session, and that worked alright.
- Expert availability: only for short periods, and were overwhelmed with attendees.
- Recordings: all available on YouTube for free.
I love AWS. I use AWS products every day. But I wouldn’t go to this conference again regardless of price, and that says a lot. You’re paying to get mostly low-level marketing spam. If you think you want to go, watch a few sessions on YouTube, and then decide.
Best I can tell from talking to attendees, this conference is best suited for entry-level education (folks who haven’t used AWS technologies before, and want a lot of primers, fast) and people who want to network with a lot of other AWS users & vendors, fast. If you want to find a new job in the AWS field, it might make sense.
Google Cloud Next
- Audience: About 10,000 Google Cloud users like Google Compute Engine, Google App Engine, Cloud Spanner, GMail, etc. The sessions I attended were about 3/4 developers and 1/4 DBAs. (Presenters often asked for a show of hands.)
- Database session quantity: about one continuous track, say 3-4 sessions per day. Enough that I had session conflicts a few times because I wanted to attend a couple of different sessions. However, only 1 session covered SQL Server – the rest were open source and cloud databases.
- Presenters: Google employees, with an occasional customer story. They weren’t professional presenters, but they were really well-rehearsed – I only once got the feeling somebody made up their deck the day prior, and talking to that presenter, he was a last-minute addition.
- Session material: The sessions all seemed to be 20 minutes of slides, 20 minutes of demos, and 20 minutes of Q&A. I really, really liked the levels of technical depth and honesty. Google employees would simply say, “That doesn’t work” or “That’s on the roadmap but we don’t have it” or “You shouldn’t do it that way.” I didn’t feel like I was marketed-to during the sessions. (The day 1 keynote was 100% marketing, but days 2 & 3 went into more technical details.)
- Organization & logistics: freakin’ amazing. Easy/fast registration, coffee/donuts/snacks handed out as you walked into the keynotes, snacks and drinks all day long, well-organized vendor expo hall, session seats reserved in advance through the app.
- Expert availability: huge areas of the conference center were set aside for experts from every cloud team at Google. If you wanted to find the product managers for your favorite product, you could just walk up to their area, start asking questions, and see creative demos of the products in action. (My favorite: the Cloud Functions area where they built customized coffee cups for you as you talked to their engineers.)
- Recordings: available within 24 hours for free on Google Cloud’s YouTube channel.
I would totally attend this conference again. There is no way they’re making money on this conference – they’re losing their shirt, and you can tell. The value for attendee dollars spent is huge. (I do regret not getting my Google SRE book signed, though.)
- Audience: About 20,000 Microsoft infrastructure admins & managers. (Microsoft Build is their developer-focused conference, and I haven’t been to that yet.)
- Database session quantity: only a handful.
- Presenters: Microsoft employees and community volunteers chosen by MS. Generally one presenter per session.
- Session material: The titles, abstracts, and material are all vetted by Microsoft. For example, one year I submitted “Fixing Slow SQL Servers” only to be told by Microsoft that there is no such thing as a slow SQL Server. Instead, we had to call it “Building the Fastest SQL Servers.” If you’re looking for brutal honesty about shortcomings in Microsoft technologies, this is not the conference for you. Having said that, if you’re looking for insight about upcoming stuff, this is pretty much the best place to get it – the presenters are the people who build the products, and they love answering questions.
- Organization & logistics: I went in 2015 in Chicago, and it was legendarily awful. Bad food, huge lines, non-walkable part of town, long waits for buses to/from the venue. I can only assume it’s improved since.
- Expert availability: full time expo hall booths staffed by a combination of MS staff and MVPs. Probably the most underrated benefit of the conference – there’s always someone there waiting to help with your technical or design question.
- Recordings: all available online for free.
If you want to ask deeply technical or architectural questions to Microsoft employees who wrote the products you use, this is a great conference to attend. However, when in doubt about attending a session or not, just skip it – and spend time in the Microsoft experts areas on the expo hall floor instead. That’s where the real value is for Ignite.
- Audience: About 3-5,000 Microsoft SQL Server, Azure SQL DB, Power BI users. (The numbers have been kinda vague coming from PASS – sometimes they’ve counted pre-con attendees two or three times as separate “registrations.”)
- Database session quantity: Over a dozen simultaneous tracks. All data, all the time. You will have session conflicts most of the time.
