Andy Warren (Blog - @sqlAndy) is a DBA's DBA. He is a friend and mentor. He calls 'em like he sees 'em, and I haven't seen him pull a punch yet.
I requested an interview with Andy before I learned of the transfer of SQL Saturday to PASS. Sometimes life works out that way...
How did you, Brian, and Steve come up with the SQL Saturday idea? What inspired you? What need were you trying to meet in the community?
Brian and I had both been to a few Code Camps, and as you know they are interesting because of the diversity, and the price! We were doing SQL presentations there, but most of the attendees were developers, very few DBA’s. So it wasn’t a stretch to think about doing a SQL only event, but we had no idea if it would work. The one thing we saw early was that with the Code Camps there was no main site, no shared knowledge, and very much an anti-money attitude. For developers it makes sense that they all want to build their own site with the latest and greatest technology, but they spent a lot of time on something that didn’t really change the event. Also, most of the time the web site was what you saw – no admin tools. Back in 2007 most events had speakers submit abstracts via Word docs. Functional, but time consuming. So the focus of the early vision was thinking “can we build a SQL only event?” and if we can, “can we fix all the challenges we see in the Code Camp model?”. I’d say at the time we were focused on attendees and event management, we had not yet realized the growth that would happen when we provided an outlet for SQL speakers. At the time it seemed awfully ambitious to think about building a national franchise. I think in hindsight the thing we got right was that within the SQL community the web site is just an enabler, and that offering coaching based on our experience convinced people to try events that would not have otherwise.
As a SQL Community Enabler (love that description!), what's been your biggest challenge(s)? Have you faced competition? How did you overcome the challenge(s)?
I think the biggest challenge is figuring out the minimum set of rules that would work. Too many rules and it would just cause event leads to go do their own thing, even if it meant losing out on some advantages the SQLSaturday platform offers. For example, one rule is that you can’t charge for the event, but it’s ok to charge for lunch as long as you allow them to bring their own lunch. We came up with this because not every event leader will be a great fund raiser, and sponsors are less likely to spend as much at small venues (and we want it to work in small cities!). There has really been no competition, we work closely with the Code Camps here in Florida and share lessons back and forth, but really no completion in the SQL Server space. I’d say the second biggest challenge was the web site – how much of the process can we bake in and steer event owners down a given path. It’s the same tradeoff; good tools save time, but if it forces you to work in a way you don’t like, the tools don’t matter. I think we’ve done ok on that so far. Always more that could be done, but we do enough of the critical stuff that it works.
You write about balancing between too many and too few rules, and also refer to SQL Saturday as a franchise - that's quite a balancing act. Has the number of rules increased over time? Have they morphed?
We still don’t have many rules. I do a lot of “recommending”, but the main rules are that the event has to be free and that we should show preference to local speakers. Maybe we could use a few more, but we’ve done amazingly well by giving the event leaders a lot of room to decide what works best for them and their attendees. I think franchise is the perfect word for what we’ve built. We provide a framework and coaching, lots of behind the scenes support, but just like real franchises it’s ultimately up to that local owner. Some are great at finding speakers, some are good fund raisers, some are all done by one person and some are done by committee. It definitely has an entrepreneurial feel to it at the event level.
As an event organizer, I think the SQL Saturday website is awesome! Brag some about SQLSaturday.com!
There are two parts to it, the public site and the admin site. On the public side of things we tried to make it very easy to use, from registration to submitting a session to signing up as a sponsor. We show the list of submitted sessions plus any suggested sessions from registrants. This let’s registrants see the event build, and it helps the speakers find a niche on the schedule that hasn’t been filled yet. Sponsors sign up online and select one of the configured sponsorship rates, and then we send them an invoice and a PayPal link. When they pay the invoice we automatically show them on the sponsor page. Just a handful of aspx pages on top of a SQL 200 database, it’s simple and effective. Last year we finally paid a designer to do the look and feel that you see today, much better than the very plain look I did the first time around!
