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SQL Saturday

By Andy Warren,

If you've been around the .Net developer community very much you will probably have heard of Code Camps. The Code Camp guys actually have a driving manifesto. Code Camps fill the gap between local user groups and major training events. I've been to a few here in Florida and they are definitely not a waste of time. Strangely though, there has been no equivalent push in the SQL Server community, which brings us to the point of this article.

I've been involved in the Orlando SQL user group going back to it's launch in 2001 or so, and helped restart the group this year after a couple years on hiatus. We're working hard to make our group not just a place to come for a technical session but a place where members can enjoy a pleasant couple hours with their peers. Nothing unique about that goal as far as user groups go, but not all work hard to achieve it. Many groups end up primarily focused on technology which I believe to be a mistake (and I know, that seems backwards!). As we've gotten things going again and slowly tweaked our formula we started talking about what we could do to drive awareness in the Orlando area that the group was back in business and how we could find (or create) more local speakers.

I made a bunch of notes about what I liked about the Code Camp model, and what I didn't like, and then sat down with our local .Net guy (Shawn Weisfeld from ONETUG) to hear about what went on behind the scenes of the Orlando Code Camp. The 2007 OCC had more than 400 attendees, not a small undertaking. After taking all those notes back to the oPASS steering committee we decided to move forward with planning an all day SQL Server focused event. After kicking around terrible sounding suggestions like "Data Camp" we finally settled on SQLSaturday!. Note that the exclamation point is part of the branding, wouldn't be the same without it!

The biggest single item in planning one of these is finding the right venue. Ideally it's free, centrally located, has plenty of rooms, and hopefully one large room for a keynote. We started discussions with the local community college that had hosted the most recent Code Camp and they were agreeable to hosting our event at no cost provided we would use one of their new satellite facilities. Great building, good location, but no large auditorium type room. After doing a site visit we decided to just abandon the keynote which would make the large room a non issue, and in truth we never liked the keynote concept at these events anyway.

With a date locked in we started looking for speakers, and here is where it becomes a very interesting game of chicken and the egg. How many speakers should we try to find? How many rooms can get at our facility? How many people will attend? The last is the sticking point, you don't want to have 80 speakers for 75 attendees, but you don't want 4 speakers for 500 attendees either (though arguably both of those could be interesting!). The few SQL Server sessions at the Code Camps have been decently attended, probably averaging 20-30 attendees, but that's out of a pool of primarily .Net developers that have some interest in SQL Server along with the few brave DBA's willing to attend a code centric event. We have been getting about 20 attendees at our SQL user group meetings. Based on just a guess we felt like we could probably get a 100 to attend, but I set the bar high with a goal of 200 attendees, and that's the number we used for building the rest of the event around. We decided to shoot for six rooms each with six sessions, so we needed at least 36 sessions.

Getting speakers and content actually went very smoothly. We put up a web page where speakers could enter there proposed sessions and also had an area where attendees could enter ideas for sessions they wanted to attend. We sent out a call for speakers email to everyone in the Florida SQL Server and .Net community that we knew, and asked them to forward it to their lists as well. Within 30 days we easily had enough submissions to build a schedule. We prioritized local speakers over everyone else, followed by members of other Florida based communities, then last we added 'professional speakers', MVP's, and MS employees. We ended up with a really interesting mix of content.

With sessions set we could start working on really advertising the event. One thing I omitted earlier is that we started our planning in May targeting a November event. By August we had speakers set giving us plenty of time to advertise and readvertise. Advertising was primarily email messaging to our user group, plus similar messaging from the Jacksonville, Tampa, and Sarasota SQL groups, plus messaging from the Orlando .Net group, some blogging from our local MS Developer Evangelist, and of course posts on oPASS.org. We were pretty excited when we reached 100 registrations in mid August, ecstatic when we hit 250 in late September, and starting to get a little worried about space when we pushed past 350 in late October!

There is a quite an array of logistics. It's typical to provide a polo shirt to speakers and volunteers to thank them for their efforts, that means you need sizes, a logo, some place to order them from. Need some type of simple food for breakfast (how many doughnuts for x people?). Need water (how much?), soda (how much?), fresh fruit(?), coffee creamer, and schedules on the meeting room doors. We had the use of four very large flat panel TV's at the event so we needed a slide deck with the schedule, sponsors, etc. We wanted a printed event guide that also had the schedule plus information about the speakers, facility, and oPASS. Need tables for registration, sponsors,  and food. And more! The hard part is figuring out how much, and that's based on a guess of how many will actually attend.

We also had to line up volunteers and sponsors. Volunteers were easier than expected, many of our local group volunteered and we had people volunteer that we had never met! We had about 15 volunteers total and they did an extraordinary job on event day. Sponsors were harder and more time intensive, but we worked at it and were able to convince enough sponsors to take a chance on a first time event that we ended up revenue neutral including upgrading lunch from pizza to nice boxed lunches from Jason's Deli. The sponsor part went easier than it might have because I've been on both sides, and I know that for sponsors to spend money they need to some return on investment. We worked hard at giving them good locations, arranging traffic flows to make sure they had a chance to meet a lot of people, and even pre-printed info cards for each attendee with their contact information so that they could just trade them to sponsors if they were interested (or wanted the tshirt!), a low tech version of the 'scan the badge' process used at large events.

We rented a UHaul truck to use as secure storage and that also allowed us to purchase the 70 cases of water and soda we had forecasted days in advance. Having it made things a lot easier, well worth the expense. On the big day we started work at 6:30 and by 7:30 had everything set up, coffee and doughnuts ready, and the first few early birds arriving well before the announced 8 am check in start. Everything went astonishingly well. The TV's not working (not our fault) was about the biggest problem we had. We had plenty of food and drink, all the projectors worked, and we did some great raffles during the day. Our final count was 218 attendees and of those, just over 80 took the time to complete an event/speaker evaluation and we got very nice reviews on those. There were no major complaints!

We beat our goal of 200 and had a fantastic day. More importantly, we set the stage for two separate but exciting things. First is that both Tampa and Jacksonville are working on their own version of SQLSaturday for next year (I'm actually going to Tampa Monday afternoon to share some lessons learned with them), and if those succeed, maybe we'll see SQLSaturday or other free events for SQL professionals popping up all over the country next year. The other is that here in Orlando we grew our mailing list by 400 people and hopefully that leads to even better attendance at our meetings. We're in the early stages of planning our 2008 event with a goal of making it our annual fund raiser. We hope to generate a profit (that's not a bad word) that can be used to pay for speakers to travel to Orlando to speak at the user group. We're still debating a goal for next year but 400 seems like a good number.

It was a lot of work and a few sleepless nights, but it was a lot of fun. More fun than maybe I've conveyed here. Even if you get 6 speakers and 30 attendees for your first event, it's absolutely worth doing. I hope that you'll think about it and push for your local group (don't have one? start one!) to try something like this, it's a really nice thing to do for the community. You can see our event guide and some video, or visit www.sqlsaturday.com to see what is going on.

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