- Presenters: Generally one presenter per session, coming from one of two groups: community volunteers chosen by a community panel, and Microsoft employees.
- Session material: All over the map, from phenomenal to not so good. It’s up to you as an attendee to craft your schedule, and PASS doesn’t give you much help. Choose wisely.
- Organization & logistics: given that Summit is a smaller community-based conference that can’t afford to lose money on the event, the logistics are good. No, you can’t reserve your seat in a popular session, so you’re probably going to miss out on a few. The food/drinks/snacks are sustenance, but nothing to get excited about. (I stopped eating at the conference years ago, and walk outside to Seattle instead – there are so many good, cheap options like the crepe place out front.)
- Expert availability: Microsoft sends a lot of people to the conference, but the MS areas of the show floor are usually deep with attendees waving questions around. It takes longer to get the help you want than, say, Ignite, but when you do get someone, they’re deeply technical. If you want to talk to a community presenter, be aware that there’s usually a 20-30 person line for Q&A after popular sessions. It can be very, very hard to get more than a couple of minutes’ time if you have a specific person in mind – but as long as you’re flexible with the expert, then you can always find someone to talk to.
- Recordings: available 6-8 weeks after the conference via free streaming for attendees, $200 download for attendees, $1,000 to non-attendees. Most session recordings don’t include a camera, only the audio and the presenter’s screen. (I’m weird, but I can’t watch a recording without being able to see the presenter.)
I’m known for my willingness to criticize PASS publicly when they’re not doing a good job, but the Summit is really good bang for your buck. If you’re a Microsoft data professional, and you want to go to a big conference, go to the PASS Summit. (It might sound like that’s the only answer – but keep reading.)
- Audience: About 500 developers, DBAs, and sysadmins.
- Database session quantity: 4 simultaneous database tracks, plus tracks on Visual Studio, ASP.NET, Azure, SharePoint, and O365. (There are several Intersection conferences happening at the same time at the same venue, and your badge gets you into all of them.)
- Presenters: This is a little different because the agenda is curated by SQLskills. The SQL presenters each have hundreds of hours of teaching experience each. You’ll see new decks, but you don’t see inexperienced presenters – the delivery here tends to be pretty polished.
- Session material: Really good, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a presenter, ha ha ho ho. Paul & Kim are really good about hand-crafting a balanced agenda from really experienced speakers.
- Organization & logistics: Smaller conferences have an easier time doing a great job on logistics. It’s easier to feed 500 folks at once than 20,000. Still, the team does a good job of making things easy for attendees and fantastic for speakers. It’s held at places you want to go, at times you want to go – the next one is at Walt Disney World in Orlando in May.
- Expert availability: Really, really good because of the ratio of presenters to attendees. If you have a specific expert in mind, this is your best chance to have a half-hour long chat over coffee with nobody elbowing you out of the way, or end up going out to dinner with presenters.
- Recordings: not available.
So if Intersection is smaller, why would you go? Because it’s smaller.
If your biggest conference goal is to bring tough questions to specific experts, and if those experts are on the Intersections presenter list, then you’re going to get more time with them at Intersection. (I’ve had attendees bring Visio diagrams of their infrastructure and we’ve spent 20-30 minutes sketching things out on paper – something I can never do at Summit.) Same thing goes for software vendors – if they’re exhibitors at Intersection, you can spend a lot more time with them asking more detailed questions.
If you’re worried about the smaller conference not having enough sessions you’d wanna attend, check out the schedule. There’s a ton of good stuff on there. (And oh yeah, you can use coupon code OZAR to save $50 when you register, but trust me, I’m not in it for the referral codes, heh.)
Where I’m Going Next
- May 21-24 – SQL Intersection in Orlando – because I really love the small-conference atmosphere, spending lots of time with attendees and presenters
- Oct 31-Nov 3 – PASS Summit in Seattle – because it’s like the Super Bowl meets family reunion, and I get to see so many people I wouldn’t ordinarily get the chance to see
In 2018, if the scheduling works out, I’d also like to get to:
- SQLbits – I’ve written about how much I love this unique UK SQL Server conference. The scheduling is tricky for this one, though, as it happens in different places at different times. The next one is next month in Telford, and I couldn’t make the schedule/travel work for that.
- Serverlessconf – for folks who build apps on function-as-a-service platforms: AWS Lambda, Google Cloud Functions, and Microsoft Azure Functions. Richie’s going to this in April, so I’ll see how the report sounds.