The admin tools are really the powerful part. New events submit a request online, plugging in a few required data points. We take a look at that and either just approve it or schedule a call, but once it’s approved we email them a login to the admin site. From there they can change a lot. Not everything, but a lot. The core pages are the same across events, but they can change the number of tracks, the sponsor levels, add notes to the front page, change the event date, and more. We have a bunch of reports (running on Report Server) that lets them see and export the data in a few different ways, from a basic attendee list to personalized raffle tickets to schedules to post on the door of each room (track). There’s a task list that we set up for each event to remind them of milestones, we load a set of well-known sponsors and their contact information, and we’ve been testing out something we call auto-messaging, a set of about 20 messages that are set to go out at EventDay – x, a solution we put in place for event leaders that struggle with messaging. My favorite part is the messaging UI which lets them pick from a number of predefined mailing lists (speakers, attendees, sponsors, more), insert custom links as well as tokens, preview it, and then schedule it to be sent. Nothing fancy, just think of it as a very vertical application that lets an event leader do the things they need to do without writing update queries.
I understand you initiated the conversation(s) to transition SQL Saturday to PASS - why? Why not just keep SQL Saturday independent of the global PASS organization? In your opinion, how does the change-of-ownership impact SQL Saturday, PASS, and the average Database Professional?
From the beginning it felt like these events should be something that PASS should be doing, because they are grassroots and normally tightly coupled to a local chapter. For a chapter, an all-day event serves as both a membership drive (that benefits PASS) and as a fund raiser that potentially allows the chapter to bring in some out of town speakers to their monthly meetings. It was also a decision about scale – as we grow more events so does the time required for coaching and while I love doing it, it’s not always the best use of my time from a business perspective. As far as the impact of the change, I’m really hoping for zero negative impact, and over the next year even some positive impact. There will be a busy couple months doing the transition, most of which will be knowledge transfer and really getting PASS HQ to internalize the dynamics of locally driven events, and then I think things will be normal or better.
I’ve heard a lot of nervousness about the move, and to be candid, it’s all about whether PASS will maintain the momentum. As I mentioned in a comment on my blog, I think 2 years ago it wouldn’t have worked; today, I think PASS HQ is ready to tackle it. I think we’ve all said that PASS has to be more than the Summit, I think this is the right vehicle for moving in that direction. Instead of two annual events, now we have 20+ annual events and a basis for growing even more. We’ve just got to make sure it gets the attention it needs and I’ll be watching that closely, and I know many in the community will be as well.
But to answer more directly, if all goes well I think it’s a positive change for SQLSaturday because we’ll have more staff behind it and the ability to scale to even more events, PASS gets a lot more grass roots community involvement, and as we grow events we should see SQLSaturday coming to a lot more cities. I expect that to be US focused initially, but certainly there is no reason it can’t spread to other regions.
Last question. You're on the PASS Board, participate in the leadership of Orlando SQL Server User Group, partner with Brian Knight and Steve Jones in a few business ventures; What's next for Andy Warren?
That’s a hard question. As you know I make my living as a SQL trainer and I’ve enjoyed the work, but over the past few months I’ve started to miss the challenges of working with a team on a project. So while I haven’t decided yet, I’m definitely considering moving more towards consulting or even a role back in corporate life, or perhaps working with a vendor in the SQL Server tool space. I’m having a lot of fun working on SQLShare.com and that is really about training too, what I consider ‘pure’ professional development for SQL Server users. I’ll continue that regardless of other career moves I may make. Working on the PASS Board has been a good experience. I’m really torn about running for re-election, mainly due to the time it demands – no decision yet! I’ve got a few other ideas that involve the SQL community around career and professional development that I’d like to put more time into this year, so I’m also trying to free up time for that. It’s fun and challenging and frustrating to be at the point of re-invention, seeing a lot of opportunities and deciding which to choose. I wrote something earlier this year that captures it well – I’m looking for an industrial strength challenge. It’ll be interesting to see what develops.
Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer these questions Andy!